Making Derby a Safer and More Inclusive Sport for Trans, Gender Nonconforming and Intersex People

Written by Nillin Dennison

Derby has a policy problem. Yes, it’s not the only sport with these issues but to brush off criticism and discussion of how the policies of leagues and organizations are currently regarding and treating transgender, gender non-conforming and intersex (TGI) athletes is to be complacent toward and dismissive of valid concerns.

Policies should protect and enable TGI athletes to participate in athletics that correspond to their gender identity without discriminating against them, shaming them, marginalizing them, antagonizing them, without establishing inequitable barriers for their inclusion. Basically, policies should allow TGI athletes the opportunity to play and compete just as any cisgender athletes can.

Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case as more often than not gender policies tend to set hindering expectations, requirements, and restrictions for TGI athletes that no cisgender member need worry about. This is problematic not only because it is discriminatory, but it can also just generally breed an environment of mistrust and scrutiny where a TGI athlete in particular could experience heightened distress, anxiety, apprehension, and depression. As Ms. Dr. Joseph L Simonis and Joe EJ Kaiser of the Windy City Rollers wrote in their co-authored piece for Derby Live entitled So You Want to Write a Gender Policy…:

Policies that hover over one’s head as league doctrine instill auras of insecurity and otherness – two things that are not only interpersonally toxic, but competitively toxic as well. Can your team really be a team if skaters don’t fully accept one another?

Some organizations and leagues have certainly gone to great lengths in taking the lead on making roller derby more accessible and friendly to TGI athletes. The Men’s Roller Derby Association’s Non- Discrimination policy is outstanding in creating a safe and inclusive environment for all members. There have been some leagues that have taken similar steps as well, such as the Mad Rollin’ Dolls of Madison, Wisconsin and Windy City Rollers of Chicago, Illinois.

Before one can begin to consider and discuss TGI inclusion in athletics, self education and awareness of the basic language and concepts surrounding gender identity and expression is essential. Here are a few starting points:

Trans* Terminology

Understanding Gender

Gender Non-Conformity, Sex Variation, and Sport

Transitioning While Non-Binary

Of course these just serve as a starting point. Being truly aware requires educating yourself. Please continue to do your own research by seeking out the narratives of TGI individuals, informing yourself of the rights and protections that TGI people do and do not have, keep abreast of the major issues that trans people face such as high murder rates, high suicide rates, increased harassment, homelessness, discrimination, and more.

With such tremendous adversity to face on a day to day basis, TGI people could benefit immensely from involvement in roller derby if leagues and organizations would do more to support and value them.

The following articles and reports offer a wide variety of suggestions for how you can create a safer and more welcoming space for trans, gender nonconforming, and intersex athletes; as well as ways to improve your existing policies to be more inclusive:

On the Team: Equal Opportunity for Transgender Student Athletes

Sport in Transition: Making Sport in Canada More Responsible for Gender Inclusivity

Out for Sports: Tackling Transphobia in Sports

Creating Safe and Inclusive Spaces for Trans* and Gender Non-Conforming Athletes

If you love this sport, value its image as a safe and accepting space, then please do not look at all of this with indifference.

Commit to make roller derby a GENUINELY safe, welcoming, respectful, and inclusive community for TGI athletes and you will in turn see more TGI individuals interested in supporting the sport and involving themselves with you league in a variety of ways. But change has to come from within the community as a WHOLE. TGI participants cannot solely be the ones to make any revolutionary changes. They’re the people who are already overwhelmed with discriminatory policies and bogged down by barriers designed to keep them out or hold them back from engaging in the sport uninhibitedly; all while just struggling to survive day to day in a world that fears, dislikes, and rejects them. In the end, it is cisgender participants, leaders and role models who need to challenge their perception, question the intentions behind sex and gender segregation, and to choose to explicitly and vocal speak out.

The greater derby community has the opportunity, right now, to legitimately take profound steps toward TRUE inclusivity, support, respect, and acceptance for TGI people. But for the sport to truly take the lead and reach its full potential as an innovative trailblazer in the world of athletics will require humility, compassion, acceptance, a willingness to learn and listen, and ACTION from as many people as possible.