Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of Spectrum South’s eight-part original Talk Derby to Me series. Roll by each month to meet a new queer Houston Roller Derby skater, coach, or super fan!
By Kelsey Gledhill
“It’s the last jam of the 2017 championship…two minutes left, your HRD Brawlers and undefeated Psych Ward Sirens are neck and neck…get on your feet, Houston!” veteran Houston Roller Derby announcer Scarlet O’Hurtya yells out with anxious enthusiasm. Wild cheers from fans vibrate Revention Music Center. My ears are ringing, my legs are throbbing from jumping up and down, and my homemade poster is ripped at each side from my clenched fists. Brawler jammer Arrak-Kiss and Siren jammer Black Lung Betty are vigorously circling the track, giving it their all to secure championship status for their respective teams. To say that I’m completely enthralled would be an understatement. Who wouldn’t be? It’s the kind of nail-biting athletic excitement most crave, especially when it comes to the unique sport of roller derby.
The clock runs out and the scoreboard reads 149 to 159. Brawler jammer Arrak-Kiss falls to her knees on the track. She’s pushed herself beyond her mental and physical skating threshold, trying her very best to capture the win. But to no avail—the Psych Ward Sirens take the champ title. Suddenly a swarm of skaters, clad in Brawler blue, rush the track. They all pile on top of their fearless jammer, praising her for a valiant effort. It’s a loss in the Brawler books, but for Arrak-Kiss, it’s a win in team spirit and friendship—ideals she hadn’t anticipated to find at the start of her derby career.
Appalachia native and trans woman Tori Elmore—aka Arrak-Kiss—first discovered roller derby in 2009, post graduation from Virginia Tech, when she came across a derby flyer at a local restaurant. “I had just graduated and needed a hobby. It seemed like something really cool, so I thought I could at least ref,” Arrak-Kiss recalls. Still presenting as male, she joined the local league as a referee and then began playing co-ed derby. She immediately took a liking to the rough and tumble sport and it soon became her passion. But personal conflicts lurked beneath her energetic exterior. Although her newfound hobby provided Arrak-Kiss with great friendships and excitement, indescribable internal confusion set in and depression would eventually grab hold. “I was in a downward spiral,” she explains. “I was drinking a lot and had even been stopped by the police a few times. I knew something was wrong…I hated myself.”
Around this time, she had been making frequent trips with friends to the gay bar in Roanoke, 30 miles from Blacksburg. “I’d dress up and we’d go out,” Arrak-Kiss explains. “It was a great getaway to be who you wanted to be. I wasn’t gay because I liked girls, but I couldn’t understand why I felt more [at home there].”
She reflects back to her childhood and teen years saying: “It was pure confusion when puberty hit. All of a sudden I had hair and hated it.” However, a bout of relief struck when Arrak-Kiss watched a Dateline segment on a race car driver who transitioned. “I just remember being completely fascinated by it and felt some sort of connection,” Arrak-Kiss says. A few years later in high school, she participated in a “crossdressing fundraiser” to help her class raise money for their after–prom event. “I got really into it and started planning several different outfits to wear. My mom was like, ‘You’re starting to scare me, kid,’ but I couldn’t help myself…I loved it,” Arrak-Kiss admits.
Contrary to the world in which she was raised, roller derby provided Arrak-Kiss with a much broader worldview. “I’m from a small town of about 8,000 people, plus my family was pretty religious and conservative so the word, muchless the meaning of trans, was pretty foreign,” she explains. But attending Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and then going on to join roller derby, undoubtedly expanded her perspective on many things, including her feelings surrounding her gender identity.
With increasing personal identity struggles and the knowledge of derby as a safe, welcoming space to land, Arrak-Kiss began taking the steps to transition in April 2013. What started as dressing more feminine to go to clubs soon became dressing female while at home, which ultimately led her to seek hormone replacement therapy. Nine months into taking hormones and feeling more confident in her ability to pass, she decided to come out to her boss at the local chemical plant where she worked as a mechanical engineer. “My boss, Chuck, was the engineering manager and one of the coolest people I knew—he was a cattle rancher with tattoos everywhere,” she says. “I just kind of came out and told him I was changing my name and pronouns, and he was totally intrigued. He wanted to know everything, so we talked for a while.” A later discussion with HR revealed that Arrak-Kiss was the first person to transition within the Fortune 500 company, and because no previous protocol existed, she was able to help write company policies and procedures inclusive of transgender employees.
Although her mom may have raised an eyebrow at her child’s interest in curating wardrobe changes for the high school fundraiser, both of her parents offered their full support when Arrak-Kiss officially came out to them. “I’d actually come out to my mom a few years before my dad,” she explains. “She was pretty open–minded and supportive about it, but my dad was a little confused. Ultimately though, they just wanted me to be happy and positive that [transitioning] was what I truly wanted to do.” The actual process of transitioning brought her and her mother closer, she says. They went to PFLAG meetings together to gather with like-minded people and to discuss how trans people people are treated in the world, workplace, and even in rural Appalachia.
Arrak-Kiss made the move to Houston in 2015 to pursue upward movement in her job and a higher caliber of roller derby competition. She interviewed for positions in Atlanta and New Orleans, but after hearing a speech from then-Mayor Annise Parker at the annual Out & Equal Workplace Summit in Dallas, Arrak-Kiss knew Houston was the place for her. She recalls, “I thought, ‘If Houston can elect a lesbian for mayor, then it must be a pretty supportive city.’ Having someone from LGBTQ community in such a high position with such stature made me feel safer as an outsider. That feeling of comfort was exactly what I felt when I joined Houston Roller Derby.”
From Virginia to Texas, roller derby has continued to be a safe space for Arrak-Kiss and the rest of the queer community. “HRD has been very supportive,” she says. “Derby in general is a very open and female–empowering community and I’ve been quite surprised by the positive fan reactions. I’m not sure if they know or even care that I’m trans, but I hope to serve as a positive inspiration to those young fans that come out to support us.”
In February, Arrak-Kiss enters her third season with Houston Roller Derby as co-captain of the Brawlers, a new position for the jammer. With a recent league-wide redraft and the addition of several new skaters to each of the Houston home teams, she is looking forward to learning where each skater excels on the track, developing her players, and seeing how each team comes together with their new lineup. “It’ll be a great season no matter what!” Arrak-Kiss exclaims. “And for anyone who’s curious about roller derby, we encourage you to come watch a bout, volunteer, or at least be a fan…we love fans!”
The 2018 Houston Roller Derby season kicks off Saturday, February 17 at Revention Music Center. Doors open at 6 p.m. Bouts start at 7 p.m. Tickets and more information available at houstonrollerderby.com.