I recently read an article about being non-binary (not being just male or just female) in roller derby, and it was a love story (link Here). Whilst I related to a lot of it, being a critic and a cynic, I am going to rain on that parade (soz) and outline some of the ways in which it is difficult to be NB in a roller derby context. I also asked some trans and gender non-conforming friends to share their thoughts and stories. Not all of our experiences have been all good. We have been misgendered and invalidated and dismissed. A common theme is that we feel inauthentic in some way or the other when playing for a gendered team, and that we feel or have felt that we need to hide part of ourselves. We feel the derby love, as shown in the last section, but our sometimes precarious position in this sport (as in this world) alienates us.
- ‘Picking sides.’ Most of us have to choose between teams which skate under the Men’s Roller Derby Association, or Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. Even though they both have super inclusive and progressive gender rules in theory, it still forces you to ‘pick a side,’ and skate with mostly women, or mostly men. I live in London and there are no co-ed leagues (as far as I know!). I have chosen a ‘women’s’ league out of convenience, and because I get what I want from skating there. I would like to be in a super queer/trans/gender inclusive league but the only one I know of is too far. (Shout out to the B-Town Brawlers who are an explicitly gender inclusive league based in Brighton).
Brian: “Co-ed was much better for me when I came out. I didn’t have to wonder ‘do I fit?’ Now I’m skating in a ‘female league’ I find it more difficult to be out and proud.”
Hunter: “One of the reasons it took me a long time to identify as non-binary is because at the same time as I started roller derby, I started questioning my gender, but then suddenly I was thrown into this community of “women are awesome,” “women are badass and strong,” and a place where all body-shapes and body-types and appearances were all celebrated as well, so I pushed my gender queries to the back of my mind, and thought that those questions related to my “idea” of being a woman that I’d been fed by the media, rather than my legitimate feelings.”
Erin: “Training in my league is women only (+/- non-binary people I guess) and there’s little oppurtunity for coed practice. In all the sports I’ve competed in (karate, BJJ, rowing) although competition is limited by gender, training has always been mixed to an extent. In this way I’ve always found sports something of a haven, even before I figured out I was non binary. Now that I train in a “womens” League I’ve lost that.””
- WFTDA teams are, for the most part, very much women’s teams. The branding of lots of leagues features a thin, white, apparently cis and able-bodied pin up girl. That image is problematic in many ways and does not represent me. The colour scheme of my current league is pink. I skate with a ‘rollergirls.’ This caused me much brooding and turmoil, and made my decision to move to my league difficult. I love it there, but I often feel like a hypocrite and a liar. I am not a girl, roller or otherwise.
Anon1: “I’m in a women’s league uncomfortably feeling like a masculine lesbian woman rather than a queer boy/non-woman thing… which is what I am.”
Anon2: “I started derby before the new gender change. I was doing fresh meat, which was for all genders, and at the time was pretty sure I’d be goin on testosterone. I didn’t know where that would take me, and if I’d wanna skate on a men’s team or what, but I figured I didn’t have to decide until (if) I passed mins.
“I was having a hard time at the time with telling strangers my pronoun and asserting myself…When I did pass mins, I was accepted into the league, and got all my stuffs to sign. I literally had to sign a gender waiver saying I was female and had the hormones designated by doctors as female.
“I just kinda swallowed hard and signed it. I always wanted to come out but I saw 2 options coming out of it, A. them asking me to stop skating with them, or b (more likely), them saying nooo you’re totally one of us (subtext being, you’re basically a woman! who cares).
“I felt like crap being in a woman’s sport which didn’t include trans women, but included me because I looked more like their opinion of a woman, ie cis. Did i have a space there? Should I just hang back and let women have their thing? There wasn’t rly anywhere I *could* skate being an enbee [non-binary] and be publically accepted, but I didn’t wanna be a trans masc space.. taker upper. It was pretty confusing.
“But I was having a really hard year and derby was the only time when I wasn’t thinking about all the bullshit that was happening in my life, so the good outweighed the bad and I soldiered on through. Still not knowing folx well or coming out.
“I took 6 months off of derby because of a knee injury which wouldn’t shift, plus I was just sad and disillusioned with derby. When I came back I told everyone in VR how I felt, emailed my league coming out. I got a lot of good feedback and support, but… I don’t trust “the roller derby community.””
- Misgendering. Both the leagues I skate/d for are pretty much great on this now, but I couldn’t count the amount of times a group of us are addressed as ‘ladies.’ Plz never do that if you coach yeah? It made me gender feels. At least due to the big queer presence in London teams things are generally good, but am still referred to as a lesbian a lot, and a lesbian I am not.
Hunter: … “When it comes to misgendering, in your everyday life you don’t often encounter people talking about you (in a way that means they have to use your pronouns) within your earshot, but in derby it happens all the time, which is difficult.
“In a WFTDA, female league, the default is “she” – when blocking you’re lumped in with other blockers so people unintentionally get it right (“they will do offense” meaning everyone) but when you’re jamming, people talk about you quite a lot in front of you when discussing tactics and the default is “she’s gonna push in the middle” or “she’s gonna take offense on the outside.””
Anon3: “It is difficult for me as an AFAB non-binary person in a women’s league — female empowerment is a big part of what makes the league and the sport important to people, so sometimes I feel like it’s difficult to speak up when someone misgenders me. It’s hard to make it clear to people that I care about these things without feeling like I’m intruding, if that makes sense. It’s frustrating, because a lot of the empowerment they talk about is something I relate to, just from a different perspective. I want to be part of it, but it’s difficult to know where I fit in sometimes.
“We have been trying to make the league better with pronouns etc, but when the whole culture is so centred around women, it’s hard to make space for that. E.g. there is a default to use “she” for any hypothetical skater, which means everyone automatically uses she/her pronouns without thinking.
“It can be hard also to not feel invalidated or forgotten about — I am mostly read as a girl, and I’m part of a women’s league. I sometimes worry that people use that to just ignore my transness? I realise not everyone can have their transness ignored so easily.
“I say this from the fairly privileged position of being an androgynous AFAB person. I know a lot of trans-feminine and other folks have much harder times”
Erin: “Something that has always bothered me is being unnecessarily gendered and this seems to happen even more often in the Derby community. “Ladies” , or even worse “girls” is used really often which I always find uncomfortable. I’m often put off correcting people or asking for gender neutral language because Derby is this wonderful celebration of how femininity is awesome and I just feel like this awkward spanner in the works.”
- The particular kind of transphobia that non-binary people experience. Our identities/genders are erased and invalidated every time we interact with pretty much anything TBH. I once had a coach be very stubborn about ‘they/their’ pronouns, at first claiming that they are grammatically incorrect (not true) and then joking that they would make up their own pronouns centred around plants. It wasn’t intentionally mean, I think they were trying to be friendly, but it was crushing.
- Queer spaces in roller derby being for queer women. I have been a huge follower and fan of Vagine Regime since starting derby. I cried the whole way through In the Turn. But (and I could write a whole separate blog about this) the name and imagery/logos of the team doesn’t represent me any more, as much as I wanted it to. It alienated quite a few of my trans derby siblings, and my loyalty is with them.
Anon2: “I organized a Vagine Regime bout which was gonna be my first bout, & I was so psyched to play derby and actually have my gender recognized and celebrated… but when I expressed discomfort with the logo… it’s two skirted stick figures holding hands, and the big focus on vaginas, the amount of ignorance and insensitivity , and.. what’s a word for when people don’t care? Yeah that… Well it was shitty. I hadn’t come out to these lot yet, and I certainly didn’t want to after all that, so I just pulled back, decided not to play the game, but still organized the whole thing for them, with lots of stress and tears.”
- I feel like I am exploiting a ‘passing privilege’ being an Assigned at Birth Female skating in a WFTDA league. I am afraid that if I were to get a breast reduction or go on T that this would affect my place in WFTDA teams, which I am wary of taking up space in anyway.
I want to end on a high note and give you some ways in which derby is awesome for non-binary people.
- My trans and non-conforming derby siblings. I probably wouldn’t have come out or maybe even realised my gender identity without my trans derby online support group. We are starting a challenge team ourselves- Assigned Skater at Birth (ASAB). It is very exciting. I have a huge amount of love for all of them.
- Anon2: “Finding [an online community] has been amazing. So many different folx do derby… I usually live in my nice safe queer bubble so it was good but also real scary to be forced to work and organize and skate alongside loads of people who I normally wouldn’t meet ever… but in derby I felt too much of an outsider. Scruffy, broke, trans. I dno if I will properly find my place in derby, but having non binary and (other) trans folx in this babely community online is definitely contributing beautifully.”
- David (WFTDA skater)- “I found derby at almost the exact point I came out as non-binary and it’s impossible to overstate what an important part of feeling accepted in my “new” identity it has been. I am happy to say it’s been pretty much exclusively a positive experience so far and I’ve felt totally accepted and welcomed by my league. Also the online derby community has played a massive part in my emotional support.”
- Derby love, and respect, and power. As much as I can gripe about some of the things that I feel bad about, my experience of derby is obviously good (or I wouldn’t spend so much time doing it). Through derby I had my first big group of queer friends. I have met some amazing people, cis or otherwise. I feel powerful skating, it has made me like my body more than I ever have before. Through derby I got into weight lifting and muscles are good for my dysphoria. I managed to quit drinking because of derby. It is somewhere I can put my energy when shit gets bad. The list goes on.
- Hunter (WFTDA skater)- “…being surrounded by a supportive community who celebrate who you are made it easier to “come-out” in a way because I knew they’d have my back no matter what. ”
- Erin- “Personally I find it very hard to separate my non-binaryness from Derby, since it was joining this community that gave me the confidence and the language to describe what I had only ever thought of as gender weirdness. Derby has been instrumental in giving me the confidence to ID more publicly as non-binary, through the people I have met in the sport (the first time I ever verbalized my preference for they/them pronouns was in response to someone I really respected and admired correcting my use of she for them).”
- I am more ‘out’ in derby than I am in other areas of my life. Lots of skaters are very clued up and use the pronouns I want. Certainly the fact that these kinds of discussion can even happen, when some sports are still testing oestrogen levels, is amazing. I think derby is one of the most progressive sports in the world in lots of ways, and I love it.
Thats all folx! plz message me or comment if you’d like to add to this- I’d be particularly interested in hearing from MRDA enby’s.