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February 12, 2020 Nonfiction

About a Million Joans

Gabe Montesanti

About a Million Joans photo

I tackled the task of picking my roller derby name the same way I make all difficult decisions: careful deliberation and excessive list-making. I gathered names of famous people who inspired me and recruited my friends to help twist the names into something fiercer, or funnier, or gayer. Together, we came up with Amelia Queerheart, JK Rolling, and Sakaja Wheela. We tossed around Queera Barton, Billie Whore-iday, and Mauler Superior. For a while, Oscar Wilde-Woman was a top contender, then Shania Pain. I asked everyone I knew for input and created a mental bar graph of their responses. When I settled on Annie Chokely, it wasn’t because I felt a particular kinship to her; Annie had simply topped the leaderboard. My friends championed the name, and the more I read and researched, the more convinced I became that Annie Oakley was the perfect muse. 

There was something safe about forming a persona around a legendary sharpshooter from Ohio. Annie’s talent was discovered at an early age: a fact that perfectly fit my roller derby fantasy. She was swept up and accepted by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show—an entity about whom she knew very little—and carved a life for herself among them. Annie was attracted to showmanship, and in a way, I was too. She transformed her athletic ability into a performance. She was always met with applause. 

 Before my first practice, I wrote ANNIE on a strip of duct tape and stuck it to the back of my helmet. My handwriting made it impossible for anyone to tell how unsure I was that the name belonged to me. It was bold and wide and underlined; each letter took up so much space the tape had to wrap around the sides of my helmet. Here I am, it seemed to say, the sharp shot, the main act.  

Neither the tape nor the name stuck. On my first day, Annieville Horror made it perfectly clear she did not appreciate sharing a first name with me. “There are already two Annies here!” she told me. “It’s going to get really confusing with another one.” The prospect of three Annies was bad enough, but there was another crucial reason to change my name: I couldn’t get myself to respond it. On the rare occasion someone called me Annie, it was usually to warn me of imminent danger. By the time I realized there was another player hurtling toward me at top speed, she had already knocked me on my ass. 

Shortly after I gave up on Annie Chokely, a wiry woman approached me at practice to introduce herself. She asked me my name, and when I shrugged, she flashed a smile that exposed a perfectly white mouth guard. 

“It’ll come to you,” she said. “Don’t worry.” 

“What’s your name?” I asked. 

“Derby name or real name?” she responded. No one had ever volunteered their real name to me, which made for awkward conversations when people I knew outside of roller derby inquired about mutual friends. I didn’t know Sarah, but I knew Bricktator. I couldn’t point out Wendy or Leah, but I was friends with Nox and Piranha. Lola Blow played as Lola, worked as Lola, and dated as Lola. The word “Lola” was tattooed onto one of her feet and “Blow” on the other. I only found out her given name, Jasmine, by digging through old team paperwork. How long did it take, I wondered, for Jasmine to become obsolete and for Lola to take her place? If I shouted “Jasmine!” from the other side of the street, would Lola still turn her head? 

The tall woman told me her given name, but I instantly forgot it. “Everyone here calls me Peg. It’s short for Pegasass.” I laughed, and Peg flashed another smile. “Some people like to pick tough or intimidating names. I’m just not that kind of girl.” 

Peg informed me that once I picked a name, I had to register it on a site called Derby Roll Call. After practice, I investigated the registry. The interface resembled a social media page. A banner scrolling along the top of my screen announced that the number of names in the registry had reached 32,153. Under the header “Recently Registered Names,” I found Thunderpants with the B-Town Brawlers in the UK. Under her, Raven Lunatic with Greensboro Roller Derby. Loose Cannon had recently registered with the Birmingham Blitz Dames and Eyeroll with Montreal. All of these declarations were made within a few hours; the list was so long that I scrolled and scrolled and only managed to see those who had registered in the last month. 

It was fun trying to imagine the skater behind each name in the roster. Was Taser Swift a singer? How much could Hulk Smash-her bench? My suspicion about Lunatits was confirmed when I noticed her number was 42H. But exactly how small was Tiny Tear-her? Did Marilyn Mean-roe take pride in her sex appeal? Did these people name themselves from the qualities they already possessed, or the ones they hoped to grow into? 

 

The process of renaming myself for roller derby was not altogether unlike choosing my confirmation name in eighth grade. At thirteen, I was enamored with the prospect of a fresh start, which I was convinced would be a consequence of a new name. The possibilities were endless and exhilarating; I was devastated when I found out we could only pick a saint’s name. “Do some research,” our teacher said. “You’ll be bonded to this person the rest of your life.”  

I wasn’t keen on being bonded to anybody, much less a saint. I wanted to sand myself into something new and exciting, not be tethered to a goody-two-shoes who had died decades ago. Saints annoyed me, I think, because they were not born holy; somehow, they had managed to achieve sainthood despite being born with original sin. Even at thirteen, I knew I was far too deeply flawed to ever qualify. No saint, I speculated, hated their mother. None had ever lied their way through confession or lusted after their teacher—or any person of the same-sex for that matter. In short, I thought of all saints as something I would never be: perfect, or even particularly good. 

As I began my quest for a suitable saint name, my dad was subjected to dozens of tirades about how annoyed I was at the Church for limiting my options and the subsequent essay we had to write once we settled on one. 

“Did you know grandma’s name isn’t actually Joan?” he asked. “It’s Joanne.” 

My dad informed me that my grandmother’s teachers, the nuns, refused to call her by her given name and switched it to something more Biblical. She hadn’t even been given a choice.  

“Why didn’t she go back to being Joanne after she finished school?” I asked. 

“I don’t know. Maybe after thirteen years she felt more like Joan.” 

Learning about my grandmother’s misfortune amplified the pressure I felt about choosing a new name. Being robbed of the opportunity to name myself, even if my choices were limited, was motivation to stop complaining and just pick one. I eventually landed on Anne, not because I was particularly enthralled by Mary’s mother, but because my favorite character in literature was Anne of Green Gables. I rebelled by secretly naming myself after a fictional character just as vain and quietly troublesome as me. I picked Anne, whose first true friend was her own reflection in the windowpane. Anne, who accidently dyed her hair green and got her friend drunk on homemade currant wine. 

One girl in my class picked the name Anthony. Our teacher resisted the name initially, fearing it was inappropriate for a “young lady” to name herself after a male saint. In her essay, my classmate drafted an argument that convinced our teacher to reconsider. The premise was that gender shouldn’t matter; Saint Anthony was the patron saint of lost things and she wanted to have someone to pray to when she needed help recovering her belongings. 

“My dad’s name is Anthony,” I told the girl, “and he’s so organized he doesn’t lose anything. That proves the name is wrong.” 

The girl ignored my misconception about Saint Anthony being a person who loses things and said, “A name can’t be wrong. It’s just a word. Duh.”   

I wasn’t sure if I agreed with the class know-it-all entirely. If my parents had known the person I would become, would they have named me Gabrielle? My name had always felt like wearing a formal gown to a barbeque. Neither of my parents particularly liked the name; it had been a compromise because they couldn’t agree. I didn’t even know the correct pronunciation and neither did my parents. Sometimes they spoke it with a long a and other times, the a was short. They always called me Gabe—never Gabby—something my mother assured me I wasn’t. When substitute teachers read my name off the class roster, I corrected them before they even got through all three syllables. “Are you sure you want me to call you Gabe?” one woman asked me. “You know that’s a boy’s name, right?” The class snickered, but I told her I was sure. 

 

 

Some Fresh Meat programs only allow skaters to pick a name after they pass their minimum skills testing. I tend to think that’s better. Naming yourself too early, like I tried to do with Annie Chokely, is risky. There’s a chance it’ll fit—or, that people will grow so used to it they won’t realize how unfitting it actually is—but it’s a gamble. It’s not possible to predict how being on the track will change you or what personality traits it will unlock. 

  Three months into my derby career, my self-identified derby mom, QuickSandz, scanned my list of possibilities and narrowed in on Joan of Spark. 

“That one is my favorite,” she said, “because then you could just be Spark. That’s so badass.”

When I consulted Derby Roll Call, I found there were about a million Joans in roller derby. Joan of Arsenic was registered with the Rockin City Roller Girls. The Nottingham Hellfire Harlots was home to Joan of Dark. Joan of Snark was with Black Hills Roller Derby. Then there were the Joans whose name did not derive from the French martyr; Joan Jettsetter, Militia Joan Hart, and Joan Threat. There was no Joan of Spark: a fact that I immediately told QuickSandz.   

“How do I know if it’s right?” I wrote. “How did you know?” 

“I just knew,” she texted back. 

One thing I could say with certainty was that I loved the way the name sounded on my tongue: sharp and angular and electric. It unnerved me to speak it out loud. Joan of Spark was explosive—a bundle of dynamite that could self-destruct at any time. I whispered the name before I officially claimed it on the derby name database, and again as I ordered my team jersey, and again as I texted QuickSandz to tell her my decision. 

“My derby kid, Spark,” she wrote back. “Love your face.”   

I didn’t realize how scared I was of Spark until QuickSandz used it for the first time. She symbolized a new version of myself: one from which I was unsure I could return. Spark was aware that she was putting her body in harm’s way. She was open to the possibility of getting torn, or beaten, or broken. Yet, despite the risk, she knew that the roller derby track was actually the safest place she’d ever been, and she acknowledged that the place she used to call home was the most dangerous. Spark wanted to move forward, and intellectually, I wanted that too. I wanted to untether myself from my hometown, from the bulky clothes I wore to hide my body, from my mother’s casual cruelty. Spark wanted an identity that wasn’t informed by any of these factors. She wanted to start over. 

Ten years after resisting taking a saint’s name, I chose one willingly. Of all historical figures, of all actors and authors and astronauts, of all the witty puns and song lyrics and book titles that could be shaped into a roller derby name—any name I wanted—I narrowed in on a girl whose actions were religiously-motivated. I picked Joan, who heard voices, Joan, who chose to stay chaste and who sacrificed her life for God. She exercised the kind of self-discipline my mother exalted, but did so in service of her own vision. She managed to serve her own truth—not her mother’s. She was history’s tough girl. 

In a way, I felt empowered by taking the name my grandmother was given. It was a way of reclaiming my Catholic upbringing and the way the Church silenced me—both as a woman and as a gay woman—all my life. There was something freeing about taking something destructive and twisting it: strength reaped through parody.

None of this is to say I was free of doubt. On the track, I felt especially aware of all the ways Joan of Arc didn’t fit, and the ways in which I would never measure up to her. I wish I could tell myself that’s not the point. Joan trusted her instincts. She had visions and she chased them. She could be a symbol of a female ferocity. I wish I could tell myself not to overthink it. Maybe if Joan had tried to puzzle out her visions and her faith and her feelings, she would have never left home. Maybe if she had thought too hard about it, history wouldn’t have remembered her name.
 

image: Laura Gill


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