Mainstream Skateboarding Lags in Gender Diversity, but “The Leo Baker Story” Opens Door to Different Possibilities

I think of skateboarding as analogous to transition in innumerable ways, a sport that challenges your perception of the self, demanding of you to push yourself, fail, and pick yourself off the ground to stand tall, to try again. It requires you to visualize success somewhere down the end of an unknowable path and throw yourself down it without fully being aware of the pitfalls until you hit them head on, until you are marked by the repeated memories of failed attempts as you tell yourself next time, I’m going to make it.

And yet, skateboarding is a sport with a certain perception. From the outside, you might view it as a cishet boys club — a rough and tumble sport of broken bones and blackened eyes — that has its door closed to anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into a mold, churning out Ken dolls doing endless kickflips.

It is anything but.

Leo Baker suspended in the air above his skateboard

Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story. Leo Baker in Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

“[Deadname] Baker was this fucking person that got put together by just the world around me,” Leo Baker states in the opening minutes of Stay On Board: The Leo Baker Story , “I had to become this person and then having all my dreams riding on that, how could somebody not choose that?”

Baker was speaking to all the elements orbiting him as a skater on the rise, like the pressure brand sponsors, photographers, and skate culture put on him to perform as a gender he did not identify with. Because skateboarding culture saw Baker as a woman, he became a paper doll to it, something it could dress up and put the expectations of women over top of until there was nothing left but a product to sell.

The documentary, which debuted today on Netflix, is an exploration of Leo Baker as he navigates his gender identity as it intersects and collides with his life as a professional skateboarder — most notably when Baker was one of few people selected to represent Team USA at the Tokyo Summer Olympics when it hosted skateboarding for the first time in 2020.

As is mentioned throughout the documentary, this was a big deal. Skating had long been seen as unworthy of inclusion in the Olympics, looked down on in comparison to other sportier sports like the long jump, hurdles, or handball. Skateboarding is a difficult and demanding sport. Ask anyone who has ever stood on a skate deck and attempted to move while remaining in a standing position, and you will understand the sheer skill required to stay vertical.

Baker recalls the expectations of him as, “Dress this way, be this way, you skate and you’re a punk but don’t be that weird” — all interspersed with shots of Baker throughout the years, alive in the environment that made him. Pavement and plywood and well worn handrails with scraped paint. By nature an act of freedom, there is no gender inherent in the building blocks of street skating. Gender is an element placed there by unseen hands, one that no kickflip or nosegrind can overcome.

Early in the film, we see the event announcing the team of skaters who will be representing the USA at the Olympics, each one walking onto a stage and holding a skate deck with the team USA logo emblazoned on it. When Baker is announced, using his deadname, you can catch that almost imperceptible moment when you have to react to a name that is not one that holds any meaning to you. I know that moment and have felt it in doctors offices, pharmacy lines and coffee pickup counters for years. The quiet resignation of I know who you’re talking about and I hate it. Even in that instance of absolute triumph, when Baker walks on stage and poses for a sea of cameras taking waves of photos, he smiles in the thrill of the moment the same as anyone would given his position. It is a momentous occasion to be called to the stage to represent your sport at an Olympic level for the first time in history. But it’s also tied to the weight of being called to the stage by a name that does not represent you.

This is the first moment I cried watching the film.

At the outset of the doc, which is told over a few years, Leo is Lee to those close to him, using they/them pronouns when asked and his deadname out in his professional world. There is misgendering and deadnaming throughout, at times from Baker’s mother, who was Baker’s first manager and the kind of proud mother who has memorabilia built into makeshift shrines throughout her house. She struggles with Baker’s name and pronouns at times, catching herself and announcing that she finds it all so difficult.

Here, too, I cried. This is my own mother trying and failing with me. Memories of my mother using the name she gave me but struggling to mouth the one I have found for myself.

As the story progresses, we see Baker struggling to find a way in which he feels at home and comfortable, both in his own skin and in his sport, one that he has been ensconced in since he was a young child. At the nine minute mark, he talks about his name as Leo but that not a lot of people know that. Certainly not in skateboarding.

His life is split. In skateboarding, he knows he will be seen as who he was.  When he exists outside of that world, he can let his guard down, even just for a moment, and be himself. A rare moment to grasp reality before the expectation of who people see him as rises to greet him once more.

When Baker talks about this and his life and all that entails, an off-screen voice asks if he’s afraid of backlash. Baker sits in that moment, and his eyes turn red with the sting of oncoming tears. Then he gets up and walks off camera without saying a word.

I cried here, too. That pain of not knowing what is around the corner when everyone knows the truth. Once all the cards are on the table, will anyone still want to sit at it with you? The unknowing nature of coming out as trans is a test of will: Can you hurl yourself forward despite not knowing what awaits at the other end?

Leo Baker skates down the street

Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story. Leo Baker in Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

The beauty of the documentary is not the spotlight on the painful moments in the opening. This is set dressing, a thesis being made. Over the course of the documentary, we watch Baker struggle with the pressure of being on the Women’s Skateboarding team when Women is not a word that accurately describes the way he feels about himself. Camerapeople saying “smile for us sweet ladies” as they pose for photos.

They are not ladies who work it , as one cameraperson requests. They’re just skateboarders.

Gender is not a construct that belongs in conversation with anyone’s ability to thrive in a space. Baker should not be forced into a position where he is the first hypervisible face of trans identity as it bisects with skateboarding. And while there have certainly been trans skaters before him, like trans musician and skateboarder Cher Strauberry who also appears in the documentary, he is the first to be so visible that he is brought to the Olympic stage.

The Leo Baker Story is a spotlight on an urgent need. A need for representation, critical support, awareness. Skateboarding hasn’t made the platform for gender diversity at a competitive level. Baker eventually, with much tears and anguish, drops off the Olympic skateboarding team. Walks away from something that by all accounts is an opportunity of a lifetime.

But whose life?

Baker is visibly unburdened in the wake of his decision to walk away from the Olympics. He makes a date for a consultation and gets top surgery. He worries about his relationship and what everything might mean but, for the first time, he makes decisions that impact Leo in a way he never has felt able to. Before he decides to quit the team, he laments that everyone tells him to just wait one more year. Baker says: “ If I wait one more year, there might be no more Leo left.”

I have lost count of the times I have cried at this point in the documentary, but I understand this feeling all too well. The world requesting that you put yourself on hold until it is done using the marionette of yourself you have been walking around, making it wave and smile and talk nicely when the situation calls for it. I have been on this same edge, waiting one more year every year until you are certain this is the final one.

Baker decides to facilitate the change for himself he needs — and to be the face of the change skateboarding needs. In walking away from the Olympics, he finds himself — not just by way of transition but by discovering a place in the world he moves through. He makes new career moves, like starting his skate brand Glue Skateboards with Cher Strauberry and Stephen Ostrowski.

In one of the final scenes that made me cry, Baker stands and stares at an LED billboard with his signature Nike Airman shoe. He sees his own name in lights, one that was denied him time and time again, even as he achieved great heights. There is no achievement like the one that marks it in your name, the one you chose to represent you and not the one you were given no consequential say in. His mother is brought to tears when Baker shows her his new sponsorship, and she remarks on how proud of him she is.

Early in the doc, Tony Hawk (who also included Baker in the remaster of the beloved Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1&2 video game) speaks glowingly of Baker’s perseverance. He was speaking to his style of skateboarding, but he was also speaking to the breadth of Baker’s ability to push until he arrived at himself.

In Baker’s story exists the rare and beautiful opportunity to witness a trans person come into their own as they find the way they fit into themself, settling into the driver’s seat of the soul for the first time. When Baker has a photoshoot done to capture himself the way he wants to be seen, the “smile sweet ladies” is removed. In its place, the defiant stance of self-assurance.

Baker’s story needs to be told, because we need to have space to tell a million more stories just like his. We need to marvel at the exploits of trans femme skaters as they master their craft, throw themselves down a flight of stairs in an effort to land it just this one time. We need to watch trans men soar on a vertical ramp as they attempt to hit a 720 degree spin. Nonbinary people need to watch a skate video and see themselves reflected as someone kicks off down a stretch of endless pavement, wearing a Leo Baker signature shoe.


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Niko Stratis

Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets like SPIN, Bitch, Xtra, Catapult and more. Her work primarily focuses on culture, the 1990s, queer/trans topics and as often as possible where all those ideas intersect. 

She wrote that piece about Jackass that you liked and also the Gin Blossoms one. 

She is also the creator and host of V/A Club, a podcast about movie soundtracks.

Niko lives in downtown Toronto with her fiancé and their dog and 2 cats. She is a cancer.

Niko has written 23 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. Aaaaaaaand that’s the sound of me renewing my subscription to that darn streaming service.

    I was so excited when Leo was one of the few current skaters included in the THPS remake the other year, and I am so hyped to watch this. I love how far skateboarding as a culture has come since I was a teen, in terms of being diverse and inclusive, and this is just.. wow.
    Sorry, babbling, very very stoked about this yes.

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