PRG is a member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, which adopted new restrictions last March regarding the eligibility of players due to gender.
The policy, which went into effect Jan. 1, stipulates that female transgender or intersex players are welcome in the association but must meet certain criteria, including living as a woman and having sex hormones within the medically acceptable range for a female.
The rule, which applies to each league’s chartered team that competes at the WFTDA level, further states that, if requested, such players be able to produce documentation from a health-care provider regarding the player’s hormone levels.
WFTDA did not have a specific gender policy in the past but association executive director Juliana Gonzales said the organization sought to be “ahead of the curve.”
“While certainly there were transgender and intersex athletes participating in WFTDA games, we weren’t aware of a specific conflict or issue that spurred us to adopt a policy,” she said. “This was more of a macro issue for WFTDA: We could see trends in other sports programs that suggested it would be responsible and proactive to talk about it as an organization.”
PRG does not have a gender policy, and general manager Jocelyn Jenik said she suspects the national policy could have been spurred in part by the notion that transgender players could see an athletic advantage.
“I personally bristle at the idea that because someone is born male, they have an inherent advantage in flat-track roller derby. That is not the case. Roller derby is a team sport and no individual skater makes or breaks how a team performs,” she said. “I think this policy was probably produced out of fear, and that fear was then projected onto transgender skaters in a discriminatory way. The only demand for producing health-care records or private information is on transgender skaters, no one else.”
Gonzales, however, contended that the regulations are a fair way to deal with a complex problem.
“I don’t personally find the eligibility requirements the policy describes to be too intrusive,” she said. “I do think we struggle with how to be a women’s organization dedicated to a physical endeavor, while not being too prescriptive about the physicality of womanhood. That tension is something WFTDA and other women’s sports will have to continue to tangle with.”
According to the policy, a trans or intersex player must be able to produce a signed statement from her health-care provider, printed on office letterhead, that includes the provider’s license number, jurisdiction of medical license, contact information, confirmation of relationship with the player and judgment that her hormone levels are within the “medically acceptable” range for a female, which is left up to the judgment of the provider.
Rita Kelly, a transgender member of PRG who began officiating with the league two years ago and has been training for the past year, said blood tests to determine hormone levels can cost up to $750.
“A lot of people who belong to WFTDA don’t have the money to put out for this, so where is that burden going to fall?” Kelly said. “But what bothers me even more about the wording of this is that transgender or intersex players can just be asked to produce this paperwork whenever. If no one asks for it, you’re fine, but if they do and you don’t have it, then you’re ineligible automatically.”
Jenik suggested that, if a team loses or a player takes a bad hit, she fears that a player or team could retaliate by challenging the eligibility of a trans player.
She added that the league felt the statement was antithetical to what the sport stands for.
“Roller derby has always been a sport where women of all shapes and sizes, those who are girly-girls and those who are not, can all play and play well together,” Jenik said. “If they want to wear dresses, then they wear dresses, and if they don’t, then they don’t. I don’t think WFTDA has any business in telling people what it means to be female.”
After seeing the wording of the statement, Kelly brought the issue up to the PRG board, who she said shared her opposition and voted against the policy when it came before the WFTDA member organizations.
While Jenik said PRG has been home to many lesbian and bisexual members, Kelly is the first known transgender member.
“Rita really set the stage,” Jenik said. “Before tryouts, she came to us and told us she was transgender and was very smart in how she approached everything and very open. It’s easy for people to be afraid of something they don’t know, but Rita has been able to really heighten awareness and has gotten so much support from the team.”
Once the board decided to oppose the policy, it submitted a letter to the member organizations and a petition to WFTDA leadership that garnered signatures from several-hundred players during the East Coast Derby, held in Philadelphia in June.
Also at the derby, PRG distributed a brochure detailing the issue and temporary tattoos with a symbol for transgender pride, which Jenik said were popular among players from around the nation at the derby and were worn by PRG members throughout the remainder of the summer season.
Gonzales said the policy passed by a “compelling majority” of votes, although she noted the dissenting opinion was not “unrepresented,” and there were slightly more abstentions than usual.
Per the new policy, WFTDA member leagues are required to submit a statement verifying that their charter team members fit the criteria.
Jenik said PRG has not yet made a decision on how to handle that process, should an issue arise with a transgender player.
Gonzales said it’s important for advocates like PRG to raise awareness about the transgender community.
“In addition to adopting a responsible policy, WFTDA has to continue cultivating a progressive and tolerant culture to protect ourselves from internal discrimination,” she said. “Policy can’t be trusted to protect us amidst an intolerant culture. I think it’s very fair for Philly Roller Girls to be vigilant advocates in these early years of the policy.”
WFTDA could revisit the policy in the future, depending on the views of its member organizations, Gonzales said.
“I’ve never seen a nonprofit this size that is so dynamic and adaptive to change as WFTDA,” she said. “If the membership wants a new policy — or no policy — they will vote, and it will change.”
In talking with other WFTDA trans members, Kelly said she came to see that having a general policy statement on gender identity can be a positive — as some players faced discrimination from their leagues — but it should be one that sets out the same requirements for women of all identities.
The unanimous support that PRG has expressed for the transgender community, Kelly said, has been impressive.
“I know I can count on them to put the weight of the league behind my fight for equal rights,” she said.
Jen Colletta can be reached at email@example.com.