#SpheresOfQueer: Yann Horowitz talks being a queer athlete and pouring all the glitter on the skating community

“Let’s fly the freaky flag high and make something beautiful”, Yann Horowitz responds when I request his involvement in reviving our annual #SpheresOfQueer campaign.

Coinciding with International Pride Month, #SpheresOfQueer celebrates the he’s, she’s, theys, thems, and everything-in-betweens doing wildly wonderful things across the South African scene, spotlighting their technicoloured stories and, in the process, striding for all kinds of Pride.

Yann has been a professional skateboarder since the age of 15, but he first came onto my radar when he collaborated with Vans on a mini-documentary called “Pride”, where he talks about being an in-the-closet athlete, and shares his less than glamorous journey towards self-acceptance and embracing his sexuality.

His story was refreshing and powerful, and while he told it with a tangible confidence, it was something he fought years to both hone and own.

Photo cred Imraan Christian

Born in Switzerland but raised in a small resort town on KwaZulu-Natal’s North Coast called Umdloti, he tells me how he ironically (read: rebelliously) became a land-lubbing skateboarder in a town full of surfers. “I was pretty much the only skateboarder in town,” he laughs and adds, “and all the surfers would be like, ‘Why aren’t you on the waves?’ and I’d just be like, ‘I’m different, I’m just tryna do my own thing’.”

He expresses his deep love for skating, “The obsession started as soon as I started. I realised it was this pure creative expression through physicality. No one can tell you how to skate, you just have to learn for yourself, and then you start to embrace the idea of style because you could be doing the same tricks as someone else, but you would do it differently. It’s so cool, like your own signature, your own stamp.”

Horowitz got really good, really quickly, travelling around the country to compete in competitions, many of which he won. He was a regular feature on TV – specifically an iconic show called Boardriders TV – and in magazines, quickly picking up sponsors. All of this while he was still in high school.

“It was this little sparkle in my eye, and I was like, you know, I think this is what I’m good at, this is my calling. And I decided, at 15, this is what I want to fully immerse myself in – I want to be that guy, I want to make it as a skateboarder and not do anything conventional,” he says with fire in his eyes and conviction in his words.

Photo cred Luke Kuisis

Fresh out of school, he headed to Cape Town to study Sound Engineering, but fell violently ill – peeing blood and breaking out in angry rashes among other ailments – before he was able to complete his course. Doctors couldn’t diagnose or treat him, so he was forced to return home to his family. Keeping to a promise he’d made to himself to come out by the age of 21, he told first his sisters, and then his parents, and the reception couldn’t have been sweeter.

His body healed itself in no time, and he realised that his internal conflict, his big secret, was the very thing putting his health at risk.

Horowitz’ coming out to family and friends allowed him to return to Cape Town healthy, and significantly more happy but, with him being a public figure and professional athlete, I wonder about navigating the skate scene with his big secret.

He admits that the more successful he was in his career, the more terrifying it became to live his truth in the public eye. He revisits his past trauma, “There are so many horror stories of skaters coming out in the ‘90’s or 2000s, and they were just never heard of again, sponsorships just dropped them, and those stories resonate [and I kept thinking], ‘Fuck! What if this thing that I’m so immersed in, that I love so much, is the reason I end up having to hate myself again?’”

Summoning the strength to come out publicly had him considering career Plan Bs and Cs, but the skating community was far more progressive than any of the worst-case-scenario outcomes he’d built up in his head. “The skate industry embraced me with open arms. I got so many beautiful phone calls from friends just being like, ‘Listen, I feel like this is your calling, and it almost makes you cooler’,” he laughs and flashes me a fantastic smile.

Horowitz admits that, after coming out, he was afraid he’d be branded as “the gay skateboarder” but that he didn’t want his career to be all about that. “I felt like there’s nothing worse than becoming clickbait, you know?”

On one of his trips, in a magnificent twist of fate, he met and befriended a queer skate photographer, Sam McGuire. McGuire admitted that he was inspired to come out after reading an interview Horowitz had done after his own coming out. He explains that they connected deeply, and elaborates on the influence McGuire had on him. “[Sam] was like, ‘If they want a gay skater, then you better be that fag on a skateboard. You’re gorgeous, so just be that bitch’, and that was such a good thing to hear, because I was like, ‘You know what, you’re right! I should talk about it more, and throw some more glitter on the skate community.”

And in being “that bitch”, Horowitz has embraced being “the gay skater”, the representation he needed to see when his internal conflict was at its worst. Through owning his truth and spreading, at all times, as much glitter as possible, he is happier than he has ever been, and has subsequently helped so many others find their happiness.

Feature image courtesy of Fabian Reichenbach.