Unity founder Jeffrey Cheung (L) and Gabriel Ramirez (R) at Unity Skateboards' shop in downtown Oakland. (Nadine Sebai/KQED)
Growing up in Oakland, Jeffrey Cheung felt like he lived in two different worlds: in one, he was gay, and in the other, he was a skateboarder. It was clear to him that the two didn’t mix. Nobody else knew he was gay, but when he went to the skatepark, other skaters threw around the word ‘gay’ as an insult.
"I would get called like 'faggot' a lot, or like 'that's so gay' and like 'you're gay'," Cheung tells me. "It’s very homophobic. And not very welcoming. And I remember feeling very ashamed about myself and sexuality."
So when Cheung was 18, he decided to stop skating. It was just too hard to live in both worlds.
Gabriel Ramirez grew up in Southern California, but he also lived in those two worlds. In high school he wanted to try skateboarding, but says he was "too afraid to experience what would happen" if anyone found out he was gay.
Ramirez remembers the day he met Cheung at UC Santa Cruz.
"Finding out that he was gay and skateboarded, my mind was blown!" Ramirez laughs.
Ramirez and Cheung started dating. They moved to Oakland, where they skated, played music and made 'zines. At the end of 2016, their worlds were rocked: first by the presidential election. And then they lost a friend in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire. As their queer and artist communities grieved, they felt pushed to act.
Cheung pulled out a sharpie and made a flyer for a queer skateboarding meetup at a parking lot. It was low-tech and low-expectations, just bring your board and show up.
"The first one was just amazing, so many people came," Cheung recalls. "And it was just a space where everyone could just feel welcome."
It went so well, they decided to do them monthly.
Now, a year later, this monthly meetup has a name: Unity Skateboards. Ramirez and Cheung continue to organize queer skate days in the Bay Area and up to 60 people show up each month.
Cheung stresses how unique the Unity atmosphere is compared to other places he has skated.
"Sometimes it's just like ridiculous how positive and supporting it is. I've never been in a place where everyone is just so happy and just supportive. People are like bringing food, like 'here's water', and...it's unbelievable."
What started as a casual meetup in a parking lot is now a community of people -- skaters and non-skaters, queer and straight -- who all want to shred.
And now, they actually have a place to come together indoors.
With money earned from their full-time jobs, Jeffrey and Gabriel are renting the top floor of a bookstore downtown Oakland. Jeffrey says it’s important to have a permanent safe space for their community. The walls of the wooden loft are covered with skateboards and artwork. There’s a printing press in one corner, a couch in the other. It reminds me of a clubhouse.
The tiny shop is packed for the opening party. Louise Alban has been skating with Unity for almost two years, and she says it has helped her learn to love all of her identities: "I'm a skateboarder and I'm a queer, and then I'm also female and... I can do all of those things and there’s other people like me."
Alban started skating when she was 11.
"My mom like hated it," she says. "She thought girls shouldn't be skating and I was like that young defiant little kid, and I was like 'I'm going to skate anyway.' So I did."
Alban found out about Unity Skateboards on Instagram. She sent Cheung a video of herself skating. He mailed her back a skateboard, an invitation to come skate with them. Louise moved from her home in Yucaipa a few months later to attend her first queer skate day, and she’s been in Oakland ever since.
Unity’s founder, Jeffrey Cheung, says now, he has the most queer friends he’s ever had.
He also says that if there was something like this when he was younger, it would have changed his life entirely. He wouldn’t have felt so alone and ashamed of being gay.
But now, with Unity Skateboards, Cheung says he hopes he’s making it a little easier for the next generation of young people to find acceptance -- at school, at home, and at the skatepark.
On March 4, 2017 Jeffrey Cheung and Unity Press will be hosting a zine making workshop at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.