A promising skater leaves the spotlight to live his truth in a compelling documentary that would end the “debate” about trans athletes forever.
As with most ignorant beadings about trans rights, the so-called “trans athlete debate” often gets lost in the actual people whose lives are affected. Hand-wringing musings about the benefits of testosterone, biological sex differences, and the sanctity of public toilets are flimsy excuses for maintaining a patriarchal status quo that keeps cisgender men in power. Rather than looking at trans youth who face immense challenges in obtaining life-saving healthcare, family and social support, such plays typically focus on the cis women and girls allegedly harmed by inclusion. Rarely do they celebrate the tenacity and skill of dedicated athletes who just want to compete.
In the Netflix documentary Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story, pro skater Leo Baker reverses the script on this protracted debate and shreds preconceived notions about trans athletes with the same swagger he attacks the halfpipe. Starting in 2019, the film follows Baker and his teammates on the US national team as they find out that skateboarding will be an Olympic sport for the first time at the 2020 games. Stay on Board follows Baker on his journey to come out to himself, his friends and family, and then the world, giving him the grace and space to explore who he is without needing concrete answers . With a sensitive and respectful approach, the film follows Baker as he weighs the professional benefits of delaying the transition against the joy and relief of fully embracing himself.
The film, which was shot over about three years, traces how Baker began to claim his gender identity, first to Lee and then to Leo, and used he/him pronouns with friends and family. But in the skateboarding world, he was still viewed as a female skater, a qualification that would keep him on his way to the Olympics (on the women’s team). For a while, Baker says, “being visibly queer on a global scale felt like enough.” His mother recalls that when he first cut his signature long blond hair, he lost the sponsorship deals his less admired competitors were getting. A skating prodigy, Baker has been competing since he was 13, and there’s plenty of adorable footage of him shredding as a young athlete.
Courtesy of Netflix
Although Baker was obviously used with his permission, he can’t even watch the footage without feeling dysphoric as he only sees the girls’ clothes, which he was forced to wear to honor his sponsorship deals. Those early years are marked by clarity and then confusion and the chaos of being thrust into the spotlight at such a young age. “I knew I was a boy. And then it got lost in the bloody ether of capitalism,” he says acidly. “I was so young. How could I even see that?”
The film also follows Baker’s tender relationship with his partner Mel, who provides him with solid support through the turbulent time. Together, they navigate the pressures of Baker’s grueling international travel schedule, quarantining together during the early stages of lockdown and recovering from a top surgery. His mother is another touching figure, and she bravely shares her regrets that he was absent from his early life due to addiction issues. One has the feeling she’ll bounce back from the soft way she initially berates herself for fighting with his pronouns: “Why can’t I? I want to make it so bad.”
The film neither overly focuses on Baker’s transition nor downplays the difficulties involved. We see Baker stressing that he needs to plan his top surgery consultation and deal with the uneasiness of being misgendered. At an awards ceremony, he flinches and blushes when a well-meaning official praises him as a “sportswoman”. Without dwelling on such painful moments, the film offers an important window into the daily humiliations faced by all trans people, one that many people will recognize. Hopefully those who don’t will feel it just as deeply and walk away with a little more empathy.
Baker’s triumphant decision to leave the Olympic team and step away from professional skateboarding and start his own trans-inclusive company is a satisfying resolution made all the sweeter when he stars alongside Colin Kaepernick in a Nike ad and as an avatar in ” Tony Hawk’s “lands pro skaters.” As a friend puts it, “the greatest punk rock thing you can do” is to walk away from the Olympics to live your authentic self.
Netflix released Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story on August 12.
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