Last night at the roller derby…

I went to the final bout of Central Coast Roller Derby’s 2013 season last night. Nothing unusual in that. I love watching roller derby–love the marriage of badassery and fishnet tights, admire (and to a large extent, envy) the comradery between the players. And tossing back some nachos while yelling at the jammer to move her ass doesn’t hurt. As our arts editor once told me, I tend to be “deliciously low brow” on occasion. When I’m watching roller derby bouts at the Paso Robles Event Center I get to pretend that I live in a larger city with a more expansive cultural scene, and I really enjoy that.

Last night, though, I was there for work, so I spent a good amount of time chasing down players and asking them questions about people’s misconceptions about derby. Pretty standard stuff, but I was really enjoying myself. Enjoying myself to the extent that I was trying to mentally justify working three practices per week into my busy schedule so I could consider playing next year. And a lot of that had to do with the fact that the majority of the players seemed like really cool people. I mean, Roll v Wade? C’mon, it doesn’t get any better than that.

But something happened toward the end of the match. Paso Aggressive and Atown Asylum both wanted to win quite badly, so it was a very physical match. Atown Asylum had a lot of fans in the audience, and with about 10 minutes on the clock the refs suddenly started calling penalties on Paso Aggressive right and left. At one point, I think all but one player was in the penalty box. They went from having a substantial lead to having no lead at all, and then to trailing behind Atown Asylum by a mere couple of points. The fans behind me were wearing green–Atown’s colors–but even if they hadn’t been, I would have known who they were there for by their yelling. And as the night wore on, and the beer most everyone was drinking, took its toll, they grew louder and more aggressive, howling at the refs, howling at Paso Aggressive, howling at Paso’s coach. It was uncomfortable and distasteful, but nothing I didn’t expect at a sporting event. Rude, obnoxious sports fans are annoying, but I don’t tend to take any special notice of them because there’s nothing special about them. They’re a dime a dozen. I turned to Colin at one point and asked, “What is this, NASCAR?” but that was about the extent of my interest.

The game ended. Atown Asylum came out ahead by a margin of something like six points and the players went apeshit celebrating their first victory over their fellow North County rival.

And that’s when it happened.

From behind me I heard, “That’s right, now it’s time to go home homo!” And it was loud.

I’m the type of person who generally prides myself on the quality of my insults. However, I also have a temper that sometimes gets in the way of my ability to edit or process what I’m about to say. And when I heard the drunk guy from Atascadero shout the word “homo” out of nowhere, well, adrenaline took over. It’s been a long time since I had an adrenaline rush like the one that took over my body last night. Everything else ceased to exist, ceased to matter. All that mattered was that some bigot had the audacity to shout a homophobic slur in an event center filled with people of all ages–presumably some of which were, in fact, gay. I imagine that it’s tough growing up gay just about anywhere. Even if you have a decent support network, there are still going to be bigots who think it’s their responsibility to put you down, to scare you, to fill you with shame. And the North County seems like it would be an exceptionally rough place to grow up gay. I know “homo” isn’t the “f” word. But is it really all that different? It’s still a derogatory term for a person who is gay, its intentions and connotations are still the same. So maybe there were some gay people in the crowd last night. Maybe some of them are still in the closet, afraid or ashamed. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the entire audience was completely straight. But I’m not wrong when I say that the fact that a middle-aged man, surrounded by kids and his own family, felt comfortable shouting a word like that in public was a pretty solid indication that homophobia is alive and well in the North County.

I didn’t actually think about all this when I heard this man shout that word. I didn’t think about it because I didn’t have time. My mouth was already making decisions of its own, fueled by my temper.

I turned around and glared at the group of 12 or so people sitting in the bleacher seats behind us. I wasn’t sure which person had said it, so I made sure to include them all. And then, quite loudly and still staring at them I yelled, “Seriously? Fucking seriously? You fucking homophobe!”

No one said a word. No one would make eye contact with me. They just sat there, sheepishly, no one apologizing or expressing outrage at what the guy had said. Which wasn’t alright. So I just kept staring at them, and I was shaking quite intensely with anger at this point, and saying, over and over, and making sure they heard me, that everyone heard me, “Fucking homophobe! Fucking hicks!”

I had no expectations of how this would go down with the family of bigots sitting in the bleachers. It was only later, once the adrenaline went down and I didn’t have anyone to glare at wrathfully, that I realized that my words might have sparked a fight. I think part of me was sufficiently angry that I would have enjoyed it a little bit. They knew they were in the wrong because they didn’t say a damned word, and would not make eye contact with me despite the fact that I was trying my hardest to at least instigate a staring match. They were the worst sort of cowards–happy to shout a homophobic slur into a crowd but  not sufficiently mature to take responsibility for their words and beliefs when someone challenges them.

Maybe it seems like I’m blowing the situation out of proportion. You hear stories about worse things happening to gay people all the time, but it still surprises me when I hear a homophobic slur. It’s as if someone has taken the world, or my world at least, and replaced it with something foreign and ugly.

So there I was, sitting in the middle of the Paso Robles Event Center, feeling like the hulk, and directing intense glares and loud insults at the loud-mouthed homophobe behind me. Who, I suspect, was seriously regretting using that word in public. But it didn’t really matter how he felt at that point. I was on the warpath. I couldn’t leave. I still had interviews. But I couldn’t stay either. Everything was being filtered through the context of what I had just heard, and the fact that no one else was telling him to shut his god damned mouth. There was nothing else happening, at least nothing that mattered. We wound up leaving and coming back. I needed to stay for the interview, but I needed to be gone to resist escalating the situation into a physical confrontation.

And I’m glad I didn’t leave. Like it or not, I still have an article to write and I didn’t want my perception of the entire night to be colored by one bigot from Atascadero. After wrapping up my interviews, I walked away with the quite strong impression that Central Coast Roller Derby is very much about empowerment and that they welcome all sorts of people into their four-wheelin’ fold. At the same time, I walked away really wishing someone else had said something, had expressed some measure of disgust or anger. Colin did, but he was also mostly trying to make sure there wasn’t a fight and that, if there was, I wasn’t pummeled by a family of rednecks. The homophobe in question was there to support a member of Atown Asylum (I think they were family), and I know there are a lot of people in the North County who get frustrated by Atascadero’s reputation for being banjo territory. Here’s the thing. Every city has its bigots, and it’s not fair to define a city by the presence of them. But some cities have people willing to speak out against bigotry, publicly and loudly, leaving no uncertainty as to where they stand on the subject. I do think it’s fair to define a city by whether someone speaks out when they hear something derogatory, bigoted, and just plain cruel. The Paso Robles Event Center was packed last night. So why was I the only person who called the guy out for what he said?



  1. Here’s something to ponder: Because you were a woman, the Atascabamans didn’t challenge you. If Colin had said what you did, the outcome might have been more testosterone fueled. Even without them, you have some balls.

    • I actually wondered about that: to what extent their lack of reaction to my verbal attack was influenced by my gender. At the same time, we were in a large center with a lot of people, and I truly believe they just wanted the entire situation to go away because Colin said they looked pretty embarrassed. I don’t know if they would have had any qualms about fighting a girl, but I was sure as hell ready to fight them.

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