Leo Baker is the trans non-binary skateboarder paving the way for queer, underrepresented communities
Growing up, Leo spent years actively searching for spaces that catered to a non cis male community. When he finally found what he was looking for, he wanted to champion the idea himself and, soon enough, the New York City skate project was born. “I saw Seattle’s Skate Like A Girl project had a queer trans skate camp. I was like, if it’s possible to have it over there then it’s definitely possible in New York,” he tells GAY TIMES over a grainy Zoom call.
Inspired by Seattle’s skate project, Leo made it his mission to get the NYCSP up and running with the help of those around him. “My friend Kristin, the director of the Seattle chapter of Skate Like A Girl, helped me build the project,” he explains. Outside of his go-to network, Leo was in awe of how quickly everyone got involved. “As soon as the community heard about the project, they were all hands-on deck. It became this really beautiful thing that’s pretty fluid. It’s not strictly one thing and I think that’s the beauty of it.” He adds: “I wanted to create something, but then give it away in a sense. Everybody has an equal say in what gets to happen. Unfortunately, with COVID there hasn’t been much gathering, but I still have some stuff brewing on the back burner. I have shit ready to go.”
As a promoter of diversity in pro skating, Leo Baker has broken into the skate industry in a whole new way — he is one of the few new additions to the Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1+2 remastered series. There’s no doubt many of us would waste hours on game play trying to land a string of tricks or pull off your sickest ollie and it seems Leo was the same. “I played that game when I was a kid and to be a character in the game that I used to play is pretty mind blowing if you can imagine. It’s one of the most surreal things to ever happen to me!” he laughs. Aside from it being a very cool feature, Leo finds some seriousness in it all: “I used to play as all the pro characters. It’s really special that it’s a reboot and not a new Tony Hawk game, because the generation of people who played it are now my generation and we get to relive that. The fact I’m in the game and get to relive it is monumental.”
When GAY TIMES asks Leo what he hopes to achieve with this game feature, it’s hard to miss his impassioned tone. Leaning forwards, towards the camera in his boxy white t-shirt, his hands openly gesture as he animatedly talks about making skating a more inclusive industry. “I hope it inspires a whole new demographic of skaters who maybe felt like they didn’t belong and it shows them that they can have a space in skating,” Leo says, nodding. “When I speak about that, I’m talking about queer, trans and non-binary folks. The Tony Hawk game showcases a variety of different demographics. You have Leticia Bufoni, Aori Nishimura, and Elissa Steamer and I feel like it’s a way more diverse roster of names. I think there’s gonna be a huge explosion of different types of skaters in the next coming generations of skating.”
It’s a compelling statement and it comes as no surprise. Across his Nike campaigns, Leo has dedicated his platforming to setting the record straight and pushing for change, but still, he admits this is not the path he sought out, but one that he’s seemingly fallen into. “There’s definitely moments where I feel like the responsibility of certain things has fallen on my lap just for the lack of other people,” he confesses, shrugging.
Equal standing in the skate scene is still being fought for and Leo believes progress is long overdue. “I know there were people before me fighting for equal pay in skating and stuff, but it’s not even close to where it should be, like speaking about pay discrepancy in contests. So there’s just moments in time where I was feeling frustrated or patronized by the skate industry and then speaking about it, I sort of became this torch-holder for issues in skating,” he explains. While Leo doesn’t claim to be a pioneer in the community, he’s open to taking the responsibility of speaking out. “It was like, I guess this is happening now. I think the timing of everything sort of put me in this place. I wasn’t intentionally saying I’m going to be the first fucking queer trans skater or whatever. It just sort of happened that way. I just feel super grateful that I get to be a voice for my demographic of people.
“There have been people outside of skating who have come before me to make it possible for me to even just be out as trans. I feel really lucky to be in the position where I can continue to fight and I’m super grateful that there were people fighting before I came along – outside of skating too – but now this is just one more thing to chip away at.”
Leaning back in his chair, Leo sits staring out of frame thinking over the question I just asked. Going by his Nike campaign, he brands himself as “against the grain” but away from flashy sponsorships, what does that really mean? After a brief pause, he angles back to the screen and offers an answer: “What it means to me, in terms of skating and the world at large is that heteronormativity and patriarchy all trickle down into different cultures. For a long time, you had to look a certain way or you didn’t get to be successful as a non-male skater,” he explains. “I just got to a point where I was like, well fuck it then I’ll just get a job. I’m gonna keep skating my whole life but if you don’t like me, fuck too bad, because I’m not going to conform to whatever shit. That is the essence of what going against the grain feels like because I feel like I’m swimming upstream and I have to dress like fucking feminine or I don’t get support. Well, oh surprise, I’m fucking trans so none of that is happening!”
Still, to this day, Leo is caught in the realities of a skate industry desperately trying to catch up. Identifying as transgender and non-binary, Leo is visibly exasperated at how often he is misgendered or wrongly identified. “I’m not a female and people keep saying you’re the best fucking woman skater. I’m like oh god, please stop.” Trying to navigate the scene and carve out change while exploring his own identity has been a challenge. Much of the time, it seems the corporate side of the skate scene was fixed and unwelcoming for someone like Leo. “There was a big portion of time where I straight up didn’t fit in and then around 2016-17 there was a big shift in what types of demographics big corporate sponsors supported or any fucking industry sponsor. There were a lot more women on teams and you didn’t have to look like Leticia Bufoni to get support. All of that was kind of happening and I was like ‘well, fuck, I’m literally still here.’ So now I feel like it’s the time to try and do it again. I quit my day job and I was like I’m just gonna skate and try to figure this out. I had no real plan but I could feel skating was not over,” he confesses.
Half way through our chat, Leo has taken the time to answer each question with honesty and detail. He tells me that transparency is important and is something that has fed into his willingness to speak out on the inequalities of skating. He confidently believes authenticity is the greatest personal strength you can have and he tells GAY TIMES why.
“The more I’ve grown into who I am and been unapologetically myself, the better I’m skating. I feel happier and my mental health is better. The more I can show up for myself, the more I can show up for the people that I fucking care about, whether that’s skateboarding, my family and friends, or just myself as human being. I’m never going to compromise again because if I do that it’s a disservice to myself and everybody that I love.”
As an Olympian hopeful and seven times X Games medallist, Leo’s familiarity with the industry gives him plenty to address, but he’s still sceptical of being labelled an activist. “I feel like activist is a really generous term. I think that a lot of people have put that on me because I do speak out about certain things. Obviously there’s issues that I care about and I do my best to be anti-racist and learn all this shit, like dismantle the patriarchy. But I’m not like leading fucking protests and doing shit like real activists are doing,” he says paying homage to the on-the-street activism that’s been happening across America.
“I think I’m somewhere on that scale. Like, I’m not complicit, but I wouldn’t call myself a trailblazing activist. I’m just living my experience and speaking out about things that could change,” he elaborates. “The more I am in the public eye, the more I feel like I have a responsibility or obligation to continue to fight and to continue to show up – I’m happy to do all that stuff. To be an activist would be really fucking cool. I’m sort of teetering a little bit towards it but not fully.”
Intrigued by his response, I point out how activism is an open advocacy to change and, as a skater, he has used his platform to call out inequalities even in this interview. He laughs, adding: “I feel like when I see activists out there in the street doing work from the ground up, I feel like I can’t compete with that. But I guess when you’re defining activism the way that you are, it would make sense in what I do. I’m glad we had this talk – I’m like ‘am I an activist?’ I don’t know!”
Naturally, the topic of conversation steers from activism and visibility in the skate scene. Becoming the first trans non-binary skater in the Tony Hawk series is a huge achievement, but it hasn’t stopped Leo from pushing onwards. “I’ve had a lot of thoughts around what’s been happening to me and why,” he tells us. “It’s interesting because now it’s marketable to diversify and have queer skaters. You’re not going to sell shit if you’re not diverse, not LGBTQ+ friendly or not woke. I’ve called it out in interviews to make fucking sure I can see that it’s right now. Now they’re like: ‘Oh there’s this queer trans skater who’s been here for so long… that’s perfect.’ It just sucks. It’s just a function of capitalism and marketing. Maybe we’re just something to sell. It’s wild we’re just a selling point.”
The skate industry has always been big on sponsorships, collaborations and marketing to make big money. We ask Leo if he finds it uncomfortable watching visibility and representation shifting towards a more capitalistic route. “I do think change comes down to equity and brands being willing to support us,” he says. “I think strong allies within skateboarding would be a huge shift for underrepresented communities. Apart from literally hiring queer people or Black people, I think it’s all going to come down to openness and accountability in these companies too.”
Having racked up an incredible scoresheet of medals and encouraging self-acceptance and diversity through a share skate project, GAY TIMES asks Leo what the future of skating looks like: “I think the future of skateboarding is gonna be extremely diverse and a lot of stuff is getting challenged right now. I just hope that it’s an everlasting shift because it’s so fun and a lot of people find homes in skating where they weren’t able to find something elsewhere,” he says, hopefully. “I wanted to play team sports when I was kid but we didn’t have money for that so I fucking skate. It’s the thing that I have and I could just go outside and do it. I think that as we expand our horizons, as an industry, it’s going to create a brighter future for more underrepresented communities.”