The future of skating is queer, according to Jeffrey Cheung and Gabriel Ramirez
Jeffrey Cheung and Gabriel Ramirez met about eight years ago when they started dating. A year later they began the first version of what is now known as Unity, a queer skateboarding collective.
The project was officially established in 2017 after the pair were fed up with the lack of representation for LGBTQ+ people in the skating community. “I never knew of a community for queer and trans skaters growing up skating, or barely saw any queer representation in skating,” Cheung says.
Founded in California, the community now has members around the world, who come together in different cities for the collective’s queer skate days. It was at one of these skate days in Paris that the pair worked with Gucci, on the brand’s new campaign for its latest timepiece, the Gucci Grip.
Wanting to support “anyone who felt like they didn’t belong in skating,” Cheung and Ramirez are continuing to challenge and reimagine the skating community. We spoke with Unity’s founders to find out more about homophobia in the skate world, the problem with corporate Pride campaigns, and how they went from hand-painting decks to working with Gucci.
How has Unity grown since it started in 2017?
Unity: When Unity Skateboarding first started, I (Jeff) was hand painting all the decks for myself and other queer and trans skaters. From painting hundreds of ‘pro’ models with peoples names on their boards with the ever-growing ‘skate team’, we realised Unity Skateboarding is a community-based project and effort. There is no set team, crew, or collective. It is always a growing community. We want to support all queer and trans people, women, people of colour, and anyone who felt like they didn’t belong in skating. From not knowing even one other queer skater when we started, we now know many around the world and it feels like there are a whole community and movement happening. We still hold queer skate sessions in the Bay Area where we live, as well as other cities when we are able to travel.
Do you think there is an issue with homophobia in the skating community?
Unity: Yes definitely. I think skaters like to think it doesn’t matter who you are as long as you are a skater. I feel like that is true but only to a certain extent. Skating is great because I feel like sometimes it’s been able to connect people of different backgrounds, but skating has been still mostly white cis straight dudes and the ‘tough guy’ mentality is prevalent. It’s a combination of homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny. I think it’s gotten a little better in the past few years but growing up it was very common to hear slurs. You would hear people get called faggot all the time, I feel that’s why I was scared to come out in high school. It’s not even just limited to skating, I think it’s just reflective of society. Things are slowly changing now but still has a ways to go.
We want to support all queer and trans people, women, people of colour, and anyone who felt like they didn’t belong in skating.
Do you think skating is becoming more inclusive?
Unity: We are seeing a shift even in kids being more accepting and seeing more women and queers out at the skateparks and the types of people that are in those spaces. It’s refreshing to see. We’ve also noticed changes in skateboarding platforms and companies that previously didn’t give recognition to queerness. We do think it’s part of this larger conversation that’s happening outside of skateboarding regarding marginalised folks and the privileges of the people who have traditionally held power. We are now seeing some support for queer and trans skaters, but it is still not very often and not enough.
How do you think things need to change?
Unity: It is great the big platforms and companies both in and out the skate world are starting to recognise and show more support for queer and trans people in skating, but it should be a continuous support and not a just a one-time thing for their Pride campaign or something. Companies might do a one-time collab, campaign, or work with queer and trans people to seem like they are down when they really couldn’t care less. Representation of queers in skating is one of the things we hoped to see when we first started, but with queerness and inclusivity being a marketable trend these days, it’s hard to know if the intent is real or for show. And even if they are genuine about their support, their motive is still to make money. So it’s important that queer folks know that and are cautious when working with big corporations to not get taken advantage and are being compensated fairly for their work. We should use them as much as they are using our culture, image, and identities. Pay queer and trans people of colour! A lot.
How is art used in Unity?
Unity: I (Jeff) have been doing all the artwork so far for the visuals for Unity. At the time when I started, I was already painting and making zines about being gay and queer, and my work kind of just extended over to this. Although I used to hand paint each deck, we now have them printed and can distribute them more easily. I still paint boards occasionally, and still draw each queer skate day flier and paint the banners that we hang at our sessions.
Can you talk us through working with Gucci?
Unity: They wanted us to set up a shoot specific to Paris based off of the previous queer skate sessions that we’ve hosted there. They were very accommodating which was nice and gave us pretty much full control and let us propose the cast and photographers from Paris. The shoot happened in a single day and felt very relaxed. Everyone else that was present had come to previous queer skate sessions that we hosted there or are part of the queer and trans community in Paris. Even the amazing photographers, Dora Diamant and Marilou Chabert, are also part of the queer community and most people knew each other so it all felt low pressure. It wasn’t invasive because it was mostly just us and people we were familiar with. When working with big companies on things like this, it can be traumatic and difficult, and we usually only do them to help fund and sustain our project and efforts and get people paid.
Why did it feel like a good fit to come together on this project?
Unity: Fashion is an industry that has many queer and trans people in it, and is a space where queerness and gender non-conformity can be supported and celebrated. I think in that way it is somewhat aligned with what we are also trying to do, to breakdown gender conventions and binaries. We do appreciate their support for our vision, and they presented us with an opportunity to do something fun while also being able to get queer and trans people paid. But to be honest we don’t really have a connection to the fashion world.
What are your plans for the future, are you working on any other projects at the moment?
Unity: At the moment we are moving into a new space, so we are trying to get resettled in. We want to do more queer skate sessions in other cities and to keep everything going.
What does the future of skating look like to you?