A New York roller derby team’s newest opponent: an order restricting trans athletes

By Thomson Reuters Mar 22, 2024 | 5:10 AM

By Jonathan Allen

SEAFORD, New York (Reuters) – For years, New York’s Long Island Roller Rebels have welcomed transgender women to strap on skates and body padding and join their women’s roller derby team.

Now, under an executive order issued this month by Nassau County on Long Island, if they want to book a county-run park or athletics facility they must ask each member what sex was marked on their original birth certificate, and expel any teammates who were not designated female.

The Roller Rebels say this is invasive and illegal discrimination under New York law, and, although they know of at least one transgender teammate, they simply do not know or care to inquire what their members’ birth certificates say.

“It’s gross,” said Amanda Urena, a Roller Rebel known on the rink by their derby name Curly Fry. “We don’t want to police our players’ bodies. That’s just not for us to do.”

Republican politicians in at least 23 U.S. states have advanced scores of laws and rules in recent years restricting transgender athletes from joining girls’ or women’s teams as part of a broader legislative effort that includes restricting access to some gender-affirming medical treatments and sex-segregated toilets.

But such an order is rare in New York, one of the 22 U.S. states that explicitly forbids discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

Last week, the Roller Rebels, represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, sued County Executive Bruce Blakeman, a Republican who announced his order at a Feb. 22 press conference in Nassau County, a mostly suburban chunk of Long Island adjacent to New York City. His order forbids the county’s Department of Parks, Recreation & Museums from issuing event permits to girls’ and women’s sports teams that cannot attest that all their members were designated female at birth.

Blakeman says his order, the legality of which is now being weighed by at least two courts, is needed to protect girls and women who are not transgender. The order does not prevent transgender athletes from playing on mixed teams at county facilities, nor from forming transgender-only teams or leagues. Nor does it forbid a transgender woman from joining a men’s team, should both the athlete and the team want that.

“Anybody who would argue biological males are not bigger, larger and faster than biological females is a fool,” Blakeman said in an interview.

He disagrees with the International Olympic Committee’s 2021 guidance, which said that there must be “no presumption of advantage” based on an athlete’s physical appearance or gender identity. The guidance says any sport’s eligibility criteria should be based on “robust and peer-reviewed research,” and that this will likely vary between different sports.

The broader public appears divided: in a Gallup telephone survey of 1,011 American adults last year, 93% of Republicans said they believed that transgender athletes should only be allowed to play on teams corresponding with their sex designated at birth, while Democrats surveyed were in a 48% to 47% statistical tie within the margin of error.

Days after Blakeman issued the order, New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, wrote to demand he rescind it or face legal consequences, calling it “transphobic and blatantly illegal.”

Blakeman has since sued James in the federal district court on Long Island, arguing that her application of the New York Human Rights Law violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

He is joined as plaintiffs by the parents of a 16-year-old girl from the county who plays volleyball. Without Blakeman’s order, the parents face an “impossible determination whether to expose their 16-year-old daughter to the risk of injury by a transgender girl or simply to not play volleyball at all,” according to the lawsuit. A lawyer for the girl’s parents referred interview requests to Blakeman’s office.

The lawsuit contends that transgender people are not a protected class under federal law. In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender identity amounts to illegal sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act.

Blakeman’s lawsuit, to which the attorney general has until Friday to respond, also cited two episodes reported in the media of transgender women injuring other players during sporting events in other states.

“This executive order doesn’t address any real problem in New York State,” said Gabriella Larios, an NYCLU attorney representing the Roller Rebels in the New York Supreme Court. “This is a policy that is purely designed to alienate and stigmatize transgender people who just want to play sports with their friends.”

The Roller Rebel players note that women who are not transgender can and do injure other athletes, especially in boisterous contact sports like roller derby, even if those injuries do not make the news. They also say that transgender players of the sport, which involves blocking and passing opponents in high-speed laps, are not automatically the best players on the rink, skilled as some are.

And all the teams they play in league games subscribe to the same eligibility rules laid out by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the sport’s international governing body, which allows “all transgender women, intersex women, and gender expansive participants” to join derby teams.

“I have competed with assigned-female-at-birth women who are 6’2″ before they put their skates on,” said Cat Carroll, a Roller Rebels coach known on the rink as Catastrophic Danger. “I have seen injuries caused by 5-foot women. We have rules for safety.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; editing by Paul Thomasch and Josie Kao)