July 10, 2016
Those who aren't familiar with Juniper Simonis (or "Junie") had the chance to meet them in a ESPNW.com article featuring the transgender community and inclusiveness in WFTDA. Since the start of their career, Junie has worked passionately to advocate for transgender and gender-non-conforming athletes across all sports, founding the TGI Athlete Network in that effort. Learn more about their efforts to promote inclusiveness and other passions both on and off the track.
Name: Juniper Simonis, folks call me “Junie”, and I use they/them pronouns
League: Rose City Rollers
Team(s): Wheels of Justice
Year you started roller derby: 2012
How did you get involved with roller derby?
Not long into second puberty, I was looking for an athletic activity to channel my repubescent energy and deal with the changes my body was going through. I played competitive sports during first puberty, and thought getting into a new sport at that point in my life would be really good for me. However, I also realized that my being transgender and gender non-conforming would make that difficult or maybe even impossible. Through a series of happenstance conversations with a transgender guy who was skating, a friend who was on Ithaca League of Women Rollers team, and my co-worker (who later became my derby wife), I found out that I might actually be able to find a home in roller derby, which was really exciting to me. However, ILWR didn’t have a gender policy at the time, and so my asking to join the league started a whole discussion and voting process, which took months. Finally, at the end of May 2012, I got word that the league had adopted a policy that, while I didn’t agree with it, would allow me to join, and I got on figuring out this whole “roller skating” business.
What is your pre-derby sports/skating background?
I totally took after my super athletic big brother, Andrew (he’s two years older than I am), and started sportsing at a pretty young age. I started playing organized soccer and baseball when I was five years old, although I dropped soccer pretty quickly. I played baseball for 12 years, played football for 8 years (mostly as a tight end), wrestled for 6 years, and played a few seasons of basketball and track. I was pretty serious with sports through high school and was recruited to wrestle in college, but stopped playing organized sports after high school. Ostensibly, this was to “focus on academics”, but I had found it impossible to be safe and feel welcome in athletic spaces as a queer person. I was being bullied pretty regularly and was having a hard time reconciling being queer with being an athlete personally. I stayed physically active after high school, but mostly just worked out at the gym, although I picked up rock climbing in grad school.
Please tell us about your rookie year and how you learned to play roller derby.
I spent my last half-year in Ithaca learning how to skate (like skate at all) with ILWR, but never bouted or scrimmaged there. Prior to joining ILWR, I had only roller skated for fun a handful of times in my life, so I had a lot of basic things to work on first. When I moved to Chicago in January of 2013, I had gotten through a good chunk of the basic learning curve, but Windy City was a new and more competitive league and the home teams were all full, so I spent the 2013 season in their fresh meat program. I did join the Red Hots (a USARS team) that year and started skating with a speed team (Orbit) out in the suburbs, both of which helped me a ton in WFTDA derby. However, in May of 2013, I tore my meniscus in my left knee and a chunk of it wedged between my femur and my tibia (the medical terminology is literally that I had an “incarcerated bucket handle”), which meant I couldn’t straighten my leg and had to have surgery. I got back to skating by the end of the summer, more determined than ever to get better and move up in Windy.
That hard work payed off, as I got drafted to the Double Crossers (one of Windy City’s home teams) and was selected for Second Wind (Windy’s B-Team) the next season (2014). I skated a few games for Second Wind that season before being called up to Windy’s All Star team in July. My first WFTDA sanctioned game was against the New Skids up in Montreal in this super hot and sweaty hockey rink. I got dehydrated and almost passed out at halftime, but thanks to Papa Doc, I was able to keep myself together and had a solid second half. And we won, so that was awesome.
That season, I was on the playoff charter for Windy and got to skate against Texas and London in Evansville, which were both awesome games. I also was on the WCR charter for the WFTDA Championships, which was just surreal and amazing. I was a total knucklehead, though, and sprained my ankle really bad jumping around during off skates before the game against Rocky Mountain. Thankfully, it happened close enough to game time that we could just tape it up good and get it in my boot to keep the swelling down, but as soon as the game was over and we took the tape off, it blew up like a balloon, and I was done skating for the weekend. I’m so glad that I was able to help my team to victory over Rocky, but I totally let them down, and learned a pretty important lesson a really hard way as I sat on the sidelines during our next and final bout, when we got beat soundly by Rose City.
What is your skate gear of choice?
I am totally not a gear-head, so I usually just rely on what other folks tell me or give me to use. Right now, I’m rocking Radar Prestos (thanks, Radar, for sponsoring WoJ!), Bones bearings, Crazy’s Venus plates, Bionic toe stops, and beat-up old Reidell boots, although I’m about to get a brand new pair of pretty Bont boots (thanks, Bont, for sponsoring WoJ!).
Do you have a pre-game ritual?
Happily, not really. I have struggled all of my life with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and when I was younger, I channeled a lot of it through sports and developed rather destructive pre-game rituals. Now I just spend my pre-game time focusing on being present, whatever that looks like on a given day.
Do you have a favorite motivational quote?
“Good enough never is.”
Do you have a theme song?
The Morning by The Weeknd
What is your position of choice?
Most folks probably know me as a jammer, but this year I’ve been focusing on blocking and I am really digging it. I got tossed into jamming when I started skating, and while I definitely love scoring the points and all that, I think blocking is where it’s at for me right now. Switching positions has been a really good challenge for me and given me a good opportunity to work more on important skating fundamentals, although it definitely has been humbling. I can’t say enough about how awesomely supportive my teammates and coaches have been in the process. I get to learn from and am supported by the best in the game, and they’re amazing people, too.
How would you describe your derby playing style? Do you have a signature move? I often describe my skating as a “drunk baby giraffe on ice”, although I am working hard to be more of a “sober adult giraffe on the plains” these days. Also, I like to channel the murder pillow as much as possible, especially now that I’m blocking.
As for a move, I really enjoy gut-punching jammers with my butt. And pancaking people who try to block me backwards.
Please share your best derby moment (or moments).
There are few things in life that compare to winning a world championship. While I wasn’t on the game roster for the championship game at St. Paul last year, the moment the clock hit 00:00 with the score 206-195 in our favor was pure joy. It was also an incredible motivator for me, not being on the track.
On a personal level, grinding out a 5-0 jam against Texas at the Evansville Playoffs in 2014 to get us (Windy City) the lead in the second-to-last jam (and propel us to champs) was a really proud moment for me.
What are some of your greatest roller derby accomplishments on the track?
In 2015, we (Windy) were skating against Madison and were down by 33 points early in the second half, when I took advantage of a jammer penalty and some sweet offensive blocking to score 34 points in one jam. That is definitely my personal best for a sanctioned game and gave us a lead that we held for the rest of the game.
Off the track?
When Wil Wheaton shared photos of me in Cory Layman’s photo project on Tumblr.
You have literally traveled from coast to coast with roller derby - from your start with the Ithaca League of Women Rollers, to Windy City and now Rose City. As you have moved from league to league in your derby career, what are some of the similarities you have seen? What are the differences?
Yeah, it’s been really amazing to have a community and a sport that I can connect with while moving for school and work, although it has certainly been hard joining leagues because of the gatekeeping associated with gender stuff. Similar to what I mentioned earlier with ILWR (where they voted about my being woman enough to join the league vis-à-vis a gender policy), I had some pretty gnarly stuff happen when I asked to join Windy, like my being required to submit excessive medical documentation that was then shared in inappropriate ways. Thankfully this didn’t happen when I moved to Portland, but at that point, Rose City knew who I was, and I had friends on the other side helping me through the transfer process. As much as there are negative similarities like gatekeeping, though, there are also a ton of really amazing and supportive people that I have met and become friends/teammates of in each league. I am just blown away by the awesomeness of the people that derby has brought together in cities around the world.
What have of the toughest losses of your career taught you?
That I really hate losing.
Who are your derby heroes?
My dreammate teammates on the Wheels of Justice.
Have you held any leadership positions in your league? How have those positively impacted your personal roller derby career?
I was a co-chair of the training committee at Windy City for a year, and it gave me a really deep appreciation for the amount of time, energy, blood, sweat, and tears that go into making a league run.
ESPNW.com featured an article following the 2015 Championships with transgender athletes and their role in roller derby, leading with an incredibly moving photo of you embracing your teammate in victory. What was it like to see a news organization like ESPN start the dialog of trans athletes in roller derby?
That article was great in many ways, and I really appreciate the time and thought that Jane put into it. I think she took a pretty nuanced and informed approach to a topic that lots of major media outlets mishandle with horrible consequences. I mean, it definitely was great to see transgender inclusion in sport covered in a media big outlet that didn’t include calling transgender women “the third rail” (looking at you, Sports Illustrated).
In particular, I appreciate a lot that it acknowledged gender gatekeeping as well as the evolution in thought and policy that has occurred through WFTDA’s history. It’s important to recognize that while roller derby is pretty good on transgender things and gender stuff in general, the bar for what constitutes “pretty good” on transgender issues (especially in sports) is rather low. Which is to say a lot of great progress has been made, but there has been a need to make progress (which means things weren’t so hot before) and there is still a need to make more. I think that article did a good job of recognizing that history. I also really appreciate that Jane talked about the topic from a number of trans skaters’ perspectives, as we’re totally not monolithic and we’ve all had different experiences and have different needs.
However, I do feel like the article misstepped as well. Not maliciously or anything, but in important ways, nonetheless. As you might imagine, I’m very intentional with my language around my gender because I’ve struggled my whole life to find words to understand myself and describe who I am to others. Unfortunately, I must not have communicated that well, as some invalidating things were written about me. For example, I explicitly do not refer to my pronouns as preferred (they aren’t preferred, they just are) and I very explicitly do not use the word transition to describe any part of my personal history, as that reinforces a normative narrative of the transgender experience and a binary view of gender, neither of which I subscribe to. So, while the article was great in a lot of respects and it’s awesome to see gender inclusion in roller derby getting big media press, it was hard to have my gender talked about like that.
Also! Shoutout to Hannah Jennings for that epic hug. She had just played a great game against Bay Area but was taking the time to be a really good and supportive teammate for me.
What is your job outside of roller derby? And how, if at all, has it contributed to your experience of roller derby?
I am actually a doctor! Just not that kind. I am a quantitative conservation biologist and am currently working as a freelance scientist for DAPPER Stats, my one-person company. Basically, I code up statistical analyses and dynamic models that get used to save endangered species and manage natural resources. I am a “muddy boots ecologist” by training (I used to live on an island in the Gulf of Maine), but these days am only getting outside for work when I’m farming. I also am very committed to increasing diversity and inclusion in STEM fields and am excited about being able to do more work on that front now that I’m my own boss.
I moved to Portland for work because there’s no place in the US like the Pacific Northwest for conservation biology and resource management (all the fishes and all the trees!). Obviously that’s kind of a big thing in terms of my roller derby experiences, as it brought me to Rose. The same was true for my relocation to Chicago, as I moved there for a post-doctoral fellowship at Lincoln Park Zoo, but got to skate with Windy City. It’s been great to have a career that has taken me to some sweet places to play roller derby.
I’m also really excited because now that I’m my own boss, I can actually spend some time playing around with roller derby stats in a way that I’ve wanted to for a while, but just haven’t had the time for.
How has your involvement in roller derby affected the way you live the rest of your life? How do you find a balance between your derby life and "real" life?
I’m going to get real here for a minute, and want to give a heads-up to folks that I’m about to talk about mental health issues and trauma.
Roller derby has been a fundamentally necessary space for me to survive as I’ve finally worked through some life-long mental health issues. I struggle with what’s known as Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), which manifests in many ways, including as some pretty gnarly agoraphobia and social anxiety. Some days, roller derby is quite literally the only thing that gets me out of the house and interacting with other people. So that’s kind of a big thing.
Derby has also given me an important means for becoming better connected with my body, which has changed a lot through second puberty. Another important aspect of my mental health is that I dissociate, and my body and my brain don’t always interact with each other like they do for a neurotypical person. Playing a contact sport where I have to be intentional about my body and focus on that integration is really, really good for me. It’s hard as all get out sometimes, but it’s also exactly what I need if I’m going to be able to live my life in a healthful way.
Along those lines of working on mental health stuff, I try not to work with separations like “derby life” vs “real life” anymore, because neurology is one that overly compartmentalizes things already. Rather, I’m working pretty hard to integrate all aspects of myself into a more cohesive and healthy, singular being. Which is to say, I think there’s a lot of power for me in being pretty intentional about and ok with derby being an integral part of my “real life”.
Who is this furry companion we’ve seen you with lately?
That’s Wallace Alfred Russel, my service dog! He’s helping me survive and live a more fulfilling and healthy life in the face of my CPTSD. If you see us out together, please ask to say hi or pet him! He’s a super friendly fluffy cuddle monster, but also has a pretty important job to do.
You founded the Trans, Gender-Non-Conforming, and Intersex Athlete Network to connect TGI athletes and promote trans-and queer-inclusion in sports. Can you share a little background on this effort and how it has connected you to other athletes, in roller derby and beyond?
I started the TGI Athlete Network out of a desire to build community and foster interactions among folks. I realized that I had my own personal network of role models and friends that I could commiserate with or get advice or assistance from when dealing with gender and sports stuff, and that each of those folks had their own personal network, but that there wasn’t much in the way of broader connections and community. The group really isn’t driven by agendas or anything like that, the idea was much more about helping people make connections, regardless of location or discipline. It’s been a really great avenue for me to connect and interact with folks playing a whole slew of sports around the world.
Sadly, in the fall of 2014, I had to step back from community-building work that I was doing as a result of intense personal trauma. I had a WFTDA grievance filed against me because of my gender after the Evansville playoffs (which was later withdrawn when the complainant realized I would see their name) and then I was violently attacked at one of the champs after parties in Nashville. Subsequently, my CPTSD intensified to the point that I was engaging in serious self-harm and wasn’t eating. To be quite honest, if I had stayed on the track I was on at the time, I wouldn’t be here today. Thanks to some really great friends and teammates, I realized that I needed to prioritize my personal mental health. As a result, I haven’t been as active in building community as I want to be since then. I’m proud of the recovery work that I’ve done so far and am hoping to be much more active in this capacity again soon.
The tragedy in Orlando has seen leagues across the world come together in support of LGBT skaters, officials and community members. How did this tragedy effect you and, by extension, your league and fellow athletes?
My heart aches for my QTPOC family and especially my queer and trans Latinx family. The tragedy in Orlando is a stark and scary reminder that the violence against queer people in our country (and around the world) is predominated by violences against folks of color who are queer. A report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs detailed that over 80% of the queer people killed in the US in 2014 were queer people of color. Intersectionality is incredibly important, and I feel like any discussion of this tragedy needs to center the experiences of queer Latinx folks.
Personally, while I have no connections to the victims or the tragedy specifically, I was triggered hard by it, given my experiences as a victim of life-threatening anti-queer violence. I’m still working through processing the overwhelming waves of sadness, fear, and shame I have felt in the aftermath of Orlando. I am also seeing this as a call to personal action to be more intentionally visible to create and hold the space that I and my queer family needs to survive.
What advice do you have for people who want to play roller derby?
Do you have a special message to your fans?
Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.
Real. Strong. Athletic. Revolutionary.