From Peter Drouyn to Westerly Windina

An interview with Jamie Brisick about surfing's first transgender star

The first time Australia’s Peter Drouyn stormed pro surfing’s stage in the early ’70s, he came from seemingly nowhere—a Queenslander in an era dominated by Sydney surfers. He ran off a string of impressive contest results, including three podium finishes at Bells Beach (’71, ’74, ’77); first place at the Makaha International (’70); and an Australian National Men’s Title (’70). Drouyn spent the rest of the ’70s as one of surfing’s most vibrant characters. Before he walked away from the competitive scene, he famously challenged four-time World Champion Mark Richards to a surf off in full-page magazine ads that featured Drouyn in his underwear—and slathered in fake blood—vowing to “Kill or be killed!”

The next time Drouyn captured the surf world’s attention, it was as a completely different person. In the mid-2000s, he began hormone replacement therapy, and in 2008 Drouyn announced to the world that he had become a she—Westerly Windina.

Longtime surf culture observer Jamie Brisick recently released the book Becoming Westerly, a fascinating read that chronicles Windina’s change, as well as the challenges some in the surf world had with accepting a transgender surf star. Brisick is currently wrapping up production on a feature-length film documentary about Windina.

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What drew you to Westerly’s story? Are transgender issues something that you're interested in generally? 

When I was first getting into surfing in the '70s, it was a far more openminded culture. There were many more eccentric characters too. The surf world that I came into when I was 13, 14, years old, it felt like this gathering of wild, strange people, and I really liked that about it. Then I watched surfing slowly get more and more narrow, socially, and as I entered into contests, and turned pro, it became a very different culture from when I started. When I started writing about surfing, I found myself, to some degree, bored. There were a lot of vanilla characters who could do incredible things in the water, but in terms of communicating, articulating it over dinner, there's not a lot there. But when I came across Westerly, she was incredibly charismatic and engaging, extremely smart, and a great conversationalist. I was seduced in a way, and of course there was this thing that she was Westerly, no longer Peter, which was fascinating. I guess the punk rocker in me really liked he fact that it was pushing against so many surf culture taboos.

To be honest, in the beginning I was going to Australia anyway, and I found out about Peter becoming Westerly and I thought, "Wow, this sounds like a really good story. I write a lot of profiles, this looks like an interesting one." I definitely did my research. But, no pun intended, this story transcends transgender. It's bigger. It's about identity. In some ways it's about narcissism. I didn't feel like I was doing a case study of a transgender woman at all. I felt like I was writing about a totally unique character, who, even simply calling her a transgender woman, sort of boxes her in.

Do you think Peter had also become bored, to a degree, with the surf world when he was a pro?

Yeah, I think so. I also think he felt he never got the recognition that he deserved. That's his story. He was a visionary, he invented the man-on-man heat, he brought surfing to China, and he invented a wave stadium complete with a laser show and leaping dolphins. And also, back when he was a top competitor, he felt that the judges already had it in for him. He came from Queensland, and at the time the center of the surfing world was Sydney. Queensland was a kind of backwater. So when Peter entered the competitive arena, he had a lot of questionable calls go against him, and he really took it as, "You're giving me a hard time because I'm not part of the inside crew and I'm from Queensland." I think slowly he built up this idea that he was being done wrong by everyone in the surf world.

I imagine that Peter was a huge name in the Australian sports world. So how has his transition been accepted, or not accepted, by the Australian sports media and the surf community in general?

Peter came out in 2008 on national television, in grand fashion, on a program called the Today Tonight Show. He introduced Westerly and said, “Peter is no longer, I am now Westerly.” The Australian surf community was shocked. And I think most of Peter's contemporaries just went, “Yet another publicity stunt from Peter Drouyn! He just loves attention. It's not really meant to be taken seriously.” So when I did the profile, everyone I talked to said, “Oh, you're basically being duped. This is just a façade, this is not going to last.” There were also a lot of snide redneck remarks about it. Then as time passed, and it was clear that Westerly was for real, nearly everyone started being more compassionate in the way they treated Westerly. There was a kind of maturing in many of Westerly's peers.

At the beginning of the book, Westerly initially backs out of gender reassignment surgery at the last moment. Were you in any way rooting for her to go through with the operation? It seems like it had to be frustrating, as an author, when she decided she couldn't do it. Though I'm not sure the narrative necessarily required her have the surgery for it to still be a good story. 

My only interest was for her to do what was right for her. The thing is, Westerly is so theatrical. She wanted to do a documentary; she wants publicity, she wants to be a star. I felt I had to be very careful, because  at the end of the day, I wanted her to be happy in her life. Of course, being a documentary filmmaker and a journalist, I absolutely recognized what makes for a great story, but by that time I was so close and interwoven in Westerly's life, that we’d become friends. I only wanted what was best for her.

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Westerly Windina, always ready for her closeup. Photo: Brisick

If an American surfer, take your pick—a star from Drouyn’s generation maybe—came out as transgender here in the U.S., how do you think it would be received?

I think it would be received a lot more open-mindedly. Westerly comes from a part of the world and a generation that is very macho and close-minded. A bloke is a bloke. Very defined roles between male and female. And I say that not generalizing Australians, but more the generation growing up in the '60s, '70s. I think if she’d been from Southern California, and transitioned there, it would have been received with more compassion.

At the point when she’d backed out of the first surgery, you describe Westerly as falling back into Peter’s identity for a bit. What did that experience of dealing with somebody struggling with gender transitioning do for your understanding of how your daily interaction with people is couched in gender roles?

It challenged me, for sure. I felt like I have grown a lot out of the whole experience. I grew up in Los Angeles amid a lot of diversity across the board. I think that taught me to be open-minded.

I've had many men think I'm gay, because for whatever reason, I might have a stronger female side. I have a lot of friends who are female who I am very close with and I talk to very openly, so I don't feel like I fall into those gender stereotypes too badly. But spending time with Westerly made me think that as far as most people are concerned, there are men and there are women, and in between there's this sort of abyss. When I started to work with Westerly I realized that’s where she lived—in that abyss. She'd actually gotten a law degree but no one would hire her because she was eccentric and she was, too many people, basically a man in women's clothing. I had this revelation—I see so many trans people pushing shopping carts with their belongings in West Hollywood and it occurred to me that they’ve fallen into this abyss where people don't know what to make of them, and they don't know how to hire them for jobs because they don't want to freak out the customer and all that. It's a really sad thing and I hope it changes soon.

Did you get the chance to surf with Westerly?

I didn't surf with her, but I watched her surf a few times. She surfs beautifully. I was so impressed. Peter was such a great surfer and it's still there with Westerly, even in her sixties. She surfs really elegantly, kind of balletic; it looks like she's got all of these beautiful hand jives. I think she's very conscious of how she's riding the wave. It's very pretty.

I'm assuming that her style has changed from when she was Peter?

Absolutely. I think the way her body feels has changed dramatically, at least from what she's told me. It occurred to me, watching her surf, that surfing is very feminine, and every wave is about fluidity. Watching her surf and then looking at old footage of Peter surfing—his was a more of a powerful clenched-fist style, if you will. It was interesting to see Westerly surf very relaxed, with relaxed hands, wrists, and shoulders, just weaving through the waves.

The timing with Caitlyn Jenner’s announcement is obviously a coincidence, but I would think it’s helped to propel interest in Westerly’s story.

Yeah, I think so. It's strange because I never thought of the activist side to Westerly’s story. It was more about bringing awareness I suppose. When I started it, it was a weird story for me too, I'll be honest. I entered into this strange world and I was very open to it, and it was refreshing to be with someone who was not so vanilla, as I said before. And in the five or six years that I've been following her story, the cultural landscape has changed so much, and there's just so much more acceptance. I'm happy to contribute something that hopefully just helps people understand how complex we all are.

Do have any idea if Caitlyn knows Westerly’s story or has reached out to Westerly at all?

It's funny you say that, and it's partly the opportunist in me saying this, but I would love for Caitlyn to be part of our film and/or the book, because I could see her championing Westerly and creating a lot of opportunities that Westerly would thrive in. I think Westerly would love to be a spokesperson, and she'd do a good job of it. She's so elegant and beautiful.