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6/23/16

(This article was originally published in Stab magazine, issue #20, 2007. Portrait photos by Steve Baccon.)

As I approach Matt Branson’s house, in a quiet suburb on the Gold Coast, I can hear the sort of loud banter that goes on between blokes on a Friday night when the beers are open and footy’s on the TV. I’ve never met Branno before and through the glass sliding door to the lounge room I only just recognise him among the four guys on the huge L-shaped lounge. The lean, fresh-faced, tattooed kid who was once so prominent in surf mags has grown a hefty gut, shaved his wig and sprouted a biker-style crop of facial hair. He sees me, and for a split second the dread of what he’s agreed to do is apparent in his expression. Then he sees the slab of VB under my arm, and relaxes. In Branno’s world, cheap beer is a fair indication of old-school cred, which I’ll need in spades if he’s going to spill his guts to me about the real reason he left the tour all those years ago.

If it had been anyone else, this would have been far less of an issue. But of all people who’ve done the pro tour, Branno was the one (assuming there’s been only one) who turned out to be gay. Let me rephrase that. He didn’t turn out gay. As he says in the interview we record later that night, “I was born, I was gay.” He’d always known it, which made his time on tour even more tormenting. He wasn’t faking the hard-core punk attitude – he’s still like that now – but the image did leave an enormous gulf between his real character and what the world thought he was. Not even his own mum guessed. As a teenager, he and his friends used to scare off the gays who surreptitiously congregated at night at the public toilets at Trigg Beach. His friends didn’t have a clue that Matt was, by joining in, hoping he would chase away his own terrifying secret. The lie snowballed in his head until he was, in his own words, a “fucked-up unit” concealing a fact that could, he thought, have destroyed his friendships, his sponsors and his whole life.

“It was fucking incredibly hard. You always felt like you were lying. You always felt like you were putting on a charade. As a young person growing up, to have that charade, it can fuck with you because you can’t grow as a person.”

If you want the short version of the story, it goes like this: Branno  dropped off the tour in 1991,  started playing in a punk band, worked as a dishwasher (then as a council worker, now a glasser for JS), moved in with a boyfriend and over the next few years told some close friends and family. Some took it hard and spent a long time getting used to the idea. Other’s brushed it off because it didn’t matter. Either way,  as word spread, the immediate response from everyone was, “Bullshit! Branno? But he’s the last bloke…” Now he and every one of his friends are cool with it. He’s been approached by other magazines over the years to tell the story but declined them all partly because he feels uncomfortable talking about himself. He’s only doing it now because he’s finally, as he approaches the age of 40 (Branno is 38) content with who he is, and wants other young kids who are trapped in the potentially suicidal hole in which he spent the first 25 years of his life to know that it’s okay. He’s got a point there. Let’s face it, if a dude like Branno can come out, anyone can.

The long version starts with a young soldier called George Branson on a troop ship sailing from Fremantle on his way to help defend Singapore against the Japs in February, 1942. George saw the untouched coast north of Perth, since called North Beach, and thought, ‘When I come back, I’m going to buy a piece of land there.’ And he did, acquiring a block across the road from one of the few surfable spots in the suburb, a beach called Tom’s. The Branson clan grew. By 1969, his daughter-in-law Jan was pregnant with her third child, Matt. George took a particular shine to the kid, who was not only polite but musically gifted. George, a pianist, gave the young family a piano on which Matt excelled, picking up Beethoven’s Fur Elise and other beginner’s standards with, Jen says, conspicuous ease. “He had an absolute aptitude toward anything musical,” she says. “He could have done anything.”

There was certainly no indication that he had any sporting potential. At age ten, he was playing in his younger brother Todd’s football team against  kids two years his junior, and even then only getting a run as a last resort. “He was like the Forrest Gump of football,” Todd says. “He was so uncoordinated. His hand-eye coordination was shocking.”

But footy and piano were soon discarded when Todd and Matt discovered something better across the road. Matt was ten and Todd eight when a neighbour, Dean Tindale, gave them an old board with a bit of old rubber tubing and a sock tied to it as a legrope. Life took a dramatic turn for both of them.

“I used to surf for fun but they were more serious about it,” Dean says.

If the surf was too small at North Beach, the Bransons would go down to Trigg and paddle around in half-foot waves. They were soon winning heats, then contests. Branno still can’t explain it but guesses he overcame his clumsiness through sheer perseverance. At one stage he and Todd were respective state junior and cadet champions. Their Dad Mike started getting involved, driving them as far as the Gold Coast to compete in amateur events while also compiling a dossier of every newspaper clipping about them.

If you had to pick which of them would go off the rails, though, Todd would have drawn the shorter odds.

“Matt was just one of those people who didn’t do anything bad, he was just a good kid,” Todd says. “Matt was the golden child. He was very respectful of elders. I got expelled in year 10. Matt was almost dux of the school.”

Todd’s extroversion extended to his sponsors’ clothes. “I used to wear the coloured Piping Hot gear, whereas Matt was black and white. I used to wear a pink and yellow wetsuit with a pink and yellow board – as gay as you can get but very cool for the time. Matt would look at me and he had that gay thing burning in the back of his mind – it must have killed him.

In 1985, Branno became the first West Australian to take out a national title, the juniors, at Middleton, South Australia. It was followed by his first triumphant celebration, and he spent the flight home the next day spewing into a paper bag.

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It was around then that Branno and his mates discovered punk rock, and all the teenage angst that goes with it, although in Branno’s case that was just the tip of the iceberg. Matt Manners was two years older and already had his driver’s licence. He candidly recalls their “ritual” of stopping at the Triggs public dunnies on their way out at night to harass unfortunate gay outcasts. “They wouldn’t want to hang around after we got there,” he says. ”We’d scare them off.”

Branno says it was “just disgraceful”. “We were 16 or 17. It was a pack mentality, and me going along with it all. My mates are straight, to the core. They are a pretty extreme crew, and I was one of them. I grew up in the same environment. I was thinking, ‘If I do this, then I’m not gay.’ I knew what I was inside and I thought by doing it I wouldn’t be like this anymore. It’s a real black spot in my growing up. But remember, this was 20 years ago. The world was a totally different place.”

Branno is reluctant for this detail to be written about but he agrees after I explain that it illustrates not only his inner trauma but what was at stake for him to come out. His oldest friends, who in every other way were his soulmates, were virulent homophobes.

“I don’t think they even realised what homophobia was,” he replies. “It was just, ‘Who are these guys? Let’s bash them.’ Knowing they were strange to their life. I don’t want my friends to be seen as opposed to what I was as a person. That’s an immature way of thinking. My mates hadn’t developed then. They weren’t their own men. I’m the luckiest man in the world to have the friends that I do.”

***

In early 1989 Branno, Manners and another mate call Dean Patterson piled into a $500 HQ Holden with 12 boards on the roof and a drum kit in the back and drove east so Branno, who by then was full time on the pro tour, could surf the Bells contest. They met a gang of vegetarian punks squatting in an unrentable house next to Kardinia Park in Geelong, moved in with them and stayed for a couple of years. The place was such a dump that garbage collectors sometimes refused to touch their rubbish, so some of it got tossed in the ceiling. “You can imagine the rats,” Manners says. “I was working at Gash surfboard, shaping. The others were on the dole. Branno was getting money from surfing but he was always pretty low on cash because he lived it up. It was just normal. We didn’t know anything else. It was just what you did. I don’t even think it’s that bizarre. People do a lot crazier things these days.”

Branno’s long absences made Manners realise how close they were. “I was spewing when he started doing the tour,” he says. “I missed him when he went away. I was lost without him. He was like my other half.”

You can see the attraction Geelong had for Branno. Although he won’t be drawn on it, the tour was a miserable place for anyone who didn’t fit the mould. Jamie Brisick, a fellow surf-punk who did the tour at the same time, explains it well. “There was a lot of committee thinking on tour. You’ve got all these surfers coming together from different countries and they’ve all got to get along. We all needed to find a mould. There was a lot of Aussie in the mix, a lot of Hawaiian, a lot of South African. Everyone’s meeting and there’s a lot of compromising. If Branno was feeling homosexual urges during that period of being on tour I have total sympathy for him because the tour in many ways gets very robotic. There was this prototype of the guy who’s a womaniser and kind of macho and probably homophobic. Branno was in an unsympathetic community.

“Had Branno been a kid who went to art school and somewhere along the line went, ‘You know what, I’m gay,’ it wouldn’t have been a big thing at all because in art diversity is celebrated whereas in pro surfing that is not the case.”

Nevertheless, Branno refuses to blame the people on the tour for his reluctance to come out. The tour must have been pretty hetero I tell him.

“It’s not, man,” he says. “It’s not. And don’t generalise shit. That puts all the guys on tour, that makes them look like fuckwits. And the guys on tour are fucking amazing people, back in the day when I was doing it. And I’m sure they are still now. Surfers who travel, they see shit man. They learn shit. And they learn to fucking accept shit.

“I was a fucked up unit. I was dealing with really heavy stuff. I was an outsider within myself. It was all from within. Fuck, man, we’re talking 15 years ago. For fuck’s sake, back in those days it was so taboo. It was so fucked up. And even now in the surfing industry it’s still a little bit taboo, but I think it’s more accepting.”

****

Despite his big win in the juniors in 1985, Branno’s name became a staple for the trophy engravers of the time. Instead, he became famous for living a different kind of surfer’s fantasy. He’d been picked up by Rusty, the sponsor that stood out for its counterculture riders.

“Branno pioneered the whole surf-punk thing on tour with the tatts and all that stuff,” says Sunny Abberton, a fellow member of Rusty’s “dirty half dozen”, as he calls it. “To travel with all those guys was great but I don’t know how good it was for my career. He was the first one to say, ‘Fuck the rules, I’m doing my own thing.’ He was the first in the modern era to be influenced by things outside surfing.”

“Branno and his mates were raging against the machine that was pro surfing,” says Matt Hoy, two years Branno’s junior, who went on to refine the surf-punk image even more. “I looked up to him because he didn’t give a fuck. He’d do what he wanted to do and still go out and rip when he had to.

“When we were on the tour, half the guys wouldn’t even speak to us. We wanted to see the world and live the dream, hang out with as many people as we could. We wanted to live every part of the dream not just the surfing part of it.”

Branno was among the world’s first converts to a hardcore Brazilian band called Sepultura and had their name plastered on one of his boards, a board he wound up riding onto the cover of a surfing mag – a good result for Branno but unwittingly a huge promo for the band. So one day the band rang the Rusty factory in San Diego to say thank you. Sunny and Branno happened to be in town at the time and Sunny was at the factory. “Rusty came out and said, ‘there’s a phone call for Branno – some Brazilian rock band. Do you want to take it?’” Sunny says. “So I got on the phone and the guy on the other end said he just wanted to tell Branno how stoked he was, and that if we were ever going to Brazil to give them a call.”

The boys were due in Brazil, for a contest, the next week.

“When Branno got to the factory I said, ‘Guess who rang up for you?’ I kept him hanging on for a bit, then I said: ‘Sepultura’. He just couldn’t believe it.”

When he heard of the offer to hang out with Sepultura in Brazil, Branno was speechless. “He was just going, ‘What are we going to get up to?’ He was trying to think of the evil time ahead. They picked us up from the airport. It was my first trip to Brazil and I can’t remember that much of it.”

“Branno was the type of guy who would turn up late for a heat hungover, borrow a board and blow people away,” says Mogga Sutton, Rusty’s team manager at the time. “That was a big time for us. The grunge-headbanging thing was happening. It was part of where we were as a brand. They were all great surfers but our philosophy has always been that they’ve got to fit in with what Rusty is all about. We’ve always done things differently. It was more about image and having a good time. And Branno was totally there. He totally crossed over.”

Imagine, therefore, the turmoil in Branno’s head. “I loved it,” he says. “I loved where pro surfing was going. But my whole trip was different inside my head because I was gay. I’d get a bit of exposure in a magazine, I’d see that and go ‘fuck!’. And then it sort of snowballed. People started to know me off the street, and I’m almost getting more paranoid. Like, ‘Oh my god, this person thinks I’m this, this person thinks I’m that.’ And I’m sponsored by Rusty, and they’re promoting me this way, which is what I am, basically, no worries about that, but imagine if the fucking hammer comes down and someone found out that I’m gay. What would that do to these companies? Think about that. That’s what is going through my brain. Sitting there, right, Rusty is paying me to go around the world and promoting me, and West Suits are doing the same; two companies that I fucking love, and the guys who work with them are really cool, they are promoting me as their number-one guy. Imagine if they found out! It would send these fucking companies down the gurgler almost.”

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The facade was crumbling, but Branno was almost saved from having to deal with it at all. On April 15 1991, filmmaker Tim Bonython and a few others left a Tracks party in North Sydney to drink on in Kings Cross. It was a Sunday night and the options were limited. “We ended up at a seedy underground bar run by the mafia,” Tim says. “It was the devil’s armpit. The scum of the Cross would go there. But when everywhere else is closed and you’re partied up, you’ve got nowhere else to go.”

Tim remembers thinking Branno had gone missing for a while. Then he saw him emerge from the men’s toilet, stumbling through the crowd. “He looked a bit sick, a bit weird, then I heard someone say, ‘He’s been stabbed!’ I ran out to the street and got him just before he was about to collapse. He just wanted to get out of there. He started going into shock looking a bit sleepy. His eyes were floating around in his head. There was blood all over him. He had holes all over his body. He was fucked up. We both sat down and I yelled for someone to ring an ambulance. I just remember trying to comfort him. I was scared for him but I was confident he was going to stay with us. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I’d been partying since about 8pm. We were in our tenth hour of partying and numb to the reality of what was going on. I just kept saying, ‘You’ll be right, mate, just keep breathing in, keep it together.’ I remember keeping him buoyed up, keeping him confident.

“I’m glad I was there for him. He would have been more fucked up if he didn’t have anyone he knew. A lot of the other guys were so freaked out, they had to disappear. Nobody wanted to be caught up in it. It didn’t worry me. I was definitely there for Branno till I knew he was going to be okay.”

Tim rode in the ambulance to nearby St Vincent’s Hospital and stayed in emergency till they wheeled Branno into surgery.

Hmm. Gay dude attacked by psycho in dunny of a seedy bar. I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. “It definitely wasn’t sexual,” Branno says. “I’d tell you if it was – I’ve got nothing to hide.” In fact, it was a case of mistaken identity. An earlier exchange with a Tongan dealer at a nearby, equally seedy bar had gone wrong, and the dealer had come looking for a blond surfer kid, someone who happened to look like Brando. “I didn’t even see the guy,” Branno says. “He came in and hit me. My head hit the top of the urinal. I turned around and – bang! – he had a knife.” Branno was stabbed in the neck and stomach. His thumb was almost severed from trying to stop the dealer ripping his guts open with it while he screamed, ‘Stop it! You’re killing me! What have I done? What do you want?’”

The dealer was convicted of another crime soon afterwards and bragged to an inmate that he’d almost killed a surfer in the Cross one night. Word got back to the cops and Branno was brought in to identify him. He couldn’t. “All I could remember where his eyes,” he says. “His eyes had death written all over them.” Last Branno heard, the dealer had been deported back to Tonga.

Jan and Mike got the call in Perth a few hours later, at 5:30am on April 16th, the morning of their 25th wedding anniversary. “Mike and I had been awake since 3:30am but we didn’t know why,” Jan says. A huge party was planned at their North Beach home that night. Instead they spent it at their son’s bedside at St Vincent’s.

***

Horrific as it was, Branno says the stabbing was comparatively minor. “It was nothing compared to what was going on in my head.” Three months later he was back on the tour but coming apart at the seams. He had just been eliminated from the event at Huntington when he announced a dramatic career move to Rusty teammate Shane Powell. “I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ He probably didn’t know what I was talking about but in my head I knew I just couldn’t do it. There was no way in the world I had any strength to be a gay man on the tour anymore.” He was rated in the 30s on the ASP rankings and still scoring regular full-page ads in Tracks.

Powelly didn’t know the real reason but was nevertheless unsurprised. “I didn’t want him to go, but I thought it was just that he didn’t like contests. It was just so hard to be on a level plane on tour. It was an emotional rollercoaster. You’re in contests, you win a heat, you lose a heat, you’re out partying, you’re hungover, the whole thing was so up and down.”

Normal life away from the tour offered some relief but not a solution. Not even counselling for the stabbing gave him any solace. “I still hadn’t come out and I was scared that this woman was going to bring it out of me,” Branno says. “I still had this big wall up and she was not going to get inside. So I brushed over it, which wasn’t the right thing to do because I didn’t deal with getting stabbed. There was a lot of stuff to deal with at once.”

He rang Mogga and told him he needed to go underground for a while. He was offered a repping job but declined it. Regardless, the sponsorship cheques continued to roll in for a few months. Branno got himself a flat in Maroubra, Sunny’s suburb, and moved in with his first long-term partner. He completed a course to become a taxi driver, of all things, but was busted for DUI before taking his first fair and never pursued it.

Sunny, still unaware, could tell something was wrong. “I couldn’t understand it,” he says. “Give up pro surfing to become a cab driver? That’s probably the worst thing you could do, especially around Maroubra.”

The first person Branno came out to was Will Webber, who he’d known for five years. The Webber family home in Rose Bay, Sydney, had been a regular stop while Branno was on tour. They were all serious punks. When Will visited him in hospital after the stabbing, he brought along the Fender Strat he’d just bought, his first guitar. Branno had for years been dabbling in punk bands, as a diversion from the tour. Now that he was off the tour he, Will and his brother Ben could start their own band. Mindcrack went on to become underground legends. Branno chose Will to be the first person to hear his dramatic secret. They were on a bender, as usual, when he made the announcement.

“I remember we were having a sword fight in the toilet,” Will says. “I was talking about trippy things like space and time and stuff and he said, ‘I’ve got something to tell you that’s going to blow you away.’ I said what, and he just goes, ‘I’m gay’. Strangely enough, the first thing I said was, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Don’t say that!’ I said, ‘Sorry mate, that’s fine,’ and gave him a big cuddle.” Will happily kept the secret for years.

Branno knew the next stage would not be as easy. Neither was it avoidable. “I still needed that acceptance from WA because that’s where I’m from,” he says. A few years later he wrote to Manners, starting the letter with a warning that he should be sitting down when he read it.

“I remember the day,” Manners says. “We used to write to each other all the time. We were like pen pals, that’s how close we were. The letter said, ‘I’ve got something to tell you: I’m a fag, I’m a poof, I’m a homo.’ I was in shock. He asked me not to tell anyone. So I just quickly tore it up and put it in the bin so nobody would see it. I had this secret that was spinning me out and wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone about it. He rang me after a week or two and said, ‘You haven’t rung me.’ I said, ‘If that’s your fucking choice, you made your bed you sleep in it.’ I was hanging out with bikers at the time, everything was pretty tough and rugged. That was the scene I was in.”

Branno, living on Sydney’s northern beaches by now, was devastated, and called Will over. “He was crying his eyes out,” Will says. “He was shattered. I just told him I would be by his side forever. It was a powerful moment. I didn’t think he would make it through the night. When someone’s world falls apart, especially a man, and a man’s man, it’s almost inevitably suicidal. Then I said, ‘You know what you’ve got to do, mate? Let’s call your parents now.’ We did it at night, while I was there. When he got off the phone, it was like a new beginning.”

“I was shocked but I kept thinking of the pain he must have been going through all those years,” Jan says. “And I didn’t understand the gay thing, it just didn’t compute in my brain. But I just had to continue to show unconditional love and support.”

Will then turned his attention to Manners. “The Webber brothers rang me up and said, ‘What are you doing, man, writing your best mate off?” Manners says. “Both will and Ben rang me up and had a go at me. I just thought my response was normal. I was like, ‘What are you doing accepting this? I guess in Sydney it was a lot more accepted at the time. I was just thinking about myself. I didn’t for a second think about what Branno was going through.”

Some time later, Manners was out at a night club with some friends, and one of them took him aside. “Is Branno your friend or isn’t he?” he said.

“Well… he’s my fucking friend,” Manners replied.

“A light switch on,” he recalls now. “I just felt all the love in my heart for him and ran outside and rang him up.”

“He had to deal with it in his head,” Branno recalls. “I was hurt but I understood the response because of the background my mates had come from. They’d never had dealings with anyone who was gay. But that’s what you’ve got to do when you’re gay. You’re always scared you are going to lose your mates.”

Richard Kelly, another member of the Perth punk crew, found out indirectly and drove 4000km to Sydney to get it straight from Branno’s mouth.

“I just drove over there without telling him, knocked on his front door and said, ‘What the fuck is going on, mate?’ It wasn’t so much, ‘How come you’re a poof?’ I just wanted him to explain what was happening. I thought all of us deserved someone to go over there and ask him.

“We sat down and had a beer straight off the bat. He tried to explain how his brain was going through it. It wasn’t the time for me to go, ‘Oh, that’s shithouse.’ I went, ‘Whatever you reckon, mate.’ The conversation probably went till the beer ran out. We probably went for a surf the next day. Life was normal. I just left it to him, whenever he wanted to tell me about it. What can you do? There was no way, him going through that and being our mate, there was no way we were going to say, ‘Oh, now you’re a poof, go and kill yourself.’ It took a bit of getting used to but he’s still our mate. It was as much a matter of him getting used to us getting used to him. But we put it in the same shit-hanging comedy way we’ve always dealt with each other.”

Kelly stayed at Branno’s for nine months, which itself caused a bit of sniggering among the less-cool crew when he returned to Perth. “A few crew thought I was a poof for hanging there, just for staying in the same house as the guy. I used to find out who it was, go to the pub and ask them what they wanted to do about it. It made going to the pub a bit more interesting. I didn’t tell Branno about that, though. He had enough on his plate.”

Branno and his first partner, a chef, eventually worked up the courage to move back to Perth, where Branno got a job with the Wanneroo council and later with a construction recruitment firm. “Just imagine it,” Sunny says. “He’s got a hard-core group of friends back in Perth. When I heard about it I went, ‘Fucking hell. That takes balls.’”

Branno doesn’t like talking about this stage in too much detail, only to say the process of acceptance was gradual but eventually comfortable. All the Perth crew say there was nothing but good humour about it all.

“I’ve been on bucks nights with him where everyone is ripping into him about being gay and he’s just gone, ‘Right, I’ll give you till midnight, then I’m going to start cracking yas,’” says Damon Hayes.

The couple stayed together for 10 years. The ex partner still lives in Perth and still hangs with some of the same crowd. Four years ago, Branno, on holiday on the Gold Coast, met another dude, and has been there ever since. He recently became drummer for a new band, Up The Anti. “I reckon they just don’t know how to spell arse!” says Will.

A couple of weeks after my first visit, Branno casually let slip over the phone that Up The Anti are playing that Friday at the Palm Beach Hotel. I’m on a flight up there a couple of days later to check them out.

It’s a curious thing that a culture that was born in freezing basements in London and New York 30 years ago would find a home in the front bar of a suburban pub in a tropical surf town. The small but dedicated crowd dress, and drink, like they’re in London in 1977.

“The thing about punk that grabbed me at first, being a young fella, was that it was rebellious,” Branno says. “Then as I got older it was the lyrics, they hold up in the world. They bring out all the issues of global warming and stuff like that. It just opened up ideas for me and the whole non-conformity thing. I suppose it’s in my blood. I’ll never get rid of punk. It’s who I am.”

“Todd told me the other day, he said, ‘Mum, of all us four kids, Matt could have done the most,’” Jan says. “I wanted him to be the best he could be, to use all of his abilities and to make use of all his talent. I said that to Matt. I would have loved him to use his academic abilities but it worked out that he didn’t, and that’s just the way it is. I still adore him. I just love him to bits.”

It’s difficult not to. Not because of what he’s been through but what he’s learnt from it. “If we’d had this interview even five years ago, it would have been totally different brand,” Branno says. “Positivity is the outcome (of what I’ve been through). I should have been dead a couple of times over, with the stabbing and dealing with the whole thing. It nearly broke me. I’m just thankful I’m still here. And I’ve still got plenty to do.”
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  • Mr Cholo

    One of the best pieces of surf journalism ever.