Non-Binary in Sport: How Derby Got My Groove Back
Our day-to-day world is divided up into “men” and “women” in so many places that most people don’t think twice about. There are bathrooms and locker rooms, of course, sports teams and clothing departments, but also clubs (eg. Girl and Boy Scouts), social events (“Ladies Night!” “The Book Club for Men!”), and paperwork everywhere from online shopping to the federal census.
For cisgender people, it’s usually easy enough to go tick the right box and go through the right door. For transgender people, there’s incredibly difficulty in being accepted and getting access. It gets even more complicated when you’re nonbinary: a transgender person who is neither a man nor a woman. Where’s the locker room for me?
High school was rough for me in a lot of ways. Back then, I hadn’t figured out that I was genderqueer; the source of my constant dysphoria was undefined. Of course it was: gender divisions that I didn’t fit were everywhere, impossible to isolate. So being made to enrol in girls’ physical education, use the girls’ locker room, and play on girls’ league sports teams wasn’t a particular trauma for me. In some ways, that kind of thing gets worse after you figure out you’re transgender.
In university I finally found the vocabulary to describe my gender, and I realized that transitioning would make my life a lot happier. But along with that, I realized that for the rest of my life, I would never belong in most of the (unnecessarily) gendered spaces in society. Most people don’t even realize that there are nonbinary genders, let alone make a few adaptations to accept us. I spent five years slinking along the margins, avoiding events that I desperately wanted to attend, because the benefit of attending wasn’t worth the emotional and physical distress of implicitly identifying myself as the wrong gender.
And then I found out about roller derby.
Created in 1935, roller derby was given a radical facelift in 2001. That’s when it re-emerged as a hard-hitting, full contact sport run, played, and dominated by women. There’s “football” and “women’s football,” “soccer” and “women’s soccer”… but “derby” and “men’s derby.” For once, women are the default, and in this space they’re free to break gender roles that still very much exist in society: they can be aggressive, uncouth, competitive, sweaty, hairy, raunchy, and strong. In short, all normal human things that women are arbitrarily denied.
The sport itself was still very gendered and binary, yes… until 2016. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) released an international policy on gender inclusivity:
The WFTDA recognizes that identifying as transgender, intersex, and/or gender expansive is not in any way related to an individual’s eligibility for participating as a volunteer or employee. An individual who identifies as a trans woman, intersex woman, and/or gender expansive may skate with a WFTDA charter team (…)
The WFTDA will actively work to promote a climate that is welcoming and inclusive of transgender, intersex, and gender expansive participants. Any conduct which fosters a hostile environment for any participant on the basis of gender identity will not be tolerated.
A sport culture created by women, who have been systematically excluded from spaces and roles in society, turned around and said, We’re not doing the same thing to someone else. If this is where you fit, you are welcome here.
I thought the game looked fun, but I teetered against signing up until I found out about the inclusive policy. Then I jumped, and I got my mind blown.
For the first time in my life, I was comfortable enough to participate long-term in a sport. I went from casually never exercising to being… well, comparatively stronger and faster, which is all derby asks. In fresh meat training, there wasn’t even a mention of losing weight, which is still a major focus of women’s fitness culture. In roller derby, your body is just a body. If you’re fat, you can absolutely play; they teach you how to swing your big butt and leverage your weight to hit harder. All you have to do is be strong, not small.
That’s an incredible mindset, something that can help women unlearn the fatphobia we all internalize from diet culture. It also helped me to untangle some of my own body issues as a trans person. Which part of my discomfort was internalized fatphobia about being chubby, and which was gender dysphoria about having a curvy shape that people would read as female? I learned, and unlearned, and got healthier inside and out.
When I passed fresh meat training and came in to get my roster photo taken, I took another leap of faith: I balled up my fists and wrote my pronouns on my knuckles in allcaps. THEY / THEM.
Fellow players waiting at the photography studio saw my knuckles, blinked, and asked if those were my pronouns. Yeah, I said. Okay, cool, they said.
Not one peep about my gender, not one shade of the transphobic rejection that I literally live in fear of. And everybody in the league has done their best to use my pronouns ever since. When someone slips up, other players correct them. That’s enough support to make me blink back tears when I overhear it. (Low standards, I know. Society does that to trans people.) Writing my pronouns on my knuckles is still my game day charm. Some people paint their faces or wear costumes; I put on my “fighting words.”
WFTDA’s one short policy statement on inclusivity set the groundwork for this culture of support. It also made it possible for me to even set foot through the door in the first place. I’d never have known how supportive the league would be if I hadn’t been able to attend that first enrollment session. But WFTDA made that gesture, and they followed through on their commitment.
And here I am, faster and stronger and happier than I’ve ever been.
Cole Ramsey plays in Pile o’ Bones Derby Club as #212, Stonewaller. They are sponsored by Moose Jaw Pride.
The PBDC 2017 Championship game is on Saturday, September 9, at 6:45 PM, at the Caledonian Curling Club in Regina.