Femme and Queer Skate Night underscores a communal embrace

PUBLISHED: November 10, 2021

As the weekly event grows, co-founder Leon C. reflects on its importance.

Photo: Leon C. is shown in the middle of a run at Goodman Skatepark’s eggplant bowl during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020. They’re pictured at the bottom of the bowl, skating out of a section that’s covered by a large shadow, wearing a black tank top, black shorts, black socks, black shoes, and a blue mask. Several tattoos are visible. A small crowd is gathered along the bowl’s edges to watch Leon skate.

Nearly two years into the era of COVID-19, skateboarding has grown stronger than ever. A drastic uptick in participation, an Olympic introduction, and skateboarding's surprising versatility as a coping mechanism have played pivotal roles in its growth. While the effects of the pandemic have adversely affected skateboarding, there have clearly been silver linings. Madison's local skateboarding scene, like so many others, has also taken in bad news while percolating in burgeoning optimism. Every disappointing pandemic-related setback has had to contend with an intensifying communal embrace. In a volatile present, skateboarding's long-term outlook seems increasingly bright.

Femme and Queer Skate Night, a weekly event that takes place Wednesday at McPike Park, vividly underscores the changes Madison skateboarding is experiencing. For the first time in recent memory, Femme and Queer Skate Night has seen McPike's Goodman Skatepark population dominated by people who don't identify as cisgender men, a testament to both Femme and Queer Skate Night's potency and skateboarding's expanding demographics.

Interlay's Alexandria Ortgiesen puts a fine point on the type of attitudes that necessitated the response that Femme and Queer Skate Night has been providing. "I had a really shitty experience [at Goodman] this year. I've been skating [for] three years. When I started doing it, there weren't that many femmes or queers around. There's always some dude trying to show you how to ollie or how to do this. There's this dude who told me 'If you skate with me, you'll learn how to kickflip.' Then he was dissing my wrist guards, like 'We don't wear those out here, we thrash.' And calling me 'baby' and shit, like fuck you, bro. It's literally a kid's toy," Ortgiesen says, communicating an equal measure of annoyance and disappointment.

Quad skater Elle Bowz sees things similarly, saying "I've come to the park before where [I've been] the only woman and it's like, why do high school boys intimidate me so much? But they do. I think it's because there are so many of them when they come and they all know each other. And I was in high school and I was an asshole in high school, so I'd imagine [the same would be true]. I belong here just as much as they do." Offering up an appreciation of what Femme and Queer Skate Night offers, Bowz continues: "It's nice to have people here that makes it more comfortable."

The event's impact has even spread to some folks involved here at Tone Madison. Myself, Kailea Saplan, and Maggie Denman all frequented Femme and Queer Skate Night with some consistency throughout summer. Saplan was drawn to the group's commitment to diversity, saying "I love taking over the skate park every Wednesday night with other enthusiastic skaters who might not feel welcome there normally, because of who they are or what level of skating they're at. It's an opportunity to find a sense of community and discover what you're capable of when you're supported by that community."

Denman found Femme and Queer Skate Night to be a necessary counter to a rampant culture of misogyny that's proven pervasive in skateboarding for decades. "It's really bad. It's gotten a little better, only in the sense that, for us now, we know there's people," says Denman. Adding, "I don't come here otherwise, unless it's with a crew."

Femme and Queer Skate Night has provided a welcome respite from the type of macho condescension that's kept many from frequenting Goodman more regularly. By elevating the importance of acceptance, communication, and community, the event and its organizers have tapped into something invaluable.

Near the end of June, Femme and Queer Skate Night held one of its most successful iterations in its growing history. At the end of the night, those present gathered together in the park's eggplant bowl to commemorate the moment. Around 60 people are shown in that photograph, which excludes several people that came to the event in surrounding times. It's a perfect snapshot of a community committed to building implicit and explicit structures around a shared ideology of support and inclusion.

Leon C., one of the co-founders of Femme and Queer Skate Night, sat down with Tone Madison this past September to discuss the event and its growth, community-building's intrinsic value to skateboarding, and their hopes for what might be around the corner.

Tone Madison: Tell us a bit about Femme and Queer Skate Night.

Leon C.:It's an idea that's been happening in places all over but we originally started it as Ladies Skate Night in an older, private DIY. I don't even know, 7, 8, 9, 10 years ago. We brought it to the public park seven or eight years ago and eventually we wanted to call it Femme Skate Night to be more inclusive to transfeminine and trans people. Recently, we also realized it was for transmasculine and trans men. I identify as transmasculine and it's really for everyone who wants to smash the patriarchy or change the culture of toxic masculinity at the skatepark. We landed on Femme and Queer Skate Night. I think it's cool that the name constantly evolves, as things do, to try to get better. It's just a time at the skatepark. Wednesdays, 7 to 10 p.m. for people to skate together and to support each other and try to create a different culture than what exists.

Tone Madison: It seems like this year, especially, it's been steadily building. Have there been any specific trends you've noticed with membership or participation lately?

Leon C.:This year was a huge explosion in attendance at Femme Skate Night. Last year because of COVID and BLM, we didn't really meet up until the end of the fall and it was sparse. Years past, before that, the three to four years, [however long] we'd been doing it, a good turnout was 10 people. This year we've consistently had 50, 60 people. The amount of people skating other places and posting on social media, showing their progress, being a beginner and posting has given people that "Oh, I can do that!" [realization] when they see it. During the pandemic a lot of people picked up individual outdoor sports like biking and rollerskating. One other thing that probably contributed [to the growth] was coming together with the quad community a couple years ago and being like "Hey, let's try to tie this all together. It's not just skateboarding, it's all wheels, all abilities, all ages, all people."

Tone Madison:It seems like you're also involved in a lot of skateboarding projects outside of Madison, going to other states to help build new parks. Is that through something specific or is it something you're doing on personal time?

Leon C.:There's a huge explosion of parks being built around the country by a lot of different companies. Usually the best ones are skateboarder-run and the people who work at the company are skateboarders. I've gotten involved in a couple different skate companies and am hoping to travel more and build more parks and have that be my career. I've also been helping build DIY [skateparks] for the last six years. That's what got me into building and where I got my start of loving concrete and working with it to build skateparks.

Tone Madison:Speaking of DIY spots, what can you tell me about Lilypad?

Leon C.:Lilypad is a new city-approved Madison DIY spot that's entirely community-funded and volunteer-built. It's in Warner Park, in the corner by Trailsway. So far it's a three-foot tall quarter, 12-foot quarter, six-foot, and a hip. The city gave us approval to get a concrete truck because we've been hand-mixing bags of concrete on the ground with shovels. We're going to get a concrete truck and blast out the rest of the park hopefully within a couple of weeks and then it'll be available for people to skate. It's kind of like a test site. Basically, the Madison Skatepark Committee has been doing a lot of legwork to get the approval.

The Forward Living skate crew and a lot of people involved in DIY in Madison have all been working together. Sheffy at Freedom, Pat Hasburgh from the Madison Skatepark Fund, [they] have all been collaborating to get the supplies there and get the design approved by the city and build it. It's been really fun, it's been really awesome, and it's been moving quickly. Hopefully, we'll have this spot wrapped up before winter and if this spot goes well, they're going to give us another DIY-approved skate spot in Elvehjem Park. Hopefully this is just the beginning of Madison's many DIY spots and there are many more professional skate spots and skateparks to come. What happened was that there was a huge plan to have 20 skate spots and three skateparks added after the success of McPike skatepark. Then the budget for that went on the wayside with COVID. Then they were like, "You can have this area," which is like a 26' x 50' rectangle of asphalt, "if you fund it and you build it."

So we were like, "Okay, that's great!" Skateboarding's one of the only things where the culture is so strong that people are just willing to do that labor for free. We're hauling bags of concrete out there and the water, too. We mix it on the ground with shovels and shape it into this stuff. So far, it's been over 1,000 hours of labor and probably over $1,000 now too. And it's only been about six weeks so far.

Tone Madison: Madison's individual skate communities seem to be intersecting more intentionally lately. Have there been any knock-on effects from those efforts that have stood out to you?

Leon C.:I'm mostly involved in the queer skate community and the DIY skate community and I've seen a lot of overlap in that, on an international and local level. Then there's so much more. There are the different skate shops around town: Freedom, Alumni, and Focus. There's so many parts of the skate community that I don't even know of, because I'm older. I'm 34. So there's probably these younger skate communities that I don't have access to or whatever, but it's cool that it brings together different ages and different people in this one common thing. People that I wouldn't know or people that wouldn't know somebody that uses they/them pronouns and they met them through skateboarding and got introduced to that concept. Everyone deserves to have their pronouns respected already but because they know you through skating, they're like "Oh, I'm going to try this new thing that I didn't know about before." So I think it does have an effect.

I mostly know about Freedom skate shop—that's the shop that I ride for—and how they've been super supportive of every project that I've been involved in. Whether it's been a DIY project or Femme and Queer Skate Night. We released a deck with them through Femme and Queer Skate Night. They're also releasing a Leon board, just for me. That's where I see the crossover. It's in the shops' support of all different aspects of the community, whether that's DIY or individual skaters or Femme and Queer Skate Night. DIYs have been supportive of the skate shop. We had one guy raise money for Femme and Queer Skate Night and we ended up giving that money to some of the BLM organizations. It kind of just goes around.

Tone Madison: Freedom's also involved in the skate camps, right?

Leon C.:Yes! Geoff Kopski from Freedom started skate camps about five years ago. I've done every single one. Usually it's ages… I think our youngest was 4 and our oldest was 14. Everybody skates together and it's based on what you're trying to learn that day. We have three or four instructors and we have three camps per summer. They're week-long morning camps. They're super fun! It's amazing to see what the kids learn. I get to interact with kids through that. I also teach private skate lessons as well.

Tone Madison: It seemed like this year's instructor lineup was the classic era of Clean Room.

Leon C.:Yes! We had a Clean Room instructor camp this past summer that was me, Donut, and Jeff. Me and Jeff had done it previous years but Donut joined us this year. Donut works at another skate shop, Focus, but then he also came on for the Freedom camps. Clean Room camp instructors.

Tone Madison: What can you tell me about Forward Living?

Leon C.:We're a group, we're a community. Forward Living is not just a place but something you do. We have 10 people at our core right now that are all really involved. We like to build skate ramps and hang out together. We have meetings and help build DIY spots. We've helped at our buddy's backyard, the Lilypad. We try to make a supportive environment for non-traditional skaters or under-represented skaters. Me, being queer and having other queer keyholders. Marbie Princess was one of our keyholders.

Coming from DIY skate culture, I love DIY skate culture and there can be a lot of toxic masculinity. I travel to a lot of DIY skate spots and it's usually like there's just one dude in charge and that's cool, but also, what if you did things collectively? What if you had conversations teaching people about pronouns? We actually did that in our culture, in our space that we share. We have people who are in high school and people who are in their 50s. So, the people in the 50s were like, "What is it?" after I was like, "Hey, I'm going to go by Leon and I'm going to use they/them pronouns." And they were like, "Can you tell me more about that? Can you correct me if I do it wrong? Can you be patient with me?" And I was like, "Yes, as long as you try, I'll feel good."

That's kind of the intersection of age and queerness and skating. We try to have more open discussions about what's going on. When we have meetings, everyone gets to speak. Everyone sets the agenda. We talk about everything and don't interrupt each other. We vote on things. It's pretty cool. I don't know. It's called Forward Living skate collective. We like to get shit done and have fun. We just got back from a skate trip to St. Louis where we skated 10 different DIYs. Build together, hang out together, skate together. That's it.

Tone Madison: How many people are involved in Forward Living right now?

Leon C.:Currently 10 core members, but if anyone wants to help out on a project or come by and skate, they can. We don't really have too much social media, so you can hit me up on social media.

Tone Madison: Do you have any hopes for things you'd like to see happen in Madison's skate community?

Leon C.:Just to keep getting more diverse. Opening up intersections. Last summer was a huge opening and just to stay with it. Me and this person, Sean, who moved away, we started Skate & Liberate Madison but we haven't been active in that. We gave away like 30 skateboards to BIPOC kids, so that was a cool thing that happened. It'd be good to get something like that going again. We can harness momentum like that again. Keep getting more open in skating. Opening people's minds through skating and connecting people that wouldn't otherwise be connected through skating. I think that's one of the biggest superpowers that skating can have. I hang out with people of all ages, all races, but it could be more. It could be a lot more. That's what I hope. To keep growing in that direction. And to have it be accessible to people.

One of the biggest problems here in Madison is that we don't have an indoor spot to skate and that's a huge problem. For five months, six months of the year, where are kids gonna skate? We need a nonprofit or affordable or sliding scale indoor facility but it's already really expensive to make an indoor skatepark. The two closest ones are in Milwaukee, Cream City and Four Seasons. People have tried to do it here. There was a nonprofit a couple of years ago and there's been other projects talked about but it's really expensive to rent a warehouse big enough to build a skatepark and then you've got to make your prices like $15, and what kid can pay $15 every single day to skate? I can't do that, you know?

Tone Madison: Only other one I can think of that's remotely close is in Green Bay.

Leon C.:Oh yeah, GBASO. I think they might be a nonprofit? But still, you have to have a car [to get there]. It's like, how do you have an indoor space? I would say besides just in general and more accessibility and diversity in skateboarding in Madison, having an indoor affordable, accessible spot that's on a bus line [is important]. If it's privately-owned, that might not be affordable. I guess what people have to realize is that this is creative. It's art. It's physical. It's community. Hopefully people want to give more money to skateboarding because it's really good for kids. It's good for adults! It challenges you in an infinite way that's never-ending. You can constantly learn more. You can learn more tricks. You can be more creative. I think it's really, really good for people and that if it got some funding, to make an accessible indoor space happen in Madison? That would be amazing.