Image Source: Courtesy of Hannah Bailey
Leo Baker is a seven-time X Games medalist, the fifth-ranked street skateboarder in the world, and became one of the youngest skaters ever to medal at the X Games in 2006. But dominating the women's division for years made Baker's journey to embracing themselves as a nonbinary person and athlete difficult. "Just being nonbinary in competition and in sport is a really large thing to pick apart," they told POPSUGAR.
Baker, now 28, says their success in the women's category played a role in suppressing their true gender identity; exploring their masculinity wasn't something they began to do until around 18 or 19 years old. "There wasn't anything to think about," Baker said. "I was successful, I was out following my dreams, and that was that." Baker was encouraged by sponsors to dress feminine, and they complied. But looking back, they say it came at a cost.
"My career really didn't allow for that exploration, so I kind of just tabled it for a really long time until it got to the point where I couldn't take it anymore," Baker said. "And so that was an eight-year process of living a fragmented life."
"Obviously standing in my power and sticking to who I am and being authentic really spoke volumes more than just winning a competition."
It became public knowledge that Baker was nonbinary when they were featured in the music video for Miley Cyrus's "Mother's Daughter" in July 2019. In the video, around the 1:30 mark, you'll see the camera pan over Baker with "they and them" written on their white t-shirt. "In a way, it was really natural for me . . . it just made sense because of the vibe of the video," they said. "I obviously knew that I was trans when I was 20."
They went on to explain, "I would say if I wasn't in the public eye and I wasn't skating in competitions, or was just a regular teenager, I think I probably would've figured it out a lot sooner. The skate industry, at large, I feel a lot of resistance from." They believe that when they first started to present as masculine, they were judged unfairly in competitions based on the way they looked.
"Obviously standing in my power and sticking to who I am and being authentic really spoke volumes more than just winning a competition because I think it's paying off now," Baker said. "What would it be like if I was living as Lacey Baker? There's nothing there, it's just hollow."
Baker recalled, "I had a nickname, Lee, from 2013 on, and some people would call me Lee, but then other people knew me as Lacey Baker." Neither one of those names, they noted, represented who they are. And, hearing a name that wasn't "Leo" over the loudspeaker was never comfortable, so Baker decided to rip the Band-Aid off and announce their new name. After conversations with their manager and Nike, they were able to change the copy on a Nike Air Max campaign, with billboards all around New York, before it was finalized, along with a cover they did for Dazed China — both read "Leo" after publication, not "Lee."
Strategizing how to come out is its own feat, Baker said. They went on to say that they do want to change their name legally eventually. "I no longer wish to be referred to by my deadname. It's a really liberating part of being trans, that we pick a name that feels more suitable, so across the board, my name is Leo."
Baker stated that they aren't currently thinking about the discomfort of skateboarding in women's competitions moving forward. "Right now, it's sort of just taking a step back from all that," they said. "It's kind of a blessing in disguise to me personally that the Olympics got pushed because I don't have to think about that for a while. I'm focussed on the here and now, not worrying about skateboarding as a woman."
Now, Baker is finding fulfilment outside of competition with street skating and being featured in skate videos, "which to me is way more meaningful than winning a competition." As a gender nonconforming person, Baker feels aligned with the skating community because the subculture, they said, is going against the grain.
Baker said they want the gatekeepers of skating, "which just happen to be straight white men," to make room for marginalized groups at the table so there can be equity and representation. Skaters in the LGBTQ+ community that Baker looks up to include Elissa Steamer, Alexis Sablone, Cher Strauberry, Brian Anderson, and Stephen Ostrowski. "There are so many amazing queer skaters out, and people just need to know who they are," Baker noted.
With that in mind, Baker spearheaded the NYC Skate Project, a space for LGBTQ+ community that hosts poetry workshops, skating events, and more. Their aim is "for us be the creators of something, not trying to be let into a world where we don't fit."
The skateboarding qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics were postponed due to COVID-19, but Baker said that the Games are the least of their worries right now. Instead, they're prioritising "living an authentic life and skating as much as I possibly can." For a long time, they've felt like they've been the torch holder of LGBTQ+ representation in their industry, "so regardless of if I'm on the Olympic stage or I'm just grassroots organising [for NYC Skate Project], either way I'm going to be a hundred percent fulfiled."
Pride definitely looked different this year with parades being postponed or cancelled, and the focus on the critical connection between Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ+ community. Baker said they viewed this year's Pride as less of a celebration than a call to action. "It's more about the liberation of Black lives than anything because of what's happening right now," they said, adding that they are devoted to speaking out as much as they can on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement. "And within that, in the queer umbrella, there's Black trans women and Black trans men having violence happening to them all the time. So I feel just speaking out and putting my resources forth to help support that community is what my focus is going to be for Pride and beyond."
"I feel it's a time to really f*cking step up and show the world what you care about," Baker said, "and I would encourage every single person to do the same."
Image Source: Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images