There’s a rhythm to the Hampden skatepark.
Akiko Scott starts most morning skate sessions in the corner of the concrete playground gliding up a quarter ramp they affectionately call “the clam,” with Trans Rights painted across it in thick blue lettering. Scott soars over it, grabbing the nose of their board in the air at the top of the fixture before twisting back down to descend.
Scott, 23, of Charles Village, has spent most of their life on a board. Starting on a RipStik, a two-wheel board popular with kids, they eventually graduated to a traditional skateboard as a tween roaming around the suburbs of Augusta, Georgia, before moving to Baltimore. But while Scott embraced skating from a young age, the skate community hasn’t always accepted them back.
Scott, who is nonbinary, says that they’ve felt excluded from places like the skatepark in the city’s Hampden neighborhood. They typically skate in the morning when the park is less busy to avoid altercations with the evening crowd, which they say embodies the traditional white male skater attitude that can be less inclusive. Although skating began as a counterculture activity rooted in free-spirited ethos and its defiance of authority, it continues to marginalize those who don’t conform to its hypermasculine image, Scott said.
Scott recognized the need to carve out a space for queer skaters of color to feel comfortable at the park. After organizing a Black Lives Matter protest for skaters last summer, Scott decided to continue their activism efforts by launching Solidarity Skateboards, a skate company that focuses on uplifting queer, and specifically Black trans, skaters.
While the face of skateboarding remains largely white, straight and male, queer skaters are finding a place for themselves within the community. Across the country, there’s a growing queer skateboarding subculture, with LGBT skate groups and events popping up in cities like Atlanta and Chicago. With skateboarding about to make its debut as an Olympic sport in Tokyo, a member of the women’s team, Alexis Sablone, identifies as queer.
Becky Beal, a professor of kinesiology at California State University, East Bay, has studied the cultural dynamics of skateboarding for over 20 years. Beal noticed a shift in the skateboarding community 10 years ago, when more women and queer skaters began creating their own skate companies and groups online outside of mainstream skate publications.
“Who gets to determine what’s an authentic skater has shifted tremendously with the rise of social media,” Beal said. “Before, the industry was really dominated by men, and they really controlled the narrative around who’s a legitimate skater.”
Multiple queer skaters pointed to Scott as the reason they began taking skateboarding seriously. Scott recently quit their job at a juice bar and plans to pursue organizing full time to make the skatepark a more inclusive environment.
“We really like to make sure that people understand that our whole thing is just decolonizing the skatepark because ever since anyone has gone it’s always just been cis, white men running the show,” said Scott, using a term that means identifying with one’s gender at birth. “Obviously, if you’ve come to the skate park or even have an interest, it can be overwhelming and just not supportive.”
The Trans Rights messaging Scott frequently skates over was defaced in September and repainted by another queer skater.
In response, Stephanie Murdock, the president of the nonprofit volunteer group that founded the skatepark in Hampden’s Roosevelt Park, organized a community meeting to allow trans skaters to voice their concerns about the incident and their treatment at the park. While Murdock, 38, hasn’t personally witnessed any harassment, she wants to support the efforts of queer skaters.
“The skatepark isn’t a bubble, it’s a place that reflects the same issues that are playing out in the larger society,” Murdock said. “In that sense, the skatepark has really become a place of social change and social movement, so it’s exciting as an organization to provide a place for this dialogue and growth.”
Scott’s Solidarity Skateboards has hosted events for queer skaters like a skate camp over the Memorial Day weekend that raised money for members of the queer skate community who were in need. The event also included yoga sessions and DJ sets from queer creatives to encourage LGBT representation in the skate community.
“We’re all able to connect, not only through skateboarding, but also through us being the outcasts of the outcasts,” Scott said.
Tula Honkala, a member of Solidarity Skateboards who is transgender, said they used to sit for hours in the corner of the skatepark watching experienced skaters without joining in. But now, with a community of queer skaters to support them, the Charles Village resident drifts across the park with ease on their roller skates, spinning down ramps and looping around the central quarter pipe.
Honkala, 23, also emphasized the importance of skating for queer people to express themselves.
“It’s just become an avenue of connecting with other people who I think feel similarly about creativity in their body as I do and I don’t think there’s a lot of sports that do that for queer people,” Honkala said.
Solidarity Skateboards also serves as a way to mobilize fundraising efforts to support struggling queer people. The group’s Instagram page reposts GoFundMe links and Cash App information primarily for members of the Black trans community seeking assistance for basic needs. The group also designs T-shirts and donates them to We Keep Us Safe Collective, which sells art from Baltimore creatives to raise money for unhoused community members.
Ace Thompson, 19, of Oliver, said they struggled to find queer friends at the skatepark after starting roller skating three years ago until meeting Scott, who introduced them to the broader community. They credit the group with getting over their fear of park skating.
“For these people skating is such a huge part of their lives, something you do every single day, so being able to have a safe space where you do it is amazing,” Thompson said.
Solidarity Skateboards is not the only organization of its kind on the scene. Another group of friends formed Queer Skate Baltimore in summer 2019, inspired by Unity Skateboarding, a queer skate collective from the Bay Area in California and the brainchild of artist Jeffrey Cheung.
Queer Skate, which focuses more on inviting new LGBT skaters to the scene than the activism behind Solidarity Skateboards, hosted several meetups before the coronavirus pandemic, but plans to begin organizing again this summer.
Since the pandemic, members of the collective built a skate ramp outside of Fruit Camp, a queer-owned tattoo parlor in Remington, for LGBT skaters to practice on. The group also collected and donated skate gear in October to queer people of color interested in skating.
Since September, both groups have focused more on educating non-LGBT skaters to be better allies.
On a recent evening, straight skaters interviewed at the Hampden skatepark said that while the environment is generally accepting of queer people, they agree that microaggressions do occur.
Josh Chance, 31, of East Baltimore, has skated at the Hampden park since it opened in 2014, and said it’s become more diverse over time.
While Chance said he hasn’t witnessed any hateful incidents at the park, he understands that they happen — and that nonqueer skaters like himself need to call out incidents more.
“We need to speak out against it, just saying that it’s uncool. Because usually, my assumption would be is that it’s a joke that went too far. It leads into people feeling uncomfortable ... but it’s hateful,” Chance said.
Scott said that their history of being harassed at the Hampden skatepark has left its mark, and they still struggle to feel at home in a place they’ve been skating for years. But the group they’ve founded makes all the difference.
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“A lot of times that anxiety goes away when I am here with that community that I’ve helped build up and I feel able to take up space, because there are more queer people here who are going to protect me,” Scott said.