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How Roller Derby Is Challenging The Gender Binary

The fast-skating, hard-hitting sport of roller derby was incredibly popular in the United States from the 1940s to the 1970s. The sport fell out of favor and into dormancy for several years — until a few punk-rock women in the early 2000s decided to pick it back up again.

Today the sport is an international phenomenon with 460 women’s flat track roller derby leagues spread out on six continents. Suzanne Becker has explored the way contemporary roller derby pushes back against traditional definitions of sport, gender and sexuality. She joins host Frank Stasio to share her research and to talk about how modern roller derby evolved from its roots as a marathon skating sport. Becker is a lecturer in gender and sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Erica Vanstone, the executive director of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), joins the conversation to talk about how trans athletes are included in the sport. WFTDA is the international governing body of women’s roller derby. And Kelsey Hausler shares her experience as a skater for Greensboro Roller Derby. Hausler is the president of that league, which is hosting one of the 2019 International Women’s Flat Track Derby Association Playoffs.

The tournament is a ticketed event from Friday, Sept. 6 to Sunday, Sept. 8 at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex in Winston-Salem. It includes 12 teams from around the globe, including teams from Argentina, Finland and Germany.

Interview Highlights

Becker on the 19th century endurance sports roots of modern roller derby:

It was a type of sports entertainment based on pairs of skaters — usually a man and woman — doing laps around an oval track … It really came out of this dance marathon craze, and it became more about endurance. And what we saw were pairs of skaters taking turns skating about 57,000 laps, or what would be the equivalent of about 4000 miles at that point — which was the distance between New York and San Diego.

Derby has always pushed these boundaries that we have around sport. - Suzanne Becker

Becker on the modern iteration of women’s roller derby:

So we saw women really creating a sport from the ground up … And really what began as a grassroots effort by just a handful of women to define and organize this women's sport quickly became a national and now international phenomenon.

Vanstone on the WFTDA’s evolving policy on gender inclusion:

We had an early gender policy that allowed transgender women to compete in the organization, so long as their hormone levels were “medically acceptable.” And that was a policy that was released in around 2011. And I became a part of roller derby in a local league here in Philadelphia that when the policy came out, really reacted very strongly against it and said: This is not inclusive enough. So since that time, the WFTDA has been working really hard to make the policy as inclusive as it possibly can be. And in 2016, we realized that the medical requirements were really prohibitive to being inclusive and we rely on individuals to self-identify.

Vanstone on the political aspect of roller derby:

I was just watching an interview this morning with the Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, where he was talking about how the NFL needs to stay away from politics. I think the WFTDA and roller derby — we’re really very much the opposite, because we recognize that the early roots for the sport have been inclusive for women, and we want that for everyone.

Hausler on Greensboro Roller Derby:

We're just so excited for the playoffs that we're hosting this weekend, especially in spite of HB2 and all the bad rep that it's given all of NC …  The LGBTQIA community is here and it's thriving. And it feels good to be represented, especially from the WFTDA and all of the policies that they've been making.


Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.