Talking Trans* Inclusion, Support and Community in Roller Derby with Ms. Dr. Joseph L. Simonis

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to extent with Ms. Dr. Joseph L. Simonis, one of the founding members of the Trans, Gender Nonconforming and Intersex Athlete Network (TGIAN), a group for trans*, gender-non-conforming, and intersex athletes to come together, build community, share resources and opportunities, and support each other. Currently there are about 75 members, who hail from the US, Canada, Europe, and Australasia (a region of the Pacific Ocean comprised of Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and many other small, neighboring islands). The TGIAN group is a closed group on Facebook, operating confidentially to protect the privacy of members, and the only way to join is by emailing “TGI folks vary immensely in the degree to which they are visible, out, and active,” explained Joe. “While some folks like myself are, or have, to be visible and open to gain access to resources or advocate, many folks need or choose to remain invisible for their own reasons, and we need to respect and honor that.”

Not only are there members from across the globe but they are participating in countless team and individual sports. “Literally, if you name a sport, I guarantee you there is a TGI athlete playing it somewhere,” she explained. “In our membership alone we have roller derby skaters, cyclists, runners, triathletes, fighters, martial artists, skateboarders, softball/baseball players [and] footballers.” And that’s just naming a few!

The group is not driven by any specific agendas or topics but as a visible TGI athlete, Joe hopes the she and a few others may be able to help voice the concerns, struggles and issues faced by TGI athletes everywhere. “Our main goal is to have athletics be supportive of and welcoming to people of all genders, including people that don’t have genders. But aside from that quite broad goal of inclusivity.”

Joe has been playing sports all her life. While growing up she was heavily involved with football, baseball and also used to wrestle. In recent years she has picked up some soccer, rock climbing and, of course, roller derby. Though she has only been skating for just under 2-years, Joe plays both WFTDA flat track derby and USARS roller derby. She is currently a skater with the Windy City Rollers, a WFTDA member league out of Chicago, Illinois. She plays on their Double Crossers house team and Second Wind travel team. When not tearing up the flat track with Windy City, she can often be found playing by the USARS rule set with the Chicago Red Hots.

Outside of competing in sports, Joe has a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University and is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Population Biology at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Joe also runs a personal blog through which she discusses her pursuits as an athlete, her efforts and endeavors as an advocate for the rights of transgender, gender nonconforming and intersex people and shares her academic research.


Ms Dr Simonis 01

Ms. Dr. Joseph L. Simonis takes flight. Photo courtesy of Gil Leora.

KEVLAR: This upcoming March 31 marks the 5th Annual Transgender Day of Visibility, a celebration meant to shed light on the accomplishments of Trans* individuals, promote awareness and instilling empowerment in Trans* people everywhere. Many believe that visibility is what the Trans* community needs most if it wants to be heard and receive more acceptance and equal rights. Is there hope that through safe, supportive discussion in a group such as the TGI Athlete Network that one day more members will feel comfortable and inspired enough to be more visible themselves?

JOE: I think it’s important to keep in mind that visibility is a personal thing, and some folks may never want to be visible, and that’s a-ok. That being said, yes, I do hope that through our work, we can foster an athletic environment where those who want to be visible can be without repercussion.


KEVLAR: How can teams, leagues, sporting associations/organizations and/or coaches/trainers be more supportive to their Trans* members?

JOE: This is such an important question, but one that is really hard to answer, because it honestly depends so much on the individual. I think a major starting point for folks is to realize that not all TGI athletes are the same or have the same needs. For some folks, keeping quiet about someone’s identity or status is the right way to go. For others, supporting them in being visible and vocal and helping them break down barriers is the more appropriate approach. So, honestly, I think listening to your TGI athletes about what they need to feel welcome and supported is probably the most important thing.

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the role that gender policies currently play in controlling access for TGI athletes. As such, creating policies that are as inclusive and supportive as possible is a really important step. “What constitutes good policy?” is obviously a much larger discussion than we can get into here, but it is something that I and some other folks in the TGIAN are currently working on.


KEVLAR: What inspired you to create a Trans* support network for athletes?

JOE: A desire to have a larger, more active, and more accessible TGI athlete community. In developing my own personal network of peers over the last few years, I realized that there are actually lots of TGI athletes out there, and we often know each other through one or a few degrees of separation, but there isn’t much in the way of a broader community where we can share resources and experiences, support each other, organize our efforts, or hash out game plans for how to handle situations.

There was actually a specific situation that sparked the idea…last season I was at a tournament when a fan (who also skates in a league near by, but just came to watch that weekend) approached me after our first game and asked if I was trans. She told me that she, too, was trans, but that she wasn’t out to her team at all and wasn’t sure how to handle that situation. At that moment, I realized that I had access to a lot of resources and some awesome peers, access that a lot of other TGI athletes around the world don’t have. And that needs to change!

Photo courtesy of Gil Leora.

Photo courtesy of Gil Leora.


KEVLAR: Speaking of “hash[ing] out game plans for how to handle situations should they arise”, one discussion that had arisen in the TGIAN group was if/how to develop “action plans” for dealing with transphobic treatment and the difficult situations that can arise from them at sporting events, especially when it involves spectators, officials, announcers, etc. What did you learn from the experiences/opinions shared by members during the conversation and have you put together anything that other leagues could utilize going forward?

JOE: I’ve often found myself the target of “problematic” situations at public games, things like referees freely discussing my body (including genitalia), announcers referring to me as “he” (actually, I’ve had to deal with everyone referring to me as “he”…officials, opponents, etc.), and other teams questioning my ability to compete.

After a recent episode with this, our club’s general manager approached me about putting together an “action plan” for how to deal with these situations and maintain a safe and welcoming environment. I immediately put the idea up to the TGIAN group to find out if anyone had written an action plan or had ideas about what to include. Everyone was really supportive and helped me deal with the trauma aspect of the situation, although it sounded like most folks hadn’t personally dealt with these issues before.

Folks were definitely in agreement that an “action plan” was a good idea, but no one had really written one, so we spent some time hashing things out. The goal was to write something that outlined the goal, who was responsible for handling the situation, and what actions they could take, if necessary. We didn’t want to write something that was overly specific, and in fact, we decided to keep the “action plan” general to all forms of discrimination. It was an incredibly fruitful and enlightening discussion, and here’s what we came up with:

[Club/League/Team] are committed to providing an inclusive, safe, and welcoming environment for all players, officials, volunteers, and fans. We’re committed to eliminating any discrimination, abuse, and other speech and behavior that endangers this environment.

Any player, official, volunteer or fan can ask the Event Coordinator to intervene when an issue arises or has the potential to arise. To resolve the situation, the Event Coordinator can consult with any involved parties, eject offending participants from the event, and file a formal complaint with [Sanctioning Body].

If an issue arises on the track or influences gameplay, any team’s captain can meet with the Head Referee on behalf of a team member, and the Head Referee can halt play until the issue is resolved.

We believe in promoting the growth of roller derby through a safe and respectful environment, and welcome your feedback on how we can continue doing our part to make our sport the best it can be.

KEVLAR: What are some issues faced by, or topics concerning, TGI individuals (be they athletes or not) that you would personally like to see more discussion on, or exposure of, through the greater blogosphere (all the blogs and their inter-connectivity), social media and/or mainstream news sources?

JOE: A big one for me is working to make sports, and other gender-segregated spaces, inclusive and welcoming for everyone, not just those who fit well into the gender binary. As someone who doesn’t identify with the gender binary, contemporary athletic culture (including roller derby), functionally treats me as if I don’t exist. I have to choose a gender, otherwise I can’t play.
Honestly, I am a huge fan of desegregating sports (if there’s no gender segregation, then there’s no worry about gender, and everyone is allowed to play), but I know we’re quite far from that right now. So what do we do in the interim? How do we make sports accessible to everyone? It’s for this reason that I promote “self-identity” based gender policies, rather than gender policies that define what it is to be a “woman” or a “man.”

Also, can we please just call out the “competitive advantage” discussion surrounding TGI athletes for what it is? Thinly veiled discrimination and disbelief. I’m really saddened by the fact that this one topic continues to dominate the public narrative surrounding TGI athletes and causes us to be reactionary. Yes, I have competitive advantages. So what? All athletes have competitive advantages…that’s the nature of sports.


KEVLAR: Overall, how supportive and/or understanding is the athletic community toward TGI athletes?

JOE: Variable, on average not that much, but generally moving in the right direction. Sports culture certainly mirrors general society in this regard, although may be on average a little bit behind. In my experiences, there is a huge difference among sports in terms of their general queer (and specifically TGI) acceptance, inclusion, and support.


KEVLAR: Roller derby is often promoted by leagues, teams and individuals as being one of the MOST inclusive and welcoming sports around for people of all shapes, size, identities and walks of life. In your opinion, from your personal experience and through discussions with others, is Roller Derby more, or less, accepting, inclusive and supportive of gender queer and TGI athlete than other sports? Why do you think that is?

JOE: In my personal experience, derby has certainly been the most queer-inclusive sport I’ve been a part of, but as a former football player and wrestler, that bar is set quite low. Indeed, sports culture more generally does have a long and sad history of being queer-phobic, so being the most queer-inclusive sport isn’t necessarily saying very much.

As to why this is, I honestly don’t know! I think the bottom-up/DIY approach to modern roller derby, as well as the fact that it came into being at a time when broader social acceptance of queer folks was on the rise probably both played a big part. That and the Vagine Regime.


Kevlar 2Written by Kevin ‘Kevlar’ Dennison

If you missed it, check out yesterday’s article!


    1. Couldn’t agree more, Marci! She truly is inspiring and her hard work at creating and fostering the TGIAN is extremely commendable. It’s refreshing seeing a person working so hard to be the change that she wants to see :).

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