Apr 292011

Just to be clear: I'm totally cool with this.

“Y’all, I hate bikers.”

I’ve said it a million times. No, not these, these. Snotty, superior, Shot Blok munching, spandex-wearing, bikers. I hate their stupid, beetle-like, ergonomic helmets. I hate their multi-thousand-dollar bikes, which they guard and regard like it’s some combination of their car and their favorite dildo. I hate sharing the lane with them on the Westside Highway, where they zip past at lightning speed. I hated sharing the levee path with them in Baton Rouge, where on multiple occasions they yelled angrily at me as they came speeding up from behind, irritated at having to deal with something faster than a runner but slower than themselves (I do look behind me, dude, I’m trained to. I’m not in your way, I swear).

But I exaggerate. I have friends who are bikers, triathletes, even – among them, Red Stick’s Summer Squasher, who is amazing on the track, and her husband Doc Squasher, who provides invaluable medical advice for RSRD skaters, many of whom don’t have the couple hours and big chunk of cash it would take to obtain the five-minute consultation they need to assess their latest knee or ankle situation. When I really think about it, I don’t actually hate bikers, not the individual people, anyway. But I cling to this prejudice against them, against their obnoxious sleekness, against what I perceive to be their smugness. I had a friend once who was a serious racer (is that what you call them?), and when we had lunch together he always found a reason to turn up his nose at my mayonnaise, or, well, my energetic stories of my night out the previous evening. Sure, I purposely antagonized his, let’s say, athletic morals, not only for our mutual, smirking amusement, but so I could cling to this distaste I had for this crew of bespoked maniacs.

But, seriously, listen to me. “Is that what you call them?” How closely does that echo “Is it a ‘game’ or a ‘bout’ or a ‘match’ or what?” – a question we’ve all heard from derby non-initiates. And while the cost of the most boss Riedells you can find, Roll-Line plates or no, won’t even touch an entry-level racing bike, when I think about all the cash I’ve spent on monthly dues and new pads and those grippy Heartless I just had to have and travel to away bouts and, OMG, RollerCon, the financial commitment of the thing starts to look comparable. And the spandex. Well, derby has introduced some spandex into my life, actually, but more importantly, let’s think about how everyone looks to the average person on the street, kicking back in jeans and Converse, watching the insectlike biker speed by, followed by the rollergirl in booty shorts and vivid tights and her exoskeleton of shiny black plastic padding. As Gwendolyn Ann Smith writes in her contribution to the essay collection Gender Outlaws, “we’re all someone’s freak.”

Which gives me a nice little bridge to a controversy that recently exploded in the media, dubbed Toemaggedon by Jon Stewart. The most recent JCrew catalogue showed the company president painting her son’s toenails pink, in a feature about how she spends her weekend. I saw this picture before reading anything about it, and predicted that the Fox news pundits and such would be in an uproar. Even so, I didn’t anticipate language such as “psychological sterilization,” nor did I think the controversy would take up the amount of airtime and column space that it has. (Yes, I know it’s ironic of me to be giving it more space, here.)

The amount of vitriol about this little boy’s propensity for pink, and his mother’s refusal to police that propensity, made me shakingly angry. I posted a link on my facebook wall about it, along with a note about the fact that the coverage, on both sides, seemed to be focusing mainly on whether or not pink nail polish could turn the boy gay or transgender, without mentioning that, hey, actually, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst fucking thing in the world if the boy is or will be gay or transgender. I got the usual “hell yeahs” from the usual friends, but I also got a sort-of dissenter, an RSRD-affiliated friend, a person I like and respect who felt very strongly that the mother should not have exposed her son to public ridicule in that manner.

At first I agreed. Sure, kids should eventually learn that being different will make them vulnerable, will make people judge them, but that they should still be the proud little people they are, no matter what sort of people they are – gay or trans or temporarily pink-loving straightboys or whatever else. But maybe it was unfair to introduce this idea of self-confident resistance and fortitude at the age of five in a national sphere, I conceded. Maybe parents should avoid situations where their kid might be embarrassed. Thanks for thinking of the kid as a person, I wrote my friend.

But then another friend chimed in, mommy of a boy around the same age, a boy who, in fact, has two mommies. Was she embarrassing her kid all the time? she asked, justifiably irritated. Then I felt like a sell-out. Fuck those people who would judge either of those little boys, on whatever scale, local or national. Those moms should be true to who they are and who their kids are and if the issue ends up on CNN, well, that’s CNN’s problem.

But my attitude didn’t extend to “Fuck my stupid friend who thinks that mom should have hidden her kid’s pink toenails from the world.” Because this friend is part of the team I most love. Because I know this friend is a smart person, and because this friend has had kids and I haven’t. He isn’t homophobic, I’d say, even though those facebook comments might suggest some assimilationist pressure. Those posts expressed sadness about prejudice, and my only real problem with them is the resignation that this sort of prejudice will never go away.

Roller derby puts many in the position of playing with and befriending people they would never otherwise have talked to. As we all know, atheists skate with Catholics, pro-choice people skate with pro-life people, mechanics with lawyers, and on and on down the lists that amazed reporters glom together to chip away at the image the public has of a monolithically tattooed, queer-topia of alcoholic alpha-females.

Does my lack of anger at this friend mean that I’m engaging in some sort of hive mentality, some unquestioning support of my teammate, no matter if his views potentially threaten principles that I hold dear? No. But my derby-bond does make me think twice, because we’re freaks together, we’re different to other people in the same way, and we’re real people to each other in a way that we wouldn’t be if we hadn’t both been involved with RSRD. And that’s a hard thing, because I can’t dismiss him. And it’s a good thing, because it brings us both closer to the day when little boys can wear whatever color polish they want and people like my friend won’t have to worry about their happiness. We’re already getting closer to that day. My friend is not only concerned about pink-polish backlash, he’s a biker. This weekend he has a race, and I’ll be cheering him on.

Photo Credits: balleride.com; The New Yorker.

Feb 222011

It’s really easy to write a private confessional one late night on your macbook, but making it public takes a lot of deep breaths. Breathing deeply, here’s my story, in case it’s any good to anyone:

Some girls join roller derby to become someone else, to get their flipside moments on the track; but my story is quite different.

I remember being thirteen or fourteen or so and riding beside my sweet, misguided dad in his fire red pickup truck, listening to him talk to me about my future.

“Are you really sure you want to seriously pursue a career in basketball? Can you hang in with this sport for another ten years?”

“Of course, dad. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

“But. I’m not sure as your father that encouraging you to play ball is the responsible thing to do. There are certain things you’ll be exposed to.”

Things? Like?”



Now, I didn’t have a lot of these conversations growing up; but I did have my fair share of nightmares about being gay or people talking shit about my swag. I’d say the topic mainly existed as a terrifying shadow I refused to acknowledge. If it came up, my line was always, “I’m NOT gaaaaaaay.”

I went to my all-girls Catholic high school, did well, earned the respect and friendship of a whole lot of people, and thought, privately, that if I ever considered “letting myself be gay,” I’d lose it all. My family and friends’ affection. My reputation as a good kid. My place in heaven. Sure, I had no interest in boys. Not even a little. But I told myself it was because I was busy being a basketball player. I made it through high school without my first kiss. Because I was busy.

Well, I did pursue a career in basketball, until I didn’t. I played a year at Tulane and then quit, a failed, but respectable straight, ready for the next thing. I dated a boy a few months later til I quit that and joined a sorority til I quit that.

Since those lady things had failed, I needed something to convince everyone that I was straight.

Enter roller derby. Derby girls were pretty AND athletic, their sexuality, I thought, never questioned. I mean, they played in fishnets. I had been playing my sport for years in shorts to my shins, my hair slicked back to stay out of my face, worn as unattractively as possible. There’s no makeup, smiling, or blowing kisses to the crowd in basketball. Here was my chance to express a certain untapped femininity through my natural draw toward athletics.

A few weeks in, I realized that I hadn’t bought any fishnets; and I wasn’t wearing makeup like I thought I might. I had no interest in the dudesy refs.

Slowly, painfully, each day an ounce of self hatred leaving my body, a girl and I fell for each other. I wondered how this could have happened. I had survived all those basketball gays unscathed and unattracted. They were dykes. I was better than that. And then, just like that, I fell in love with a girl and into a pit of emo turmoil. The further I got into the relationship, the larger my secret life became. I’d one day have to reveal it to my loved ones, and I was sure they’d disown me and talk shit about their lez former friend.

But this isn’t a coming out story. Yes, I came out, and everybody still loves me. It got pretty emo and shitty in parts, but I haven’t lost anyone. I’m closer to my mom, and, though my dad died a few years ago, I know that his love for me is more unconditional now than ever.

The point is, derby helped me shed my defensive skin. While some girls become their alter egos or use the sport to escape from their realities, I really needed it for the opposite reasons. I needed to know it was okay for me to let go of the straightlaced alter ego I had presented myself as for years and truly face up to my self, the one I had been hiding all along. I needed to let go of that hold I had on myself and thaw the freeze that I had cultivated for so long, unable to love, explore, or look real hard at my questions. I found a sport and a girl who let me do that. I found myself.