As with most ignorant pearl-clutching over trans rights, what often gets lost in the so-called “trans athlete debate” are the actual people whose lives are affected. Hand-wringing think pieces about the advantages of testosterone, biological sex differences, and the sanctity of public bathrooms are paper-thin smokescreens for maintaining a patriarchal status quo that keeps cisgender men in power. Instead of considering the trans youth who face immense challenges to receiving life-saving healthcare, family, and social support, such pieces typically focus on the cis women and girls who will supposedly be 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 kickflips the script on this tedious debate, shredding preconceived notions about trans athletes with the same swagger he uses to attack the half-pipe. Beginning in 2019, the film follows Baker and his teammates on the U.S.A. National Team when they find out skateboarding will become an Olympic sport for the first time in the 2020 games. Following Baker through the journey of coming out to himself, his friends and family, and then the world, “Stay on Board” allows him the grace and space to explore who he is without needing concrete answers. Taking an empathetic and respectful approach, the film follows Baker as he weighs the professional benefits to delaying transition against the joy and relief of fully embracing himself.
Shot over about three years, the film traces how Baker first began to claim his gender identity, going first by Lee and then Leo, and using he/him pronouns with friends and family. But to the skateboarding world, he was still seen as a female skater, a qualification that would keep him on the path to the Olympics (on the women’s team). For a while, Baker says, “Just being visibly queer on a global scale,” felt like enough. His mother recalls that when he initially cut his trademark long blond hair, he lost out on the sponsorship deals his less admired competitors received. As 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
Though obviously used with his permission, Baker can’t even look at the footage without feeling dysphoric, seeing only the girls’ clothes he was forced to wear to keep his sponsorship deals. Those early years are marked by clarity and then confusion, and the chaos of being thrown into the spotlight at such a young age. “I knew I was a boy. And then it got lost in the fuckin’ ether of capitalism,” he says, bitingly. “I was so young. How could I even see?”
The film also follows Baker’s tender relationship with his partner Mel, who offers solid support during the tumultuous period. Together, they navigate the pressures of Baker’s grueling international travel schedule, quarantining together during the initial phases of lockdown, and healing from top surgery. His mother is another touching figure, and she bravely shares her regrets over being absent from his early life due to addiction issues. One feels she’ll come around from the gentle way she berates herself for struggles with his pronouns at first, “Why can’t I do that? I wanna do it so bad.”
The film neither overly focuses on Baker’s transition nor minimizes the difficulties therein. We see Baker stressing about scheduling his top surgery consult and navigating the discomfort of being misgendered. At an awards ceremony, he winces and reddens when a well-meaning official praises him as a “female athlete.” Without lingering too long on such painful moments, the film offers an important window into the daily indignities all trans people face, one that many people will recognize. Hopefully, those who don’t will feel it just as deeply, and come away with a little more empathy.
Baker’s triumphant decision to leave the Olympic team and walk away from professional skateboarding and start his own trans-inclusive company is a satisfying denouement, made all the sweeter when he ends up in a Nike ad alongside Colin Kaepernick and as an avatar in “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.” As one friend says, walking away from the Olympics to live your authentic self is “the biggest punk rock thing you could do.”
Netflix released “Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story” on August 12.