Laws Targeting Trans Athletes Have Made Roller Derby a Safe Haven

·12 min read

In 2020, the Idaho legislature passed the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, which bans transgender girls from participating in girls sports and collegiate women’s sports. This was necessary, lawmakers claimed, because of the “biological differences between females and males…[that] have life-long effects, including those most important for success in sport.” This year alone, nearly 70 bills have been introduced in state legislatures from Rhode Island to Texas that would prohibit trans youth from participating in school sports consistent with their gender identity.

But there is one sport that serves as particularly strong evidence against the very premise of these bills: roller derby.

The rules of roller derby are simple: Two teams place five skaters each on an oval track — one jammer, who scores points by passing other skaters, and four blockers, who do their best to prevent the other team’s jammer from doing so. In two-minute jams, skaters slam into and jump over each other, using their hips, chests, and shoulders as walls and battering rams. It is a full-contact sport defined by strength, speed, agility, and strategy. And transgender skaters have been openly participating in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the Junior Roller Derby Association (JRDA), and the Men’s Roller Derby Association (MRDA) for more than a decade.

Tear O’Bite — known to her non-derby friends and family as Erin McCargar — is a blocker for the Texas Rollergirls, one of the founding leagues of modern flat track derby. She started skating 10 years ago when she became aware of the WFTDA’s inclusive gender policy. She watched her first game, which is known as a bout, and instantly fell in love with the speed and physicality of the sport. “I actually think of it as a combat sport more than a contact sport because as long as you are in play, you can be hit,” she tells Teen Vogue. “Most contact sports have significant time and positional limits on contact. You can’t tackle somebody in the backfield in football.” Her travel team, the Texecutioners, regularly ranks among the WFTDA’s top 10 teams.

Originally, the WFTDA’s policies allowed transgender skaters to play only if their hormones were within an acceptable range. “Essentially, what the WFTDA was saying is, ‘If we have any questions, we have the right to ask for your medical records,’” says Erica “Double H” Vanstone, executive director of the WFTDA. “It’s incredibly invasive and it puts the onus on the skater who’s transgender to ‘prove’ that they are women.” So in 2015, the policy was replaced with the current gender statement, which explicitly welcomes trans women, intersex women, and gender-expansive people. The JRDA non-discrimination policy, which is modeled after MRDA’s policy, has no gender-related requirements for skaters, meaning that anyone can play.

The norms and policies of the roller derby world stand in sharp contrast to the slew of bills that target youth sports. Freedom for All Americans, a bipartisan campaign dedicated to securing total local, state, and federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ Americans — like the Equality Act — has been tracking the many anti-trans bills that will be debated in the 2021 legislative session. According to CEO and national campaign director Kasey Suffredini, Idaho’s template language comes from a small group of D.C.-based anti-LGBTQ groups that craft model legislation for state lawmakers, and who rely on local voters’ lack of familiarity with transgender people. The trans sports-ban bills are accompanied by several dozen other bills that would cut off trans youth’s access to gender-affirming health care, ban textbooks with LGBTQ content, or allow for discriminatory religious exemptions.

Roller derby has a long history as a maverick sport. If you ask anyone over the age of 40 what they know about roller derby, they will probably tell you about the televised bouts of the 1970s and ’90s, which featured scripted brawls and theatrics akin to the world of professional wrestling. Today, roller derby has gone legit, with extensive rules and safety requirements. The referees aren’t just for show — a skater can incur a penalty for violations ranging from entering the track at the wrong place to initiating a block with an illegal part of the body. Junior roller derby is an intense extracurricular, and is changing the face of the sport: while many skaters begin their careers as adults, a growing number of junior skaters are aging up into their adult leagues.

This current incarnation of derby began in Austin’s early 2000’s Riot Grrrl movement and its D.I.Y., feminist punk culture persists in the form of punny and violent derby names, elaborate “boutfits,” and a campiness that recalls the sport’s earlier days. Unlike many other sports, roller derby is mostly run by its own players, which could be one reason why the WFTDA’s COVID-19 Return to Play plan was regarded by many as the “best COVID-19 plan in sports.”

Between the sport’s roots in nonconformity, its evolving policies, and its for-us-by-us ethos, many transgender and non-binary people have found a place for themselves in modern roller derby. Tear O’Bite isn’t alone — other trans skaters have played for Team USA and top teams like Gotham Roller Derby.

Bianic (a reference to their sexuality, the metal in their ankle from an injury, and their civilian name, An Sasala) is the co-head coach and vice president of the Board of the Kansas City Junior Roller Warriors. They estimate that between 10 to 20% of the team’s current players identify as trans or non-binary. Outside of athleticism, one of the main benefits for junior skaters is a sense of community. “A lot of our trans and non-binary kids are not able to be basically out at their school, or if they are out, they face a pretty significant and horrific amount of bullying,” they say. “So they get a community that is totally separate from their school life, which can be incredibly vital and sustaining.”

Adam*, a 14-year-old skater with Nashville Junior Roller Derby, describes a similarly welcoming environment when he came out: “With roller derby, it's sort of just like a prerequisite that people are going to use the correct pronouns and people are going to prop you up.” For S.,* an adult skater in Texas, the tight-knit community is one of her favorite things about roller derby. “You hear the term ‘derby family’ a lot. That is not an exaggeration. That is a very apt term. My team is family as far as I'm concerned.”

Yet even within the roller derby world, trans inclusion has been controversial. When the WFTDA shared Vanstone’s recent Outsports editorial “Trans Women Are Women: In Sport and Literally Everywhere Else” on social media, the posts attracted hundreds of comments from within and outside of the community. Some comments questioned trans women’s belonging in the sport and have since been deleted or hidden. Texas Rollergirls’ posts affirming that trans women are women saw similar reactions in the comments sections.

S. initially felt uneasy about joining the sport. “Even though I had heard WFTDA is fairly open to trans skaters, I was still leery just because of all the vitriol I had seen [online],” she tells Teen Vogue. While her experience has been overwhelmingly positive, she recalls one time before her transition when, she says, she overheard other skaters disparaging the league for welcoming another transfeminine skater.

Myths and misconceptions about transgender athletes are pervasive in sports. The bills targeting student athletics often cite outdated studies or pseudoscientific reports that claim transgender women have an innate physical advantage over, and pose a significant safety risk to, cisgender women. Using apparently similar justification, World Rugby banned trans women from playing on women’s rugby teams at the international level in 2020, despite International Gay Rugby publishing a 230-page feedback document that explained the research’s shortcomings. Trans inclusion has never been found to decrease the participation of cisgender girls in sports, but states with trans-exclusive policies have actually seen decreases in overall participation in girls’ sports.

“We are a contact sport on roller skates. In terms of the level of impact [and] contact that we have within the actual game, I think that we are as aggressive, if not more so, than, say, football or rugby,” says Vanstone. “We are very focused on safety. And we are not finding that there is any risk or danger that is different about trans skaters than cis skaters.”

While many anti-trans bills hinge on the biological differences between sexes, that doesn’t necessarily translate in many areas of sports. Frogmouth, Inc. is an apparel company responsible for providing uniforms to more than 600 leagues globally. CEO Laura “Elle B. Bach” Rigby recently compared the sizes ordered most often by teams in the WFTDA to the MRDA, and found that the orders followed the same size distribution. “Skaters have a consistent size range regardless of gender, which tells us that there is greater size variation within the genders than between them,” she says.

S. initially assumed that she would need to retire from her local MRDA league after she transitioned, but when she realized that several cisgender women already skated with the team (not an uncommon phenomenon, thanks to MRDA’s gender-expansive policy), she stayed. Lawmakers’ justification of “fair play” makes her laugh. “I’d like to see them say that to my teammate,” she says, referencing a cisgender skater, “because she’s the smallest person on our team. She’s probably five-even, can’t weigh more than a buck 20, and I have seen her stop — cold in their tracks — dudes twice as big as her. Every woman skater on our team has laid out every jammer on our team.”

“This issue is a really disgusting one for me because the right is using the guise of feminism to try to trap women in this place of needing protection,” says Vanstone. “And that’s where we talk about roller derby being a contact sport as a pretty good example for how that’s crap. Women don’t need to be coddled, women don’t need to be protected.”

Roller derby is one of the rare few sports that values a wide range of body types (although some skatewear companies have only recently begun making plus-size protective gear and uniforms available to fat skaters). Some skaters may be able to juke around the tangle of the pack, nimbly running on their toe stops to get out of tight spots and build up speed. Others who are solid on their skates can block opposing players or knock them out of bounds. An effective can-opener — a block in which a skater springs up in front of an opposing player and slams a shoulder into their chest — can send a skater of any size wheels-up.

For Tear O’Bite, the higher representation of trans people in roller derby is due to the sport’s culture and policies, not a biological advantage. “The thing that people don’t see is, yeah, I skate for a top 10 team in the world,” she says. “I skated at World Championships. I performed at some of the highest levels of my sport, but it’s not because I’m trans. I worked my ass off.”

In 2021, at least seven more state legislatures have passed trans sports bans, two of which have been signed into law. Even though roller derby leagues are generally not affiliated with schools, advocates say the bills send destructive and stigmatizing messages. “The average American — and by extension, the average American kid — they don’t read the law,” says Suffredini. “I think it’s fair that most of these kids are going to assume they’re banished from all sports everywhere, whether it’s at school or outside of school.” For youth athletes like Adam, Tennessee’s new law represents closed doors. “Roller derby is a pretty welcoming, gender-neutral sport, but the one thing that I worry about is, what if I want to try another sport when I go to public school next year?” he says. “I won’t be able to. I’m counting on the idea that I’m just going to be interested in roller derby and that I’m not going to pick up any other sports.”

The bills’ negative effects are already well-documented. Shoshana K. Goldberg is a professor and researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Illinois at Chicago whose work focuses on LGBT health and adolescent health. Her report with the Center of American Progress on the importance of trans youth’s participation in sports details how trans sports bans put trans athletes — who are already a vulnerable group — at an even greater risk of bullying, mental illness, and suicidal ideation. “The problem is fake, but the impact is real,” she tells Teen Vogue. According to Goldberg, the actual forces that are harming girls’ sports — budget cuts, financial inaccessibility, sexist stereotyping, fewer opportunities, and pay inequity at the professional level — will not be solved (and could actually be exacerbated by) the proposed bans.

The bills don’t pose an immediate existential threat to roller derby, but the community has reacted with strong concern and resistance. Vanstone describes the slippery slope of precedence set by the new laws: “If [lawmakers] find success [in scholastic sports], they can try to push even further up the chain.’”

Vanstone sees inclusion and equity as an ongoing process; the WFTDA is continuing to engage its leaders and members in educational initiatives with the goal of improving policy implementation at the league level. For example, roller derby is an overwhelmingly white sport despite the distinctly Black history of roller skating, and calls to action by Black skaters and teams have led to initiatives such as the Anti-Racism Team Project. Roller derby’s tradition of do-it-yourself, player-led initiatives is alive and well in skaters like Bianic, who helped to draft a letter to the Kansas City Roller Warriors community, encouraging members to contact their representatives and support trans youth. “At least if their states do them wrong right now,” they say, “derby will be there for them if they want it.”

*Name withheld due to privacy concerns

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CREDITS

Photographer: Brendan Carroll

Videographer: Joey Hunt

AC: Brian Molloy

Video Editors: Leila Lorenz and Katie Ladd

Production: Halo House

Art Director: Emily Zirimis

Visual Editor: Louisiana Gelpi

Film Lab: Lago Vista Film Lab

Photo Assistant: Adam Gestwicki

Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue