Ten year anniversaries are traditionally commemorated with gifts made from tin or aluminum—metals representing strength and pliability, symbols for a relationship that can be bent but not broken. And while the athletes skating for Boston Roller Derby, née Derby Dames, are well-acquainted with taking a beating and staying strong, there’s no symbolism in the way their league is celebrating its upcoming tenth season. When they lace up their skates in 2016, these athletes will be feeling the love thanks to a new, gender-neutral name.
“I think that [changing the name to] ‘Boston Roller Derby’ is a really good thing,” says skater Jamie “Flyin’ King” Bartholomay, who uses gender-neutral pronouns (they/their). “I know I’m just one person and there’s a lot of people in the league, but it just makes me feel so much more comfortable. It makes me feel like I belong there more.”
Bartholomay says that the “Derby Dames” moniker never felt quite right to them. In fact, when they first started competing, they almost joined nearby Providence Roller Derby instead, despite the fact that they preferred to join the higher-ranked Dames. And it wasn’t just the word “dames” making Bartholomay feel less-than-welcome.
Compounding this was the archaic gender policy of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (the international governing body of the sport), which said that transgender athletes had to be tested by a healthcare provider to ensure “sex hormones are within the medically acceptable range for a female.”
“It felt like I couldn’t really talk about gender at all,” Bartholomay recalls. “I had just resigned myself to being like, ‘Okay, I’m just not going to talk about that, and I’m going to let everybody assume what they want, and everything will be fine.’”
“The name change reflects the changes that have happened over the past decade, in the sport and in the league,” explains Boston Roller Derby public relations chair Katherine “Space Invader” Rugg. In the 1970s, when derby first debuted, the fledgling sport was similar to pro wrestling, and even in the early days of Boston derby things were a little more rough and tumble than they are now. Rugg grins, recalling stories swapped at the league’s recent anniversary party about how fights used to break out on the track.
But the sport has gotten a bit more serious and intentional as it’s grown, and the WFTDA adopted a more inclusionary gender policy in 2015. “It’s really awesome that we have this safe space where athletes can claim their own identity and determine who they want to skate with,” Rugg says.
Derby, as a sport, may have evolved over the last decade, but what hasn’t changed is the love that these athletes feel—both for one another and for the game. Because they want to retain full ownership over their league, Boston Roller Derby skaters aren’t sponsored (or paid), and in fact pay out of pocket for everything from equipment to travel expenses. When the league lost its longtime Somerville practice space in December 2014, it was the players who footed the bill for rink rentals at local arenas and empty warehouses.
There’s also the time commitment; Rugg, who lives in Somerville, says she has a relatively modest commute to their practice space in Lynn. Bartholomay commutes from Quincy, a trip that takes between a half hour and 45 minutes each way (on a good day). Other skaters come from as far as Worcester, Providence and New Hampshire.
“It really is a community—it’s not like we just practice together and then we all go home,” Rugg says. “We’re invested in growing the business as well and making sure that [the] business is a positive representation of ourselves and also of our community.” To see the pride these athletes feel for their league, you need look no further than the way they sprang into action after the name change was announced. Skater Ren “Artoo Detonate” Caldwell, who coded and maintains the league’s website, made the (numerous) necessary online updates in just 24 hours. Anna-Ellen “Slam Chowdah” Lenart officially processed the LLC name change handled the business side of the rebranding. Zack “You++” Youngren followed up on the changes to the league’s email addresses, and all of the players remained communicative and supportive as the league prepared to go public with the announcement.
It might seem counterintuitive that roller derby fosters such a caring and safe community—after all, it’s a hard-hitting sport, one where injuries from gnarly bruises to fishnet burns are not just an occupational hazard but are practically a guarantee. But, Bartholomay explains, that too comes from a place of love. “It’s not aggressive in a mean way, or in a destructive way, it’s aggressive in that I’m hitting you really hard to make you better!” they laugh. “That’s where the aggression comes in. We just push each other to be better and better every day.”
Rugg, a lifelong athlete who grew up playing soccer and running track, says it was only when she got into skating that she fully understood what it is to be part of a team. “I remember at practices when I first started playing roller derby, being like, ‘This is crazy, I feel like people want me to succeed.’”
For Rugg and Bartholomay, that’s what derby is all about: providing a space for marginalized groups and empowering athletes, both on the track and off. “I am a completely different person from when I started playing roller derby,” Bartholomay says. “I’m way more confident in myself … in every aspect of my life. I’m more comfortable speaking in front of people and more comfortable just being myself and doing what I want to do—forget what everybody else thinks or says.”
Now, the league has the name to match.