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:
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!