Steel City Roller Derby: A Queer Yinzer’s Dream Team

A few weeks ago I had my first ever Steel City Roller Derby experience at their 10th anniversary bout against Toronto.

I’m someone that can get into just about any sport, so I obviously enjoyed watching dozens of badass women skate at high speeds while they hip-check each other. But it didn’t take me long to realize that there was something different about this sport.

In many feminist circles I’ve often had to defend my love of sports, and unfortunately in many cases I can’t. Mainstream sports culture in America, and especially in Pittsburgh, is capitalistic, patriarchal, racist, and often exploitative. It is difficult for me to defend my love for the Steelers while still fighting oppression in all of those forms. (More on that in another article.)

So when I watched as a Toronto skater went down to the floor injured and skaters from both teams began to form an outward facing circle around her, shielding her while the medics examined her leg, I felt relieved. I had found a sport, and more importantly a community, where I could actually just enjoy being a sports fan, knowing that I was in an inclusive and empowering space.

Every player that I spoke to talked about roller derby as a community where they are not only accepted for their gender or body type, but they are empowered. Several players mentioned a new ritual where they take off their shirts during practice, which for them highlighted the body-positive atmosphere of the team. They spoke about the culture of embracing queer and trans athletes. And they talked about being a part of a sport that teaches them to hold their space on the track, and gives them the confidence to hold their space in other aspects of their lives.

One player also described roller derby as a “grassroots sport,” a concept I had never heard of because it’s so rare in American sports culture. Steel City Roller Derby is a program by the skaters, for the skaters. The athletes have ownership over the team, and over the sport. When I asked one skater whether roller derby would ever be a part of the olympics, she stated that allowing the International Olympic Committee to dictate the rules of their sport would be counter to how roller derby has always operated: the skaters have always been empowered to control their sport and the rules they play by. In a time when many sports teams are struggling in wage disputes or to form a union, this grassroots structure that gives power to the skaters sets a standard that other local teams should aspire to.

In the context of male-dominated American sports, roller derby almost seems like a contradiction. It’s a sport known for being aggressive and sometimes brutal, while also being an accepting and loving community where sportsmanship seems to be deeply ingrained into the culture.

My Steel City Roller Derby experience reminded me of what sports can and should be. They should be a way to create a community where the players are in control of their sport and their team. They should be a safe place where athletes of all body types, genders, races, and sexual orientations are comfortable and can gain confidence in themselves. Sports should cultivate a culture where fans can feel welcomed and accepted for who they are. They should provide a space where athletes can express themselves physically, relieve stress, be aggressive, and be competitive while still fostering a supportive and accepting environment.

My experience being a fan for just one Steel City Roller Derby bout was enough to remind me of what I love about sports and it gave me a sense of pride in Pittsburgh knowing that this team and this environment existed. I cannot wait to experience it again next season.

The first intraleague game of the season starts on October 18th and if you’re interested in trying out for the team the first bootcamp is October 13th.


This article originally appeared on QueerPgh.com. This article is preserved as a part of the Q Archives project. Please consider donating to help preserve Pittsburgh’s Queer history.