WILKES-BARRE – Sitting in Dunkin’ Donuts, scrolling through her phone and sipping a fruit drink, Vanessa Sites is just a face in the crowd. Clothed in scrubs and worn makeup after a long day’s work, she appears to be just like everyone else.
Sites, 31, of Scranton, is many things: a nurse, a tattoo-lover, a coach, a friend, an elite Roller Derby player — and a transsexual woman. Each of these things is a part of her identity, a piece of her puzzle, but not her story.
Although Sites has previously been interviewed by ESPN for her success in Roller Derby, she has never revealed her transsexual identity to the press until a recent interview with the Times Leader. Doing so was a conscious decision on her part, she said.
“I want people to know me for my skating and not what’s in between my legs,” Sites said.
For eight years, Sites, known on the track as “V-Diva,” has strived to be the best at Roller Derby. Now, as a member of Gotham Girls Roller Derby, she is well on her way. Gotham Girls, a derby team based out of New York City, has the most titles in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. They clenched The Hydra Trophy four years in a row, the award given to the number one women’s roller derby team in the world.
“I’m good at it, so I wanted to be the best,” Sites said of what motivated her to continuously work to get where she is today. Prior to becoming a member of an award-winning team, she belonged to a small team – the Coal City Rollers – of just 30 from Wilkes-Barre.
Sites also founded a state all-star team in 2010, The Pennsylvania All-Stars. After competing across the country and encouraging other states to create their own all-star teams, she hosted a state tournament — the Battle of the All-Stars — which has become a yearly event.
Sites credits her success to her talent, passion and dedication, saying she spends $12,000 per year and practices 12 hours per week, with the additional travel time to drive to and from New York for practices two to three times a week. There are those, however, who feel Sites has an unfair advantage.
“I don’t think I have an advantage,” Sites said, contesting those claims. “I get knocked down the same as everyone else.”
Sites takes a hormone which breaks down her muscle mass and says she has to work twice as hard when working out to see the same results as someone who doesn’t take hormones.
Dane Menkin, a certified registered nurse practitioner at Mazonni Center, supported Sites’ argument that there is no hormonal advantage in competing as a transsexual woman.
Mazonni Center is “the LGBT health center in Philadelphia and has been providing medical, legal and social service transgender care for over a decade.” It currently serves over 2,500 trans and gender non-conforming patients and that number grows every year, Menkin said.
“She takes hormones (estrogen) and has no source of testosterone production, as many women have with natural androgen production by the ovaries. With only the small amount of androgen produced by her adrenal glands, she is not at any physical-strength advantage,” Menkin added during a phone interview. “It is quite likely she is at a disadvantage in having less testosterone and strength than her cisgendered female competitors.”
The only advantage that could potentially be argued, Menkin explained, is height. Some, but not all, transgender women are taller than cisgender women. Different positions in derby call for different body types, however. Taller girls may have difficulty getting low or making small stops. Sites is 5 feet, 10 inches tall.
As the first transsexual to compete in the World Cup and on Team USA, Sites said her identity does not hold her back. She recognizes derby as a very diverse and opening environment, supported by the 2015 Women’s Flat Track Derby Association policy. The policy says the association is “committed to inclusive and anti-discrimination practices” in relation to transgender women.
“No one would care if they weren’t good,” Sites said about people who object to trans women partaking in women’s sports. “At the end of the day, we’re all humans, and I have a passion for it.”
Sites said her gender has never presented issues for her at derby. She credits her appearance, her fun-loving attitude and her skill.
“I’m a very down to earth, fun person to be around off (the track) and then on the track a beast,” Sites said, laughing and showing a video of herself stiffly blocking a member of the opposing team, causing them to fall on the rink.
Sites also mentioned most people on the track are not aware she is transsexual, and those who do are not judgmental, saying that’s one thing she loves about derby.
Originally from the Coal City Rollers – now known as the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Roller Radicals – Sites said she remembers the strong influence of her teammates in her early years, calling her teammates her “sisterhood” and labeling her “Derby Mom” as one of her greatest motivators.
Rebecca Klime, who skates by the name of Evil Kitty, is one of the closest friends Sites made through the sport. Both women played on Coal City Rollers, and Sites has fond memories of Klime helping her in the decision to pursue derby in New York.
Klime said she remembers Sites was not the best skater in the beginning, likening her to “Bambi on ice.” But with hard work and dedication, Sites became “a fierce competitor on the track” with “impressive skills as a blocker, jammer and pivot,” Klime said.
“So, in essence, she’s considered a triple threat,” she said.
Beyond supporting Sites on the track, Klime also remembers sticking by her friend and teammate through personal struggles.
“Whenever Vanessa would face adversity for being a transgender, I always had her back,” Klime said. “I always stood up for her and my friendship to her never faltered.”
Although a member of the best derby team in the country, Sites said she continued to strive for greatness in pursuing her next goal to be on Team USA and compete in the World Cup.
That was no easy feat, she explained. Athletes must try out every other year for the team and pay their own way. Sites successfully made the team in 2011 and 2014, and recently attended tryouts in June in Denver, Colo., for the 2017 World Cup. She will learn in the fall if she made this year’s team.
Sites described her experience on the team, saying it is comprised of women from 34 different leagues all over the country, making the opportunity for the entire team to play together a rare occurrence. Although they are all great individual skaters, “jelling” them together can be difficult with the lack of collective practices, Sites said.
As Sites continues to make great strides in the derby world, the sport itself is trying to make its own big leap. Derby is fighting to be included in the 2020 Olympics, a move Sites said she views as overdue since it is the fastest growing sport in the country. More countries have roller derby than some other sports already included in the Olympic games, she said.
Sites said she has worked hard for her success, and emphasizes gender has nothing to do with it.
“There’s other trans that play roller derby, but I’m one of the few that … was gifted of the skills and really love it,” Sites said. “I just worked really hard. I just want to be the best.”