Sarah Bezdek and Kaylon Mullen roller skate slowly around the two large ovals marked by yellow tape at the Royal Canadian Air Force 17 Wing base gym.
They’re in the snake drill, in which players line up one after another and try to pass each other and knock each other out of bounds.
The drill is part of the Winnipeg Roller Derby League (WRDL) travelling team tryouts. Both Bezdek and Mullen played for the Bombshell Brawlers last year, one of the WRDL’s travelling teams.
When they’re in regular league play, Bezdek , 28, plays for Valkyries Wrath (Valks) – last year’s champions – and Mullen, 19, plays for the Corporation (Corp).
At the mention of her team’s name, Bezdek covers her mouth and pretends to cough. “Champs,” she says in a muffled voice.
“Whatever, hashtag 2015 Year of the Corp,” replies Mullen.
Mullen and Bezdek have been dating for almost a year. They are always supportive but admit they also like to challenge one another.
“We’re competitive at everything,” says Mullen. “I was still happy for her, even though [her team won last year]. I have a Valks shirt and I wore it to the championship.”
Bezdek and Mullen met playing roller derby. Both came to the sport as experienced athletes.
Bezdek grew up playing soccer, softball and basketball. She got into derby about a year and a half ago.
She says homophobia has never been an issue for her in sports.
“The sports I’ve played after I came out, I’ve never felt separated,” she said. “My homo friend asked me to come out and play on this team. It was always an open thing and it never bothered anyone.”
Mullen has a background in volleyball and dance, where she and her gay friend encountered issues with other dancers.
“He never wanted to do the male lead so I’d always partner with him and we’d just do the opposite,” said Mullen. “I guess they thought he was the man so he had to do the male lead and I was a girl so I had to be all feminine.”
Only once in roller derby has Mullen ever experienced negative talk about sexual orientation.
“We were hanging out one day and someone loudly announced that they thought I was a lesbian and had a crush on Sarah,” said Mullen. “I hadn’t told anyone yet.”
Mullen said she was surprised by this player’s announcement. “She’s gay too, so it was weird coming from her,” said Mullen.
Despite this, derby is generally a positive experience for them.
“Derby is open and you can be whoever you are,” said Bezdek . “You’re encouraged to be yourself and an individual.”
According to Mullen, some have the perception that derby girls are lesbians, but it’s far from the truth.
“There’s a handful of us who are gay,” said Mullen. “Probably eight to ten of our 80 skaters.”
Bezdek nods her head in agreement. “We’re kind of an anomaly,” she says.
Bezdek and Mullen had very different experiences when they came out to their families.
Bezdek came out in high school after her mother went through her room, found a journal and forced the issue.
Her step dad was supportive – which was a surprise– but her mother wasn’t. Her mother tried to tell Bezdek who she could and couldn’t hang out with. Bezdek ran away from home.
“I felt like shit, I was super depressed and really unhappy,” she said. “It kind of dug a bit of a wedge between me and my family.”
Things are still far from perfect, but they have improved. “One time I asked if Kaylon was invited to dinner and she said, ‘of course she is,’ and it was weird to me,” Bezdek says.
Mullen has known she liked girls since she was little and says she didn’t even realize it was a big deal until she was around 11 years old. She started hearing awful things about homosexuality as she grew older and didn’t talk about it.
When she got to high school there was a running joke in her school that she was most likely to be a lesbian. She went along with it.
“I guess they were right about me,” she says, laughing. “I dated a couple of guys and it was all right but I thought, ‘what’s so great about this?’”
When she came out to her family, her mom told her to do whatever makes her happy, and her father – who doesn’t say much –“just went with it.”
“I never really told him I liked girls,” said Mullen. “I told them I was dating Sarah and my mom was like ‘yeah that’s nice and dandy,’” she says. “My dad was just like, ‘all right, got it.’”
Bezdek and Mullen agree that it’s important to combat homophobia in sports. They say projects such as You Can Play – which works toward equality and respect for all athletes – are positive, but think these efforts are targeting the wrong age group.
Both Bezdek and Mullen believe their experiences growing up are proof that it is in the early years when these issues need to be discussed with aspiring athletes.
“Intolerance is learned. It’s higher-up levels that [You Can Play is] speaking to and it should start when they’re young. It’s almost like, ‘hey, you full grown adult set in your ways, let’s change this.’ It doesn’t make sense,” says Bezdek .
“It’s not a lost cause (on older athletes) but it’s not helpful,” adds Mullen.
Now that Bezdek and Mullen are well established in their sport of roller derby, and in their sexual orientation, they say they can easily enjoy the love of their game, and of each other.
This is the 6th article in a series by Stephen Burns on sexual orientation in sports. You can read the other articles in which Burns profiles several gay athletes and examines their journey through the world of sports, by clicking on this link here: Out of the closet and off the bench