17 Apr 2015

Gender and roller derby - are we as progressive as we think we are?

There's been a lot of conversation in the roller derby community about transgender skaters this week, some of it extremely sombre in light of the suicide of a trans junior skater, Sam Taub, in the States. There has been other, more positive news regarding the acceptance and accommodation of non-gender-conforming skaters, and following the awful, needless death of Sam/Casper #57 (believed to be as a result of transphobic bullying) a lot of people vowing to create a roller derby community that is free of bullying and supportive of trans skaters.

I think this is absolutely a vow that everyone in the community needs to take - not to mention anyone in any community - but I think people need to go further than just making pledges. It's important that we really think about how assumptions about gender, and accompanying, often hidden sexism, underpin so much casual talk and thoughtless humour that take place in our sporting scene. Even in roller derby, a community that is considered more progressive than most when it comes to gender, sexuality and self-expression, I've witnessed or heard about the following:

- femaleness being used as in insult - "I'm going to treat you like a girl." "You're just a woman with a beard"
- women being criticised/mocked by other women for having body hair
- women's sexual behaviour being judged by other women
- sex between men joked about, with the implication that it's degrading (especially for the receptive partner)
- trans skaters being told they could do with some 'tips' on 'how to pass'
- a woman joking that she was going to check another skater's genitalia to make sure she was female

It can be hard to draw a line between what's an acceptable amount of twatting about in a sport that by its very nature requires a developed sense of humour and an ability to brush off insults - this is, after all, a game in which you will spend much of your time falling over, being hit and having to laugh about it. You will encounter trash talk from other teams. You will hear off-colour jokes. You'll hear a lot of smut talked, and you'll accidentally touch more bums, boobs and crotches than even an overworked healthcare professional. I can't claim that every joke, comment or action I've ever made while participating in this sport will have been devoid of the potential to offend someone. But thinking about how to create a community that makes people feel able to express their gender identity without being harassed about it, the thought occurs that maybe we all need to be pulled up sharp.

Because it's not just about outright bullying, although obviously that needs to be stamped on. But it's easy to pride ourselves on not being part of the problem if we only target the blatant types of harassment. It's too easy to pat yourself on the back and say "Well, I never call anyone 'fag', 'bulldyke' or 'tranny,' so I'm cool," or "Well I use X's correct pronouns, so I'm obviously not transphobic," but I think what really needs to happen is a deep - and potentially uncomfortable - examination of our underlying prejudices. And it's not easy. For example, several of my teen years were spent laughing at The League of Gentleman, a deeply dark UK comedy from the late 90s/early 2000s in which most of the women characters were played by men in drag. The comedy wasn't derived from this fact as such, but there was one transgender character 'Barbara the taxi driver', and pretty much all the laughs at her scenes were based around her deep voice, her chest hair and total failure to 'pass' as a woman. You never saw Barbara's face and never found out anything about her other than the fact she was trans. Some of the laughs were more directed at her passengers' obvious discomfort as Babs described the details of her transition in colourful language - "Me nipples are like bullets" - but looking back on it, it's hard to really defend the show as it was pretty much ticking every "Let's laugh at the man in a dress," box imaginable. Babs was a caricature, not a person. So, you might say, were most other characters on TLOG - a paedophile school teacher, a cursed vet, a vile Job Centre Officer, a corrupt butcher, the inbred owners of the Local Shop - but it's disingenuous to deny that the portrayal of trans people in popular culture is something of a mirror to how we view them in real life. Not long ago it was OK to make the brown-skinned person the butt of the joke in UK comedy, or the gay person. Ceasing to take the piss out of trans people has been a bit of an afterthought, and a stage we're still in the process of reaching.

I love the fact that in roller derby there are people willing to challenge the idea that a man wearing brightly coloured leggings is degrading. I like the fact that enough guys do things like this that it no longer becomes about "He might be gay" "He might be a cross dresser," or "That makes him feminine," and it just simply becomes a fact of "He has chosen to wear those leggings, and that is all that matters." (Obviously, if any of the other three statements are true, that also shouldn't be an issue - but my point is that we need to start uncoupling styles of dress from assumptions about gender or sexuality) However, there still remains, to an extent, the idea that to make a man dress like a woman is degrading. At one recent game there was a bout where, to raise money for charity, you could pay for 'extras' such as silly rule additions to the game, or forfeits for skaters. At one point, a group paid for a male skater to wear a tutu for several jams. Now, you could say that this was more about fun and fancy dress - if you're trying to look dead serious in no-nonsense black, a bright red tutu is going to shit up your game look whether you're male or female. And also, unless you are a ballet dancer or one of those women who wears fantastic 50s frocks with layers of netting underneath, you're probably going to be pretty uncomfortable wearing a tutu, whoever you are. But I would also say that it's being deliberately obtuse to say there's absolutely no connection to gender whatsoever. Roller derby started out all-female. It also, in its current incarnation (2006 or so onwards) did start with a lot of girls wearing tutus as part of the brightly coloured, fun, fishnets-n-hotpants aesthetic that the sport still retains to some extent. For a guy to don that clothing is certainly to flip the script, but what's actually meant to be funny about it? Why's it something people pay money to see? I can only think that it's because a guy having to dress as a woman is seen as degrading. And why do we think that, unless we think that being a woman is degrading? Sexism and transphobia, they're more closely linked than you might think.

My team trains co-ed and I generally really like that fact, as I think it does encourage us to see each other simply as 'skaters' rather than 'guys' and 'gals', it allows everyone to challenge themselves in different ways, and it puts paid to blanket assumptions about one gender being 'better' at any particular skill than the other. I love the fact that our skaters look and dress however they're most comfortable both at training and on bout day, that I feel comfortable say, wearing no bra on a hot training day, or changing shorts in front of a room full of people, knowing that no one is going to comment or lech or stare in a way that sadly, as a woman, you come to expect in the outside world. But sexism can appear in more subtle ways. If you believe - and I kind of do - that homophobia is the fear that men will treat you the way you treat women, then you realise that every act of anti-gay aggression isn't just about guys, it's about women too. It's about straight men saying to gay men "You act like a woman, and that is shameful." 

Put a group of guys together and you will inevitably encounter jokes about each others' sexuality. Add some close physical contact - which is unavoidable in roller derby - and it's only a matter of time before the gay jokes start. Some men, mindful of the notion that only a man truly comfortable with his heterosexuality won't mind being called gay, like to defuse this by playing 'gay chicken', a bit like the scene in Philadelphia when Denzel Washington's lawyer character, asked if the fact he's defending a gay man means he's now getting "light in the loafers" himself, responds "Yeah. I'm changing. I'm on the prowl for a man, a man like you," to the dismay of his terrified, homophobic questioner. And I've seen this employed by male skaters, and I think it's both a brave and funny way to deal with homophobes (see also "What are you, gay or something?" "Give us a kiss and I'll tell you.") And not all gay-related humour in the roller derby community that I've seen is about demeaning homosexuality, but rather challenging the discomfort of the homophobic heterosexual - such as the guy I saw caressing his own nipples in order to psyche out another male player. But I've also seen the standard gay-is-degrading, a-man-who-lets-another-man-penetrate-him-is-a-figure-of-fun jokes, and that disappoints me. And if I were a gay or trans player, it'd make me think twice about being out amongst such people. 

I think the roller derby community is still light years ahead of mainstream culture in many ways. It will never be perfect, because you can't achieve a perfect microcosm that's removed from the real world - it's just not possible. Most people seem to accept, or don't know or don't care that I'm polyamorous, kinky and highly sexed, but there'll always be the odd sniffy comment, cos that's people and that's life. Fortunately, most of it is sufficiently removed from me that I feel able to carry on being my sweet self. I'd like to think that other people whose modus operandi differs from what's demanded of them by narrow cultural expectations - be that being female and having hairy pits, or being male and enjoying wearing skirts, or being fat, or extremely skinny, or being a butch woman, a femme guy, an androgynous, gender fluid individual, wearing no make-up, wearing loads of make-up, having tattoos, piercings and crazy coloured hair - feel similarly free and safe to be themselves in the derby community in a way that they might not elsewhere in society. I just think that there's always more to do, always aspects of our beliefs, prejudices and narratives that we can be examining. Because culture never stops evolving, and the fact that the comedy I enjoyed as a teen would now be viewed as transphobic is not a sign of 'political correctness gone mad', it's a sign that people are learning to be less awful. We are pretty damn good at this in the roller derby community, but we must never stop trying to be better.

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