RAINBOWS, CHEERS, AND the sound of wheels on uneven concrete fill the hot June air. Thousands gather along Colfax for the Denver Pride Parade, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Children eagerly put out their hands to high-five members of the Boulder County Bombers and FoCo Roller Derby as they skate down the crowded streets. The leagues are skating together under the You Can Play banner, along with representatives of the Colorado Avalanche and other professional sports teams, chanting in unison the same message: “Who can play? You can play!” A skater wearing a rainbow tutu follows up by shouting, “Sports are for everyone!” You Can Play Project (youcanplayproject.org) works to promote an inclusive environment. The organization advocates for the acceptance of queer folks in sporting spaces. It supports athletes, parents, coaches, administrators and other leaders with a direct impact on the athlete experience. You Can Play encourages teams, schools and fans to create videos meant to highlight personal backgrounds through a thoughtful and honest message on inclusivity in sport.
The foremost fundamental societal institution of sport has the power to give everyone an equal capacity to achieve success. Power is not limited to one group.
If we look at sport through the lens of social justice and equity, we can see how it can be a transformative space for radical inclusion and profound social impact. Playing and competing against people different from us to reduce tensions is the basis of international sports. The Olympics and the World Cup both build unity within divided nations while growing diplomacy between others. As radically powerful as sport can be, it also bears witness to a significant exclusion of LGBTQ2IA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, 2 Spirit, Intersex, and Asexual) people from organized sports. Homophobic bullying in locker rooms is well documented, and the binary nature of most sports explicitly exclude transgender and nonbinary athletes. In 2018 the HRC released a study stating that only 24 percent of LGBTQ youth play school sports compared to 68 percent of their cisgender heterosexual peers. You Can Play aims to change that statistic; its mission is, “to ensure the safety and inclusion of all in sports – including LGBTQ athletes, coaches and fans.” For many, roller derby represents a safe space in sport. It recognizes that letting athletes speak for themselves is paramount. An intentional power is built into the system of roller derby for skaters to make their own decisions. What does this mean for LGBTQ2IA skaters within leagues? What are the ways that leagues and WFTDA can be making space for those who are silenced to have more voice?“
The roller derby community is welcoming, inclusive and empowering,” Fleur de Beast says on camera. The Boulder County Bombers (BCB) roller derby and You Can Play teamed up to create a video that strives to answer these questions. Filmed in the summer of 2018 and released in January 2019, the video features LGBTQ2IA skaters from BCB sharing the power and impact of their inclusion in roller derby. On Facebook, the video surpassed 35k views in six weeks, and the count continues to climb. After posting the video on its Facebook page, the roller derby athletic-wear company, Frogmouth, wrote: “This wonderful film about inclusivity in roller derby may give you goosebumps.” The video demonstrates some of the impacts of the 2015 update to WFTDA’s gender policy. Before the update, WFTDA required intersex and trans women to have hormone levels within specific ranges and left individuals open to a review of their gender that included talking to medical providers. There was also no explicit policy around nonbinary skaters. As of the 2015 update, nearly all barriers to transgender and intersex skaters were removed and definitions of who can skate were simplified. The policy states, “an individual who identifies as a trans woman, intersex woman, and/ or gender expansive may skate with a WFTDA charter team if women’s flat-track roller derby is the version and composition of roller derby with which they most closely identify.” At the core of this is the assumption that individuals are the expert of their own gender identity and can, therefore, select what composition of roller derby is the best fit.
As a possible result of the WFTDA gender policy update, more nonbinary (or gender-expansive) and transgender skaters have been visible in all levels of the sport. High profile skaters such as The Smacktivist from Gotham Girls Roller Derby have helped normalize the use of they/ them pronouns at the international level. The You Can Play video features two skaters who identify as nonbinary and use no pronouns, only their names. The increased visibility from the WFTDA gender policy and BCB’s You Can Play video increase the sense of acceptance amongst LGBTQ2IA skater. Transfer skater to BCB, Shark Whalberg explains, “I have never felt more accepted for my gender identity than I have in roller derby, and WFTDA’s inclusive gender identity policy is a big contributor to that feeling. I have always felt heard, respected, and loved by my teammates, and it is a wonderful feeling to be part of an organization that puts such a strong emphasis on the idea that anyone can play this sport. It’s freeing to know I can be completely myself.”
“Wherever you feel like you belong, you should be able to go,” Downtown Stabbey said in the video. To create inclusive spaces in roller derby, specifically, and in all sport, people need to learn about the multidimensional lives of the queer community to be productive, ethical and successful.
Roller Derby leagues can take many steps towards transgender and nonbinary inclusion in their leagues, but one of the biggest ones is integrating pronoun introductions whenever names are being introduced. This requires education among the league members about how to phrase pronoun introductions and to avoid jokes that diminish the importance of this practice. Leadership must enforce this practice in the league, asking their coaches to regularly create space for skaters to say, “My name is ______ and my pronouns are ______.” As Paws O Fury states in the video, “Having the space to introduce myself as my full self feels really empowering.”
The whole league must commit to not only sharing pronouns but using them. Each skater, coach and official must make a genuine effort to learn and use each others’ pronouns. When mistakes are made, the person making a mistake should apologize and correct themselves without putting the burden on the trans/nonbinary person who’s pronouns were messed up. In addition, when members notice their league-mates misgendering someone, they need to say something and advocate for the correct pronouns. The burden should not fall to the trans and nonbinary skaters who are being misgendered to educate the league about their own inclusion.
Using pronouns such as they/them/their or xe/xem/ xir can be difficult for many – as is learning any new language or grammar. Ways to practice these new pronouns include reading a children’s book out loud and replacing the pronouns with the ones being practiced. Another method is to name plants in your house and assign them pronouns and talk about the plants while using and practicing pronouns.
Butters Stotch explains how impactful this inclusion is, “I think I keep coming back to the aspect of the open community, the fact that it is so much more than just the sport. Derby is unique in the sense that there is a lot of open and inclusive language.”
Inclusive language extends past the use of pronouns. Leagues can make efforts to change language to include nonbinary skaters and league members. Changing ‘women’ or ‘girls’ to ‘skaters’ or ‘league members’ includes the nonbinary skaters that are in the league. Similarly, this is a great approach when referring to an unknown skater on the opposing team. Instead of saying, “stop her,” teams can say, “stop the jammer.”
Another step leagues can take is having difficult conversations around loaded language. Loaded language is a language that reflects a bias against a group and is a form of microaggression. An example is trans women skaters often referred to as “too aggressive” or “un-sports-person-like” in a sport that is all about aggressive contact. This language reflects the bias individuals hold against trans women in derby and needs to be addressed and changed. Leagues that have these conversations about microaggressions are making strides towards meaningful trans inclusion in roller derby.
This passion for inclusion is one of the things that makes roller derby powerful and unique. When asked by the interviewer to say the You Can Play catchphrase “If you can play, you can play,” Fleur de Beast responded, “I just have one thought on that before I do it, what if you can’t skate yet? But we’ll teach you! What if you can’t jam, but you want to? Well, you can start learning, we’ll enable that.” Roller derby, WFTDA, leagues, and individuals are and need to continue to listen to marginalized skaters, officials, and volunteers and take advantage of opportunities to grow. Public conversations such as the video made by BCB and You Can Play are essential to continuing to make progress towards meaningful LGBTQ2IA inclusion in roller derby and sports in general.
Danger and Slayer are both members of the Boulder County Bombers. They began collaborating when Danger and her professional partner, Nay Nay also of BCB when developing this video. The article was written as a collaboration and decidedly written in the third person. When Slayer is quoted, Slayer is speaking to Danger and Nay Nay. Thus, the story has been developed as joint positionalities on a similar chain of experiences.
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