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.

  1. ‘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.””

  1. 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.””

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.
  1. 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.”

  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.”
  1. 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.”
  1. 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.
  1. 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. 

  1. 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).”
  1. 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.

Sian Pain.

“The Ultimate Mental Toughness Guide” Positivity Rhetoric as Ableism in Roller Derby

Surely positivity, by nature, isn’t a bad thing. So how is positivity rhetoric ableist?  Here I will show how it is, in reference to my sport, Roller Derby.

Roller derby is a team sport played around a flat oval track. There are up to five people from each team on the track at any one time, four blockers and one jammer. The jammer gets a point for each blocker on the opposing team that they pass. It’s basically a human obstacle course played on roller skates.

Generally roller derby is thought of as an ‘alternative’ sport. A sport that is forward thinking, feminist and empowering. It can be both fun and camp, and serious and athletic. Don’t get me wrong; I think roller derby is great in many ways. However, like all other modes of ‘doing,’ it is constructed with its own flaws, misjudgements, and oppressions. [1]

That’s the formalities out of the way. For a while now myself and some other people in Team Crazy Legs have been thinking about how discourse about positivity in sport, and in our sport in particular, hurts us. Team Crazy Legs is a challenge team,[2] which “skates out for mental health and invisible illness.” This can includes a variety of things, from anxiety and depression, personality disorders, bipolar, chronic fatigue syndrome, anaemia, chronic pain issues and a multitude of other experiences. Whether or not TCL skaters consider themselves disabled, a lot of us have been finding some of the rhetoric in roller derby ableist.

Leah from TCL wrote this awesome short article about the ‘skate hard or go home’ T-Shirts that are circulating.[3] The premise is that it is ableist to encourage people to ‘skate hard’ all of the time. Not all people are capable of skating hard, all of the time. And that should be OK.

But it doesn’t end there. There are many examples of ‘fitspo’[4] attitudes in Roller Derby, the world went wild when That Skater played out the rest of the game on a broken ankle. Articles like this occasionally circulate: “excuses are for Douchebags.”[7] Of course sports psychology can be important for lots of skaters, and skating at the highest level requires resilience, but there is nothing wrong with showing weakness or vulnerability as well.

“If you nurture a positive, athletic environment with a schedule and focus; if you nip negativity in the bud and encourage skaters to improve and push themselves, you are going to attract skaters that are willing to work during the paid practice time and invest themselves in the league.”[8]

And sorry Elektra-Q-Tion, your blog is just peppered with ableist attitudes and language. For example, in ‘Are You a Sore Loser?’ by Tara “Silver Fawkes” Moscopulos, she claims: “Don’t ACT on your feelings, but you are allowed to have them”- Sorry but some people can’t help but get visibly upset. I have emotionally unstable personality disorder. Sometimes I can’t not act on my feelings.

In ‘People You Will Meet in Derby’ Elektra claims that “The Bad Seed (aka The Storm Cloud)- ”“… [will] come into practice is a craptacular mood and proceed to infect everyone else with their shitty mood or attitude.”[9] As if someone having a depressive episode isn’t afraid of being seen as ‘toxic’ already.

When writing this I reopened the dialogue and reached out to TCL to ask them for their opinions/experiences. Many said that they found these articles hurtful. One skater said that they often heard ableist language in banter among team mates. For example “don’t go crazy” was used when referring to people trying to keep control on track.

Kay, another TCL skater wrote: “People who talk about this don’t always realise for some of us mental toughness is actually turning up to training when you just want to hide away in your bed. That some of us spend our entire life working on our mental game.”

It’s a big and complex area to discuss (some derby names are VERY problematic), but in relation to ableism some derby names are pretty offensive. Does Psycho Suzy really know what its like to have a psychotic break? Does Wheel Crazy know what it is like to have a manic episode? Maybe they do, but maybe not. If they do, more fire to ’em. If they don’t maybe they shouldn’t make a witty name out of other peoples experiences? Our experiences of being ‘crazy’ should not be used as someone else’s metaphor or pun.

Can you see how these things could perhaps hurt a person who is depressed, or is living with chronic illness? Someone who is just happy that they made it out of the house, let alone to training? A person whose body functions differently? Society has been telling some of us “its ok, just smile and think yourself better” for sometimes most of our lives. This doesn’t help, or work, and even crosses over into gaslighting[10]

Someone with depression or low self esteem can’t just think themselves positive, otherwise we would have done it by now. Someone with chronic pain can’t ‘visualise’ themselves into a perfect performance. For some of us getting up and going to work feels ‘tough.’ For some of us still being alive feels ‘tough. It isn’t quite so easy to take Kid Block’s advise and ‘tell yourself you are awesome’ and ‘give no shits’ for five hours a week, when your brain is telling you that you are worthless, useless and crap for the other 163 hours.

This discourse also suggests that the mental and physical health of people is their own responsibility. This is hugely problematic seeing as societal constructs may have caused some of the problems people experience. If someone of an oppressed gender is depressed and has low self-esteem because they are constantly harassed on the street, this is not their responsibility. Chanting ‘you are more than an object’ into the mirror for an hour a day is probably not going to help.

Additionally, ‘sports psychology’ may interfere with any psychological treatment that a person may already be getting. It may mess with a persons system of care. This kind of carelessness or thoughtlessness makes up abelist culture, and erases our experiences.

Leah gives some good advice in her article:

“-Think before you speak.

-If what you’re going to say is based on shaming someone into pushing, then don’t.

-Remember that you are not anyone else’s doctor so you have no idea what their health situation is.

-Encourage people instead.

-Tell them when they do something well and what they can do to improve.

-Read up on fitspo and how it feeds into ableism”

To this I add

-Stop using ablest language in a derby context. Crazy, stupid, psycho, fool, idiot ect are oppressive.[11]

– When writing articles acknowledge people with disabilities, or those who don’t fit into privileged discourse. Your well-meaning advise does not suit everyone.

– Reconsider your derby name if it might make a joke out of something you haven’t experienced.

-I felt really low and was struggling with the idea of going to training. A friend said ‘go half and go home.’ Why can’t this be ok?

-Taking breaks if you are ill should be encouraged. Someone will be a better team mate if they are coping bodily/internally.

-All leagues should treat mental health and chronic illness as an injury, and allow people with illnesses time off without being penalised.

Of course this ‘mental toughness’ discourse is not limited to roller derby and applies more to other sports.[12][13] This doesn’t make it OK that we do it too. This over competitive, ‘do or die’ attitude that most mainstream sports maintains is directly linked to a patriarchal capitalist ideology. [14]And as well as thinking that ableism is bullshit, I think that capitalism and patriarchy are bullshit.

Roller derby is a progressive sport in many ways, maybe it doesn’t have to mirror the abelist and oppressive dialogue of the mainstream. Maybe that is unavoidable to some extent, but maybe we can stop telling people with depression to suck it up, and people with chronic illness to try harder. Maybe training once in a while is us trying our damn best. Even competitive skaters should feel OK about time off.

[1] Its generally pretty white, cis and expensive and therefore exclusive. This is a post for another day.

[2] Challenge teams are teams which don’t train together and are made up of lots of different skaters, usually from different teams who skate because they have a shared aspect of their identity. For example the Vagine Regime is made up of the queer skaters, and Team Metal Legs is for skaters who have returned to skating after suffering a serious injury.

[3] http://verdantstar.tumblr.com/post/132482355103/we-need-to-talk-about-skate-hard-or-go-home

[4] Short for ‘fitness inspiration.’ Fitspo is very problematic as it body shames everyone, disabled people included.

[5] Estrogeena Davis, published 13/06/2011. http://www.allderbydrills.com/2011/07/positive-visualization.html [Accessed 11/11/15].

[6] Kid Block, published 14/05/2014, https://kidblock.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/blocking-with-the-head-the-importance-of-the-mental-game-in-roller-derby/ [Accessed 11/11/15].

[7] Ginger Snaps, http://www.derbylife.com/2011/08/excuses_are_douchebags/[Accessed 11/11/15].

[8] http://khaostheoryblog.com/2014/09/30/league-rebuilding-how-to-jumpstart-the-healing-process-despite-tension-and-conflict/ [Accessed 12/11/15.]

[9] Elektra Q Tion, http://elektraqtion.blogspot.co.uk, [Accessed 11/11/15].

[10] Suzannah Weiss, published 26/10/2014 http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/10/common-phrases-gaslighting/. [Accessed 11/11/15].

[11] https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=mFuLdr7Rz8sC&dq=ableist+language&source=gbs_navlinks_s

[12] http://believeperform.com/performance/applying-positivity-in-sport/

[13] http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/04/fitspos-ableist-narrative/

[14] Tony Collins, Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History (London: Routledge, 2014).