This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands. ‘It’s Very Freeing’
Roller skating has going through something of a renaissance ever since the start of the pandemic. Back in the days of bread-making and home workouts, people got into the sport as a way to exercise and snatch a breath of fresh air. In the past couple of years, new roller skating clubs have popped up in cities all over the world, many of them are queer and inclusive.
There’s the Los Angeles-based Queer Skate Alliance and We Got This and Queer Skate LDN in London; Toronto has the Queer Quads; Berlin the Jam Skate Club; and Amsterdam’s skaters have jumped on the bandwagon, too, with the Queer Skate Club.
I spoke with Job Bulder, owner of THE Derby Shop, a roller skating shop in Amsterdam. She confirms that she’s also seen more and more people interested in roller skating since the pandemic, and queer people in particular. “The roller skating community is generally very open,” Bulder explains. “I think that makes queer people feel more comfortable than in heteronormative sports.”
I decided to hang out with the Queer Skate Club, which has been meeting in front of the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam every Sunday since April 2021. Lin Visser, one of the founders, bought their first pair of skates three years ago for a roller derby, a contact sport where two teams of skaters face off and shove each other for points.
“I was attracted to roller derby because you can move freely in a super inclusive and non-judgemental environment,” Visser says. “You never feel uncomfortable about your body or what you’re capable of.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic tossed a wrench into Visser’s derby roll. “So a friend and I went roller skating together outside, and thought, ‘How fun would it be if we could teach tricks to other skaters’,” they remember. “I also missed having a place where I could recognise myself in others, because there aren’t that many queer spaces in the city, and during COVID, they were all shut down.”
Visser thinks that derby players all over the world had the same idea as they did, which is why so many new queer roller skating clubs popped up in public spaces. “I didn't want to go to a skatepark, because it’s too intimidating due to the masculine and competitive environment,” they say. “So I thought, ‘Under the EYE is the perfect spot’.”
At its first meet-up, the club already drew a crowd of about 25 participants of diverse genders and racial backgrounds. “We hadn’t expected so many people, and didn’t think as many of them would keep coming back,” Visser says. “It was incredible.” Last year, they organised a big summer party together with Black Pride to celebrate the end of their first season.
The progressive origins of roller skating can be traced back to roller derby and its long-standing relationship with feminist and queer communities. Invented in the 1930s by Chicago-based sports promoter Leo Selzer, derby allowed both women and men to participate from the get-go, which was relatively radical back in the day. Its popularity waned over time, but queer people revived it in the early 2000s, transforming it into the inclusive and diverse sport it is today.
In derby, people can explore their inner ruthlessness and aggression, even if they’re not typically like that outside the rink. Every body serves a purpose – large players can knock people down, thin players breeze past their opponents in a flash. It’s why so many people struggling to conform to gendered expectations find comfort and relief in the sport.
“Girls are taught from a young age to take up as little space as possible, but derby tells you: ‘Let go of society’s expectations, you’re one of us, you can use your body, and please knock down everyone you find in your path’,” Visser says. “I’ve been much more empowered to do that in my daily life, too, for instance, by not stepping aside on the subway if a big guy walks by.”
Besides being a safe haven for the queers, roller skating has also always been important to Black communities. In the US, roller rinks skyrocketed in popularity in the 30s but remained segregated for decades, just like other recreational venues, including amusement parks and swimming pools.
In most places, Black people were only allowed to skate once a week on dedicated nights. Things only started to change during the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, when Black rights groups would picket and stage sit-ins in rinks across the US as an act of resistance.
Even after desegregation, roller skating rink owners tried to restrict access to racial minorities. But with the rise of disco in the late 70s, Black and queer communities took over the roller skating world in New York and beyond with epic parties and even better soundtracks. Unlike many of the clubs in the city, roller rinks would pretty much allow anyone who had a couple of dollars to come in, turning the venues into popular nightlife hotspots.
Legendary roller skater Bill Butler elevated skating to disco to an art form, earning himself the title of Grandfather of Roller Disco. Soon enough, the scene became so cool everyone wanted to join in, including none other than queer icon Cher.
Jayliah Jada van Gorkum, 24, is one of the regulars at Amsterdam’s Queer Skate Club. A former track and field athlete, van Gorkum used to compete internationally until very recently, but had to stop. “My asthma became too much and I came out as a trans woman last November,” she says. “Because of that, I can no longer compete.”
Van Gorkum’s club never explicitly banned her, but the international conversation about trans people in the track and field world is stacked against trans athletes. In June 2022, the president of World Athletics, the international governing body of the sport, even hinted that they might follow their swimming counterparts in barring trans women from competitions.
The experience made Van Gorkum realise how badly her former sport is still plagued by toxic masculinity. After coming out, she lost her entire social circle in one go. “But then I went to a skate club six weeks ago and saw people dancing and skating and being so free that I thought, ‘I want that, too’,” she says.
Van Gorkum adds that she was also attracted to the sport because it’s easy to put your individual spin on it. “You can dance elegantly or energetically, do stunts or figures,” she explains. “In that sense, roller skating is much more fluid than inline skating, which centres mostly around speed and tricks and is much more performance-oriented.”
Unsurprisingly, roller skating has become pretty big on TikTok, too. “In those videos, you see masculine men who aren’t necessarily queer dancing very elegantly in skates,” van Gorkum enthuses. “That’s what appeals to the queer community: You see all kinds of people defying social norms in skates. It’s a very freeing hobby.”
She believes that the free-spirited and queer nature of roller skating is evident in the neon-coloured crop tops and sparkling skates of the 70s and 80s, too. “The skate culture of those days is on the rise again in the queer community because we want to – and dare to – make ourselves more visible,” she says.
Getting out there and gliding across the concrete lanes and streets of a still-hostile world is, understandably, a great way to represent your community. “So many identities come together, and it feels amazing that we can claim space at the EYE with Queer Skate Club,” van Gorkum says. “We’re showing that we exist and that we are beautiful with our Pride flags and colourful outfits. I’m very proud of that.”
See more photos of the Queer Skate Club below: