Roller Derby: Women of All Sizes, Shapes, and Birth Genders

a fraught roller derby moment

Laurie and Debbie say:

We were struck by @frogmouth_inc’s Twitter rant about transwomen in sports. Frogmouth, Inc. makes roller derby uniforms and related stuff, in an extraordinary range of sizes (3XS to 6XL!).

We keep hearing this idea that anyone assigned male at birth, e.g. trans women, non-binary people, gender non compliant people, is automatically bigger and stronger than anyone assigned female at birth and that anyone assigned male at birth therefore has an automatic, and potentially dangerous, physical advantage over anyone assigned female at birth. …

Roller derby is predominantly a women’s sport, and has welcomed anyone who identifies as a player of women’s sports—e.g trans women, intersex people, and others—for a very long time. Because we make all those uniforms, we have excellent data on what the size distribution of roller derby players is, both worldwide, and on a team-by-team basis. That size distribution is extraordinary. …

Some people playing roller derby are much shorter than average, some people are much taller than average, some people are more muscular, some people are less muscular, and every possible permutation of those variables you can imagine, and that big, multi-dimensional spectrum of shapes and sizes has exactly no correspondence with sex assigned at birth.

How do we know? Because we also make uniforms for men’s roller derby teams—i.e. teams where most players were assigned male at birth—and we see demand for the same wide range of sizes.

We are especially pleased to see this ar in the context of roller derby, perhaps the most violent and physical female-dominated sport. Watch any roller derby video and you’ll see physical contact that would not be out of place on an American football field. You’ll also see competitive energy to the max, and no shortage of injuries, some of them very serious. As Frogmouth states, this style permeates the whole sport, not a few identifiable trans women somehow dominating a “weaker” field of cis women.

For a good history of roller derby from the viewpoint of inclusivity, see Gabriele Puglise’s article last year in Folklife, “Roller Derby for Everybody: A History and Culture of Inclusivity.”

Derby has been a more inclusive sport than most since its beginning. The leagues were always co-ed, welcoming openly gay players and all ethnicities. Each game was played by men and women in alternating periods, with their combined scores determining the winner. Although men and women only competed against their respective genders, they were always playing by the same rules. This was unique for the time, and still is today, as many women’s sports are modified versions traditionally male ones.

However, early derby could not escape systematic sexism, as the yearly salaries of men eclipsed those of women by $10,000 to 15,000. Despite this, derby women remained the highest paid female athletes for decades, often earning between $25,000 and $30,000 a year.

Puglisi knows what she’s talking about:

During the first few practices, coaches repeat the phrase, “Derby is for everybody.” Many prospective skaters assume they don’t have the “right” body type to play the game. I quickly found that such a thing doesn’t exist. I’m barely five feet tall and had never played a contact sport before, and (on a good day) I can push people twice my size. I’m low enough to the ground to drive my shoulder into their thighs and destabilize them.

But leaving roller derby aside, Frogmouth Inc. puts other sports on the spot:

What we see in roller derby, is that, even at the very highest levels of the sport, sex assigned at birth makes little to no difference, and certainly not enough to be a decisive advantage by itself. Most of the greatest roller derby players are people who were assigned female at birth. They play with and against trans women all the time, without difficulty.

And, as for safety, if your sport is so poorly organized that you cannot protect people with different body types from one another, than you have a problem that is not about gender. In short, trans women are women, trans girls are girls, and roller derby proves that trans women belong in women’s sports. Do not be fooled. People attacking trans women in sports are not defending sports; they are just attacking trans women.

Volleyball, track & field, basketball, we’re looking at you. If roller derby can demonstrate this, you can follow suit.

Thanks to @notimnotandrei for the pointer to the Frogmouth piece.


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