At the end of the week of Pride Toronto 2015, on the eve of the biggest annual Pride weekend in North America, the United States of America kind of stole the show. When that country’s Supreme Court rendered the decision to allow same-sex marriage across the board, the world, including those already well caught up in the midst of the rainbow wave in Toronto, rejoiced. It was a monumental moment in the ongoing mainstream shift in Western attitudes toward the LGBTQ2 community and will undoubtedly be looked back upon as a decisive moment in our march toward universal human rights. But, of course, we’re not quite there yet. On the morning of Friday, June 26, 2015, as news of the Supreme Court’s decision dominated headlines, roller derby fans in Toronto were only slowly awaking and shaking off the previous night’s festivities. It had been a long Thursday for those who’d attended the Uhaul Brawl, the city’s annual all-queer all-star roller derby event, which, for the third year in a row was co-organized between Toronto Roller Derby and the GTA Rollergirls. It’s been an important event in the history and development of the sport in this city, and arguably represents contemporary roller derby in its purest form: fun, athletic, and with a clear progressive agenda.While this was the seventh year for the event (first held in 2009 at the George Bell Arena), this was the first year since letting go of the event’s original moniker, the Clam Slam.
Since re-emerging in Austin in the early part of the 21st Century, women’s flat track roller derby has occupied a fascinating space in the North American sports community. Initially the flat track movement was a riot-grrrl inspired, third-wave feminist spectacle that made a mockery of sports culture, all the while flaunting a certain form of hyper-femininity that in equal parts drew people in and kept them out. The game and the places where it was played were celebrated as safe, celebratory spaces for women. The Clam Slam rose out of this ideology: celebratory, hyper-feminine, and even as the competitive level of the sport arose around it (and thus within the event as well), those core values remained. However, the justifiably giddy response around the Supreme Court’s decision hid many problematic issues. For one, it highlighted how slow progress can be in the planet’s richest democracy (Canada and many other Western nations had legalized same-sex marriage for at least a decade), and it also masked the plight of those in the trans community, for whom progress and acceptance have been much harder to come by. While homophobia is still undeniably rampant in North America (primarily driven by the religious right), the lives of those in the LGB community have never been more protected as they are now. The laws of the land have indeed shifted, and while the members of the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities still face discrimination, they now have institutional protection and a guarantee of equal rights across the board (even if, sometimes, they still have to fight for them). The same cannot yet be said for the members in the trans community. Although it has been three years since Ontario passed Toby’s Act into law, trans people, whether it be through a simple lack of access to washrooms or being placed in detention with those of the opposite gender (just to name two examples), still face the kind of surface—and institutional—discrimination that members of the LGB community have been mostly able to find protection from. It was out of this murky climate that the movement to change the name of Toronto’s annual Pride-affiliated roller derby game arose. “We knew that [the name] was something that we had to address because we know that it’s transmisogynist and we know that there are problems with that in roller derby as well as in other queer spaces,” explains Uhaul Brawl co-organizer, Vag Lightning (skating at Uhaul Brawl as the Notorious V.A.G.).
The initial idea was to change the name moving forward and to find something that didn’t focus on women’s genitals. But as the event neared, it became more and more obvious that the time for change was now: “We were going to do it for next year but we got called out—rightfully so,” Vag admits, adding that “there are people who didn’t sign up this year because of it.” Specifically, Vag cites the criticism of new D-VAS skater The Lavender Menace as catalyst for the change, as it was she who first publicly articulated her feelings of exclusion, feelings that were quickly echoed across social media.
As the realization that people were being hurt and excluded from the event because of the name became more and more obvious (which is counter to the very essence of the event), change was instituted immediately. While the name and attitude surrounding the event had left some on the outside looking in, the event itself had never had a policy of exclusion, and trans women have been skating in the games since the inaugural Clam Slam in 2009. However, Vag acknowledges that while trans women have skated in the event, none had ever been involved in the planning, which is common: “that is something the event has suffered from as well as other events for queer women. Maybe if more trans women had been involved in an organizing position, these changes would have been made sooner. We have to talk about why trans women aren’t involved in the planning.” But, she’s quick to point out, “It shouldn’t be up to trans women to tell other queer women that what we’re doing is problematic.” The birth of the Uhaul Brawl seems to be part of a larger change in the roller derby community, built around a redefinition of inclusion. The reasoning behind the change, explains Vag, was that “The name itself perpetuates the assumption of what a woman is in queer womanhood.”
This problematic assumption, when you sit down and think about it, is rampant in the roller derby community (“Beaver Fever” comes to mind), a vestige of its riot grrrl roots. “We like to pat ourselves on the back and talk about how progressive we are,” points out Vag, citing the recent Vagine Regime-focused film In the Turn as being a surprisingly disappointing example of the community making assumptions about what a woman is in queer womanhood. “We want to push for a bigger conversation,” Vag says, “as well as push for more change at the WFTDA level, including with the gender policy,” which, she, and others, have pointed out, is problematic.
What the name change has already accomplished is opening up the discussion to the community, and while there was some quiet resistance to the change, it was mostly accepted with open arms, celebrated even. And when the whistle blew, it didn’t change what happened on the track: fast, fun, fantastic roller derby. For the record, The Blundstone Brigade won the opening game 156-154 after a furious last-jam comeback against the The Gliterrazzi, while Team Uhaul defeated The Plaid Mafia 187-133. While the US Supreme Court’s decision was undeniably monumental, instead of seeing it as an end point in a battle, it should be seen as a beginning point of a push for the rights of those who are still excluded. While changing the name of one all-star roller derby event in Toronto seems a small gesture, it is the accumulation of those small gestures that will inspire change. “Hopefully doing stuff like this will ripple out to other leagues and we can all start doing a little better because we owe it to ourselves,” Vag concludes. “We owe it to our community, and we owe it to trans women.”