It’s the Monday after New York City’s Pride parade. Rainbow flags still adorn the storefronts and apartments of Graham Avenue in East Williamsburg. Once a predominantly Italian-American neighbourhood, this odd pocket of Brooklyn remains one of the slowest to change, despite its proximity to perceived ‘cool’.
Two stops away from the Times Square of Brooklyn – aka Bedford Avenue – ‘Via Vespucci’ is the kind of place where men on the corner still speak loudly with their hands and women sport sky-reaching bouffants. You’ll find an energy practitioner next door to a cobbler, traditional Giglio feasts taking over the same block where creatives produce comedy shows from their garage.
Since moving here 18 months ago, Leo Baker has settled into the right place geographically, professionally and personally. Something about New York’s pace of life, its changing weather, its melting pot of communities feels like the right fit.
Back in LA, the skater would be either in a car or in their apartment, avoiding traffic and dreading a 30-minute drive for groceries. Now they live minutes away from the skatepark. Just hearing the sound of skaters passing by all day makes them feel at home.
“I wake up in the morning and I’m excited for whatever the fuck I’m gonna do that day, even if I don’t know what it is,” they say. “The possibilities are endless. Everyone has a story and everyone’s here for a reason. It feels so much more physically connected. Life is happening all around you and you get to feel it. In LA, my life was so fucking boring – and I didn’t even realise it until I came here.”
Over the weekend, Leo and fellow pro skater Brian Anderson celebrated Pride by releasing Cave Homo Volume II, a zine described as a “queer creative project”. With the intent to subvert how queers are represented in mainstream media, the first edition focused solely on Brian, who came out as gay in 2016 – a significant personal milestone and a momentous one for skating.
In person, the two became fast friends as they’re “both queer and 100 percent skate rats,” Brian says. With a little persistence, publisher Luke Williams convinced Leo to become the focal point of issue two – a collaboration that would never have happened, the 26-year-old says, had they been living anywhere but New York.
“I was kind of nervous, but really open at the same time,” says Leo. “It’s super faggy and it’s fun to do [a project] like that. This movement is happening right now. Cave Homo helped me feel validated and seen for who I am beyond my skateboarding identity. That’s really important for me, because for a long time the industry wanted to shape me in a way that wasn’t me.”
Leo’s work ethic, advocacy and strength of character has made them not only one of the most outspoken queer skaters, but emblematic of a shift across the industry.
Over the course of an hour, amid a barrage of screaming babies and passersby asking for rolling papers, nothing seems more prominent than their confidence “in the moment”.
Those three words come up so often that it feels like a de facto mantra. Wearing a white tee, black jeans and a silver chain, Leo is easygoing but energetic – listening intently between answers. More than being in the moment, they quietly command it.
Much has been made of Leo’s brief upbringing in foster care, when they spent a year apart from their birth mother, or the fact that their father – Marshall Lambert Rohner, an accomplished musician who was part of hardcore punk pioneers T.S.O.L. – passed away due to AIDS-related causes when they were still in school.
But the only relevant plot point from those early years is the constant pull of skateboarding. They got their first board at the age of two as an Easter present. (“They were like, ‘Are you sure? Is that really what you want?’”) Although Leo’s too young to remember it, they’d stare at their foster brother practising on the mini-ramp in the backyard. Whenever they had space to themselves every morning, they’d just step on the board and wobble back and forth until it felt like skating.
“Generally I’m extremely obsessive, that’s just my personality,” they say, laughing. “I’ve obviously learned that about myself through skateboarding. I would try to ollie, try to flip the board, all day long. I still remember the time I landed my first kickflip.
“The feeling that gave me was like nothing I’d ever felt before… and you continually get that feeling throughout skating because there’s always something new to learn. I think that’s the beauty of it. Skateboarding is so much more than doing the hardest banger trick.”
One day, years later, Leo’s mom picked up flyers for skate classes at a park not far from their home in Covina, California. The teacher, a skater named Ryan Miller, was so impressed that he filmed an 11-year-old Leo doing an ollie off a loading dock for their first video part.
The clip led to sponsorship and, before long, Leo was winning contests and touring the world. That early part of their career resembled most green skateboarders’ trajectory in the early-2000s: when skate camp leads to a constant cycle of filming, which in turn attracts the attention of big-name sponsors. But Leo’s vision of themself didn’t match up with the way brands saw them.
“They wanted me to keep my long blonde hair and be feminine, because it’s marketable,” they say. “I knew that would never be me. There were a lot of comments – ‘The boys are wearing tight pants, you should wear them too.’ I was 12, so I thought that maybe they were right.
“I’ve had sponsors that I didn’t like and quit them, even with money on the table, because they didn’t feel suited to me. I trust my gut and try to imagine, ‘What would it feel like if I had to put an energy drink sticker on my board?’ It’s not for me. No shade to anyone who is making their money [that way]. Money is great, but some shit can be really soul-sucking.”
Perception is everything in skateboarding. While it may seem like a massive global industry, the inner workings of it are small and incestuous. Traditionally, standing out as an individual can be your strongest trait or a total liability. It’s a landscape where leaving sponsors – the kind that wield a big footprint – can be devastating to the point of career-ending.
Yet while Leo chose to pursue a degree in graphic design, wondering if they’d find a board sponsor again, something started to change. A groundswell of independent, female-owned skate businesses began to emerge. They were asked to join Lisa Whitaker’s brand Meow, where they’d not only be able to have a pro board, but dictate its design.
“Watching that community grow and have a hand in it has been extremely humbling, because there are so many young girls that see us skate and want to be a part of it,” they say. “I remember being on the phone a few years ago in my apartment, talking about women in skating, and I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re at the tipping point. It’s here, it’s about to explode.’
“And now look at it. There’s a long way to go, but it’s happening. Everyone’s going to look back at this wave of women skateboarding and think it’s cool or whatever, but it’s mind blowing to be a part of it right now.”
When Leo moved to New York, it was as an established pro riding the momentum of a well-received full part hosted by Thrasher Magazine, filmed while they still had a full-time design job at a lighting company. Just a few months later, they formally added to the Nike SB roster and helped design the first skateboarding shoe for women.
They then won both 2017 SLS Nike SB Super Crown Women’s World Championship (their second in total) and the Berrics’ ‘Populist’ award. Eventually, Leo gave up their day gig and began focusing on skating full-time once more, a shift that brings its own challenges.
“This is what I’ve been dreaming of my whole life,” they say. “But it was an adjustment. At first, it felt like I didn’t skate for two months. It was interview, interview, photoshoot. I experienced a lot of frustration after getting asked the same questions. I was just like, ‘Google it! It’s out there, I already answered it.’ And also, who cares?
“I mean… I get it, so I’ve chilled out about that now. But there was a moment where I was just like, ‘If somebody asks me how long I’ve been skating one more time, I swear to God…’ So I need to find balance; I need to have down days, because what’s the point of all this if I’m not skating?”
Although it took over a decade of industry experience before their perceived ‘break-out moment’, Leo admits that the accolades are validating. The Berrics’ award, in particular, feels significant, not just because they were the sole woman* among 11 nominees but because it was voted for by fans based on their achievements in 2017.
It backs up a growing sense that skateboarding’s audience is evolving and cross-pollinating faster than those actually running it realise. Individual voices are becoming the new brands, not the products they endorse. And so to have currency in a field where skill is lauded as much as style, where feeling matters as much as results, opens up enormous possibilities.
In punk, riot grrrl and queercore subverted norms by creating new vehicles and venues rather than seeking acceptance in male-dominated constructs. Sometimes that meant being intentionally exclusionary or setting boundaries, as skateboarding is beginning to do now.
Meow has adopted a policy of only supporting top female skaters who deserve industry backing. Unity’s queer skateboarding sessions, meanwhile, provide a safe space for LGBTQ skateboarders of all experience levels. And, just like punk rock, several indie zines have come into prominence, including Xem Skaters and SKATEISM, whose inaugural issue featured Leo on the cover.
“There’s [still a lot of] hyper-masculine vibes and snaking people and, of course, hearing sexist, racist, homophobic language is so offensive,” they say. “[Like], don’t mansplain tricks. Get out of here, you’re taking the fun out of skating. If you just go away, I’ll be so much happier. Half the fun of learning is doing it yourself.”
“For a long time, I was the only girl at the skatepark,” they add. “I was friends with the guys, whatever, but after meeting women who skate and joining that world, it’s way better. I would never go back to being the only girl in a group of guys.”
It would be rad, Leo says, to see a smaller section of the industry – women, queer, LGBTQ-owned companies – develop a new audience of skateboarders that aren’t so focused on doing “the gnarliest fuckin’ thing for 100 points”. But for now, they’re content to appreciate the present.
“To be unapologetic about my image and who I am and then to have people acknowledge how important that is in the skate industry… I can’t even describe how that feels. To bring together girls who skate, queers who skate… and let those worlds collide. I’m lucky to be here.”
*Leo has come out as nonbinary since the publication of this interview.
Update: This article has been amended to better reflect Leo Baker’s gender identity.
Check out Cave Homo Volume II