Always Against the Grain
Thirty-three years ago, Nike introduced visible air with the Air Max, setting new standards by shattering existing ones. This season we're highlighting the athletes, artists and challengers who are doing the same.
Skateboarding is all about challenging the status quo. But while it should have been the perfect sport for a gender-nonconforming pro skater and activist like Leo Baker to thrive, the skate world didn't initially welcome someone who didn't fit the mould. Instead of conforming, Leo went against the grain and embraced their true identity. That move propelled them from a champion skateboarder into a champion for the LGBTQ+ community.
We spoke with Leo about feeling like an outcast, staying true to who you are and laying the foundation for the future of the LGBTQ+ community in skateboarding.
NIKE: What does the phrase 'going against the grain' mean to you?
LEO: Doing something unusual. Some people just easily fit into the society they were born into. For others, going against the grain is the only way they know how to be. [It makes me] think of people who dare to be true to themselves and not conform to society's standards.
NIKE: You'd have thought skateboarding of all sports would be more accepting of a non-conformist. How have you found it?
LEO: The roots of skateboarding are built around disobedience to mainstream culture. I feel a strong connection to that as a queer, gender-nonconforming person. Feeling like an outcast in my own subculture is what motivated me to create space and change. The more I grew into my truest self, the less I felt a sense of belonging to the thing I love the most.
I found myself feeling alone in the most familiar places: on skate trips, at skateparks, at competitions. I still feel alien in these spaces. But there are folks out there just like me who skate, who are womxn, who are queer, whose genders don't align in the mainstream—these are the people I want to skate with. These are the people I connect with.
When I think of 'going against the grain' I think of people who dare to be true to themselves and not conform to society's standards.
NIKE: In what ways did you struggle and how did you overcome those difficulties?
LEO: Once I chose to present masculine, after years of conforming to the feminine standards of what's marketable, my skate career almost evaporated. There were no opportunities for me at that point other than one or two competitions a year, with much smaller prize money than the Men's division. I put myself through school and worked a full-time job as a graphic designer. I started filming a range of street clips with my friend [videographer] Tyler Smolinski, and that footage was made into a video. It was so important to me because it was born out of nothing except my love of skateboarding and authenticity. I am super grateful that I was able to showcase this. I poured my heart and soul into this, and it resonated with a lot of people. Authenticity is one's greatest strength. Doing the work is hard, but the payoff is worth it.
Authenticity is one's greatest strength. Doing the work is hard, but the payoff is worth it.
NIKE: You've recently launched NYCSP [NYC Skate Project] for women, queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people to skate together. Tell us more about this community you're cultivating.
LEO: NYCSP is something I created exactly for us. My dream was to empower each person to create something that they relate to, a place where they belong. NYCSP has no rules other than to love and respect one another. And in that space, we have the freedom to create greatness through vulnerability and self-expression, there is nothing better than that. NYCSP will be whatever we create as a community, and the possibilities are endless. It's in the air, and it's in our hands.