It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon at Folkestone Gardens Skatepark in Deptford and it’s just the sight you’d expect to see: packs of boys in baggy black T-shirts with shaggy hair shouting ‘Gnarly!’ (well, something like that) when anyone finds themselves in mid-air.
On this occasion, though, there is another group of note on the grassy banks by the ramps. Yes, they’re also carrying skateboards but there is one big difference: none of them identifies as male. The smiling, colourfully clad individuals are Sibling, an LGBTQIA+ group of skate enthusiasts who gravitated towards one another across London’s male-dominated skateparks and via social media.
When I arrive to meet them early in Pride Month, I’m greeted by Jeng and Jill, two of the collective’s most long-standing members who both identify as non-binary. Relaxed and welcoming, it quickly becomes apparent how the group has amassed more than 100 members who meet regularly all over the capital.
Jeng, a 26-year-old art director who regularly organises meet-ups, modestly shrugs off the idea of being one of the group’s founders. ‘We don’t really have founders. What is most important to us is to create a space where people feel safe to try things out.’ When it comes to attempting new challenges, software developer Jill, 23, says that visibility is everything. ‘Look around the skate park, it’s not only just the people who are here, it is the people who are comfortable here. When you see other people who look like you it makes it way less intimidating.’
Despite being a relatively small part of the skate community, the wider scene’s response to Sibling’s growing presence has been mixed, says Jill. ‘Some people feel threatened when you take up space.’ Jeng has experienced some of that animosity first hand: ‘I remember when we started, we were skating quite a lot around east [London] and some people turned up and were like, “Oh, what is this, a girl’s skate night or something?!” Some people think, “That’s different, that’s unusual to see.”’ It’s not all bad though. ‘People are drawn to us,’ they add.
Plus, skating is changing for the better, says Jill. ‘You can see it on the competitive scene. There are loads more people [who don’t identify as male]. Leo Baker [the US pro skateboarder] has been on the scene for, like, 15 years and for a while they couldn’t even get a sponsor because they cut their hair and decided not to wear girls’ clothes, but now they’re, like, pro for Nike. There are a lot more stories like this.’ Social media helps, too, adds Jeng. ‘You can see it on Instagram as well, there are lots of female skaters popping up and groups similar to Sibling but in other cities, other places.’
It’s not just learning to skate that becomes less daunting for members. The group has become a space where anyone can be comfortable being queer. ‘I don’t think we meant for it to become [an LGBTQIA+ community], it started originally as an all-inclusive group and then we just gravitated towards that,’ says Jeng, who says it has enabled many to discover and be their authentic selves. ‘The way you speak around people changes with those who you feel comfortable with and who you don’t feel comfortable with. You refer to yourself and identify with people in different ways.’
Throughout the day, as friends new and old trickle into the mass of people gathering on the banks, the distinction between organic, inclusive spaces like this one and Pride Month, from which some trans people feel sidelined, is clear. Many of the group don’t identify with Pride. ‘Many trans people don’t feel accepted,’ says Jill. No one is carrying the rainbow flag because they don’t need to, with inclusivity ingrained in everything they do. As Jeng says: ‘The great thing about London is that people make things for themselves, so even if we don’t resonate with Pride there are other places we can go that are really great.’
Let’s hear the Sibling stories:
Jeng 26, they/them
‘My brother had a skateboard and never used it so I picked it up about 10 years ago. Skateboarding has given me a lot of opportunities, like community and chances to hang out with people. But skating is difficult, you get so many setbacks. If you get an injury it can be both a physical setback and a mental setback. And I got big fomo when we couldn’t meet during Covid and wasn’t as motivated to go outside.
I feel a lot safer when I’m with the Sibling group. When we take over a little corner of the park it’s really nice, we give each other turns rather than go between the entire park, which can get really tricky.
Being a part of the group can be rewarding, people can be more open. I’ve found so many of my London friends in Sibling and I don’t think I would have this big a supportive network in the queer community without it. I’m much more open with those in Sibling. It’s just part of being able to exist without having to explain yourself.’
Jill 23, they/them
‘I stumbled across Sibling when I first got to London for uni, in Cantelowes, my local park in Camden. When I showed up I felt like turning around because it was full of these BMX dudes, but I spotted two members of Sibling — Hanna and Lande — skating, so I was, like, I’m going to go to them and try to give it a go. It was a perfect coincidence.
I found out I was trans because of Sibling. I grew up in France and I’d never met any queer people where I lived. This group helped me realise. It’s good to finally understand what has been going on your whole life and see other people like you.
Skateboarding teaches you to persevere in what you do because it doesn’t come easy at all and if you give up then you’ll never progress. That mentality has definitely influenced the rest of my life, it has given me more resilience. I still consider myself a beginner. I can do some tricks. I think you’re not a beginner when you can do a kickflip consistently and I’m not there.
Being part of Sibling gives me a sense of belonging. I’m in a better place because of skating with Sibling. When you’re trans there are places where you feel like you don’t belong, even sometimes with your own friends. If your friends are non-queer you have to change yourself a little bit if you want to fit in and there is none of that at Sibling.’
Aphrodite 22, she/her
‘I broke my foot so I haven’t been skating for a while. I’ve had this skateboard since I was about 12 but I’m very much a complete beginner. I don’t know any tricks. I just balance and try my best. There is a certain culture around skating that is sometimes a misconception and sometimes true. There are a lot of people who feel very intimidated the first time they skate because everyone is watching you and you’re going to fall and it’s really embarrassing.
I’m not going to pretend I’m the most prominent member, but I think what I enjoy about Sibling is that it has a lot of representation. I live near Clissold Park and we get 40-year-old-dads skating. Now that’s not a bad thing at all but they have a very specific mindset where they can take over the skatepark — no one else gets a go or anything like that. I wanted to join a mix of different people who were encouraging rather than just expecting you to be good at anything.’
Cyan 30, they/them
‘This is my first-ever time here with the group — my friends told me about it. I’ve been skating for about 20 years but there was a big gap in the middle because I never had a group of people to skate with. I’ve mainly skated alone. I have one friend coming later who is a roller-blader, but I’ve never known any other skaters until today. It feels good to find somewhere where I might feel comfortable. I didn’t know a photo shoot was happening today, so it’s a good thing I look cute!’
Kaitlene 25, she/her
‘Ever since I was a kid I wanted to learn how to skate, but I couldn’t afford to get a skateboard and my mum hated the idea of me skating. Years later I got one and it was just in my wardrobe for ages because it’s kind of scary going to a skate park.
I’ve been with Sibling from the start in 2018. Being part of the group is really cool, it’s nice to have a group to skate with and I’ve made a lot of different friends. Now I’m a lot more comfortable going to skate parks — I never would have gone before. I felt like I stood out, I could feel people staring at me when I carried my skateboard. I don’t notice that any more.’