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.

Call to Action: Don’t Just Do it For 57

Written by Nillin Dennison

TW: suicide, transphobia.

As wonderful as it has been to see so many people wearing turquoise in remembrance of Sam Taub following his tragic suicide earlier this month, I feel that many are not having the hard conversations required to actually address the overwhelming issues facing transgender, gender nonconforming, gender non binary, and intersex individuals involved within this sport. Yes, bullying is a problem that requires constant consideration and attention on all fronts. However, the roller derby community currently stands at a crossroads where it can either legitimately take profound steps toward TRUE inclusivity, support, respect, and acceptance for people who are trans, or it can simply return to the status quo of discriminatory policies policing trans people in the binary sex and gender segregated world of athletics. I for one would be extremely disappointed to see the latter occur.

Yesterday’s article from Derby Central entitled See Derby #doitfor57 did an outstanding job of highlighting some other points of discussion that deserve immediate attention. Among the issues they mention are the need for gender neutral bathrooms at venues and the importance of ensuring that where you host your after party is a genuinely safe space for trans athletes/volunteers/fans/officials. Furthermore, choosing to ignore these things, being inactive on them when we should be active, is in itself perpetuating the discrimination of transgender, gender nonconforming, gender non-binary, and intersex individuals who are involved with this sport.

Last Friday, Aoife O’Riordan at Free Thought Blogs took this discussion one-step farther:

“And maybe-just-maybe, right now is a time to look at our leagues as a whole. At our representative organisations. Do we have policies in place to protect our trans leaguemates and teammates? Are those policies really based on making our leagues a welcoming space for trans people, or are they just fancily dressed gatekeeping and cisnormativity? Because if it’s the latter, then it’s past time that we changed that. We pride ourselves in being models of inclusivity for sporting communities. Let’s put our money (er, time and committee hours) where our mouths are on this one. Let’s create spaces where trans people and identities are not just accepted, but actively valued on an equal basis with cis people and identities.

And if you’re not a derb- what circles do you live your life in? How do those circles value cis lives over trans? Not do they, but how do they, because I can guarantee you that they do. Where can you change this? What are you going to do?

This is literally a matter of life and death.”

I highly recommend reading the rest of the blog post as well, but for the sake of talking about these issues as they relate to roller derby specifically I find the above portion of the post to be particularly interesting because it indicates something that has long been suggested by activists within the sport…

WFTDA’s Gender Policy is Discriminatory of Trans and Intersex People and It Needs to Change, Now.

There. I’ve said it. And I’m not the first one to either.

A few leagues and individuals have already spoken out about how the Gender Policy is, essentially, textbook institutionalized discrimination as it ONLY applies to trans and/or intersex skaters and it requires a large degree of cisnormative conformity from them.

Since its implementation in 2011 the WFTDA Gender Policy has created a number of inclusivity barriers for trans and intersex athletes as it requires them, and only them, to maintain medical documentation that, if requested due to somebody challenging their gender eligibility, they must provide in order to prove that they are female enough, woman enough, according to the policy’s vague definition of a female; which is: “Living as a woman and having sex hormones that are within the medically acceptable range for a female.”

This is problematic on many levels. Firstly, WFTDA’s insistence on trans skaters having ‘medically acceptable’ levels of hormones for a female completely ignores the fact that there are many women assigned-female-at-birth who identify as women, aka cisgender women, who have testosterone levels that would likely be considered as outside of the ‘medically acceptable’ range. But they don’t ever have to worry about that because they are cisgender, and this policy is for transgender and intersex skaters. Furthermore, the policy is harmful in that is essentially polices trans identities, placing an unfair burden of proof on trans skaters, and is only inclusive to SOME trans skaters. That is to say that if you’re trans or intersex, you can absolutely play WFTDA sanctioned roller derby… so long as you are on Hormone Replacement Therapy (which is incredibly expensive btw) and a doctor is willing to provide a subjective opinion that somehow verifies this treatment has made you woman enough.

Leagues such as the Philly Roller Girls have long called for amendments to and spoken out against the implementation of the WFTDA Gender Policy. In 2011, PRG wrote an open letter in which they stated that:

“… we would like to respectfully and publicly state that we did not vote in favor of the official WFTDA Policy on Gender. We do not believe it is inclusive enough, and that the logistics of the policy may potentially lead to wide-reaching problems regarding hormone testing, and the process of contesting an athlete’s levels during the competitive season.”

Unfortunately, four years later, this has proven to be a very real issue for many skaters including Ms Dr Joseph L Simonis of the Windy City Rollers who in a recent article entitled Doing it for 57 described the harmful impact that the current policy has had on her own mental health and well-being:

“Even spaces like derby, which has been so amazing and supportive for me, are nowhere near perfect. Indeed, the most suicidal I have been since I was that teenager trying to figure out what heck I was was last year during Playoff Derby Season, when I had the fear (which was later realized) of having people Officially Call Into Question my gender.”

I feel that this really highlights how WFTDA’s Gender Policy can be easily used as a discriminatory tool in the hands of transphobic, intolerant, or prejudiced people. I also feel that its very existence, worded how it currently is, just generally creates an unsafe, uncomfortable, scary, and unwlecoming environment in which trans and intersex participants must constantly worry about their gender being questioned or invalidated at any given time. For a sport that prides itself on embracing and empowering people to have a widely utilized policy in place that does the exact opposite is, I feel, beyond frustrating and entirely unacceptable.

It’s now Monday, April 20, 2015. Nearly 4 years ago, members of the Philly Roller Girls, who were volunteering at the East Coast Derby Extravaganza, gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition asking the WFTDA revise their gender policy to be more inclusive before its implementation. They also handed out temporary tattoos of the transgender pride flag that numerous participants at the event wore to show their solidarity with and support for a more inclusive environment for trans athletes.

In a 2011 article written by Lenore Gore for Five on Five Magazine, the Philly Roller Girl’s protests at ECDX 2011 were described as being incredibly inspiring and community building:

“Hundreds of rollergirls responded favorably to their cause, and transgender pride tattoos were visible everywhere you looked – on arms, faces, even cleavage. It was a heartening sight that brought me to tears more than once. It began healing the anger I had harbored for so long from the witch hunt that I had faced within my own league. The atmosphere their protest created made ECDX 2011 the first time I ever felt comfortable talking publicly about being transgender with other rollergirls, coming out to many DC Rollergirls for the first time and also sharing stories with other out transgender rollergirls including Rita “Jacquelyn Heat” Kelly from Philly and Melanie “Nameless Whorror” Pasztor from Montreal.”

As the community continues to wear teal and show support for Sam Taub through the #DoItFor57 campaign, I sincerely hope that everyone will also take a deeper look at the current state of trans rights and protections within both their own leagues as well as under whatever governing body they operate. As a role model of mine, Joe EJ Kaiser of the Windy City Rollers and Chicago Red Hots, who has spoken openly about the astronomical social, cultural, and political odds stacked against trans people, recently said on Facebook: “…we are not strong enough to change the world. we have to use our strength to stay in the 59%, to make a life we can survive in. if you’re not already advocating for trans individuals, you should start.”

So, don’t just do it for 57. Also do it for the entire 41% of trans people who have attempted suicide in the US, for the 48% of trans people who have attempted suicide in the UK, and for the 43% of trans people in Canada who have attempted suicide.

Furthermore, do it for the trans, gender nonconforming, gender non-binary, and intersex people participating in derby right now who only wish to find a space in this sport amidst a world struggling to see them as valid human beings deserving of the same basic rights as everyone else.

If you’re a WFTDA affiliated team, talk to your league reps. Voice concern over this policy. Write to the WFTDA directly requesting them to either amend the policy or have it apply to ALL skaters, both cisgender and transgender. And if your league is not affiliated to a governing organization take a look at any gender policies that may currently be implemented. If it looks anything like the WFTDA policy, start a conversation with your league mates about how to make it more inclusive.

It’s time for change.

NOTE: And don’t forget to EDUCATE YOURSELF. The internet is chock full of outstanding resources that explain gender identity, gender expression, sex,  intersex, and all sort of trans issues. Take the time to inform yourself on these issues and work to understand why they are important. Here are a few starting points:

Understanding Gender

Top 10 Myths About Transgender People

An Epidemic of Deadly Anti-Trans Violence

Transgender Suicide Attempt Rates Are Staggering

Enforcing the Binary; How Sporting Agencies Segregate and Govern Over Gender

Transgender Athletes and the Fight for Inclusion

Breaking Binaries: Transphobia in Sport

UPDATE: Support the #amenditWFTDA campaign, calling on the WFTDA to review its discriminatory policy and strive for true inclusivity. Share the graphic too!

#amenditWFTDA 02


Rest in Power Sam Taub, Roller Derby Community Mourns Following Suicide of Trans Junior Skater

Written by Nillin Dennison

Today, I was absolutely devastated to learn of the suicide of a junior derby skater from West Bloomfield, Michigan named Sam Taub, who also happened to be a young trans man, on April 9th, 2015. Known as Casper in the derby community, Sam skated under #57 alongside his teammates in the Darlings of Destruction Junior Derby League out of Roseville, Michigan. My sincere condolences to all of those affected by this tragic loss, who knew and loved Sam.


Sam’s tragic death highlights one of the most important issues and struggles that trans people face, that of suicidal thoughts. Over the past several months, 12 other trans individuals have taken their lives for a variety of reasons including bullying, abuse, depression, forced conversion therapy, as well as the general fear, loneliness, and hopelessness that also comes with being closeted. These are hard things to think about, let alone recognize, but they are important nonetheless as they are literally leading to the deaths of people who are trans. It is also important to note that approximately 62% of the reported trans suicides that we know about were of trans boys between the ages of 15-24.

Last year we learned of the reported suicides of 17-year-old Riley Moscatel on August 18 in Croyden, Pennsylvania; 24-year-old Andi Woodhouse on December 13 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; 23-year-old Jay Ralko on December 24 in Warren, Michigan; and 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn on December 28 in Union Township, Ohio. 2015 has since seen the reported suicides of 23-year-old Eylul Cansin on January 5 in Istanbul, Turkey; 19-year-old Melonie Rose on February 11 in Laurel, Maryland; 15-year-old Zander Mahaffey on February 15 in Austell, Georgia; 22-year-old Aubrey Mariko Shine on February 24 in San Francisco, California; 16-year-old Ash Haffner on February 26 in Charlotte, North Carolina; 18-years-old Taylor Wells on March 15 in Springfield, Illinois; 18-year-old Blake Brockington on March 23 in Charlotte, North Carolina; 16-year-old Taylor Alesana on April 2 in Fallbrook, Carolina; and now 15-year-old Sam Taub on April 9 in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

One of the unfortunate issues following the murder or suicide of a person who is trans is that they are often misgendered by media, police, friends, and family. In almost all of the above cases, the individuals who died were originally reported on under their birth names, not their real names, and were misgendered as their sex assigned at birth. That is to say that young trans men were being remembered as girls, and young trans women were being remembered as boys. Misgendering is often one of the most hurtful things that a trans person can experience in their life and the act of misgendering is often a core part of the bullying and abuse they experience prior to their deaths. To misgender somebody is to invalidate their identity, to undermine their self-concept, and to disregard their existence as a human being worthy of respect. While it may be difficult, please ensure that you are making every effort to not misgender a person who is trans in life or in death as doing so just leads to perpetuation of the harmful behavior.

For further reading:

Transgender People are Misgendered, Even After Death

Being Misgendered, Whether Intentional or Not, Causes Pain

This is Why Trans People Rarely Speak Up When They Are Misgendered

In response to this growing concern, the trans community has decided to remember those lost through a hashtag campaign which reaffirms their identity. It looks a little something like this:

#‎HisNameWasAndi‬ ‪#‎HisNameWasAsh‬ ‪#‎HerNameWasAubrey‬ ‪#‎HisNameWasBlake‬ ‪#‎HerNameWasEylul‬ ‪#‎HisNameWasJay‬ ‪#‎HerNameWasLeelah‬ ‪#‎HerNameWasMelonie‬  ‪#‎HerNameWasTaylor‬ ‪#‎HisNameWasTaylor‬ ‪#‎HisNameWasZander ‪#‎HisNameWasSam

The greater derby community too has created a campaign called #doitfor57 which calls on all skaters bouting this upcoming weekend to wear turquoise as tribute to Sam and to discuss the epidemic of bullying in all communities.

How  You Can Look Out For and Support Your Leaguemates Who Are Trans

1. Reach out to the nearest LGBTQI+ centre, or pride organization, to inquire about Safe Space training or general sexual and gender diversity training. Make it mandatory for all members of the league to participate in this training.

2. Call out ANY homophobic and/or transphobic insults or harassment that you see either on the track or off of the track, even if the people doing it “don’t mean it”. Do not stand idly by while this behavior happens. Reality is that there are likely MANY people who are trans in roller derby who are not out to their leagues for any number of reasons, possibly even because they do not feel safe being out in such a sex segregated sport such as roller derby. As such, allowing the use of anti-LGBT language is just going to further hurt those people who are trans and reduce the likelihood of them ever feeling comfortable with being out.

3. Many mental health service providers offer suicide awareness, prevention and intervention training as well. Consider seeking out this education by contacting your nearest Canadian Mental Health Association, or health care provider.

4. Always use the name and pronouns that a person who is trans provides you.

5. If a person who is trans comes out to you, recognize what an incredible gesture they are making having shared such a sensitive, personal thing about themselves. Never out them to others by introducing them as being trans. Furthermore, if you suspect that somebody is trans, never ask others what they think. That creates an environment of rumors. Instead, if you are unsure of a person’s gender identity, speak to them privately and ask what their pronouns are.

If you are transgender, gender non-binary, or gender nonconforming, or gender questioning, and you are experiencing a crisis or you have been contemplating suicide, PLEASE call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860 (in the US) or 1-877-330-6366 (in Canada). This is a FREE, non-profit helpline service dedicated to the well being of transgender people, staffed by transgender people.

UPDATE:  a follow up Call to Action has been posted. We have the chance, right now, to legitimately take profound steps toward TRUE inclusivity, support, respect, and acceptance for people who are trans in the sport of roller derby, to be a trailblazer in the world of athletics… but we have to do a lot more than just wear teal and #doitofr57 stickers. We have to start having the hard conversations required to actually address these overwhelming issues.