Reclamations: Exploring Identity through Skateboarding

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By Natalie Marie Salsbury

Please note: This story contains sensitive topics around addiction and prescription drugs. If that is triggering, please do not continue.

 

Let’s go back to the spring of 2018. A year from now I will start hormones, change my name and pronouns, and with a decent job begin cycling through another thrift store/discount section wardrobe trying to find clothes to fit my evolving understanding of my gender. But until then I spend most of my time here, at my computer. Too nervous to go outside, I spend most of my free time watching skate videos and videos about gender. At night to help me fall asleep I imagine carving around the bowl in my hometown, which I am about a hundred miles away from with no car.

 

Between 2016 and 2018 I had skated maybe a handful of times. I loved the freedom of it: pushing as hard as I could up and down the streets, not thinking about what other people might be thinking about me. In my day-to-day life, I felt like I could feel people staring at me as soon as I walked out the door. There is no hiding when you’re 6’2” and in a dress. I didn’t realize I was doing it at first, but to avoid being around strangers I began to only really leave the house to go to work, the grocery store, or therapy. Skating gave me a reason to go back outside though at the time I didn’t realize this is what I needed most.

 

I began to seek out other feelings of freedom. Alcohol and its freedom gave me strength against everything I was and everything I was not. And for a while it asked so little in return. When I went to start hormones I lied to the people at Planned Parenthood about how much and how often I drank, scared they wouldn’t let me begin.

 

As you may know, Hormone Replacement Therapy, or HRT, for trans femme people is commonly two-part: Spironolactone and estradiol. Spironolactone is a testosterone blocker and if mixed with too much alcohol can cause blood clots and estradiol, basically synthetic estrogen, absorption into the bloodstream can be inhibited by smoking regularly, which I did whenever I was drinking and increasingly when I wasn’t.

I wish these reasons alone made me stop. The much more messy one is I began to hate losing all my money, my weekends, and more than a few weekdays to drinking and being hungover, more than I feared not having any feeling of escape from the life I was living. My  family has a history of alcoholism and always in the back of my mind was that the day may come when I couldn’t stop unless something really bad happened.

 


 

So without her usual weekend escapades, what is a bored femme to do? I began skating more and more until I became the person I am now who goes to bed early Friday and Saturday night to be the first one at the skatepark the next morning. I’m not sure if I feel like a “skater” but I have fallen in love with skating again.

 

 I did not pick up a skateboard last year on a whim. I skated from about age sixteen to twenty three (I am twenty six now). During that time, I knew I was a straight cis guy, though I wouldn’t know the word cis until must later. At its peak I had a solid group of other straight cis guys who I skated with almost everyday. More on this later.

 

There is an urge in people first coming out as trans to “reinvent” themselves, or rather to emerge as a totally different, hopefully better, person. Skating put a twist on all of this. I could not pretend that I was starting from scratch with skating.

 

There is an urge in people first coming out as trans to “reinvent” themselves, or rather to emerge as a totally different, hopefully better, person. Skating put a twist on all of this. I could not pretend that I was starting from scratch with skating. When I would go out to push around the neighborhood, I was skating the same board from when I stopped years ago, I could pop up and down curbs with confidence, and if I wanted to watch skate videos I knew where to look, at least I thought. Trouble was, I didn’t want to watch straight guys skate anymore and didn’t know where to find anyone else.

 

Last year when I started looking for other skaters someone I found early on was Leo Baker. I’m not too ashamed to admit that for a while I emulated Leo’s style of primarily black clothing when I went out skating. Of course, dressing monochromatically is not uncommon in the skate community. Seeing them do it, however, gave me an example of a more androgynous presentation when I was first skating again.

I read somewhere that to be a cis het white able bodied man is to be invisible in the dominant culture. To be anything else is to be watched, and this watching or even the perceived feeling of being watched impeded one’s autonomy. So the trouble for me comes in when I try to figure out whether I continue to wear more simple outfits to skate in, black pants/hoodie with only slight variations, because I really like this or I because I really like not getting the looks I get when I walk down the street in more femme clothing.

 

Since starting to skate again I have found many more skaters and the organizations and companies who support them. These came to me through articles, interviews, conversations, and videos in Quell Skate, Unity Skateboards, Skate like a Girl, Skateism, Pushing Boarders, Girls Skate Network and a few others.

 

Each name invariably lead to another and then another. To help me remember them all I would try to follow as many as possible on instagram. These were not just any skaters either. I was looking for skaters that were queer, womxn, trans, and every combination and extension of these identities. I was looking for people like me. As you can imagine, this saturated my feed with skateboarding from all around the world and gave me loads to watch. More than that though it became a source of comfort.

 


 

One of my favorite things to do since a big chunk of Richmond is one big hill, in about 2 miles it drops over 150 feet, is skate all the way down and hit a bunch spots along the way. After some time skating around at the bottom, an area literally called Shockoe Bottom, I would find the nearest bus stop to take me back up the hill.

 

It is a well-documented law of the universe that city buses are either pulling away just before you run up or they won’t be there for at least 20 minutes. What I would do, still do, with this time is scroll through instagram and since I had followed all these awesome skateboarding accounts I could see right there in front of me, thousands of miles away, skaters like me. It made me feel in some small way that I was apart of it too, that I was not sitting by myself at some random bus stop but was in a huge community filled with super rad people.

 

We all happily signed on to a culture that gave us heroes and legends to watch, but gave us no real way to interact with that culture aside from buying boards and shoes.

 

That sense of connection with the larger womxn’s skate community is something I don’t think was reflected in men’s skating back when I was a teenager. We had a lot of the same social media platforms that exist today, but the skating my friends and I watched was what we would have called “good skating,” i.e. skating at a level that none of us could ever dream to achieve. We all happily signed on to a culture that gave us heroes and legends to watch, but gave us no real way to interact with that culture aside from buying boards and shoes.

 

This difference in community and what is considered “good skating” reminds me of something Nora Vasconcellos once said in an interview. She said that the only ranking she could ever put on a skater was how much they made her want to go skate. What this means then for me is if I see someone online who is just having fun on a board or pushing themselves to try something new and it got me pumped to go skate then that’s good skating.

 


 

Earlier this year, in the beginning of summer, I was sitting at the bus stop and saw someone post a clip of them skating every day for 30 days. I thought to myself, why don’t I try that? I was at that point skating only once or twice a week. For the next few weeks though every day when I got home from work instead of opening my laptop or sinking into the couch, I change clothes and had right back out to skate. I began progressing quicker and when I got home I would be thinking about all the tricks I wanted to try when I went back out to the next day.

 

The next month after my personal 30-day challenge, and all the months after that, there was hardly a day that goes by that I don’t skate down to Shockoe Bottom, or up to a school/church parking lot, or through all the side-streets and alleys that make up Richmond.

 


 

While we are on the subject, let’s talk about Richmond. If you think back to your days in high school history, you’ll recall that this fair city was once the capital of the confederacy. Many of our streets, public schools, and even a highway are still named after confederate generals and the confederate president. If you think of this region’s more recent history you may remember that two years ago in Charlottesville (just a hop and a skip out of Richmond) a white-supremacist ran his car into a group of counter-protesters, fatally wounding a woman. As I began writing this piece, an incident in the news struck an unsettling similarity. At the 7-11 down the street from my home, a man tried running down with his car a couple he perceived as queer and thankfully missed, but ended up seriously injuring two other people.

 

Despite all of this, Richmond is widely considered in this state to be a haven for queer and trans folx. This is largely because of the people who flock to the university in town with a strong arts program. Something something queer people are always trying to express ourselves something something. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have known the meaning of “chosen family,” but now I couldn’t imagine how my life would have turned out had I not have found a few close friends here to support me when I needed it most.

 

I thought of picking up skating again as “taking back my city.” I see now that is a very colonialist way to look at it. If this city belongs, and even this is an improper word, to anyone it would be the indigenous people my wasp-y ancestors took it from and then, particularly here in the American South, enslaved a group of people to build up to their liking. No, what I see now is that picking up a skateboard was more about reclaiming some of my own autonomy. Walking down the street seems less scary when I’ve been down it a hundred times on a skateboard. If I need something I have to suck up the courage and walk into a shop to get it, regardless of how people may feel about me or how I think they may feel about me. And sometimes people surprise me.

 

I was visiting my home town in another part of the state and decided to pop in to the local skate shop. It had changed so much since I had last been there. I recognized the owner behind the counter right away, but he gave me a look that said he knew me though couldn’t quite place from where (four years, about a foot more hair, and a wildly different wardrobe will have that effect). I hesitated when he asked for my name. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to “out” myself as trans, or just use the old name he knew me by then quietly sneak back out the door. I took a chance and told him my name was Natalie now and to my relief he was super supportive! Then we just talked about life in Richmond for me and all that he had been doing there in town with the shop. In other words, small talk.

 

For me though, after so long of being too nervous to have a real conversation with male skaters, I was bubbling over with excitement while talking to him. I left my hometown because of college; however, I promised myself I would never move back because I did not think it was a place that was friendly to people like me. That brief chat with the shop owner gave me hope for the queer and trans people who still call that town home.

 

I mentioned earlier that one of the main reasons I began digging through the internet was to find people like me. I never stopped looking. I know you are out there. I think you are like me, scrolling through instagram at a bus stop in one of the thousands of cities that aren’t Seattle, New York City, or San Francisco. I wanted to write something for you, so that you may feel less alone.

 

Skating is rad as fuck, but this is about something more: you need to go outside. This cis-normative society wants you to stay inside, wants you to feel like you always have to hide. Just because no one is currently pointing a gun at your head does not mean we are free. I know I am only speaking for those of us in the US, those of us in “progressive” cities, those of us who are white (the list goes on); outside of this small minority of us where weapons can be just metaphors. I do think skating can help us; it can be a shield, it can be an escape, it can be fun.

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