2 Jun 2014

Gender policing and roller derby

"The bar was regularly raided by the police, and female patrons would be arrested for not wearing at least three items of "feminine clothing" and males for dressing in drag."

Tui Gordon, writing in Revolutionary Women about the Stonewall Inn, a popular 60s hangout for gay and trans people.

I've been reading Emma Donoghue's latest novel Frog Music, set in San Francisco's great heatwave of 1876. Far from being the capital of liberal sexual attitudes that SF is considered today, the city is a nightmare of racism and sexism, and also - as cross-dresser Jenny Bonnet finds out - a place where gender policing is rigidly exercised. Jenny spends most of her life on the run from the police for the crime of wearing "male attire". We can congratulate ourselves that, in Western society at least, progress in this area has been considerable. Although it's telling that cross-dressers and gender-nonconforming individuals were still being arrested nearly 100 years after the era in which Frog Music is set, we like to think that in the open-minded 21st century, we have put all that unpleasantness behind us, that unpleasantness being a world where gender presentation was so oppressively policed.

Unfortunately, I think that's a fiction, and this article reminded me why. I was really disappointed to read that the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, considered the representative governing body for the majority of women's roller derby teams, has a gender policy which places the onus on transgender or intersex individuals to prove they are 'sufficiently female'.

I play roller derby. I love it. And I understand why there are heated discussions about gender in this sport, because in its present life cycle (2000s onwards), derby started as a female-only sport. The appearance and growth of 'merby' has been controversial for those who loved the fact that women finally had a sport to themselves, one that they founded, ran and which was not just considered an adjunct to a male version of that sport. That's a debate for another day, but I'll say now that I don't believe that shitting on men ever elevates women. Asking that men respect and behave appropriately in what some clearly felt was a sacred space for women is one thing - trying to oust them with the same tactics used on, say, women in all-male golf clubhouses, is nothing short of hypocritical.
But anyway. What I and many others love about derby is its diversity. A place where people of all ages, races, body shapes, athletic ability, sexual orientation and gender presentation come together, put on some skates and knock the bejesus out of each other. A place where you're as likely to see a man in tiny spandex shorts or garish knee socks as you are a woman, where you can dress up in glitter and fishnets if you like, or keep it purely athletic in compression tights, or rock baggy basketball shorts, a skort, a kilt, skate shorts... no one bats an eyelid. Derby is a community in which nobody polices anyone's appearance (beyond, say, the rules that say you can't wear safety pins on track...which I think we can all live with) and that's why so many of us who find mainstream society hostile to our personal style or gender presentation consider it a safe haven.

Now, I know style of dress and biological sex aren't the same thing. However, where I think the parallels hold up, is in WFTDA's demand that transgender or intersex women who wish to play women's derby provide evidence from a healthcare provider "that the athlete’s sex hormones are within the medically acceptable range for a female". I don't even know where to start with that sentence. For one, I'd love to know who gets to dictate what the "medically acceptable range for a female" is, and on what basis? Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) have a higher level of testosterone than women who don't, so by this logic are they to be considered, say, 10% 'less female' than the rest of us? Am I more of a woman than my female friends whose body hair is thicker than mine, and less of a female because my voice is deeper than theirs? Are my male friends who have man boobs less masculine than their smooth-pectoralled counterparts, and are the bald guys I know more 'medically male' than guys with full heads of hair, because apparently higher testosterone levels are more likely to result in male pattern baldness?

To make these distinctions would not only be hateful, but it would also be pointless. And it would be especially pointless in roller derby, a sport where I regularly marvel at the varieties of way in which people demonstrate that it is possible to present as male, or female, or neither, or both. Few of us would make the cut for adhering to 'expected' standards of masculinity and femininity - the tall, solid Amazonians and muscular, athletic women would be rejected immediately, as would the extremely slim, sometimes bony, boyish-figured women who often make excellent jammers. Those of us who prefer short hair, or eschew make-up, or who are tattooed and pierced from head to foot would be immediately under suspicion. And then we'd have to turn round to the merby players and start weeding out those with long hair, soft skin, higher voices, less body hair, lack of muscle, plump pectorals etc etc. Those, of course, are just physical manifestations of sex and gender - don't even get me started on the bajillion different aspects of personality which are woven into each individual in a unique way, and yet which are still, often frustratingly, considered 'typically male' or 'typically female'. Even I, with my long hair, cisgender body and love of make-up would still probably miss the "sufficiently female" mark due to my high sex drive, assertive personality and failure to get excited about trips to Ikea.

The powers that be would say we have to draw a line somewhere, and that if the line is drawn 'medically', that somehow makes it OK. But take a squiz at these statistics and tell me if you'd know where to draw the line. 1 in every 1666 births results in a human being whose chromosomes are neither XX or XY. That's (roughly) 63,000 people in the UK who do not fit the 'medical definition' of maleness of femaleness. That's a fuck of a lot of people. And that's just one way of presenting with ambiguous biological sex. If we factor in all the other known intersex conditions - Androgen Insensitivity, Klinefelter's Syndrome, hypospadias etc - as well as people who present as intersex without known cause, we're looking at more like 1% of the population not fitting into exact categories of male and female. In the UK alone that's over half a million people. Hardly a 'niche' group, is it?
This is obviously not to account for those who are not intersex, but are assigned a gender at birth and wish to transition to the other gender, or who feel that the gender binary offers far too limiting and simplistic roles and would rather live on a fluid spectrum, and who consider themselves transgender, genderqueer/genderfluid or a-gender. But they also make up a significant part of our population, and one which is already subject to enough hatred, violence and policing to put our supposedly civilised society to shame.

So why, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, would WFTDA perpetuate the myth that fitting neatly into category 'male' or 'female' is "just that simple" and then add insult to injury by putting the onus to prove maleness or femaleness entirely on an individual who will already have been given enough shit about their gender identity to last 100 lifetimes? Why must the spotlight be on them, when none of the rest of us cisgender folk probably 'pass'? Why does the transgender or intersex person have to undergo unnecessary and invasive tests and then submit private medical information to their league, when none of the rest of us are obliged to? How on earth does that create "a level playing field. . .free of discrimination", which WFTDA claims to provide?

Either we're all subject to this gender policing or none of us are. Don't give me false scare stories about men trying to infiltrate women's sport and then skewing the limits of competition by being 'too fast' or 'too strong'. Does anyone really believe someone would go to the trouble of falsely presenting as transgender, with all the vile abuse, threats, violence, legal discrimination and increased risk of your death by suicide and murder which that entails, just to beat other women in the 100 metre sprint? Come the fuck on. It doesn't work like that. People present as the gender they feel themselves to be, it's pretty simple. (Also, apparently higher testosterone alone doesn't necessarily guarantee better athletic performance and again, as this article points out, 'normal' levels are incredibly difficult to define). Anyway in the world of roller derby, which is DIY, run nearly entirely on volunteer power and is probably the least lucrative sport to get involved in unless you're a tiddlywinks fan, no one stands to make any money by secretly fielding a man in disguise to play in a woman's game, so I'm not really sure what WFTDA's logic is. Quite apart from anything, my team already plays co-ed, and plenty of the female players (probably not this unsteady rookie, but our big-hitting, experienced A team women) can hold their own against male players, so 'male' strength/speed isn't necessarily the 'advantage' that it's automatically considered to be.

So I say it again. Unless we're all willing to be subject to invasive questions about what's in our pants, and get needles stuck in our arms to prove we're 'medically acceptable', I don't see how WFTDA can claim that its policy promotes a roller derby world "free of discrimination". They may believe they're trying to protect safe spaces for women, but to me the need to police gender comes precisely from sexism. It comes from a belief that to be female or feminine is degrading, that men who want to present as such are sick, weak or deviant, and that women who want to deviate from presenting as such must be firmly slapped down, lest they get ideas above their station and want to behave 'like men'. It comes from a harmful binary that demands we split ourselves with an arbitrary line then fling mud from either side of it, and spit poison at anyone who dares try to cross that line.

And therefore, it's not something I want any part of.

**Update: WFTDA released a statement on November 10, 2015, announcing that it had done away with the reference to hormone levels, that it considers a person's gender a private and confidential matter, and that anyone who wants to play women's roller derby - be they trans, intersex or gender non-conforming - is welcome to do so. Progress!**

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