The Power of Queer Skaters: A Look Into The Hive Mind of UNITY

The Bay Area is conformed by multiple cultures that co-exist, for better or worst, together. People can experience this intersection every walkable block as they trot down Union Square—people in the form of an aquarium.

Skaters are one of the most common yet most elusive types of people that you will come across within the confines of the seven by seven miles San Francisco offers. It is pretty easy to recognize a skater by visual indicators—think loose jeans, a distressed band tee, a perfectly rolled up beanie but what if these certain types of skaters belong to other cultures that can not be seen with visual indicators? According to Merriam-Webster, a sub-culture is an “ethnic, regional, economic, or social group exhibiting characteristic patterns of behavior sufficient to distinguish it from others within an embracing culture or society.” One of the many cultural collisions of identity is when skaters also belong in the LGBTQ+ community.

Contrasted by their strong and often times toxic perception from the outside world, some of the Bay Area’s Queer skating community, UNITY, have a hard time balancing both the free wielding spirit of skate with the semi socio-political oppression of being Queer. Unity is a Queer skateboarding collective in the Bay Area, designed as a haven from the sometimes-hostile environment the sport has fostered. Though few, the intersectionality of Queer skating grows more and more each year—as generations become younger and more receptive to social change. This pleathora born thanks for the need of finding and creating safe spaces for Queer people while they skate. Picture: UNITY. A once popular skate shop in Oakland—now closed—but reimagined as a beacon and meeting of minds from all spectrums of the Queer community.

Unity was created by the artist Jeffrey Cheung when he met a couple of other queer skaters. “I am also very much inspired by all of the queer skaters I have met this (as of 2017) year,” Cheung tells Juxtapoz in an interview, “and the new community that we are helping to build together, which gives me hope for the future.” Using his art as a medium for centering conversation, he started painting unique and politically charged boards that eventually helped spread the word about the new group that was forming and unconsciously sparking a change in his community. “We try to actively support other folks, especially queer and POC, with our projects, providing space and resources whenever we can, and we see many others doing the same in reaction to everything that is negative going on. I can only hope that as long as we continue to support each other, we will never be completely pushed out,” he tells Juxtapoz.

This group has made change little-by-little, though not so noticeable to the everyday passerby but within the broader cis-gender, gender conforming skating community—massive leaps. “Honestly, I never thought I would be in the position that I am now, where I might be able to influence the skateboarding world or companies,” Cheung reflects to Juxtapoz on how his little project blossomed into a megaphone for those coming into their own, “I started Unity Skateboarding as a DIY and personal way of supporting myself and my queer friends because I loved skating but always felt like I had to hide being queer. Now it seems like more and more queer people are coming out skating and learning how to skate and be themselves.”

A more open and receptive community has been the ripple skaters need. With famous skaters such as Brian Anderson coming out, the once macho community have begun reckoning platforms all over the country. Anderson revealing that he was “totally scared” as a young adult, and chose to hide because he thought it would have a negative effect on his career and that it would be dangerous to talk about in the male-dominated skateboarding world. He hopes to encourage others to come out with the message “it gets better.” UNITY is grassroots built—there isn’t set days the group meets up, there isn’t a chapter by which you sign up for—their use of social media (i.e. Instagram) is how they reach skaters in the Bay Area and beyond. It still feels genuinely like you’re meeting up with friends to go skate—and they’re all like you.

Now it seems like more and more queer people are coming out skating and learning how to skate and be themselves.

— Jeffrey Cheung

“I feel fortunate to have gotten into art, music, and skateboarding at a young age, and to still be active in these things today. I’ve been really inspired again since starting Unity Skateboarding, and honestly didn’t think I would be skating again after not skating for about 10 years. I feel even more enthusiastic about it now than in my teen years. I finally feel like I can tie all of these aspects of my life together while being openly queer, and being able to support other folks in the queer community,” says Cheung when it comes to the dynamics of UNITY.  

Jax Matute, a student at University of California, Berkeley and a member described UNITY as “a bunch of like-minded folks in a space that makes you feel safe to be who you are and skate without feeling or being judged.” The macho world of skateboarding can be linked to the uprise of the “Tony Hawk” era, where skating was seen as a man’s sport so early on. Hell, women skaters weren’t reported on in the X Games until the latter of 2013 (mind you, the X Games was founded in 1995.) Matute adding that he found UNITY through Cheung’s social media. Matute mentioning that one of the big problems in the skating community are the growing younger faces that cling to the little understanding of queerness—again, most likely growing up in predominate “Tony Hawk” era. “It can be a really toxic environment and filled with homophobic slurs.” 

A cultural intersection’s purpose is to create space that is safe and puts together commonalities of those intersections. Here the limited resource that they (the queer skating community) are competing for would be the safety and respect while they practice the activity of skateboarding. Whether or not cis-gender skaters old and young begin to accept queer skaters on their concrete, spaces like UNITY offer a window into common ground that isn’t built on macho’s past—it’s built for the now.

What is forthcoming from UNITY is the sense of openness and safety that is fighting for tolerance. In order to make change in a community, that feels small and otherwise set in stone, you don’t need to go to extremes—that big meaningful changes can be sparked from the inside out. For UNITY’s founder Cheung, “a new movement is happening and it is amazing.”

// Feature photo by Andrea Labiaga, want to learn more about UNITY? Follow their Instagram to get details about meet ups and projects. You can also follow Jeffrey Cheung on his Instagram here.

The Power of Queer Skaters: A Look Into The Hive Mind of UNITY
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