Battle in Huntington Beach after transgender surfer barred from longboard competition

A surfer struggles to paddle against strong currents in Huntington Beach on Jan. 4.
A surfer in Huntington Beach on Jan. 4.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Sasha Jane Lowerson just wanted to surf.

But when the Australian longboard surfer attempted to enter an upcoming competition in Huntington Beach, the athlete, who was born intersex, learned that the organizer wasn’t going to allow transgender athletes.

Instead, surfers would be required to enter the category of the gender they were assigned at birth, the organizer said in a video posted to Instagram last month.

The video received over 4,000 likes and more than 1,000 comments from people both supporting and arguing against the move. This week, it prompted the California Coastal Commission to intervene in what equity advocates say is an issue of access to the state’s coastline and an ongoing problem of discrimination against transgender athletes.

A crowded beach on a sunny day
A crowd gathers to watch the 2023 U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“As I walk my journey through the turmoil and the implications of people that want to spread misinformation, I’ve found myself wondering why?” Lowerson wrote in a post on Instagram in response to the situation. “Just why [do] people hate me for existing?”

The fight playing out in Huntington Beach is part of a larger discussion over the rights of transgender individuals across the country, particularly those in professional sports.

Former President Trump has said he plans to ban transgender athletes from participating in women’s sports if he again wins the White House in November. Though the city of Huntington Beach is not part of the fight, some LGBTQ+ activists have expressed concern after the actions of a new, conservative City Council — which, among other things, banned Pride flags from being flown at city properties.

The rights of LGBTQ+ students will be protected by federal law under new Title IX rules, but transgender athletes are not mentioned in the safeguards.

April 19, 2024

Advocates such as surf equity activist Sabrina Brennan say a ban has nothing to do with athleticism or competition.

“It’s a Republican and religious agenda that’s playing out and, frankly, harming people,” Brennan said. “The entire LGBTQ community is being negatively impacted. There’s a lot of damage happening.”

Sabrina Brennan stands on a bluff overlooking the sea.
Sabrina Brennan of the group Surf Equity says the Huntington Beach event’s attempt to bar transgender contestants has nothing to do with athleticism or competition. “It’s a Republican and religious agenda that’s playing out,” she said.
(Melina Mara / Getty Images)

Lowerson did not respond to requests from The Times to comment. However, she told the Inertia that before she entered the Huntington Beach Longboard Pro contest, scheduled for Saturday, she reached out to organizer Todd Messick to make sure a spot was available for her. She didn’t hear back, but saw his video post calling for more entrants in the women’s division, so she entered, she told the outlet.

In his Instagram video on April 25, Messick addressed Lowerson’s entry, saying that his policy was to “support biological males and biological females in their divisions, respectively.” The policy, he said, complied with the standards of the sport’s governing body, the International Surfing Assn.

“You guys can live however and whatever you want to do in life. It’s not for me to decide,” he said in the video. “But it is for me to decide what’s fair and not fair for the American Longboard Assn. That being said, we’re going to stick to our guns. I want to offer an equal playing field for all athletes.”

Messick did not respond to a call seeking comment on Thursday.

The video quickly caught Brennan’s attention, and she contacted the California Coastal Commission.

Fans watch the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach in 2023.
Fans watch the U.S. Open of Surfing challenger series in Huntington Beach in 2023.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

International Surfing Assn. policy, which was updated last year, states that a transgender woman may participate in a women’s event if she provides a written declaration saying she identifies as a woman and tells the organization’s medical commission that her testosterone level has been below a certain concentration in the last 12 months. Lowerson wrote online that she meets all requirements for her to compete in the women’s category.

“I think discrimination on public property, on public lands, is completely unacceptable,” Brennan said. “To do this in a surf competition is absolutely not right. The ocean belongs to all of us.”

Brennan, who runs Surf Equity, which aims to improve access, equity and justice in pro surfing, said forcing a transgender athlete to “compete in a gender category that they don’t identify with is just really wrong.”

It’s also not in compliance with current policy, she said.

California Coastal Commission staff wrote in a letter Tuesday to Messick that if he wants to host the event, he will have to allow transgender athletes to participate. Banning those individuals violates the Coastal Act, a landmark law that declared the beach as a public treasure to be shared by everyone, according to the letter.

“Prohibiting or unfairly limiting transgender athletes from competing in this or any surf competition that takes place in the coastal waters of California does not meet the requirements of the public access policies of the Coastal Act and impedes access by discriminating against transgender surfers,” Coastal Commission Executive Director Kate Huckelbridge wrote.

The letter was written to formalize a conversation staff had with Messick in which he agreed to allow transgender participants in the contest, according to the document.


Lowerson said in an interview with the Inertia that she entered the Huntington Beach contest to have fun. But now she’s decided not to participate.

Kanan Durham never wanted to be an activist. But the trans Orange County’s man and other LGBTQ+ people in Orange County feel called to speak out against a climate of hostility in Huntington Beach.

May 2, 2024

This is the American Longboard Assn.’s second year hosting the competition in Huntington Beach.

Brennan and others have long fought to make surfing — traditionally a male-dominated sport — more inclusive in California. And this isn’t the first time the California Coastal Commission has stepped in.

In 2016, the commission required the Titans of Mavericks, a famous big-wave contest near Half Moon Bay, to have a heat for women if it wanted a permit. For decades, the contest had invited only men.

In 2018, the State Lands Commission indicated it would lease the public beach for Mavericks only if women and men were awarded the same prize money. Historically, women have been paid less than male surfers participating in the same contests. Commission staff wrote in a report at the time that “the waves do not discriminate.”

Sawyer Lindblad placed first in the finals of the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach in 2023.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Lowerson has long been a public figure in the surfing world. In March 2022, she placed ninth in the Noosa Festival of Surfing and was the first transgender woman to compete at the professional level. She also placed first in the Open Women’s and Women’s Logger divisions at the Western Australian State Titles that year.

Despite the gains made by transgender athletes, there have been persistent detractors. Sportswear company Rip Curl faced backlash this year after it featured Lowerson in an Instagram post as part of the company’s “Meet the Local Heroes of Western Australia” campaign. The comments eventually prompted the company to remove the post, according to published reports.

“I just want to be me, and I want to be included,” Lowerson told the Australian Broadcasting Co. in 2022.

Lowerson’s name did not appear on a list of individuals participating in the women’s division of the Huntington Beach Longboard Pro competition published Thursday. The roster had two spots left.