Advice A team comes together. Photo: Jason Ruffell

Published on April 16th, 2014 | by Ms. Dr. Joseph L. Simonis


A team comes together. Photo: Jason Ruffell

So you want to write a gender policy…

Rude Gus co-wrote this article.

If you haven’t already fielded the inquiry, it could come at any time:

“What’s your league’s gender policy?”

Maybe it’s a hopeful skater-to-be trying to determine if they fit your league’s membership criteria. Or perhaps it’s a current skater wanting to balance an evolving gender identity with their membership in your league. Or maybe it’s a visiting league’s representative wishing to ensure the safety of their skaters at the bout you’re hosting next month.

Given roller derby’s image as a relatively queer-friendly sport, leagues around the world are being asked “what is your gender policy?” And in answering this question, leagues must determine how they will accommodate, include, and support skaters who are trans, gender non-conforming, or intersex (TGI).

Most leagues that find themselves in this situation seek to be inclusive of TGI athletes, but lack the experience, knowledge, or sheer luck required to craft a good gender policy. In addition, there is a lack of resources for leagues looking to create good policies… What do “good gender policies” even look like?

The goal of this article is to provide guidance for leagues in this situation: leagues that wish to support and include TGI skaters, but aren’t quite sure just how to craft a good policy. We cover a few of the major topics surrounding TGI skaters and approach them with the intention of creating an athletic culture that is welcoming to and supportive of all athletes, regardless of their gender (or lack thereof).

Why we won’t define gender

At no point here will we define “trans”, “gender-non-conforming”, or “intersex.” We believe 100% in self-identification. Gender identity is a deeply personal trait that often defies words – so trying to define criteria for gender is more trouble than it’s worth at best, and hurtful at worst. Gender is a social construct with personal definitions and applications.

Everyone uses gender identities and expressions differently, and social ideas about gender change through time and differ among cultures. What might appear like a welcoming definition of “transgender” to some might be an incredibly restrictive and exclusive definition to others, now or in the future. Trying to conform to a societal or organizational standard of gender is a great source of anxiety for many TGI individuals.

Who does your policy protect?

Any policy written on gender is necessarily meant to protect someone. Are you looking to protect your cisgendered skaters from skaters with different biologies and histories, or are you looking to protect TGI skaters from excess scrutiny? Are you looking to install a bar skaters have to clear, or an invitation to skaters mired in uncertainty? Do you want to institute a witch hunt, or an insurance policy?

It can be tempting to hold off on implementing a policy until an issue arises, but the lack of a policy altogether might be holding back potential members of your league. For a TGI individual, any gender-segregated space can seem forbidding and exclusive, and competitive athletics is one of the big ones.

Both authors of this article spent time on teams that didn’t quite match their gender identity – both played men’s sports in high school, and now Joe skates women’s derby and Gus skates men’s derby. But without a well-defined policy, one can hang in limbo in either situation – what if I take hormones? What if I stop taking hormones? What if I change my driver’s license? My birth certificate? What if I get surgery? What if I want to play on a charter? Letting a potential teammate know exactly where your league stands can be the difference between a skater waiting for a shoe to drop and a skater lacing up their skates for years to come.

Is your playing field equal, or homogenous?

One of the common topics that comes up when discussing gender issues in sports is competitive advantage. But just because everyone can have an equal shot at making the roster doesn’t mean everyone should end up looking the same. Your team probably has skaters who hit harder than others, skaters who jump higher than others, skaters who skate faster than others. This has a lot to do with a lot of factors. Some of them are biological. A lot of them aren’t.

Almost all of them have nothing to do with gender. Did you grow up in a neighborhood with a roller rink? Can you afford top of the line skates? Do you have the discipline to cross-train? What’s your diet like? Are your parents wealthy? What kind of hours do you work? Imagine an NBA with a height limit, or an NHL that banned Canadians. It might sound absurd, but these are factors both societal and biological that have about as much to do with athletic success as the chromosomes you were assigned at birth, the way you present yourself, and the amount of testosterone your body produces.

What about your charter?

You’ve accepted a skater into your league and decided that you don’t care about their gender – the team feels right to them, the team has accepted them, they’ve trained hard and they’re ready to make the charter. One snag – the skater doesn’t meet your governing body’s gender standards.

WFTDA requires that a skater produces evidence from a healthcare provider that their hormones are “within the medically acceptable range for a female.” USARS requires that a skater be legally recognized as their asserted gender in their state of residence. Unfortunately, both organizations find themselves in the unenviable position of asserting what defines gender.

In addition to other issues (some of which are outlined in this open letter from Philly Rollergirls), WFTDA’s policy sets up a double standard where TGI athletes have to provide medical evidence that they are sufficiently female – and cisgendered women are under no such burden. The implication is that TGI athletes are less worthy than their cisgendered peers, and therefore have to ‘earn’ charter eligibility in a way that others do not.

A TGI skater might have more naturally ‘female’ hormone levels than a cisgender female skater with a genetic hormonal imbalance – but still might not be sufficiently female to compete. A TGI skater might be forced to stop administering her hormones for medical reasons. Hormone levels are a flawed metric that imposes a lifestyle on transgender skaters that cisgender skaters are not subject to. A skater is the same person with or without hormone injections, and a skater’s changed physicality could just as easily come from a change in workout regimen or diet.

USARS’s policy consists of two sentences in a footnote at the bottom of page 1 of their rulebook: “A “female” athlete shall be defined to include any athlete legally recognized as female in her state of residence. A “male” athlete shall be defined to include any athlete legally recognized as male in his state of residence.” This punts responsibility to the state, but gender policies are wildly inconsistent across state borders.

If you live in New York, you can get a driver’s license changed with nothing but a doctor’s note about your gender status. Cross the border into Massachusetts and you also need an amended birth certificate and proof you’ve undergone some kind of surgery. In Tennessee, it’s legally impossible to change the gender on your birth certificate. USARS’s policy is consistent, to be sure, but the basis varies wildly, from a low bar to clear to an outright ban.

What do you do if a skater is welcomed by your league but doesn’t meet the criteria of a governing body? Denying a skater the right to excel because they don’t meet an arbitrary metric is not only oppressive, it implicitly outs the skater as transgender to their league, violating their privacy. Compliance with an association’s gender policy is a necessity for sanctioning, but the policy is not set in stone. Modern roller derby is built from the bottom up, and leagues have invaluable leverage and voices when it comes to enacting change.

The best gender policy is a nondiscrimination policy

More often than not, ‘gender’ policies end up being ‘transgender’ policies (even if they are not double standards) because cisgender skaters are infrequently prompted to justify their gender. Policies that hover over one’s head as league doctrine instill auras of insecurity and otherness – two things that are not only interpersonally toxic, but competitively toxic as well. Can your team really be a team if skaters don’t fully accept one another?

A better approach – one that is inclusive and accepting, is a nondiscrimination policy that pledges not to discriminate based on gender, gender identity, or any other metric, for that matter. Any questions about a skater’s sufficiency within their gender can quickly be scuttled under the umbrella of a nondiscrimination policy that also ensures the sanctity of a skater’s privacy.

For example, take the Windy City Rollers’ policy:

Any woman aged 18 years and over may try out for the WCR. It is the policy of the WCR that we will not discriminate based on a woman’s sexual orientation, transgender status, or race. WCR members have a right to maintain their own privacy, without interference from WCR as an organization. We will adhere to all WFTDA rules and regulations regarding inter-league play.

WCR defers to WFTDA as necessary, but makes no comment on the merits of WFTDA’s policies. It is free to push for change without being rendered hypocritical in the process. Any league confronting compliance with their association’s gender policy can do the same.

Does that mean anyone can play?

The amount of scrutiny that a TGI athlete receives in comparison to a cisgender athlete varies by several orders of magnitude. A cisgender athlete who willingly bucked the system to skate for a league that did not match their gender identity would have to gain the acceptance of their team and be subject to the same amount of unwanted attention that such a TGI athlete goes through on a daily basis. Making oneself a target is a massive burden, and one can’t consider abusing such a policy as a trifling endeavor.

But if you run into an individual who wants to start trouble by abusing an inclusive policy, there are better ways to include TGI individuals than to slap on more restrictions. An unrestrictive but fair policy for a women’s league, for instance, could welcome all “female and nonbinary individuals.” Who does your policy protect? If the best skater in your city suddenly declared they identify as another gender and are switching leagues, who can validate them but themselves?

Why is this important?

While gender inequality is real and important, gender segregation is only codified and explicit in a few places in modern life – college housing, public restrooms, and competitive athletics, to name some of the big ones. Certainly, a TGI individual has a lot of challenges navigating society’s perception of them, where every glance from a stranger could be a judgmental eye. Many roller derby leagues pride themselves on being welcoming and accepting, but are, for better or for worse, defined by uniformity in their membership’s gender.

For a cisgender individual, gender segregation in derby is likely taken for granted. What purpose does that gender segregation serve in your organization? If we accept that birth sex is but one of the many facets in competitive advantage or disadvantage – that a male and female athlete with similar athletic backgrounds are more athletically alike than two people of the same gender with disparate athletic backgrounds – then the next most obvious basis is fellowship between similarly gendered individuals. Often, this kind of fellowship and acceptance is exactly what a TGI individual seeks, as it remedies one of the primary tension points in the disconnect between their birth sex and their gender.

Being accepted in a hyper-gendered space can do immeasurable good for a TGI individual’s health and wellbeing. But being accepting isn’t enough. A nondiscrimination policy broadcast to the world dodges nasty organizational confrontation and further broadens derby’s big tent, but it also broadcasts to a potential skater who might otherwise count themselves out that they’ll be accepted without reservation. That’s good for them, good for your team, and good for derby.

Rude Gus co-wrote this article.

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