In April 2011, the WFTDA released a statement outlining its policy on gender. According to an FAQ published on their website, WFTDA created this policy in response to “frequent inquiries related to transgender athletes and their eligibility to play,” although it is not clear how many teams or players are potentially impacted by this. The policy in its entirety is available here.

Essentially, the policy states that if a health-care provider (loosely defined) verifies that a person’s “sex hormones are within the medically acceptable range for a female”, then the person can be considered a female and is allowed to compete on a chartered team in sanctioned games.

The release of the policy generated some moderate buzz in the derby community and was embraced by some, but otherwise did not cause much clamor initially. However, now that there has been time to digest the content of the policy, some people are increasingly finding that it is has created a more discriminatory atmosphere than before the policy was approved. Jacquelyn Heat, a transgendered fresh meat skater with the Philly Rollergirls (PRG), says “the policy singles out trans and intersex skaters and requires us to meet certain standards in order to be considered women. Genetic females, however, retain immunity to these requirements. Nevermind the details of the requirements; this is discrimination in the plainest sense.”

this is discrimination in the plainest sense- PRG’s Jaquelyn Heat

In fact, PRG has gone on record in protest of the policy, releasing a letter of opposition. The letter has been sent to all WFTDA member leagues, and is available in its entirety here: Philly Rollergirls Gender Policy Letter.

Essentially, PRG objects to the hormone-based definition of gender. They are right to do so. I’ll save my lesson on the biology of sex determination in humans for my undergraduate students, but suffice it to say that gender cannot be described solely based on anatomy, percent muscle mass, chromosomes, gene expression, hormone levels, or reproduction. The development of sex in humans is highly variable, and there are numerous biological reasons why a person who identifies themselves as a female might have “male-like” genetics or hormone levels (and vice versa.) If you are interested in learning more about this, just research Swyer’s Syndrome, Klinefelter’s Syndrome, or Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome for a few examples of conditions that might lead to false negative results of a medical gender test. In fact, it might be of particular interest to learn that all humans are conceived as biological females, and it is only after a fetus passes a certain stage that male characteristics arise (in part this explains, among other things, why males retain vestigial nipples.) These few examples illustrate why medical definitions of gender based on single or few criteria can be limiting and therefore discriminatory (albeit unintentional).

gender cannot be described solely based on anatomy, percent muscle mass, chromosomes, gene expression, hormone levels, or reproduction

Those who compiled the WFTDA Gender Policy seemingly did so with the best intentions, and took great care in doing so. They consulted with “medical professionals, academics, attorneys and organizations (including the U.S. Olympic Committee)” in creating the policy (although it is not clear to what extent they did so.)

Internationally, Olympic competition has a long history of dealing with gender issues in women’s sports, and much of what is known regarding gender issues in female athletics traces to cases involving the Olympic Games. There is also precedent at the collegiate level in the United States, where there are legal and financial implications the likes of which WFTDA does not currently face (the NCAA’s official position is one of deferral to its member leagues, most of which have adopted hormone-based definitions of gender.)

Still, at this point, WFTDA’s policy seems to have led to more questions than answers, and in its details may have created a less-inclusive atmosphere for female athletes that it intended. Jacquelyn Heat again: “In its current wording, the policy disenfranchises WFTDA’s own transgender and intersex skaters by creating an official platform to question our identities as women (See the policy’s section V. Appeals). Note that prior to this policy, trans and intersex skaters were already permitted to play at the sanctioned level without question. So the policy doesn’t bestow any rights or privileges to trans and intersex skaters that we didn’t already have.    Add to this that WFTDA doesn’t even have a doping policy, and it becomes particularly offensive that I would be questioned on my identity as a woman while the girl next to me on the jammer line could very well be on amphetamines.”

The WFTDA has always taken pride in being revolutionary as a women’s sport, and the policy was made with that spirit in mind. However, as noted by Heat’s PRG leaguemate, Gloria Grindem: “we were revolutionary before this policy came out, accepting all individuals who identify as female without any inquiry into their hormonal, physical, or genetic makeup. I joined roller derby in part because it was a place where people who defied the norms of mainstream society were welcomed with open arms. It was a place where you could leave your other life behind and just SKATE. I think that this policy goes against the heart and soul of flat-track derby.”

we were revolutionary before this policy came out, accepting all individuals who identify as female without any inquiry into their hormonal, physical, or genetic makeup- PRG’s Gloria Grindem

Deferring to the healthy-care industry to verify a skater’s gender is another major flaw in the policy. Medical professionals have specialized knowledge and skills, but typical health-care training does not include in-depth exploration of the biological or social, implications of gender identity. In passing the buck to the opinion of what an athlete’s health care provider considers to be an appropriate hormone-based definition of sex, WFTDA essentially equates gender identity with injury or disease, which some might find rather offensive.

Heat and Grindem both share the opinion that WFTDA’s official policy should reflect its previous, all-inclusive, “unofficial” policy: that any athlete who identifies wholly or partly as a female should be allowed to participate in women’s roller derby under the banner of WFTDA, and that the burden of proof should either be eliminated entirely or applied equally to all athletes.

My hope, as well as that of PRG, is that dialog on the issue of gender in women’s sports continues and that eventually a policy can be established that has zero negative implications for anyone who wants to participate in the sport, either on the track or in a supporting role. PRG will facilitate discussion of this topic at the upcoming East Coast Derby Extravaganza in Feasterville on June 24-26. Gloria Grindem adds, “Initially, the current gender policy made sense to a lot of people (me included)! But when you take the time to learn about the implications, you start to see that it’s not ideal. Philly Roller Girls is hoping to educate other skaters and leagues about these issues. We will have an information table at the East Coast Derby Extravaganza and are looking forward to talking with skaters from around the world!”


Image courtesy of Philly Roller Girls