Hip Check: Roller Derby's Radical Queer Challenge to the IOC
Roller derby is a full contact, women’s sport played on a quad skates and is often described as one of the fastest growing women’s sports in the world. The governing body of the sport is the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), though men and children also play the sport. In the early years of the sport, gender expression, rather than identity, was hotly debated among skaters. Debates revolved around the hypersexualized outfits players wore at games, like fishnets and “booty shorts,” which blurred the line between uniform and costume. In recent years, derby has come to take itself more seriously as a sport and has sought to legitimize the athleticism of skaters and to gain recognition from the larger sports community. Part of this larger recognition involves the sport’s interest in being included in the Olympics, a process that has brought derby’s foundational ethos into conflict with Olympic rules about gender identity and expression.
Early in the process, roller derby sought to align itself with the guidelines that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had established. In 2011, the WFTDA issued a gender statement containing similar terms to the policy held by IOC at the time. WFTDA attempted to define the social category and gender expression of “woman” according to hormone levels, specifically “living as a woman and having sex hormones that are within the medically acceptable range for a female.” The statement regarding transgender skaters was, as is the IOC’s 2015 Consensus Statement, hormone-based.
But there was pushback form skaters. An open letter to WFTDA published by Philly Roller Derby in 2012 stated the contradictions in the policy and its incompatibility with the ethos of roller derby. Regarding the requirement that trans women live “as a woman,” Philly Roller Derby wrote, “Philly Roller Girls believes this creates a double standard countering the embrace of nonconformity that is one of the very special elements of flat track derby.”
WFTDA eventually amended their gender statement in late 2016, which now reads, “An individual who identifies as a trans woman, intersex woman, and/or gender expansive may skate with a WFTDA charter team if women’s flat track roller derby is the version and composition of roller derby with which they most closely identify.” Between 2012 and late 2016, WFTDA’s statement replaced a biologically-determined, hormone-based sex with a social category of gender, established by self-identification. While the statement now fits better with the ethos of roller derby, it remains in direct conflict with the IOC Consensus.
In a 2014 Derby Frontier blog post celebrating Trans* Week in sports, blogger and derby referee Kevlar interviewed Ohio Roller Girls skater Smacktivist about their participation in a women’s sport while identifying as transmasculine. In the post Kevlar asks how roller derby compares to other sports in regard to “identity erasure, gender segregation and general trans inclusion in sports.” Smacktivist answers, “This is an interesting and difficult question to answer because I feel like we are kind of in the midst of this big discussion of ‘how can we be more inclusive but still maintain our identity as a woman’s sport?’ [...] My number one hope for derby is that we can find a way to be inclusive of non-binary identities, and if that isn’t something that can happen in the future, then, at the very least it is IMPERATIVE that transwomen are included in the sport in a fair and equal way.”
Skaters Ms. Dr. Joseph L. Simonis and Rude Gus (also known as Bi Felicia, Pope Trans/cis) wrote on the Derby Life blog in early 2016 about policies written by derby leagues regarding trans, gender non-conforming, or intersex (TGI) derby players. They conclude that just accepting TGI players isn’t enough. A non-discrimination policy, however, goes farther in showing the world and future skaters that they will be accepted. “That’s good for them, good for your team, and good for derby,” they wrote.
Olympic athletes who are women are subject to “sex verification” tests to ensure that they are female enough to compete in the women’s division of their sport. The IOC Consensus Statement stipulates the maximum amount of testosterone in women’s blood should not exceed 10 nanomoles per liter (10 nmol/L.) The last two Olympic events were played without the implementation of sex verification tests in the women’s events, due to an ongoing legal case regarding sex verification for female athletes with hyperandrogenism. Where the WFTDA has shifted its position on who can play roller derby based on individual, self-reported gender identity, the IOC still requires a biological measure of sex verification to separate athletes into men’s and women’s competition classes.
The 2015 IOC Consensus Statement appeals to both protection and fairness as reasons behind continued sex verification for women, but it is unclear if the rules provide either. Despite hypervigilance since 1900, no man has competed in or medaled in a women’s Olympic event. With regard to fairness, it does seem unfair to allow women who have elevated levels of testosterone to compete, given that 1-Testosterone taken exogenously is on the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) 2018 Prohibited List. However, if elevated testosterone in a woman is produced naturally, as it is in women who have the medical condition hyperandrogenism, it could be seen as fair as other physiological advantages such as visual acuity, height, or adequate lifelong nutrition. There is no scientific evidence to support the claim that hyperandrogenism has been shown to provide a competitive advantage for female athletes. But the challenge that a sport like roller derby presents to the IOC is something far more radical and goes beyond the scientific construction of a gender binary.
Because the WFTDA no longer requires gender confirmation surgery or hormone-based sex verification to make a derby charter, seeking participation in the Olympics offers skaters who are trans-masculine, intersex, trans women, gender expansive, masculine of center, or gender-queer the opportunity to represent their country, but subjects them to the dubious science behind sex verification under the IOC’s current rules. WFTDA’s member leagues encouraging gender expansivity in derby is the right thing to do for a sport that is often described as fundamentally queer.
Since its reinvention 2004 as a sport played and governed by women/for women, broadly construed, roller derby has fully embraced its queer potential. Even the form of the game is nonconforming — unlike most women’s sports, it is not a diminutive of a men’s sport, played with a modified ball, smaller field, or lower number of matches per game. Rather, derby is an aggressive, full contact sport that is inclusive of a broad range of identities, body shapes, ages, and sizes.
Roller Derby actively sought being included in the 2020 Olympics held in Tokyo, but were not chosen in favor of “x-game,” or lifestyle sports, such as skateboarding and surfing. The only current Olympic sport that boasts similar origins as a women’s only, non-diminutive sport is synchronized swimming. While skating on the world stage as an Olympic sport is still a goal for WFTDA, the patriarchal offer of protection and fairness stipulated in nanomoles undercuts much of the reason why players love and value the sport — inclusivity, DIY, and overall badassery.