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Why This Long Island Roller Derby Team Is Taking on the Ban Against Trans Women in Sports

The VP of the Long Island Roller Rebels and a staff attorney for the NYCLU talk about suing Nassau County over its recent executive order.

The Long Island Roller Rebels skating.
(Courtesy of the Long Island Roller Rebels)

In late February, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman wanted to make history in New York—with a contentious executive order effectively banning transgender women and girls from playing in women's sports leagues. Under the order, women's leagues that include trans members are no longer allowed to use county facilities in any capacity. Now, a Nassau roller derby team is taking him to court to get the ban lifted.

In a press conference after the executive order was announced, Blakeman called trans women and girls participating in women's sports leagues "a form of bullying" and said that while he wasn't aware of anyone in Nassau County actually having a problem with playing alongside trans people, he "wanted to get ahead of the curve." State officials, including Governor Kathy Hochul and Attorney General Letitia James, quickly came out against the executive order—Blakeman is actually suing James after her office sent him a cease-and-desist letter that claimed the executive order was "discriminative" and "illegal." 

But Blakeman is also dealing with a lawsuit where he's the defendant. The Long Island Roller Rebels, a Nassau County-based roller derby league, officially filed suit against Blakeman last week, with help from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). The Roller Rebels have around 50 members—some of whom are trans women, meaning they're currently blocked from using county facilities under the executive order. "We're expecting a decision on our lawsuit sometime in mid-April," Gabriella Larios, a staff attorney for the NYCLU, told Hell Gate. "The point to me that feels most important in this lawsuit is that it was issued against such a clear backdrop of anti-discrimination laws in New York State that are robustly enforced. To me, that says this executive order is nothing more than a cynical attempt to shut trans people out of public life—and that's unacceptable."

Hell Gate talked to Larios and the Roller Rebels's lead plaintiff—who asked to go by their derby moniker, Curly Fry—about community support, sitting with discomfort, and what trans women and girls stand to lose when they get excluded from sports. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How long have you been into roller derby? 

Curly Fry: Yeah, so I'm 32 now, and I got into roller derby in 2016, when I was 25, 26. I got into it because I took my mom and my sister to a game, and we just looked at the amazing skaters and were just like, "Oh, my God!" We were just in awe. A few years later, I finally started playing—it's a full contact sport, and you're on rollerskates. I used to skate with Gotham, and they practice in Brooklyn. I'm VP of the Long Island Roller Rebels league. We're all volunteers. I do school part time and I work full time, I'm a dog parent…there's a lot to do! But I love derby, so I want it to be a part of my life.

Did you have an organized sports background before derby? 

Curly Fry: Yeah, I used to play sports on Long Island growing up. I lived in West Hempstead, which is close to Queens, but it's Nassau County proper. When I was a little kid, I played on the GH Metros soccer team…Except, because I was really tall when I was a kid, they put me in the age group that was above mine. I didn't know how to play soccer at all, and it was terrifying. That put me off of soccer for a minute. Then, in middle school, I ran track and played basketball and soccer—I think the only thing I didn't make was volleyball. I played basketball, recreationally, in college sometimes, and then I ran a couple half marathons. But I hated all that—I hated running, I mean. Power to people who love running though, especially those who love running in the winter. 

When did the idea of trans people—especially trans women—playing sports as an "issue" come across your radar? 

Curly Fry: I don't remember exactly when, but a few years back, there was this whole kerfuffle online because someone I know had posted something about trans women in sports on Facebook—about how trans athletes should "stay in their lane." I didn't really understand why someone would post that—but then also kind of understood why? It was just like, "Huh?" A very Scooby Doo question mark moment. I remember sitting with this discomfort, and it would be nice if a lot more people really did that, rather than jumping to their immediate gut reaction, which is fear. 

Within derby, like I'd already played with trans athletes who were open and out about it, and it was never an issue. So I felt that, whatever article was posted, there was a lack of understanding about trans women's lives, or hormones—all the different things that come with transitioning, if someone so chooses to do so medically. And then my partner came out not too long after that, so I learned a lot in that short span of time.

Does your partner play roller derby too?

Curly Fry: I tried! I'm always trying to recruit people. But no, she is an actor and prefers to make sure her face stays okay. And I'm the same way. I manage at my job, and I'm always in team meetings. I can't show up with a broken nose—it would not be cute.

For sure, most can't. But OK, when did you hear about County Executive Blakeman's ban on women's leagues or teams with trans girls and women as members using county facilities?

Curly Fry: I found out through the other officers in the league, and immediately I was like, OK, I'm gonna go lay down, this bummed me out. It felt like this statement of, "Oh, yeah, you queers, you're not welcome here"—people who have this so-called advantage, when there's no evidence to support that in any way. It was really sad. But everyone rallied around and was like, okay, what can we do? Let's get a message out, let's make sure our teammates are doing all right. I'm super grateful that as a community the league has been super supportive. And even outside of the league, now that we've kind of come out and announced the lawsuit and I've been doing these interviews with Gaby, other leagues have come out to be so supportive of what we're doing. 

Other leagues on Long Island or nationally? 

Curly Fry: Yeah, there's another league on Long Island, Strong Island. [Laughs] They've been supportive. And then other leagues nationally have sent messages and donations, etcetera, so that has been really thoughtful. We're a nonprofit and volunteer-run, so anything we make basically goes right back into putting on games and training, which is why having space to do that is so important.

How has your league been impacted by the ban so far?

Curly Fry: It's a huge potential turnoff for membership, because even if I'm a cisgender woman, I don't want to be asked about my genitalia upon joining a team. That's just really uncomfortable. And the umbrella organization we're connected with, the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, their policy—which aligns with ours—is inclusive of trans women, nonbinary people, and gender expansive people. The ban directly conflicted with our policy. 

Also, since the pandemic, league membership has dropped. We haven't had enough people to really staff up games; it becomes really tough. A big part of the issue was that we practice at these two private facilities, but we're very limited in time there. They're great partners, and we're really thankful that this news has not deterred them from having us, but they have parties and other events that they have to prioritize as well. So we've been actively searching for other spaces that we can practice, hold events, hold the games, so when we got this news, I was especially devastated because I was compiling a list and someone else was already doing outreach to new spaces, including some county facilities. A lot of work that had been put into this—so feeling deflated by the ban really sucked. 

Got it. So how did the lawsuit end up coming together?

Larios: So as soon as the executive order was announced, the NYCLU started exploring all legal options. Part of that was getting a full picture of who is impacted on the ground. We came into contact with the Roller Rebels who from the jump were like, "This is unfair, like we are a league that includes and welcomes trans women, and we wouldn't be prohibited from practicing or using the spaces under the order." So, we both had the same idea about this order that it is transphobic and dangerous, and all wanted to see it struck down. And that's not just so the Roller Rebels could play in Nassau County facilities, but also the countless other teams who might be affected by this, including like youth sports leagues and organizations that use the facilities for like one-off tournaments and things like that.

Curly Fry: In our initial conversations, we were all very much thinking about the children that are or could be impacted and the message that the ban sends—that they're not welcome. Even trans women who are adults, we very much care about and want them to have the opportunity to play whatever sport they desire, if that brings them joy, right? There's so much added fulfillment in our lives from roller derby that thinking about people feeling excluded and actively being excluded from that is just awful. I was happy to go forward and speak on this with the backing of the NYCLU. We felt very confident that we could fight this. And it's been reinvigorating to know that we can take action against this and this is not a hopeless situation. We definitely have a path forward and are still very encouraging of people joining our league.

Any thoughts on Caitlyn Jenner speaking out in support of the ban next to Blakeman? 

Curly Fry: I didn't watch it, but the second she showed up I was like, "She doesn't go here." That's pretty much it! Like, this isn't your community, so why are you talking? I understand she's a trans woman and a former athlete, but I'm here fighting for my community. That's the Nassau community, that's players on my team, that's people in the queer community, that's roller derby at large, that's trans athletes all over the country. It's so much bigger than just like our little team, and we definitely understand that. But we're also at a privileged position in the sense that we're adults. So, I was glad to step forward as adults who can represent ourselves instead of having children being used as pawns. 

Larios: I'll just add that Jenner's press conference was another disgraceful attempt to target and villainize trans women and girls. All that was sending is the message that trans women and girls are not worthy of the same benefits that you get from sports, but all of their peers are.

What do trans women—and especially trans girls—stand to lose out on when they're excluded in this way from the experience of getting to play organized competitive sports? 

Curly Fry: In my experience, growing up playing sports, that's where I found friends. That's where my little brain synapses were like, oh, this is how teamwork works, and I was able to bring that into adulthood. Being an effective leader in my workplace, having good communication with my partners, learning how to manage my emotions when things get tough—there's just so much you get out of playing sports. Win or lose! There are so many people, so many teams, who lose all the time, but they keep at it—that's the beauty of it. There's always something to go back for and to be excited about, and so much joy to be gained from the experience. Missing out on that is devastating. I don't think I would be the person I am today without having been in sports.

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