Ultimate team posing for photo on a jungle gym. The team's jerseys are blue and yellow.

Just let me play my sport: A transgender perspective on the recent transgender sport bans

Autumn Cook (they/them) is a senior dual degree recipient in Chemistry and Gender, Women’s, + Sexuality Studies. They are a member of the Women’s Center staff team and co-facilitate the Spectrum discussion group which is a space for trans and non-binary community members.

We are in the midst of one of the most ruthless and successful pushes to limit transgender people from participating within everyday society. At the time of publishing, 7 states (Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Idaho, South Dakota, Mississippi, and West Virginia) currently have laws on the books that prohibit transgender youth from participating in gender-segregated sports. That is, transgender girls are not allowed to play girls sports under penalty of the law. Twenty-five more states have either proposed bills or have bills waiting to be voted on within their state legislatures that do the same thing. A similar measure failed within the United States Senate on a razor-thin 49-50 margin.

These bills are extremely frightening and damaging not only to transgender youth but to the transgender population as a whole, and the entire activist population cannot just watch the rights of marginalized people be eroded. I am a transgender athlete, and although I am not of the age where many of these bills apply me, I used to be a transgender kid who would have been affected by these laws.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve really liked participating in sports even though I was usually pretty bad at them. I played recreational soccer throughout elementary school and exceptionally enjoyed it. In middle school though, I discovered Ultimate, more commonly known as Ultimate Frisbee (Frisbee is actually a trademark, and therefore only can be used to describe discs made by Wham-O), and was almost immediately in love. But I didn’t consider myself an Ultimate player until my freshman year of college when I participated in UMBC’s annual hat tournament.

Image Description: 17 members of the 2019-2020 UMBC Women’s Ultimate team, standing in two rows within their blue and yellow jerseys.

Ultimate is a team sport that consists of two teams of seven players trying to get a disc down the field to the other team’s endzone. It’s not as easy as just running the disc to the endzone and passing it when you get blocked; a player who has the disc cannot move and must pass the disc to their teammates to advance it down the field. Uniquely, Ultimate is a non-contact sport that is refereed by the players themselves: there are no officials on the field. This forces an open dialogue between the players of the two opposing teams and fosters mutual respect from a collective love of playing the game.

When I showed up to the hat tournament on the fields near the Event Center, I was a fresh face and I didn’t know anyone or what to expect from this entirely new group of people I almost felt I was infiltrating. I thought a lot about my transness in relation to everyone else’s cisness, but no one asked and just took me at my word that I was a woman. I was hesitant at first, thinking they might confront me, but then in the second game of the day, I subbed in and almost immediately I saw an opening. I was being poached, or my defender was electing to cover the space where they thought I would run to get the disc rather than covering me directly. I saw this and immediately booked it for the endzone.The person in control of the disc saw this and by the time my defender reacted, I was already halfway down the field. Before I knew it, the disc was flying overhead and I wasn’t going to be fast enough to catch it. So I did the only other thing you can do in this situation… layout!

Image description: A GIF of Professional Ultimate Player Ashleigh Buch running and diving for (laying out) for a disc thrown into the end-zone.

While I adore the adrenaline rush that you receive after being a part of a big play, I think what kept me coming back to Ultimate was the mutual respect that players had for each other and the community surrounding Ultimate. Ultimate players are not in it for fame or the money, because there really isn’t any, but instead, push their bodies to the limit because they truly adore the game and adore the people that they have met through it. They didn’t care that I was trans; Ultimate players just care about your love of the game.

Unfortunately, one part of Ultimate is that the vast majority of organized play at the college level is gendered, as in there is a men’s league and a women’s league, so it can be a bit awkward when you come out as a trans person. Although there is a mixed league where men and women play alongside each other, I was very lucky in this sense because by the time I was playing competitive Ultimate in college, I had fully transitioned and had been on hormones for years. At the time I started playing, there were restrictions about who could play in the women’s league, but fortunately, I was within the restrictions and could play. 

Luckily, thanks to the tireless activism from Ultimate players, USA Ultimate (USAU), recently amended the guidelines that dictate who can play in the Women’s and Men’s leagues and no longer requires “transfeminine people to be on testosterone suppressants for a year before they become eligible” and also allows transmasculine people to still play in the “women’s” league, regardless of if they are taking testosterone or not. This is a fantastic demonstration of the Ultimate community’s commitment to inclusivity and equity.

However, the USAU organization is a relatively small organization that organizes a relatively small collegiate sporting league. The NCAA, the preeminent collegiate sports organization within the US for major sports such as basketball, swim/dive, soccer, golf, volleyball etc, requires that transfeminine athletes who wish to compete within women’s sports be on hormone replacement therapy that blocks testosterone for at least one year, and for any testosterone taking transmasculine people to be immediately disqualified from the women’s divisions. This policy is quite similar to the established policies that the Olympics and other professional sporting bodies have used for years. The one year mark on testosterone blocking is almost completely arbitrary, as many transgender people’s hormones are stable long before the year mark. 

Transgender people being able to participate in gendered sports is not a new thing, but in the last year, the fervor around “transgender people taking over gendered sports” reached new highs so I wanted to add to the conversation by describing what it’s like being a transgender woman who participates in a woman’s sport. I am coming from a position of privilege because I never had to fight with the organizing bodies over my eligibility to play, and the sport that I play is inclusive and accepting of transgender bodies and identities; that doesn’t change the effect of the greater societal belief that transgender people somehow have an advantage in sports so my experiences will not be the same as other athletes or trans people who play different sports.

Whenever I step onto the field of a sanctioned tournament, or even if I’m just playing with people I haven’t played with before, I get really scared that someone is going to confront me about my gender identity, claiming that I should not be there, or that I have a competitive advantage, or that my presence is making the other players feel uncomfortable. I fear that someone is going to clock my gender identity just by the way that I sound or the shame on my shoulders. It has never actually happened before on the field, but that does not make the fear go away. Similar to what I discussed within my first blog post, the fear that I am invading a women’s space with my masculinized childhood experience haunts me. I’m an aggressive player, meaning that I go after discs hard and make my presence on the field known, and I’m always fearful that someone will read that as me being a man playing a women’s sport and be called out on it. Just the fear of theoretically being called out for not belonging within a space that I know that I belong in is really hard to grapple with and process, especially when I’m trying to devote all of my brainpower to doing the best I can on the field. 

Everyone who wants to participate in sports should be able to participate in sports.

Some of these fears come from the common tropes that parts of society hold surrounding how trans people operate within the world. One of the biggest fears that I have when playing women’s frisbee is getting called out on somehow having an advantage over the cis women. Lawmakers cite that these bills are to protect the “competitive integrity” of sports because they believe that transgender people will take over the top echelons of scholastic sports if they were allowed to compete. The idea that transgender people have an advantage over their cisgender counterparts is bogus fear-mongering about transgender people. Data actually suggests that trans women are less effective than their cisgender peers. For instance, one study showed trans women on hormone replacement therapy run 10% slower when compared to their results pre-HRT. Additionally, a United States Air Force study demonstrated that after a year on HRT, transgender and cisgender service members’ fitness metrics were nearly the same

To further demonstrate this false idea of “transgender advantage,” let’s also take a look at the history. Transgender athletes have been allowed to participate in competitive sports for years now, and only one openly transgender man, Chris Mosier, has qualified and joined a U.S. national team and only one transgender woman, Dr. Veronica Ivy, has won an international championship title, with Dr. Ivy havving won the UCI Women’s Masters Track Cycling World Championship for the women’s 35-44 bracket. That’s two people–and I don’t think they’re looking to take over the world of sports anytime soon.

Another aspect I want to challenge about these anti-trans laws is the question of who is actually impacted by them. Yes, trans athletes and trans students are obviously the most affected by these laws, but they are not the only people impacted by these laws! Every athlete, cisgender or transgender, are affected by these laws. This is directly seen within the text of Florida’s recent attempt at banning transgender kids from participating in sports, a bill that is currently predicted to die in the Florida State Senate, but passed the House. According to the Tampa Bay Times, if passed, this bill would allow people to challenge any athlete’s gender, forcing them to prove their “sex” one of three ways: “with a DNA test; with a testosterone test, or with [a] medical professional examining the student’s ‘reproductive anatomy.’” This problem is not just hypothetical. In 2017, an 8 year old girl and her team were disqualified from a girls club soccer tournament for looking too much like a boy with her short haircut. Tournament officials later said that this disqualification was because of a typo, an excuse that the family of the girl did not buy. 

The reality is that these bills hurt everyone.

Just as bills banning the use of public bathrooms hurt cisgender people who do not fit into the heteronormative and hegemonic ideas of what a “woman” or a “man” should look like, these anti-sports bans will hurt more than just transgender people. Any non-normative looking athlete is a target of these bills. 

Another interesting aspect of this debate is that sports are, by definition, a competition to determine who is better at some activity. In professional volleyball, do we require taller players to jump lower or to play on their knees to be fairer to the shorter players? Do we ask runners with a larger stride to limit themselves to make it fairer for the shorter-legged players? Of course, we don’t, because sports are a measure of people’s natural and trained abilities!

Society would never ask a cisgender person to limit themselves to make it fairer for another cisgender person so why is there a double standard for trans people? Some transgender athletes have different body types than their cisgender counterparts. A transgender woman who went through a male natal puberty might have broader shoulders, be taller, or have a longer stride. But even if these differences in body type did infer an advantage to transgender athletes over their cisgender peers, (which they don’t), it would not make sense to penalize them for being better at something than their competitors, because society does not punish cisgender athletes for their innate abilities.

Ultimately, the ability to participate in sports is a human right. Everyone who wants to participate in sports should be able to participate in sports. My message to everyone who thinks that transgender people should not be allowed to play sports is pretty simple: let me play the game that I love.

 Image Description: A professional Ultimate player playing out for a disc in a spectacular fashion.

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