Photo credit: Sofia de la Vega Photography.
FBI’s Ryan Sparks sat down recently with Justine Taylor, chaser for the Los Angeles Gambits, to discuss her sports history, her take on the community’s current presentation of inclusivity, and her ultimate goals for her quidditch career.
Ryan Sparks: So, I’m here with Justine Taylor—USQ West Regional champion, 2016 Team USA Alternate, and widely regarded as one of the top athletes in the sport today. Justine, how are you doing?
Justine Taylor: I’m doing very well, thanks.
RS: Good to hear! As mentioned previously, you’ve received plenty of accolades in your short time in the sport. You’re a special class of athlete in today’s game. What do these accomplishments, these labels, mean to you?
JT: Winning West Regionals with the Gambits by far has been the best and most fulfilling accomplishment I’ve experienced during my time in the sport. In all honesty, though, as far as labels and accolades go, while recognition is really nice and everything, it’s not why I play the sport, you know? I don’t have a national championship title under my belt yet, which is the end goal, and that’s all that matters to me.
RS: Spoken like a true competitor. Have you always been this dedicated of an athlete?
JT: Oh yeah, my whole life. Sports are a huge part of my identity—have been for as long as I can remember.
RS: What were some of your biggest athletic accomplishments growing up?
JT: Most of my athletic accomplishments came in high school. I was on a track team that won three consecutive state championships, although I don’t take much responsibility for that. We had an entire squad of badass women. I consistently did pretty well in cross country throughout high school as well, and then, when I was younger, I was pretty competitive in soccer, swimming, and basketball. I kinda just did a little of everything, to be honest.
RS: Where was home for you through these years?
JT: I grew up in a super small town in central Arizona called Cornville, and yes, I’ve heard every corn-related joke in the book, so don’t even think about it.
RS: I can’t imagine a place like Cornville is known for its racial diversity.
JT: Oh no, not at all. I mean, it’s Arizona, so we had a high Latino population, but I was the only black kid in my school for a long time.
RS: What was it like, being the only black kid in your school?
JT: You know—to be honest, for a long time, I didn’t notice. I didn’t really think about color as a kid. But then I hit 5th grade and—it’s sad that I still remember this—we were reading Huckleberry Finn and I remember all the white kids staring at me because I was the only black kid in the class. In 6th grade one of my classmates called me the “n” word, and I think that’s when I really got woke to the fact that I was actually, legitimately different and couldn’t pretend otherwise anymore. From there I got progressively more and more uncomfortable with my color and my relationship to the rest of the world because of it.
RS: What, if any, effect did athletics have on your relationship with your color and the rest of the world?
JT: The older I got, the more crucial athletics were to my sanity. Sports were sort of an escape. Because regardless of how I felt about my skin and the way I looked and how the rest of the world felt about me, here’s one thing that I’m undeniably good at—regardless of all the bullshit that’s happening in the outside world, once I hit the court or the track, I couldn’t be stopped, you know? Jesse Owens’s 1936 Olympic victories always really resonated with me because, in a time when Hitler was perpetuating this doctrine that people like Jesse were inferior, here he comes proving that he’s a force to be reckoned with. That was always super empowering to me.
RS: So you were kind of the Jesse Owens of Cornville?
JT: Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but a girl can dream.
RS: Speaking of dreams, discovering the quidditch community had to feel like some sort of godsend at first, with its reputation as being one of the most accepting communities in sports.
JT: It certainly was. Not to sound cheesy, but I knew from the moment I went to my first practice that it was a perfect fit for me as an individual. Quidditch—and the community that comes along with it—is the one place in the world that I don’t have to be reminded about the fact that I’m black. It’s not that I’m trying to forget, or I don’t like thinking about it, don’t get me wrong, but quidditch is a community where the way I’m treated and the way people interact with me isn’t dictated by my blackness.
RS: I feel a similar way in regards to my gender. That being said, I still often experience times in the community where people treat me differently because I am trans. Is that an experience or a pressure that you experience as a black woman in quidditch?
JT: I think so much of it is microaggressive by nature; people don’t necessarily recognize that they’re treating me differently. Here’s the thing: for all its intent and effort, quidditch still is very much a sport of access. It’s not like basketball where all you need is a ball and a public park, or cross country, where all you need is a pair of tennis shoes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the most expensive sport in the world, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that—on the west coast anyway—most of the high schools that have started quidditch teams are either well-funded institutions or the ritzy private schools.
I think the issue is that, as accepting as the community is, it still very much caters to the white, upper-middle class demographic. That’s the background that a lot of these players are coming from, so while a lot of the community is striving for this inclusivity, it’s coming from a place that lacks in genuine understanding. Which is really hard to obtain, to be honest.
But as far as pressure goes, quidditch is ages away from the experiences I had in middle and high school sports, where strong female athletes were often masculinized. That’s never an experience I’ve had in quidditch, which I think is really fucking awesome, because that’s a stigma that needs to die right quick.
RS: I agree entirely. What do you think can be done to increase the understanding that is often lacking in the sport?
JT: Honestly, that’s really hard. A lot of that comes from immersion in cultures that are unfamiliar or foreign to us, but not everyone has that opportunity, so I think the most important thing is open and honest conversation. I talk to so many white people who are afraid to ask questions or talk to me or other POCs about race. They’re afraid to be offensive or insulting, but it’s ten trillion times worse to go forward in the world perpetuating a false idea or stereotype. Like, look, if you ask a stupid or ignorant question, I’m not gonna get mad. I might laugh at you a little cause you believed some stupid ass shit, but I’m not gonna get mad.
RS: In that regard, particularly considering your place among the sport’s elite, do you see yourself as a role model for others?
JT: To be perfectly honest, I just do my best to challenge myself to engage in open dialogues with individuals who are different than myself and challenge my own prevailing beliefs. If that encourages people to do the same, that’s awesome. I’m just here to play my game and help the sport grow, in whatever way I can. I’m not going to go out of my way to educate people unless they come to me looking for it, because at the end of the day it’s each individual’s responsibility to educate themselves.
RS: That’s a very fair point. Here’s one in particular that I want to end on, as I find it’s a fascinating question: when it comes time to hang up your cleats, how do you want people to remember you?
JT: That’s a very good question. Competitively, there’s not a doubt in my mind that I’d like to be remembered as the greatest female chaser of all time, but I’m more than aware that I’ve got a lot of work to do before I get there. But from a larger perspective, I’d really like to be remembered as a player who was willing to leave her heart and soul on the field, and to put her body on the line for the sake of her team. This sport means more to me that track or cross country ever will, because when I’m fighting on the pitch, or training off the pitch, I’m not doing it for myself.
RS: And hey, why limit yourself to just the greatest female chaser of all time? If your history at this point is any indication, there’s nothing holding you back from being one of the greatest, period.
JT: Hey, who knows? I won’t shy away from that challenge.
RS: That’s what I like to hear. Thank you for your time!
JT: Any time!
Editor’s note: For the sake of objectivity, it should be noted that Ryan Sparks and Justine Taylor like to touch each others’ butts.