Members of the Long Island Roller Rebels, practice skills, Tuesday, March 19, 2023, at United Skates of America in Seaford, N.Y. Source: AP Photo/Jeenah Moon

After a County Restricted Transgender Women in Sports, a Roller Derby League Said, 'No Way'

Philip Marcelo READ TIME: 5 MIN.

They zip around the rink, armed with helmets, pads and mouthguards. They push, bump and occasionally crash out as they jostle for position on the hardwood floor.

But for the women of the Long Island Roller Rebels, their biggest battle is taking place outside the suburban strip-mall roller rink where they're girding for the upcoming roller derby season.

The nearly 20-year-old amateur league is suing a county leader over an executive order meant to prevent women's and girl's leagues and teams with transgender players from using county-run parks and fields. The league's legal effort, backed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, has thrust it into the national discussion over the rights of transgender athletes.

Amanda Urena, the league's vice president, said there was never any question the group would take a stand.

"The whole point of derby has been to be this thing where people feel welcome," said the 32-year-old Long Island native, who competes as "Curly Fry" and identifies as queer, at a recent practice at United Skates of America in Seaford. "We want trans women to know that we want you to come play with us, and we'll do our very best to keep fighting and making sure that this is a safe space for you to play."

The February edict from Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman affects more than 100 public facilities in the county of nearly 1.4 million just east of Queens.

Sports leagues and teams seeking permits to play or practice in county-run parks must disclose whether they have or allow transgender women or girls. Any organization that allows them to play will be denied a permit, though men's leagues and teams aren't affected.

Bills restricting trans youths' ability to participate in sports have already passed in some 24 states as part of an explosion of anti-trans legislation on many subjects in recent years. The largest school district in Manhattan is among localities also weighing a ban, following a school board vote last week.

The Roller Rebels sought a county permit this month in hopes of hosting practices and games in county-owned rinks in the upcoming season, as they have in prior years. But they expect to be denied, since the organization is open to anyone who identifies as a woman and has one transgender player already on the roster.

The ban will also make it hard for the league, which has two teams and about 25 players, to recruit and will hurt its ability to host competitions with other leagues, Urena said.

State Attorney General Letitia James has demanded the county rescind the ban, saying it violates state anti-discrimination laws, while Blakeman has asked a federal judge to uphold it.

That a roller derby league has become the face of opposition isn't surprising: the sport has long been a haven for queer and transgender women, said Margot Atwell, who played in a women's league in New York City and wrote "Derby Life," a book about roller derby.

The sport, which dates at least to the 1930s and enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s, involves two teams racing around a track as their designated "jammer" attempts to score points by lapping the other skaters, who are allowed to use their hips, chests and shoulders to slow them down.

The latest revival started in the early 2000s and has been sustained by LGBTQ+ people, with leagues frequently taking part in Pride parades and holding fundraising matches, Atwell said.

"You come in here and you say, 'I'm a trans woman. I'm a nonbinary person. I'm genderqueer.' OK? We accept you," said Caitlin Carroll, a Roller Rebel who competes as "Catastrophic Danger." "The world is scary enough. You should have a safe place to be."

Blakeman has said he wants to ensure female athletes can compete safely and fairly. He held a news conference last week with Caitlyn Jenner, who won Olympic gold in the men's decathlon in 1976 and later underwent a gender transition. Jenner, a Republican who's frequently at political odds with the greater transgender community, has endorsed the ban.

Blakeman, a Republican who was elected in 2021, has said constituents asked his office to act. But many critics dismiss the ban as political posturing, noting he has acknowledged there have been no local complaints involving transgender players on women's teams.

"This is a solution in search of a problem," said Emily Santosus, a 48-year old transgender woman on Long Island who hopes to join a women's softball team. "We're not bullies. We're the ones that get bullied."

The ones who will suffer most aren't elite athletes, but children still trying to navigate their gender identities, added Grace McKenzie, a transgender woman who plays for the New York Rugby Club's women's team.

"Cruel is the only word that I can use to describe it," the 30-year-old Brooklyn resident said. "Kids are using sports at that age to build relationships, make friendships, develop teamwork skills, leadership skills and, frankly, just help shield them from all the hate they face as transgender kids already."

In the larger discussion about trans women in sports, each side points to limited research to support their opinion. And bans often do not distinguish between girls and women who took puberty blockers as part of their transition – stunting the development of a male-typical physique – and those who didn't, something one New York advocate pointed out.

The order in Nassau County puts some younger trans girls at greater risk by potentially pitting them against boys instead, said Juli Grey-Owens, leader of Gender Equality New York.

"They are not hitting puberty, so they're not growing, they're not getting that body strength, the endurance, the agility, the big feet, the large legs," Grey-Owens said.

The ban could even lead to cisgender female athletes who are strong and muscular being falsely labeled transgender and disqualified, as has happened elsewhere, said Shane Diamond, a transgender man who plays recreational LGBTQ+ ice hockey in New York City.

"It creates a system where any young woman who doesn't fit the stereotypical idea of femininity and womanhood is at risk of having her gender questioned or gender policed," Diamond said.

A 2022 Washington Post-University of Maryland Poll found that 55% of Americans were opposed to allowing trans women and girls to compete with other women and girls in high school sports, and 58% opposed it for college and pro sports.

Two cisgender female athletes said after listening to Jenner that men are stronger than women, so it will never be fair if transgender women and girls are allowed to compete.

"There is a chance I would get hurt in those situations," said Trinity Reed, 21, who plays lacrosse at Nassau County's Hofstra University.

Mia Babino, 18, plays field hockey at the State University of New York at Cortland and plans to transfer to Nassau County's Molloy University.

"We've worked very hard to get to where we are and to play at a college level," she said.

But that attitude runs against everything athletic competition stands for, and it sells women and their potential short, countered Urena, of the Roller Rebels.

"If people gave up playing sports because they thought they were going to lose, we wouldn't have a sports industry," they said. "I love playing against people that are faster and stronger because that's how I get better."

by Philip Marcelo

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