We Can’t Let This Happen To Us

An ultimate player reacts to the recent PDGA transgender decision

Photo: Natalie Bigman-Pimentel — UltiPhotos.com

“We can’t let this happen to us.”

Those were my first thoughts when I read the recent Professional Disc Golf Association decision, effectively banning transgender women from competing in the women’s division at the highest level of the sport. While USA Ultimate currently has one of the most inclusive gender policies of any sport, and I personally have always been allowed to play in the division in which I expected to compete, it’s simply scary to see a fellow disc sport make a decision that is so blatantly exclusive of athletes in the community.

It was gutting to read some of the comments on Twitter and Reddit; some loud and bigoted commenters wasted no time throwing around tired tropes and offensive opinions lauding the PDGA for their decision. I know I’m not the only person who hopelessly doom-scrolled for just a bit too long. The fact that people are capable of writing so ill of one another is terrifying. The fact that it was happening so close to home just crushed me.

The worst experience I had was in a group chat full of ultimate acquaintances. After a bit of back and forth about the policy, one male-matching member wrote: “I want to win a national championship. I’m gonna round up some [location redacted] guys to play in the women’s division. I identify as a woman only when I want to win a championship for frisbee, but as a male at other moments. There’s nothing USAU or anyone can do to stop us.”

Befuddled, I responded, “But nobody actually does that. You’re making up a problem that doesn’t exist.”

I’ve spent days thinking about this. Both of us are right, technically. The social pressure on a hypothetical group of men who play in the women’s division would be immense, and my hunch is that anyone who tried such a maneuver just to point out the “loophole” in USAU’s gender inclusion policy probably wouldn’t find much value in winning that particular championship anyway. But I can’t lie: the interaction scares me because I could see it happening. And I could see the ugly discourse that would follow. And I can see the effect it might have on some of our most vulnerable community members. I don’t want to live in that world.

It scares me that people are talking about taking advantage of a rule designed for inclusion–a rule that hinges on a lot of social trust. No matter how much of a joke the player in my group chat might have been making (and I’m reasonably confident that he won’t actually try to make a team of men to play in the women’s division), the idea that a cis ultimate player could break that trust and threaten the ability of trans community members to compete startled me at first, and now it angers me.

The same day as the PDGA decision was announced, USA Ultimate’s Board President, Robyn Fennig, posted her own thread on Twitter, affirming her support of USA Ultimate’s current inclusion policy.

Robyn Tweet

It sucks that she had to do that, but it did reassure me a lot. Though there’s no hint that USA Ultimate’s policy is under any threat, Fennig also implored the ultimate community to stay engaged and continue to push for inclusion in her next tweet.

Robyn Tweet #2

That last tweet read to me like a tacit acknowledgement that many trans athletes can see a slippery slope ahead. Looking internally to the ultimate community, there are some places in which anti-trans actions are filtering through our typically inclusive armor.

For just one example, last season’s High School National Invite and Youth Club Championships were marred by offensive speech from the parents on opposing sidelines and onlookers in the live YouTube chat towards a South Eugene team featuring many players who identify outside the gender binary competing in the girls’ division and many of the same players competing for the Oregon girls YCC team. Before HSNI was awarded to Salt Lake City, event organizers felt the need to have extensive conversations with Utah Ultimate about inclusion, including threats of expulsion from the tournament for any team exhibiting hateful behavior from their team or sideline.

I’ll commend the tournament organizers for taking that step, while in the same breath acknowledging that they simply could have chosen to host their event including some of the most vulnerable members of our community in a location that is demonstrably safer. USA Ultimate’s recent decision to reject Fort Wayne, Indiana’s bid to host the D-III College Championships because of its anti-trans laws illustrates this possibility.1

Those were just a few events, and so far I’ve said nothing of the hateful conversations around similar topics happening on Twitter and Reddit and in GroupMe groups and pick-up sidelines. I won’t link any here because I’ve had more than one sleepless night after going down that rabbit hole, but I know they’re there, and that’s enough to feel like I need to say something.

We can’t let this happen in ultimate.

For the sake of our trans community members and everyone who benefits from their presence, we simply cannot let ultimate get to a point where such a policy like the PDGA’s is up for discussion.

I shouldn’t need to elucidate the reasons why taking the more inclusive path is the correct way forward, but I’ll just add a few data points that stuck out to me from the 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health conducted by The Trevor Project, an organization that aims to end suicide among LGBTQ youth.

  • Nearly 1 in 5 transgender and nonbinary youth attempted suicide in the past year.
  • 83% of transgender and nonbinary youth said that they have worried about transgender people being denied the ability to play sports due to state or local laws.
  • 71% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported that they have experienced discrimination based on their gender identity.

Those numbers are staggering. Think of any identity you have. Then consider if four out of every five people with that identity were worried about being allowed by their government to play organized sports. That is what transgender and nonbinary athletes are living with today just for being who they are.

On the positive side, that study found that queer youth who found their school to be LGBTQ-affirming reported lower rates of attempting suicide. If we work to make our teams and programs and ourselves more inclusive, we could literally save lives.

Whether through individual team equity statements, visual acts of inclusion such as wearing VC Ultimate’s arm bands or incorporating message of inclusivity into your jerseys, the allies who play ultimate need to meet the moment and affirm that the sport is a safe community for its trans players, coaches, volunteers, observers, and fans. Whatever you, yes you, personally can do to visibly and clearly support trans community members, now is the time to do it.

  1. I’ll save for a different article why choosing Ohio is not that much better, but suffice to say that I’m surprised and glad the USAU EDI group has this much sway. 

  1. Alex Rubin
    Alex Rubin

    Alex Rubin started writing for Ultiworld in 2018. He is a graduate of Northwestern University where he played for four years. After a stint in Los Angeles coaching high school and college teams, they moved to Chicago to experience real seasons and eat deep dish pizza. You can reach Alex through e-mail ([email protected]) or Twitter (@arubes14).

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