“I was just bawling because I didn’t have the right parts to play,” Kaiser said.
Kaiser is trans, but she wasn’t out when she saw her first derby game. However, she still wanted to get involved and joined her local men’s derby team, where she skated from 2011-2014.
Kaiser said she was a good skater, but despite earning the respect of her male coaches and teammates, she felt like she was missing something.
She offered to help her local women’s team prepare for the playoffs and soon started practicing with them.
“Everybody else there was very green and hadn’t played before,” Kaiser said. “So I was getting some really nice compliments from the trainers.”
Once the draft for the next season rolled around, however, Kaiser’s name was the only one missing from the roster.
She later found out that she was excluded for “being too tall,” but at that moment she felt like she needed to train harder—to “become unquestionable,” she said. “I felt like I was unintentionally gaslit by everyone.”
This was the beginning of Kaiser’s entry into the derby world, but she had a long road ahead of her.
A slow evolution
Roller derby has not always been seen as an inclusive space.
Kaiser said 2014 was “a different time” in the derby world. According to her, skaters were still required to have hormone levels “within acceptable female ranges.” Kaiser said that hormone regulations in women’s derby were a deciding factor when she began hormone replacement therapy.
The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association changed its policy in 2015 to read: “An individual who identifies as a trans woman, intersex woman, and/or gender expansive may skate with a WFTDA charter team if women’s flat track roller derby is the version and composition of roller derby with which they most closely identify.”
Alice Amell, a trans woman who skates for WFTDA member the Windy City Rollers as Tricky Pixie, bought her first skates the day she learned roller derby existed in 2016.
“I came out as a woman a year earlier. I wasn’t sure what teams would accept me. I hadn’t even heard of roller derby,” Amell said. “And then just out of nowhere, I was watching some documentary and one of the people mentioned that she plays roller derby and that in roller derby they don’t care if you’re gay or trans or whatever—they just accept you.”
Meeting the moment
For many participants, the intentionally accepting climate in roller derby is an important refuge.
“School’s hard enough, but having a place [trans kids] can go to where they’re accepted without question is incredibly validating,” said Molly Rix, derby name Estra Gin, a trans woman skater with Chicago-Style Roller Derby (a merger of The Chicago Outfit and DuPage Derby Dames).
Rix was seeking LGBTQ+ community when she joined the team in March. Since then, she said she’s developed an active social life and has even formed a band with some of her teammates. On bad days, derby helps her cope.
Rix’s experience is a reflection of how inclusive sports can go a long way to help trans players’ mental health at a time when gender inclusivity in sports is facing renewed political backlash.
In 2022 alone, 18 states introduced bills banning transgender youth from participating in sports that align with their gender identity, according to the Freedom for All Americans legislation tracker.
Research from the Trevor Project showed that in 2021, trans youth experienced significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety than their cisgender counterparts. Though, according to the organization, “LGBTQ youth who live in a community that is accepting of LGBTQ people reported significantly lower rates of attempting suicide than those who do not.”
According to the John W. Brick Foundation’s Move Your Mental Health Report, 89 percent of studies examining the relationship between mental health and exercise showed that physical activity improves mental health outcomes.
“I’ll be in a bad mood or something like that, or I’ll have something on my mind,” Rix said. “And then after two hours at derby practice, I’m sweaty and I’m not even thinking about it anymore—it’s great for stress relief and movement really helps. . . . Having those spaces to just exist without question is invaluable.”
Transformation on the track
“I will say [trans inclusion] has gotten a lot better in recent years,” Kaiser said.
Where Amell and Rix found an outlet to express their femininity, a nonbinary Chicago-Style Roller Derby team member who skates under the name Bunny Sanders (and preferred to be identified by derby name only) is also able to express their androgyny.
“Changing my derby name and playing with my gender . . . finding out putting on different outfits and hats gives me gender euphoria, and accepting that and not judging myself for it . . . here is the first place that I could try all that kind of stuff out,” Sanders said.
“Roller derby in and of itself is an accepting and inclusive environment,” Sanders added, describing how the sport has evolved around gender inclusivity even in the last few years.
The team has been working to update their own bylaws to be gender inclusive, though Sanders says there is still room for improvement.
According to Grey Noone, a nonbinary skater and one of Kaiser’s former teammates, in their experience, roller derby has been a predominantly white sport with limited racial, economic, and cultural diversity.
“Trans rights are an issue we need to hop on, but if people can’t afford to have a sports life, if they don’t have the time and resources, then their [economic class] is keeping them from roller derby even more than their trans status,” Noone said.
While Kaiser stayed involved with the administration of the Chicago derby leagues and helped shape WFTDA’s gender inclusion policy, she said that challenges and trauma that resulted from lack of acceptance sparked her return to playing on a coed Men’s Roller Derby Association team.
“[At first I thought] I need to play women’s to validate my gender, and through the process of getting discriminated against for my gender, I kind of validated my own gender,” Kaiser said. “I became a lot more confident in where I belong. . . . I got to the point where I don’t want to play women’s derby. I want to play derby.”
However, according to Amell, Kaiser’s work paved the road for future trans skaters in the women’s division.
“By the time I joined, there was no question of whether I was going to be allowed to play,” Amell said.
“You can look however you want when you show up to practice, and no one’s gonna judge you for that,” Rix said. “You know [it’s] going to be a safer space for you to be yourself. I’m wearing a skort right now and I would never wear that anywhere else.”