In the Blog
Sports series: Roller Derby
Dear Shameless readers,
Welcome to our first-ever themed blog series! Starting this week, we will post a weekly blog on the theme of our next issue: sports. Check back each week to read a story or piece about sports from Shameless bloggers, readers and staff.
by Maranda Elizabeth
In the Summer of 2010, I saw a girl downtown in rollerskates, wearing a t-shirt with the logo of the local roller derby league, and my heart fluttered. I was hanging out with a friend of mine, talking about the new life I was gonna create, the new person I was gonna be. I was determined to get past my shyness, make new friends, and become involved in something that would help me out with this plan. I wanted a community. For years, I’d dreamed of playing roller derby and made up fake names for myself, but I had no idea it was an actual possibility. Roller derby seemed like something imaginary and far away. But I saw this girl, and without hesitation, I approached her and asked her about it. “We have roller derby in this town?!”
I attended a practice, wore the tall white rollerskates I’d picked up a few years back at a thrift store for $3, and knew this was what I wanted to do. There was a Freshmeat info session shortly thereafter. I learned about the sport, the rules, the equipment, the league, the cost of membership and gear, and I went to the Cardinal Skate Shop in Toronto to buy my first pair of real roller derby skates. I named myself Courtney Shove and I started skating.
It was hard. Skilled skaters make it look easy, but most of us, even the skaters with unbelievable skills, look like Bambi when we first start out. We shake and stumble and fall. Learning how to fall was one of the first skills we were taught (lean forward, keep your fists closed, don’t fall on your ass and break your tailbone). Roller derby began to take up all my time and all my headspace. I looked forward to practice, I wore my skates in my apartment, I told everybody what I was up to, what I was learning. I wanted roller derby to take over my life.
Deep down, though, I knew it couldn’t. Despite all the excitement and encouragement, I knew that, as usual, I did not fit in. There was a certain awkwardness about me that separated me from all the other girls. Without yet seeing any movies or reading any books about roller derby, I’d still been taken in by the image - when I joined my local roller derby league, I thought I’d be befriending the queer punks I’d been looking for all my life. Unfortunately, the potential queerness of our league seemed invisible, and I’d surrounded myself by women with much different politics and lifestyles than myself.
Anybody who’s been involved in derby, or has friend who has, knows that there is drama. But where does one draw the line between drama, pettiness, and gossip, and such differing politics and attitudes that it becomes a storm of anxiety and negativity? I wanted my Courtney Shove persona to become my new personality, and to be welcomed to this strange club of colourful weirdos on rollerskates who cared about friendship, community, and learning. Instead, roller derby became another community I felt entirely alienated from.
I didn’t fit in. I was queer, feminist, and weird, but also shy, anxious, and introverted. At after parties, I sat in a corner awkwardly, and when I quit drinking, I also quit going to the after parties. I missed out on the friendships that were flourishing around me. I was on the outside of all the inside jokes. The bar culture and partying that seems so inherent in roller derby wasn’t something I could participate in.
For a while, the sport helped me take care of my mental health. Everyone was so encouraging. I found other skaters going through similar experiences, and we talked about it. Before each practice, my anxiety was intense, but each moment on my skates, I felt better, and by the end of each session, I felt positively jubilant, like I could get through this. I didn’t want to stop. There were also times, though, when I felt too anxious to attend, to make a fool of myself in front of everyone, and I skipped practice altogether; I set a rule for myself that if I skipped practice, I would write at home instead, work on my first novel (since published), so that my time wouldn’t be wasted and I wouldn’t regret not showing up.
I decided to take a break. When I returned, everybody who’d started skating at the same time as me, and those who had joined earlier, were much improved. I was so impressed watching them skate, and so proud of them. But I was jealous, too, of course, and felt left out. I’d never be able to catch up. I kept trying, but I felt slower than everyone else, less skilled, and less capable. It wasn’t as much fun as it used to be.
During my break from roller derby, I came out as genderqueer. A few of my friends had recently come out as genderqueer as well, so I knew I wasn’t alone, and I started to gain more confidence. I told my twin sister in an email, and when she wrote back, “Yeah, I kinda figured.”
Coming out to my league was much more difficult. Roller derby is widely accepted as a Women’s Sport. One thing that surprised me when I joined our local league was the lack of queer visibility, the fact that we were assumed to be straight and cis unless we stated otherwise. When I talked to other queers on the league, I was met with similar feelings. Each time another queer person showed up, we’d be excited and relieved, and we’d feel a sense of validation. But our coming out processes never seemed to come to an end.
The topic of trans inclusion came up. I listened as members of our league said some pretty transphobic stuff (like that trans people weren’t welcome on the league because their bodies were “built differently”, because they were “stronger”, because they’d “beat up the girls”, etc.), and I felt let down and, unable to speak up. I was a misfit, yet again. My fragile sense of almost-belonging faltered even more.
Eventually, cis roller derby folks must come to realize that trans women are women, too (and trans men, often skating as refs or working as NSO’s, are men). Trans people need to be included in roller derby, need to feel safe and welcome and not “other.” But what about those who don’t fit into the gender binary? I have a vulva, therefore, after coming out as genderqueer, I still seemed to be welcome on the local league. But no matter how many times I told people about my gender identity, and told people to use the pronoun “they” when referring to me, they continued to use “she.” People who had conversations about this with me, read my zines, read my blog, and listened to me, somehow couldn’t be bothered with the most simple act of using my chosen pronoun. The language of roller derby makes no room for people with non-binary gender expressions. One of the strangest parts of coming out as genderqueer was suddenly being unwelcome in many of the groups I’d previously participated in. I lost a lot of friends. A year after coming out as genderqueer, I quit roller derby. A new gender policy was drafted, but before it was instituted, I left. I sold my rollerskates and my gear, and I discontinued contact with most of the people I met on the league. I stopped responding to their texts and their invitations, and eventually, I left town. My brief love affair with roller derby was over.
It was a long time before I could attend a bout and not feel a longing to lace up my own skates, to be part of that weird crowd, conflicted with the rage and disappointment I was still feeling. Once I moved to Toronto, I began attending bouts again, but I kept my distance. I’m happier on the sidelines, cheering, not taking the stress (and the politics) of the game home with me. The most recent bout I attended was Toronto Roller Derby’s Annual Pride Clam Slam, the Eager Beavers against the Clamdiggers. A friend of mine was skating, and brought some glittery signs for the crowd, including ones that read ‘GENDERQUEER KILLJOY’ and ‘TRANS* ALLY’. While I was excited to see her play, I also knew there’d be some awkward encounters that night as well. Like I said, I lost a lot of friends. Many of the girls who once skated alongside me, or slightly ahead, the girls who invited me to shows and clothing swaps and on road trips, have now become yet more people in my life who turn away when we accidentally make eye contact; that, or we avoid each other altogether. As I watched the expression of their physical and emotional closeness, I felt envious. But I know now that I can find what I need somewhere else. I’m sure they’ve changed just as much as I have, but we don’t need each other anymore.
Maranda Elizabeth is a writer, zinester, introvert, and genderqueer. They’ve toured throughout Canada and the U.S. and recently published a zine anthology, ‘Telegram: A Collection of 27 Issues,’ and a queer young adult novel, ‘Ragdoll House.’ Find more at marandaelizabeth.com and @marandatelegram.