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Lithium The politics of queer skate culture

Sep. 18, 2020
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Brimming with teenage angst and rebellion, he does an ollie in a Thrasher hoodie. We watched him on grainy VHS tape montages and heard about him in Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi.” Enter: the stereotypical skateboarder. 

If you grew up in the early 2000s, your perception of skate culture was probably similar to mine. Before the age of Skate Kitchenthere was a very clear-cut image of who and what a skateboarder ought to begatekeeping those who didn’t abide by said image.

For Marbie Miller, known widely as @marbie.princess on Instagram, skateboarding was never a linear journey.On a positive note, she attests to the growing presence of queer skaters in the spotlight today. “Since I started skateboarding again, everything has blossomed; there’s queer skate days everywhere,” she says. But over our afternoon Zoom call, she admits this wasn’t always the case. “That wasn’t a thing growing up for me at all.” 

Marbie’s story is representative of many women, queer, non-binary, and trans skaters who long felt excluded from a heteronormative and generally male-dominated skate scene. For the healthy handful of folks who have felt this way, a sense of belonging in skate culture didn’t come until later in life; the desire to skate was there, but the skate park was often less than welcoming. 

It wasn’t until Marbie found Unity Skateboarding—a queer skateboarding collective in California, run by and for queer folks—that skateboarding began to feel like a home. Founded by artist Jeffery Cheung and his partner Gabriel Ramirez, Unity donates custom skate decks to those in the community who express a need and organizes inclusive, safe, and accessible skate meet-ups for those who may have previously felt that they didn’t belong in the skate community. On their Instagram, they feature queer, non-binary, and trans skaters like Marbie. 

Thanks to an influx of queer skate collectives, the normative face of skateboarding is changing to make way for a more diverse slate of skaters. Along with other organizations such as the Queer Skate Alliance, Unity is just one of the many queer skate collectives blossoming internationally. They’ve been established everywhere, from LA  and NYC to across the pond in London and even in my own humble Canadian prairie city, Winnipeg. And while the locations may differ, their mandate remains vastly similar: to create safer spaces for folks who may have felt unwelcome or intimidated by the traditional landscape of a skate park. 

To put it simply, strength does lie in numbers. The more queer folks gathered in an established skate hub—whether it be a park or a parking lot—the less intimidating the space becomes (and let’s be real here—skating is intimidating enough as is). At the same time, the traditional skate “narrative” is transformed, too; the more openly queer skaters represented online, in the media, and at local skate parks, the greater the likelihood that underrepresented folks in the skate scene will have the courage to join, and even become role models for future generations of skaters.

Queer skateboarding groups have become an organizing base for skate clinics, workshops, and hangouts. When queer folks occupy the skate park, it can become a forum for greater causes and conversation. They become places of dialogue and conversation. Some have chosen to raise funds for relevant organizations, while others have hosted discussions on topics like safe sex

For queer skaters, the personal isn’t separated from the political. When the time comes to act, they show up. In an increasingly politically charged and polarized world, one of the greatest strengths of skate culture is its naturally derived community roots that stem from coming together as a collective. What strengthens skaters from marginalized backgrounds is their firsthand experience with a collective struggle for justice—which makes their presence at protests and demonstrations profoundly felt. 

Amid the BLM protests, queer skate culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there are countless intersections of race, gender, and sexuality that build from the experiences of marginalized folks. These intersections are often what bring forth unity. The unique thing about these scenes is their ability to break barriers beyond the concrete jungle of the skate park and mobilize action on the streets and within institutions. 

As daily protests began to arise in her home skating grounds of Madison, Wisconsin, Marbie’s skate collective recognized the importance of ensuring all members could be present. “We started ending [the skate meetups] an hour early so we could go to these kickback events,” says Marbie. Indeed, the increase in a skater presence at political demonstrations has proven to be a valuable, movement-building resource. One of the mobilization strategies of skaters active in protest demonstration is the collective hill bomb—which, according to Thrasher, is a “sacred plummet” of skateboarders rushing down a concrete hill. Not only do these hill bomb protests paint an incredibly badass portrait of hundreds of skateboarders taking over the streets, but they also represent solidarity with a greater cause. 

Occupying space—whether it be at a queer skate clinic in a parking lot, or a hill bomb demonstration—is key to movement-building and gaining leverage in queer skate circles. Organizers know the importance of insuring that queer skate culture isn’t divorced from the struggles that women, non-binary, and LGBT+ folks face; for they don’t only exist within mainstream skate scenes but in the workplace, social circles, and everyday power dynamics.

It’s not that queer, non-binary, and trans skaters didn’t exist before the rise of queer skate collectives. Skateboarding has always been an activity for dissidents, non-conformists, and those who feel like they don’t belong in the confines of conventional society. This persists, despite the misogyny, homophobia, and other isms that have unfortunately tainted the cultural legacy of skate culture. What separates queer skateboarding collectives is a politics of radical inclusivity—the idea that there should be no gatekeeping at the skate park. And yet, the idea isn’t all that radical at all; queer skaters have always been present, even if they were excluded from the mainstream culture. 

For those who make up the fabric of queer skate culture, there is unity in shared experiences, even if they come from a place of marginalization. “Feeling othered can bring a sense of relatability toward what others face,” says Marbie. “Coming together is the only thing you can do.”

Illustration by Yoo Young Chun