Leo Baker first got on a skateboard at age 2 while living in foster care. He saw his foster brother skating and remembers falling in love with it instantly. Baker was an athletic child, but by the time he was 7, he says he felt like he’d entered into a “marriage” with the sport. The attraction was magnetic, a pull so strong that “if I was on my bike or scooter instead,” he explained, “I remember feeling guilty for not skating.”At age 8, when Baker noticed that he could play Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater in “career mode,” it clicked that he could pursue skating professionally. “Then I went outside and landed my first kickflip, and ran inside exclaiming to my mom that I wanted to be a pro skater,” he said. “My mom was like, ‘All right, then.’” And eventually, he did go pro: He won three medals at X Games events in 2013 and 2014 and got signed to Nike SB at age 25. But he had to do all of it on the girls’ teams: Baker is a trans man, and he has experienced sexism, homophobia, and transphobia throughout his career.
After making it all the way to the U.S. Women’s Olympic team by 28, Baker resigned in 2020, the year he publicly transitioned. “Everyone told me it’s history in the making and to just wait one more year,” he said, but as he explained in a 2021 interview with Time, no amount of success in professional skating was worth living a “splintered” life: “I couldn’t keep putting myself on hold.”
Since resigning, Baker said, “I avoid at all costs affiliating with anything that feels like how I used to feel in the skate industry.” But he’s nonetheless helped to shape the growing queer skate scene in the U.S. through his career and his skate brand, Glue Skateboards. He started Glue in 2020 with artist and fellow skater Stephen Ostrowski because, he explained, “there were no other companies that made sense for what I wanted.” He envisioned a brand that prioritized marginalized folks, a “home base” for him and his friends within the industry. He “just wanted it to feel like the homies,” but getting it off the ground, he faced familiar — and frustrating — hesitations: “Are you sure?” “No one has ever done it that way before.” “We don’t think it’s gonna work because the men in charge aren’t gonna like you.” He’s now happily proving the doubters wrong. The same year he resigned from Team USA, Baker got his own character on Pro Skater — the first trans skater to appear in the game.
“It’s cool to see people wiggling out of whatever mold they had put us in and setting an example for people to be themselves at a way younger age,” he said. “It would have been fucking cool to start skating now because there’d be a path to follow.”
Baker’s experience — the obligation to embody an inauthentic identity in order to compete at the highest level in his sport — is a common one for trans athletes. Over the past few years, conservative lawmakers have aggressively targeted trans and nonbinary youth. In red states including Idaho, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas, for example, legislators have worked to block transgender kids from competing on the sports teams aligned with their gender identity. Similarly, global athletic associations are increasingly adopting rules that force would-be Olympians into gender binaries in order to compete, if they are allowed to compete at all. The World Athletics Council, for example, has banned trans women who have gone through male puberty from competition, while new regulations in swimming and track and field bar transgender athletes from international competitions if they transitioned after turning 12 or use hormone therapy.
Skateboarding has not imposed any explicit barriers on athletes, but the trans and queer athletes with whom I spoke felt their embrace by the Olympics in 2020 dialed up the scrutiny and the transphobia they experienced. Nonbinary American skateboarder Alana Smith had to compete in the women’s street skate in 2020 and was repeatedly misgendered by NBC Sports. One 2023 study found that 67 percent of transgender athletes experience mocking and slurs during sports participation. And although there are more female skateboarders now than there have been in the history of skateboarding — 32 percent of all skateboarders, according to the 2021 Skateboarder Representation survey — skateboarding has a reputation as a close-knit boys’ club, one that hasn’t changed much since the sport’s inception in the early 1950s. Whenever New York model Efron Danzig shows up to a skate park, she’s usually confronted with a bunch of guys. “It’s hard to find spots without that,” she said. Danzig started skating when she was 10, after finding her brother’s board in the basement. Nearly a decade and a half later, she almost always finds herself the only girl, and “usually the only trans person,” she said. “I’m put off by the skate community,” Danzig added, “but I’ll skate for as long as my body allows because I wake up and want to skate every day.”
Still, it’s that imbalance that trans skaters and organizers have been working to correct, hoping that newer skaters might enter an industry that’s more inclusive than the one they came up in. Jeffrey Cheung, 34, started the San Francisco printing press and skateboarding company Unity Skateboarding in 2017, hand-painting boards for their crew of queer skaters. Cheung — who uses he/they pronouns — got into skateboarding as a teenager but gave it up shortly after high school. “It was around the same time that I came out of the closet,” he said. “Being queer in skateboarding wasn’t really talked about at all, and I always thought of the two worlds apart.”
It wasn’t until Cheung was 27 that they would pick up a board again, meeting other queer and trans skaters for the first time at their local skate park in the Bay Area. After that, they began putting up flyers for queer skate meetups in Oakland. “It snowballed from there,” he said. “Other queer skate groups were popping up all over the country and abroad as well, and we would do our best to support them and post skate videos from queer skaters all over on our Instagram.” Now, Cheung’s project includes not only a small zine press but also a band and a skateboarding group that hosts queer meetups and events — including throwing the first Unity Fest last October, a queer-skating and music extravaganza with punk shows, printing workshops, and dance parties.
Unity launched around the same time as Pave the Way Skateboards, a queer skateboarding company created by Tara Jepsen and Miriam Klein Stahl. Cheung views that moment as the beginning of the current queer-skate movement and says they’ve seen the landscape shift in a positive direction since. He points to better visibility for LGBTQ+ skaters in mainstream skateboarding — high-profile athletes including Baker and Elissa Steamer, a queer skater and surfboarder and the first woman to go pro in street skating — and support from skate legends Cheung had admired since he was a teenager.
Still, he said, there’s another side to the coin. “I see so much more hate and transphobia now that brands started to sponsor just a few queer and trans skaters,” Cheung explained. “It’s like the same people that are still making sexist comments about women in skating,” he added, pointing to Steamer’s March Thrasher cover, which he says riled up the skating bigots of social media. Seeing a queer woman in the sport’s biggest magazine, Cheung continued, “It’s like a wave of dudes feeling like they are being attacked.” At the same time, Steamer’s long-overdue cover also triggered a wave of appreciation from skate fans, who pointed out that Steamer has been one of the sport’s biggest names since the ’90s. What feels clear from the response is that the skate scene is changing, and a lot of people love to see it.
Take 29-year-old Kien Caples, whom Thrasher called a “breakout pro” on a “meteoric rise.” Caples first met Cheung in person in 2017 while visiting friends in Oakland. The encounter was so powerful that Caples, who uses they/she pronouns, moved to Oakland a year later. “I just wanted to be involved,” they said. “I felt really comfortable in the space.” Caples now skates full-time for There Skateboards, Cheung’s skate company that supports queer and trans skaters in becoming professional skateboarders. You may have seen their videos on Instagram, where their bright-blue pigtails, long, flowy skirts, and leg warmers are attracting eyeballs even outside the skating world. Slowly getting recognized for her highly individual style, Caples may be amassing their following from her outfit inspiration as much as her impressive tricks. For Caples, both clothing and skateboarding are about freedom of expression. “Fashion has been one of those things outside of skateboarding where I can do what I want and feel very comfortable with my skin and then be able to showcase that to everyone,” they said.
The increased visibility of openly trans people in skating is bringing queer people of all ages into the sport. Jeane Robles, 28, avoided skate parks throughout middle school because of the crowds of men, only to pick up skating in college in Iowa. “It was tough because there weren’t many skate parks there, and I didn’t feel like my full self,” they said. Robles moved to Seattle in 2019 and started attending events with Skate Like a Girl, an organization aiming to build an inclusive community through skate sessions and school programs for queer, women, and trans skaters. Robles went for the first time in 2022. “When I go to skate camp, that’s when I feel like I could be anything,” they said. “Skate camp is probably one of the few places where I’m not scared to just exist.”
Hopping on a skateboard created a domino effect for Robles, allowing them to fulfill their middle-school dreams. “I wanted to be a skater-boy drummer, emo kid,” they said. Since starting to skate, Robles has learned how to drum and started the band Toxic Tears. “I feel like I’m doing my Rocket Power life right now, and it started with skating.” The sport is how they practice feeling the fear and doing it anyway, whether that’s making new friends or attempting a new trick, they said: “I feel like skating is a life lesson.”