The Pack is Queer
A popular roller derby tee shirt reads, “Strong. Athletic. Queer.” It was designed by Cristen Perks, aka “Sandy Ravage,” of the Texas Rollergirls, the birthplace of the modern roller derby revival. Women’s sports (like men’s) have always included a number of queer people. But roller derby stands out, not solely because it is the only sport created by women in which the men’s version is the derivative. “It’s roller derby, and then men’s roller derby,” says Karen “Hippie HeadBangHer” Huff, a veteran skater for Red Stick Roller Derby, Baton Rouge’s only sanctioned league. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the international organization that preside over thousands of leagues worldwide, has also recently amended its by-laws with a gender-inclusive statement:
WFTDA’s bold statement supporting the inclusion of gender non-conforming athletes distinguishes it from the great majority of sports, and roller derby’s potential inclusion in the 2020 Olympics could turn this decision into a path-breaking precedent. At the local level, roller derby’s commitment to queerness and queer women can make a world of difference. Hippie’s fiancée, Anna Pearson or “Scrappy,” who also plays for Red Stick Roller Derby’s B-team the Capital Defenders, tells me how much derby means for Southern women: “We definitely weren’t privileged to have an open-minded community growing up in private and public schools in the South. Stepping foot into such a welcoming diverse crowd is probably one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had.” Hippie and Scrappy, both derby veterans engaged to be married and parents to two children, actually met on the track—as competitors. Hippie was playing for Jackson, Mississippi’s Magnolia Roller Vixens while Scrappy was on her second game with Capital Defenders. “Hippie’s team beat the crap out of us,” Scrappy tells me. But when Hippie reached out to her, they started a relationship. “I drove three hours there straight from work every Friday and stayed the weekend over the course of about a month.” Hippie says it was more like two weeks. “We U-Hauled it for sure,” she jokes.
Romantic relationships between skaters are very frequent. Cinnamon Rolls (Elyssa Skye Schexsnayder) says there is something sexy about seeing a woman playing roller derby. Derby’s campy culture plays a large part in its sex appeal: skaters often don provocative “boutfits” or adopt raunchy names. This playful theatrical side also puts derby apart from other women’s sports, which by necessity attempt to keep a professional ethos. But perhaps it is because, paradoxically, in full-contact sports a woman’s body ceases to be an aesthetic object; it becomes a tool which is only improved by hard work, by sweat, by dedication. Rolls, a very petite woman who used to be a cheerleader, confesses, “I didn’t really want muscles before derby, because it didn’t think it was attractive. But then I realized it would help me actually play the game.”
Recently, as I was telling an interested woman about roller derby, she said she’d like to try it but thought she wasn’t strong enough. This common misconception highlights women’s insecurities about their own physical power in a culture in which strength equates a masculine, muscly, “big” physique. On the contrary, physical activities targeted at adult women—such as yoga—evoke an image of fitness that implies a thin body—not strong but “healthy.” Derby is somewhat similar to football in that it requires bigger athletes—women who can hit hard, women who can be hard to move—and smaller ones—fast paced jammers (the offensive player who scores points). One of Red Stick’s All Stars’ favored jammer is a 4’11-tall petite skater who goes by Fun Size. But more than derby’s body-positive context, it is perhaps its peculiar mix of boot-strap attitude with positive reinforcement that makes it such a positive environment for women.
“Derby is a series of moments of failure,” says Gayle Kees, aka Turbo Tyke, the co-captain for the All Stars. “Failure in this sport is inevitable—at some point you’re going to let the jammer go, or as a jammer you’re going to come up against an impenetrable wall of blockers. So what do we have to do is learn from these failures so that we can transform them into a pathway to future success.” She has us close our eyes and visualize the moment we fell, the time we were hit out or down. Then she tells us to reimagine the scene but this time succeeding in our attempt to jump the apex, or to hold the jammer, or to definitely knock out that opposing blocker. To think of a competitive sport as a series of moments of failure might seem counter-intuitive, but for a full-contact activity that involves running and getting hit while on roller squads, failure is a constant. Playing roller derby means falling on buttocks, on knees, on tailbone, on face; it is a perpetual fighting duel with the hard concrete. But for many women, the point of the game is to get back up.
Rogue Bludger (Rachel Berard), who plays as a blocker for the All Stars, says roller derby has transformed her shy real-life persona and made her into a leader. It is hard for me to imagine the person I know as Rogue to be anything butstrong, given that I have seen (and felt) her hit out more people than I can count. But Rogue has made a new person out of Rachel “My derby persona is much more aggressive. Bludgers are objects that hit people, just like me. In my real life, I’m a lot more outspoken now, especially in classes. I’m more comfortable leading projects and groups, at giving directions, and receiving and giving feedback.” For a woman getting her MBA, a field largely male-dominated, this is no small feat. But for a sport that relies so much on hard physical contact, derby also fosters an incredible network for women.
“Derby has changed my relationship to women. I went from having one female friend to fifty. I love women a lot more now, because you see an amazing variety in derby, they all come from diverse background and bring diverse talents and it’s really amazing to watch them play,” says Rogue. Many skaters were most inspired to join or continue playing because of another player. Rogue, who used to play Quidditch and soccer, says that derby is different because it requires a strong female bonding. “Co-ed sports tend to be very male-dominated.” On the contrary, derby is largely organized and controlled by women, and that creates an environment in which women support each other and build relationships that are rare for adults. Rolls says, “A dude doesn’t understand how important it is for you to feel strong in the eyes of women with a bunch of other women. You’re not competing with them for the attention of men. And you’re doing something that your boyfriend couldn’t do. They don’t get that—they don’t get the fact that we’re conditioned to think of ourselves as the weaker gender.”
Rolls’ assessment may be right, but in roller derby women—especially queer women, lesbians, bisexual women, transwomen, feminine gender non-conforming people—find a community in which the only requirement is to get low, hit hard, and get back up.