Come as you are

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The Thrill-Kill-Kittens go up against the Dolls of Anarchy at a Cherry City Derby Girls bout in Salem. Photo by Chris Hagan.

Skaters tackle the bout MVP. Photo by Chris Hagan.

The Thrill-Kill-Kittens take on the Dolls of Anarchy. Photo by Chris Hagan.

A skater watches from the sidelines at the recent bout. Photo by Chris Hagan.

During the past two months, Stephanie Dempsey has become the national poster child for the lesbian roller derby player.

The feat is impressive not only because she lives in Salem, but because Dempsey (aka Six Foot Fetish) isn’t even gay.

“Which is why I think it’s hilarious that my picture has now been in two different articles and I’ve been quoted in a third article about roller derby and gayness,” Dempsey said at a recent bout for the Cherry City Derby Girls, the Salem league she’s been involved with for the past three years.

When The Advocate magazine named Salem the 14th gayest city in America, the city scored two points for its two roller derby leagues. On the magazine’s gayness scale, that fell between Salem’s number of LGBT elected officials (three) and the city’s transgender protections (one).

Dempsey was interviewed for that piece, and her photo appeared with local newspaper coverage of The Advocate story.

“Then a friend posted a picture on my Facebook page, and she’s like, ‘It’s another picture of you being gay,’ and it was The Advocate sports edition,” Dempsey said. “I was like, ‘How does this keep happening?’”

Not that she cares.

“People who know me know me, and I don’t care if they think I’m gay,” Dempsey said. “It gives me a great excuse to talk about roller derby, which I obviously love.”

CCDG, started in 2009, is another spoke of the roller derby resurgence which traces back to 2001 in Austin, Texas. Salem is also home to the South Salem Knockouts, based out of The Hoop.

Both of Salem’s leagues skate on a flat track. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association now has 172 member leagues and 93 leagues working toward member status.

Somewhere along the line, the sport also picked up the stereotype of being home to a large number of gay skaters.

Heather Coakley, CCDG president and a residence life coordinator at Willamette University, was amused when she first heard of The Advocate’s piece and roller derby’s place in the selection process.

“Working in higher ed, diversity and inclusion are really important, and I’ve had a vested interest in the LGBT community and being an advocate,” said Coakley, known as S’Xbox 360 with the CCDG. “I’ve advised student groups who have really focused on those things. To hear that Salem made the list, and that two of the points were for roller derby teams, really made me smile a bit.”

While Coakley and Dempsey both said the proportion of gay people in CCDG isn’t any different than in Salem as a whole, they each noted certain aspects of roller derby that could make an outsider think otherwise.

Dempsey mentioned the Vagine Regime, a collective of queer roller derby players from around the world who are the subject of an upcoming Kickstarter-funded documentary.

And this past summer, Coakley married her “derby wife” — a term coined to describe “roller derby soul mates” — at the national RollerCon convention in Las Vegas.

“It just started with women who were gravitating towards each other, and we do spend so much time together — a lot of us skate four, five, six nights a week — so we create these really deep friendships, and derby wife was this thing to put a name to it,” she said.

To hear that Salem made the list, and that two of the points were for roller derby teams, really made me smile a bit.

One of the defining elements of CCDG, Coakley said, has been a spirit of acceptance, with new skaters needing nothing more than a desire to play.

Dave Wilson, a skater on the CCDG men’s team, has experienced that openness firsthand. He joined in November, putting on skates for the first time at 40 years old — and he felt completely accepted despite being out-of-shape and overweight.

He said it doesn’t surprise him to hear derby called gay-friendly, because the athletes extend the same welcome to anyone wishing to join the sport.

“It doesn’t make any difference to me, I don’t care” if someone is gay, he said. “To each their own. … I do what I do, and I let other people do what they do.”

Tralee Knapp, 30, of Salem, has attended every CCDG bout this year with her two young daughters, cheering on friends and enjoying a sport that she calls “out of the ordinary.”

Though she thought it was interesting to see derby earn points for Salem, she was confused that the city made The Advocate’s list at all.

“A lot of people (here) are conservative and not very tolerant of people who aren’t just like them,” Knapp said. “Portland is open, Eugene is open, Corvallis is open, but there’s this conservative streak in Salem where people just are the way they are, and they don’t like people outside that.”

Coakley said she was encouraged by the ranking, but hoped residents didn’t take it as a sign that Salem has done all it can.

“There might be people who look at that list and say, ‘Good, we’re done, we made it on the list, no need to keep trying to make it more accepting or more diverse,’” Coakley said. “Personally, I have a more critical eye when I’m looking at things that make a community more of a gay community.”

Dempsey was happy to see Salem make the list. And as for roller derby’s part, Dempsey — now part of yet another article — has given the issue a lot of thought.

She’s come to believe more than anything that roller derby is a bellwether of a city able to be open to the LGBT community.

“The more I think about it, the more I realize it’s not necessarily about roller derby skaters being gay. It’s about acceptance of all people,” Dempsey said. “That’s one of the biggest focuses of especially our league.

“You come as you are, and we take everyone. We’re really open and really accepting of all different body types, ages, lifestyles, everything. It’s about supporting and growing.”

Chris Hagan is co-editor of Salem Is.

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