By Alex Bailey
When I moved to Lansing, I was half convinced it was the San Francisco of the Midwest. I had never encountered so many queer folks in my entire life. I grew up in a town of 400 people, in rural northern New York. No one was openly gay there. To this day, I can count the number of people I personally know who are out on both hands, and probably have a few fingers left over. The area where I grew up is so bereft of any sort of LGBT life that, upon recent perusal, my only OKCupid matches within a 50 mile radius of home (of which there were two) were in a different country. I couldn’t turn around without spotting a horse and buggy, yet finding someone like me felt like searching for Bigfoot.
I spent hours at the local library, trying to find others my community. We didn’t have a computer when I was growing up, so without fail, I’d spend hours every week furtively glancing around at the other patrons in the library, willing them to not catch me scrolling through LiveJournal for anything even remotely gay. I had taped t. A.T.u’s “All The Things She Said” off TRL when it aired, watching it on repeat anytime my parents left the house. College would be different, I told myself. I could be myself there. I imagined a world where I’d be loud and proud. I’d have a partner and maybe join a coven (Buffy probably played a larger role than I thought in what I imagined college to be like).
And college came, and college went. I’d occasionally crack open the closet door, stretching my foot out, while maintaining a white-knuckled grasp on the door handle, slamming it shut as soon as I felt seen and recognized. Then I moved to Michigan. It took a mostly friendless year, with a brief interlude of getting into Roman Catholicism (but that’s another story) before I found derby. I had a few friends who were involved in roller derby from high school and college. I had seen Whip It. I thought I had a general idea of what I was getting into, but really was not at all prepared.
Joining the Lansing Derby Vixens was the first time I was ever able to identify and have what I had been craving my whole life – a community. There were adult queers! In healthy relationships! Who were living normal lives! I had never encountered that before, outside of television or the internet. I was surrounded by queer folks and allies who were unapologetically themselves, and it blew my mind. The casual openness and camaraderie were foreign to me.
Roller derby is a sport in which our top athletes in the world are queer, and trans, and nonbinary; a community (not without its missteps) that has explicit language that states it commitment “…to inclusive and anti-discrimination practices in relation to all transgender women, intersex women, and gender expansive participants, and aims to ensure that all skaters’, volunteers’, and employees’ rights are respected and protected (WFTDA Gender Policy).”
It took another year of immersing myself in this safe space before I came out to almost everyone in my life all at once through social media, while safely ensconced at a derby tournament. While skating never really worked out, I stayed involved as a non-skating official, committee member, and eventually vice president and president the Vixens.
It was through derby that I learned how to be comfortable in my own skin. It was through derby that I had the chance to explore what it meant to me to identify as a queer woman. It was through derby that I met a group of folks that have served as my chosen family, who helped me expand my worldview, guided me through my first forays in dating, encouraged me to grow and succeed, and supported me through heartache. These were the people I cried with when marriage equality passed. These were the people I cried with and held space with after the most recent presidential election. (But I promise there is more to roller derby than crying.)
I realize that not everyone will have or has had the same experience that I have with derby. All leagues are different, and the people in mine (and in Michigan derby in general) are part of why I’ve been as lucky as I have been.