Sidelined: How roller derby pushes trans women out

Last fall, the WFTDA released what felt like a long overdue statement on gender, removing the hormonal requirement for transgender skaters. A lot of my friends were very excited about this. I was a little underwhelmed.

It’s not that I don’t like that particular gender statement (though I personally much prefer the MRDA non-discrimination policy because – humblebrag – I wrote it). A policy based on self-identification is essential. After all, for nearly any minimum standard of femininity you set, you could find a cis woman who doesn’t qualify.

Rather, I was underwhelmed because a change in policy does precious little for the transgender skaters I know – myself included.

I’ve spent nearly two years encountering people who manage to adhere to the letter of every gender policy they’re subject to, and still manage to treat trans women with prejudice. Some say my body chemistry has more to do with my ability to be safe than my years of experience. They tell me I’m out of control. They say I’m not a team player, and that I’m recklessly trying to prove myself worthy by playing hyper-aggressively. These people never  seem to give me a chance to prove otherwise.

We encounter supposed allies who say hurtful or ignorant things, or who ask us to trust in a system that wasn’t designed for people like us. We lose friends and supposed safe spaces because people are so certain that they’re not behaving transmisogynistically that they refuse to listen to trans skaters’ concerns. I’ve relentlessly cultivated my image to try to appear ‘sufficiently’ female to my peers, and so, so much more.

I’ve learned in the last two years that it doesn’t matter what kind of policy or statement about gender any league or governing body puts out – there’s an underlying transmisogyny problem in the world of roller derby. And it’s a reflection of the kinds of unexamined transmisogynies that the world contains.

We don’t like to talk about it.

We prefer to focus on beaming articles about how a handful of exceptional trans athletes find acceptance in roller derby. We like to release statements about how our leagues are committed to acceptance and tolerance, but we forget to keep following through. We like to think of trans people in the abstract, as potential members of our league that we’ll totally tolerate, because our leagues are full of tolerant people. We don’t talk directly about it so much because our leagues are families, and no one has a perfect family, but we’re there for each other, right?

It’s different for trans people.

We feel the micro-aggressions, but we don’t want to speak up because no one will ever admit to saying transphobic things, and hurling that accusation at a member of your family is something you can’t go back on. If you’re the only trans person on your league, the rest of your league might not know how to handle trans issues and instead just treat them as just another brand of ‘derby drama’. You become known as a complainer, not a team player.

If there is another trans person on your league, however, it can be even worse – that other trans person might be used as a shining single data point to prove that there’s no transmisogyny problem – instead of as an exception that proves the rule.

They might gender-pass a little more effortlessly than you do. They might be a slightly better skater. They might be better at navigating league politics. They might just be six inches shorter. But they’ll be the model that you’re expected to become – a burden never placed on cisgender skaters.

Unless someone is actually waving a banner that says “NO TRANS PEOPLE ALLOWED”, this is a problem that’s almost impossible to tackle directly. Everyone will swear they’re not being transmisogynistic, that your gender has nothing to do with it, and then they’ll find a way to ostracize you anyhow. They gaslight you without even realizing it, and once they’ve pushed you over the edge, they blame you for getting emotional.

So what does a trans skater do when their tolerant league stops tolerating them?

I don’t know.

I’ve heard a lot of nice things said about me during my time in roller derby. When I came out as a transgender woman in 2014, however, I started hearing some not very nice things. People say less easily qualitative things as well, but those don’t stick with you nearly as long.

Probably the least nice thing I’ve heard about myself in my nearly half-decade around this sport, however, is “we’ve decided to remove you as a skating member of this league.” A close second was whatever the crowd was screaming about me at my last away game. It sounded pretty hateful.

Not so long ago, a trans friend of mine messaged me and told me she’s having trouble at her league. I’ve been tearing my hair out for months now, trying to make sense of everything, trying to resolve the image I have of myself in my head with the very different picture my league seems to have painted of me. She sent me a list of the accusations, and it clicked for me – they were exactly the same things people have been saying against me for months. Now she’s on the verge of being kicked out of her league. I was furious. I’m still furious.

The story doesn’t end with policy. It has to extend to thinking about the humans we’re failing as we turn their lives into our test cases, expecting them to bring up the issues and tackle them personally when they’re when they’re already experiencing the damage of transmisogyny in every other part of their lives.

We cannot continue to tolerate transmisogyny – we all have too much to lose.

But what can a league do to do right by transgender skaters? Stay tuned for the next installment.

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Edited by Danger (ismymiddlename)