On a recent Monday at the Foster City Skate Park, Kat Sy stood out in her witch-like pointed bucket hat and joke T-shirt reading "I lost my virginity at Shen Yun." Riding around concrete obstacles at lunchtime, she was the only female skateboarder there, something she's gotten used to over the past 17 years of skateboarding.
"For me to stick with it this long, I've really adopted a full 'I don't care' attitude," she said. "I don't feel like I need to prove myself to anyone or even respond to people who are talking to me or soliciting me."
Sy, a Foster City native and current resident who works as a software engineer at LinkedIn in Mountain View, is part of the skateboarding collective Unity, co-founded by Oakland-based artist Jeffrey Cheung and Gabriel Ramirez in 2017. The collective aims to make skateboarding more accessible for the LGBTQ community and has a skate team associated with it. Cheung and others on the team also curate and design the art associated with their skate brand, There, which has a whimsical, colorful and body-positive sketch-based aesthetic style.
Sy's experiences as a queer Asian Amerian female skateboarder are being highlighted in a short film being shown at the Center for Asian American Media's 40th CAAMFest now through May 22. "Crashing Wheels on Concrete," by filmmaker So Young Shelly Yo, follows the ups and downs of Sy's life through her love of skateboarding as she graduates from college and takes on the challenges of adulthood.
Sy first got into skateboarding because her friend's brother had a skateboard, and as a kid, she was drawn to activities that looked like fun. Foster City wasn't the friendliest city to skateboarders at first, but she and some other skateboarders in her neighborhood eventually lobbied the city to build the skate park that's there now.
"From then on, this is kind of where we spent our time. …. It's really awesome to see people still skating here and using this park."
Sy credits her childhood spent skateboarding for helping her become less sheltered as a kid from the suburbs. Skateboarding gave her the "opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds and socioeconomic situations," she said.
"I think a lot of people who grow up here don't know people who have struggled or had family members struggle with different types of issues you don't see as much or are much more hidden here in the suburbs," Sy said.
The Unity skate team currently has about 13 members out of a total group of 18, including photographers and film crew staff. Together, they travel, skate and make films of their skateboarding highlighting different techniques, styles and tricks.
The Unity collective gives team members the chance to access opportunities available to pro skateboarders they might not otherwise have, and to do it without having to put up with uncomfortable gender dynamics, Sy said.
"It's not fun being the only girl in a van of f–king 12 dudes who are all, like, shotgunning beers and pulling out each other's hair."
The Unity team is "a much more mellow space and a much more healthy space. … There's definitely no one I would rather be traveling with and spending time with, skating with," she said.
Like with other subcultures, Sy said traditional skateboarding can have a lot of rules surrounding how one proves oneself – many of which come with dangerous tests of who can hit the biggest stairs or the longest rail.
"Skateboarding prides itself on being very, very counterculture," she said. "But for how counterculture it is, there's still so many rules. ... People get kind of ... gatekeepy, you know. I think it's pretty normal, especially in a culture that's traditionally macho."
It can be hard within the traditional skateboarding world for queer people and people of color to gain recognition, Sy said. The Unity group is more focused on creativity, rather than on how gnarly or difficult the tricks are that someone performs.
"What we focus on is a bit more like sustainable skateboarding. You're not putting your health at risk."
Sy said that as more women and LGBTQ people have started skateboarding, she has seen the sport's culture become more inclusive.
"It's gotten so much better since I've grown up," she said.
"Crashing Wheels on Concrete" will be shown at the Center for Asian American Media's 40th CAAMFest, which is being held May 12-22. The film is scheduled to be shown at Oakland's The New Parkway Theater as part of a short film collection highlighting stories of Asian Americans in the Bay Area at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 22. Tickets are available at caamfest.com.
Sy recommends girls and women interested in trying out skateboarding reach out to a Bay Area nonprofit organization she used to volunteer with called Skate like a Girl.
This story originally appeared in TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.