Tuesday Tips: Creating Welcoming Spaces for Trans and Nonbinary Players

Trans and nonbinary people belong in sports. Let's make sure it feels that way.

Washington Element and Ohio State Fever at the 2016 D-I College Championships in Raleigh, NC. Many teams wore pride emblems in protest of North Carolina's HB2, an anti-trans law that has since been repealed. Photo: Paul Rutherford -- UltiPhotos.com
Washington Element and Ohio State Fever at the 2016 D-I College Championships in Raleigh, NC. Many teams wore pride emblems to protest North Carolina’s HB2, an anti-trans law that has since been repealed. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

Tuesday Tips are presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate

Let’s talk about gender, baby! Let’s talk about you and me. Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be… in ultimate.

Gender is complex and varied. It can change over a lifetime. It’s both a made-up construct and a deeply meaningful way to mediate the dialogue between your internal self and the world you live in. It doesn’t always fit into the static, binary male and female divisions that govern most sports — including most ultimate — and that creates challenges for teams and organizations seeking to make inclusive spaces for players of all gender identities. And even then, entering a team sport as a trans, nonbinary, or otherwise genderqueer or gender-nonconforming player can be an anxious experience: will a team of mostly cis people know how to talk about me? Will a team of mostly men remember I’m not one and still think I can hang? If I’m not good enough (or maybe a little too good), will people think it means something?

I’m not the final authority on how to think about trans issues in ultimate — no such person exists — and I can’t give you a tidy set of instructions to create a perfectly inclusive culture. Who I am is a nonbinary player1 who worked with a stellar team of trans and nonbinary athletes on USA Ultimate’s current Gender Inclusion Policy, as well as a teacher and editor who works with this stuff quite a bit in my professional life. Over the years, I’ve fielded many questions from teammates, coaches, and organizers on how to approach gender inclusion in their spaces.

What follows are a partial and subjective set of recommendations to help make your program, league or organization a little more welcoming. It’s not intended as an overview of common terms or respectful language (find one here) or issues affecting trans and nonbinary people in sports (find that here). It’s primarily directed at cis people, and is, of course, only one step in a larger and ongoing conversation.

1. Put in the work up front to learn pronouns…

While the concept of “your pronouns” as a unit of personal info is a fairly recent invention, most of us have had pronouns as long as we’ve had nouns: like the song says, they’re the shorthand that stands in for the word that represents a person in speech, writing, and thought. Learning them and getting them right is as important as getting a name right, and happens the same way: first through actively trying, then through passive reinforcement.

If you’re in a leadership role, make space for players to give their names and, if they choose, pronouns — and do it more than once. Include an optional “pronouns” box on your tryouts form. Use your group chat to set your own pronouns as part of your nickname or profile, and encourage others to do the same. Include them in name circles the first few practices or league nights. Do it more than you think you need to, in more than one medium.

2. …then actually use them so it isn’t work to remember them.

But don’t stop there. Whether you’re a coach, captain, or just one of the extroverts that holds a team’s social fabric together, find opportunities to refer to all players — cis or trans, new or returning — by name and correct pronouns when addressing the team. You can do this when demonstrating drills (“Noelle will cut upline, chop her feet, and cut back for the reset”), shouting out plays (“did you see Noor go up for that disc after they lost a cleat?”), or introducing players (“so Lia, TJ tells me he was also a competitive figure skater”). If a player uses more than one set of pronouns (for instance, “they or he”), throw the alternates in there sometimes too.2 If you’ve ever witnessed 30 players decide in the space of a weekend that Annalee is “Vinny” now, you’ve seen it in action: using and hearing language is what makes it stick.

Not only does this help the whole team get to know each other, it also helps people internalize others’ names and pronouns as a natural, reflexive part of the way they think about that person, not something you constantly remind yourself to get right when you talk about them. If you yourself are having trouble adjusting to using a certain set of pronouns for someone, practice will help. This is what gets you from Matt wants me to use ‘they/them’ for him, got it! to I can’t believe Matt left their Hydro Flask again.

If you hear someone refer to another person incorrectly, don’t be shy about correcting them yourself, whether directly (“they go by ‘they,’ actually”) or by making a point to reinforce the right language (“has she filled out the rides survey?” “no, I’ll bug them about it”). Not only does this save that person from being the one to correct people all the time, since most of us don’t talk about ourselves in the third person, it’s just more effective to hear and say the words the way they’re actually used.

Finally, if you misgender someone, apologize and correct yourself, but promptly move on. As a person who’s often on the receiving end of this, it feels bad for everyone involved, but it’s not helped by prolonging the moment or making the misgendered person handle your feelings. Just practice it right next time.

3. There’s more to inclusive language than find-and-replace alternatives for gendered terms.

Sometimes updating language to be more thoughtful is pretty straightforward: changing a team name, or swapping “matchup” for “man” defense. It’s appealing to imagine that, whenever a term starts to seem limited, there’s an easy one-word replacement out there that will solve all your problems. But in some cases, it’s not one more-or-less-arbitrary term that needs rethinking so much as the whole framework by which we categorize a thing, and that’s trickier.

So: women’s and trans? Open? She-They-We? Mxn’s?

Let’s assume it’s beyond the scope of this piece to restructure the men’s and women’s divisions (or their matchup equivalents in mixed) as they exist. A more expansive way of thinking about those divisions would welcome men and women, respectively, but also people of other gender identities who might choose to make a home in those spaces for any number of reasons: cultural fit, community relationships, playing history with a team, a physical match that feels comfortable and appropriate to the player, and so on.

But that’s not the same as saying all those people basically are men or women, and in trying to find more inclusive ways to describe those spaces, it doesn’t necessarily help to rebrand from “men” to something that connotes “men and basically men” or “women” to “women and basically women” without thinking a little more critically about what those divisions mean to players choosing between them.

One way forward could be to place less emphasis on finding the perfect shorthand terms and more on thinking about how they’re used. My preference3 is to try to define the space rather than the people, allowing players to decide for themselves where they fit in: “players in the men’s division” over “men in their division,” “players on the Ohio women’s semi-pro team” over “women on the Columbus Pride.” USA Ultimate’s current Gender Inclusion Policy takes a similar approach: while it doesn’t retool the men’s, women’s, and mixed divisions as they are, it also doesn’t try to decide which identities other than “man” or “woman” match which category, instead encouraging players to self-select the division of best personal fit.

4. If you’re playing mixed, think ahead of time about the terms you want to use for matchup categories.

It’s a quirk of mixed ultimate that — while you’ll just about always have more than one gender within a team — the practical exigencies of playing require you to group people into binary categories, and that grouping usually happens publicly, explicitly, and while yelling. Dividing players for drills or scrimmages, announcing which matchup category you need four of on the line, on and on: if you don’t feel called on when someone shouts “we need another dude!” or “we need another lady!”, it can wear on you.

As of 2020, USAU’s club guidelines use “man-matching” and “woman-matching” for this, and similar terms proliferate: man-marking, women-marking, female matchup, defender of men (which has kind of an exciting masters-of-the-universe ring to it). As acknowledged above, these sort of kick the can of genuine conceptual overhaul down the road but can be helpful in shifting emphasis from a presumed personal identity (“four people who are this gender”) to the broader playing category (“four people who play this matchup”).

Another approach? Just make up something fun to say. Drag’n Thrust used “psion” and “nova” for this in 2019, and I like it: if you can’t change the larger structure you compete in, invent something disconnected from the baggage of the previous terms. The distinction between that and something like “man-matching” will feel meaningful to you or it won’t, but speaking personally, not being called a woman when I’m not one makes a real difference to me.

Whatever you want to use, though, I recommend getting your team or league on the same page early in the season: to set a tone of intention around these choices, to head off any self-conscious fumbling over it on the player-to-player level, to communicate to trans and nonbinary players that there’s someone in leadership to approach about the topic. Depending on your role or the culture of the group, it may make sense to open the floor to suggestions, take a vote, or simply set placeholder terms as a matter of top-down policy while making it clear that you’re open to feedback.

5. Let trans players decide how much of their history they want to be in the conversation — don’t bring it up yourself.

Individual trans and nonbinary people have very different levels of comfort with how much of their lives under a previous identity they want on the record, and even someone who’s vocal and public about having transitioned may strongly prefer not to have the old stuff dredged up. It’s a courteous assumption that it’s personal and potentially sensitive information, including in a sports context.

Even if you happen to know these kinds of details through long acquaintanceship or general ultimate social osmosis, you should always consider old names, old genders, gender-identifying playing histories, and so on that person’s prerogative to share, not yours.  And if you really do know them well enough to have friendly conversations about this stuff, but aren’t sure how out they are in a certain setting: just ask.

6. Don’t assume there aren’t any trans people in your space because you don’t know of any right now.

For most of the first year I played ultimate, I wasn’t out as nonbinary, but I knew I wasn’t cis — and I knew it all the time. It didn’t feel great being seen and referred to as a woman, but what really stung — and lingered as a real point of anxiety for me — was hearing others talk about trans issues as if only cis people were around: people reacting like it was needlessly confusing to rethink outdated language, or rolling their eyes if another team at a tournament suggested a more inclusive group cheer. I had friendly relationships with these people, and I was reasonably sure they wouldn’t be mean to my face if I told them my story — but what would they really think, if that’s the stuff they said when they didn’t know the person they were talking about was listening?

As always, creating more inclusive spaces can’t just be something we do for the people we know are here already. There may be someone in your program or community still processing their identity, or who isn’t out to you specifically, or just isn’t out yet. There may be people you don’t realize you’re excluding because they don’t stick around when they don’t feel at home, or don’t show up at all if there doesn’t seem to be real space for them. Give your own pronouns even if you think it’s obvious what your pronouns are. Think beyond “men” and “women” for matchup categories in mixed, even if you’re pretty sure all the people on your team right now are men or women. Set the tone and create the habits.

7. This isn’t just about women’s and women-matching players.

For a few circumstantial reasons, trans and nonbinary inclusion have tended to run a little higher on the agenda in the women’s division: on a depressing note, transphobia in sports often focuses on trans women; more positively, a relatively queer-friendly culture within many women’s teams might make for a nicer environment for trans and nonbinary players to hang around in. But that doesn’t mean it’s only a women’s division issue.

Practically speaking, men’s sports often have no real rules limiting what genders can participate. As reflected by the term USAU once used and WFDF currently uses — “open” — the division was always open to whoever wanted to play in it, which was usually (but not always) men. Britni de la Cretaz digs into this in their Sports Illustrated piece on nonbinary athletes. While women’s leagues face the challenge of redefining their division (as one NWSL CEO put it) “in a manner that doesn’t rely on gender, but instead is focused on the quality of the players, our values, and the experience we provide to fans,” in men’s sports, the barriers are largely cultural:

There is no current equivalent out athlete for AMAB nonbinary people in men’s leagues. “Sport is not safe for trans people, and it’s certainly not safe for people in men’s sports who do not perform a certain type of masculinity,” says Chris Mosier, the first trans man to qualify for the U.S. duathlon team and the founder of TransAthlete.com. “There is a structure in sport that probably prevents AMAB nonbinary people from [openly] participating.”

While “marginalized genders” (or just “people who aren’t men”) can sometimes be a useful coalition category for women, nonbinary people, and people of other gender identities who don’t experience the benefits of a society that’s largely set up for conventionally masculine cisgender men, it’s also just not the case that the world is divided into “men” and “everyone else.” Masculine trans people exist; so do people of all gender identities and expressions who like playing sports and hanging out with men, or would if they knew everyone would be cool about it. And “nonbinary” isn’t just a subtype of “woman,” right?

If your organization’s policies only address trans and nonbinary players in women’s or women-matching categories in mixed, they’re not complete yet. And if you play, coach, or organize men’s/open? You’re not excused from this discussion, either.

8. There aren’t universal answers, and that’s okay.

Over the last few years, you may have seen some women’s teams describe their players as “womxn,” an alternative spelling intended to be more inclusive of (depending on who you ask) nonbinary players and/or trans women. I’m only one person, and I don’t speak for any consensus opinion of trans or nonbinary people — some of whom, it should be noted, have advocated for the term. But it’s on the internet record that I don’t love it, and I’m not alone in having argued publicly that a word that seems to connote “women and basically women” isn’t an ideal frame for the gender identity of trans women (whose legitimacy as women needs no qualification) or people like me who don’t identify as women at all. Taking the feedback, some teams and organizations that previously used “womxn” decided on something else. Others continue to use it.

None of that is to say that everyone in my division should close this tab and edit the x out of their Twitter bios right now — only to illustrate that this stuff is an ongoing conversation, and different voices with equally legitimate claims to the trans or nonbinary experience will have different takes and make different suggestions. There will be disagreements. There will be experiments tried and walked back. The best things you can do are to keep listening, and to remember that rethinking the ways you used to categorize or talk about or consider things isn’t a sign that you’re falling behind — it’s all part of the process.

And if someone of a gender identity you haven’t played alongside before rolls up to the fields this summer? Don’t freak out or work yourself up worrying that you’ll get something wrong. They aren’t here as a test, challenge, or learning opportunity for you. They’re here for the same reasons you are. Welcome them.

  1. I use the pronouns they, them, and theirs, and also identify as trans in that I don’t identify as the gender I was assigned at birth. Not all people who describe themselves as nonbinary identify this way, but nonbinary issues are often discussed under the larger trans umbrella — the white stripe in the pink, white, and blue trans pride flag is for us. 

  2. The WNBA’s Layshia Clarendon goes by he/him, they/them, and she/her pronouns and encourages people to use all three, as reflected in official releases from the league. 

  3. Which coincidentally lines up with the parts of the Ultiworld Style Guide I helped edit. 

  1. Mags Colvett
    Mags Colvett

    Mags Colvett is a former Associate Editor at Ultiworld, the holder of a creative writing MFA from Ohio State University and a literature MA from the University of Georgia, and a proud career B-teamer. They live in Queens and tweet at @magscolv.

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