Since its resurrection in the early noughties, roller derby has become known as one of the world's most inclusive sports; primarily for women, but also for those who do not sit within the gender binary. In the last couple of weeks that inclusivity within Australian derby has come under threat. How the community dealt with it can teach us much about how to make sport a more inclusive space for all.
Roller derby, a full-contact sport on skates, was reinvigorated in the early 2000s in Austin, Texas, and since then has become one of the fastest growing sports worldwide. Essential to this growth has been an early ethos of derby as being a community-run, female-focused sport. Developed by women, derby flipped the standard sport binary that assumes men are stronger and women are weaker.
Jessica Rabid, the president of the Varsity Derby League based in Canberra, explores some of this mentality, saying: “One of the things about derby is that every body type has an advantage. In my case, I am six-foot-two and fat, but that means I take up a lot of space and have a lot of inertia behind me. But if someone is tiny and skinny then they can fit through a gap I can't even fit my hand through. There's an advantage to everything.”
Over time, this mentality has expanded to incorporate those who do not sit within the man/woman gender binary. Often isolated from other community sports, trans*, genderqueer, bi-gender and other gender non-conforming people began to find a safe space within derby. This push was led by the skating community, which was increasingly crossing over with the broader queer community. In turn, this became reflected by the official organisations of the sport. Roller derby is largely regulated by two global organisations: the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) and the Men’s Roller Derby Association (MRDA). After years of work, both of these organisations have developed extremely inclusive gender policies (see WFTDA’s here, and MRDA’s here), with both allowing skaters to participate based solely on the self-definition of their gender.
Zephyr - a.k.a Princess Twinkletoes - identifies as ‘bi-gender’ and skates for The Victorian Vanguard, the Victorian men’s team. Zephyr identifies as ‘bi-gender’ and for them, being able to self-define gender is really important. The sport is not just inclusive but encourages people who are gender-non-conforming to form and build their identities within the sport. As Zephyr explains: "It's a sport that's both challenging and exciting but also inclusive and safe. It's a place that you can be yourself, but also you get to push yourself as well.”
Recently, however, this inclusivity in Australia came under serious threat. While Australian teams are regulated by WFTDA and MRDA, the vast majority receive their insurance by an organisation called Skate Victoria. Over time, Skate Victoria has noticed a growth in mixed, or co-ed derby. Last week they released a new 'by-law' regarding insurance coverage for mixed-derby teams and competitions.
The new by-law presented significant changes to mixed competitions, with new rules that stated that organisers were required to provide separate change areas for male/females; that no single team could have a ratio of more 50% males on their team; that teams could not play more than two male members per jam during co-ed play; and that teams could not play a male Pivot/Jammer combo in any co-ed jam (the two most prominent positions on a track).
The by-law, introduced literally overnight, immediately caused a stir. The criticism came down to two things. First, the new rules required people to identify as either male or female in order to compete, when increasing numbers of skaters do not identify in this way. And second, the policy assumed that men are inherently better and stronger, and that therefore they are more likely to cause injuries and so their participation must be limited.
Both of these assumptions are directly contradictory to the values of the sport.
Jessica Rabid describes the shock that ran through the community, saying: “We were shocked, because we had not been consulted or warned at all that such change was in the works. We were also quite upset at how they had taken away what we had thought to be a safe space of mixed derby for people who were intersex, gender-fluid or otherwise didn't feel they fit into a box of male or female.”
Zephyr echoed the sentiment, adding: “[The new policies] didn't seem to fit with [what] roller derby is. It was twofold; On one hand it was saying that if you are part of this gender you can only have certain numbers on the track, and on the other side of the coin they just erased the identity of non-binary players. They pulled the rug from under me in terms that I didn't exist for them, [because I don't] comply with how the insurance companies recognise gender.”
Within moments of the new by-law being released, players and leagues across the country mobilised in opposition. This included intense discussion on various derby social media pages, but more importantly, involved individual players and leagues calling and writing letters to Skate Victoria to oppose the policy. Leagues then shared the responses they were receiving in order to formulate new responses and strategies in turn. This began to culminate as leagues worked together to draft a joint letter in opposition to the new rule.
Skate Victoria heard the criticism loud and clear, responding just as swiftly. They quickly began working closely with members of the derby community and with their insurance company on the issue. Within days, the new by-law was rescinded, ensuring no gender restrictions for insurance requirements for mixed-gender derby.
For skaters and leagues alike, the move highlights the strength of the community and the commitment to inclusivity. Zephyr said that the quick response "strengthened" how they feel about roller derby, adding: “I am overwhelmed about the amount of support I received. It was mind blowing how many people were angry about the fact that it didn't represent our derby.”
Jessica Rabid is also "very pleased with the outcome," but notes that she's "sorry it had to happen in the first place". Still, she says that it's “certainly made Skate Victoria more aware of issues that affect derby that may not affect other sports," adding: "It's also made them more aware of how tight-knit the community is, because we are all individual leagues but we are also a community.”
With the controversy over the Olympic Gold Medal winner Caster Semenya, the role of gender identity is increasingly being discussed in sport. Transphobia within sport is still rife, with the vast majority of queer and gender-non-conforming people still feeling isolated from most sporting communities. In reacting to this policy change, derby highlighted how a strong community that flips the standard gender assumptions about sport on its head can create and maintain a culture that works for all.