The Misguided Hope of Hacktivism

by | September 12, 2016, 7:00am 1

Anyone who has felt the awful cringe after having done something embarrassing in a public forum knows that it is shameful and frightening. Malware infected an opinion piece I wrote many months ago, Identity Matchups, and I made no attempt to stop it. The piece itself was a poorly researched and constructed article about a transgender player from the past. Ten years ago it might have been an interesting but poorly manifested piece written by a well-meaning but clueless sportswriter. Today, in the midst of important conversations and deep political movements within the country regarding gender identities, it was irresponsible and offensive. I fell victim to hubris – “so what if this might be a complex, sensitive topic to address blithely? I can handle it.”

My article should have included information on hormone replacement therapy (HRT), contemporary athletic policies regarding transgender athletes (like the USA Ultimate policy) and input from transgender athletes themselves. Instead I used vague, inaccurate terms like “prior masculinity” and a “male physique” and suggested that my subject was, at various times, pre-op and post-op when I had no direct knowledge. In short, the article should have been better. A lot better.

Almost immediately I was taken to task by commenters, MG being the first, suggesting that the article was ignorant and uninformed. This was true. But somewhere in that ignorance, the article produced unintended results by starting a discussion. Transgender athletes and others in the ultimate community responded in a way that elucidated the topic for me and everyone else. What they have written served the community better than my poorly-produced hack piece. Thus, perhaps, a new definition of hacktivism? Bad journalism with positive results.

In hopes of never writing a hacktivist article again, I returned to find out where I went astray. I researched and read about transgender athletes in our community and others. One of the major talking points missing from my article was about HRT. How far along a male-to-female trans athlete is in hormone replacement therapy determines how USAU regards that player vis-a-vis mixed and women’s competitive play. My time period preceded the policy, but if Mary (the subject of Identity Matchups) was playing competitive ultimate only a few weeks or months into HRT, then by today’s rules she wouldn’t be allowed to play on the line as a female — and thus many of my arguments were moot or already answered by the policy.

Hormone replacement therapy is the process of introducing hormones that correspond with a person’s gender identity, such as supplementing a male-to-female transition with estrogen while suppressing testosterone. USA Ultimate policy states (emphasis mine):

A trans female (male to female) athlete:

— Who is not taking hormone treatments related to gender transition may not compete on a women’s team or count towards the female gender ratio in mixed competition.

— Being treated with testosterone suppression medication related to gender transition, for the purposes of USA Ultimate competition, may compete on an open team or count towards the male gender ratio in mixed competition, but may not compete on a women’s team or count towards the female gender ratio in mixed competition until completing one calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment.

The NCAA policy on transgender athletes reads (emphasis mine):

It is also important to know that any strength and endurance advantages a transgender woman arguably may have as a result of her prior testosterone levels dissipate after about one year of estrogen or testosterone-suppression therapy. According to medical experts on this issue, the assumption that a transgender woman competing on a women’s team would have a competitive advantage outside the range of performance and competitive advantage or disadvantage that already exists among female athletes is not supported by evidence.

That being said, it’s noteworthy that had Mary’s timeline of HRT been under a year and she couldn’t play as a female by USAU policy, it still didn’t mean that she was somehow more physically adept.

Commenter Michelle McCarthy illustrated this by writing, “It was said many times that Mary could have an advantage due to her “masculine” features. I’ve only been on HRT for 4 months and I can tell you this is not nearly as big of a concern as it might sound on paper. I’m assuming the big advantage people think that a transgender women might have is muscle mass since men tend to be more muscular than women. In my first month of HRT I lost 15lbs and I am built like a twig so I can only assume this rapid weight loss was due to muscle loss.”

I cite Michelle’s comments and sport governing bodies’ policies since my article was about hypothetical concerns a female player may have with a trans woman competitor and not the other way around. But it has also been illuminating to read about trans female-to-male athletes. Corey Alexander wrote a helpful article A Trans Man’s Perspective about playing in the ultimate community as a trans male athlete which addressed — more than the competitive side or hypothetical physical advantage/disadvantage — a way in which our community can discuss gender issues. Corey cited five areas of interest and concluded with a call for — and re-affirmation of — the Spirit-of-the-Game (SOTG) principles that help guide ultimate.

“My acceptance, and that of Michelle McCarthy, mentioned above, within ultimate is a testament to SOTG and to our communities; we are proof that trans athletes can be integrated into ultimate without drama, that the policies put in place by our associations work, and that SOTG is still alive and strong within our communities.”

The value of Spirt of the Game is something that, personally speaking, I have primarily associated with ultimate’s call-your-own-fouls and lack of referees. I had never thought to apply it to gender issues. Curious, I reached out to Hall of Famers Irv Kalb and Dan “Stork” Roddick, who, together (along with Tom Kennedy, the founder of the UPA) wrote and added the Spirit of the Game clause to the official 7th Edition Rules of Ultimate in 1978. Was it possible that ultimate’s founding in the late 60s might have consciously sought to include LGBTQ athletes? After all, the Stonewall Riots occurred in the summer of 1969 around the same time as ultimate was nurturing its beginnings in a New Jersey parking lot a mere 20 miles to the West—could there be a link?

“There was no effort to actively include or exclude anyone based on race, religion, orientation, etc. We welcomed anyone who was interested,” wrote Irv Kalb. “The big thing for us, even as far back as Maplewood, was to make it a ‘co-ed’ sport. While the Columbia High team was mostly male, there were definitely a number of females who played with us in our practices and in our games against other high schools. At Rutgers, we continued this approach by having women on the team right from the start.”

Stork writes, My response is virtually identical to Irv’s. And I was in the midst of getting my PhD in sociology while I was playing, so I was relatively attuned to the topic, but sexual orientation simply wasn’t an issue for us as players at the time. I guess we all knew about Dr. Renée Richards in the late 70’s, but that was it. As Irv noted, we were pro-active about having women players, but again, it wasn’t a big deal. We were just looking for the best folks to put on the field.”

So ultimate’s SOTG clause was in fact gender-aware, even if it wasn’t designed to protect transgender identities. But the DNA imprint is, in fact, there.

Next on my list was finding out more about the LGBTQ community within ultimate itself. This arena was also neglected in my article. Gay, lesbian and bisexual ultimate players have been around as long as the sport and I’ve written about teams and players and orientations in the past (see Ultimate the First Four Decades and the section on Felix, the undefeated women’s elite club team). Plenty of ultimate friends of mine are gay and out or gay and not, it’s all fine and dandy — but Corey’s article brought the question of how the LGBTQ community fits within the culture of ultimate to light by linking an excellent study on the subject, “Ultimate and the LGBTQIA Community” {hyperlink) from the Rainbow Hub. In it, writer (and presumed ultimate player) Mad Moll Green speaks to a number of ultimate players about their experiences and relates their stories. Mad Moll writes,

To research this article, I put out an open call for interviews with LGBTQIA-identified ultimate players. Pretty much unanimously, they concluded that ultimate is relatively a very easy place to be openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual. For Bacon, a player from Los Angeles, the acceptance she found in the ultimate community helped affirm her decision to come out.

“Coincidentally, I started playing ultimate at about the exact same time I was first ‘out.’ Not to get all sappy, but it was a beautiful gift in my life to have ultimate while I was dealing with all of the emotional struggle of being newly ‘out.’… It’s such a non-issue for everyone in the community that it’s hard to pinpoint anyone who’s been exceptionally positive, because everyone is.”

Like Corey Alexander, Mad Moll Green linked the culture of ultimate and it’s inculcation of Spirit of the Game as a reason for the culture of inclusion and ends up echoing Irv Kalb and Stork who helped implement SOTG so many year ago:

“Several of the players I interviewed pointed out that because men and women so frequently play Ultimate together, male players tend to develop greater respect for their female peers, and that this culture of respect tends to positively impact their attitudes towards LGBTQIA teammates. Ultimate’s historical and contemporary regulations emphasize the participation of – if not explicitly *all* genders – both men and women. Club, national, and international championships all feature a “Mixed” division. And the “Open” division, which is usually played almost exclusively by men, is called “Open” because it was traditionally open to everyone, both before and after there was a separate Women’s division – and it is still open to anyone, regardless of gender, today.

As Seth Harrington [of Big Gay Frisbee] puts it, “I think Ultimate provides a comfortable home for LGBTQIA athletes in part because Ultimate has always been a co-ed sport. There’s always been a general level of acceptance, because you’ve always had men and women playing together, so it’s kind of just one extra step to have gay and straight athletes playing together.”

Corey pointed out another angle in an email conversation:

Spirit-of-the-Game is what makes ultimate different that any other sport I’ve played. It’s the expectation that everyone on the field is playing for the same reasons; the love of the game and the desire to compete at their highest level, but without jeopardising the safety of others. I feel that ‘safety’ not only extends to physical safety (i.e. not tolerating dangerous play) but also to emotional safety by promoting a culture of inclusion and ‘family’.

Mad Moll’s article is a thorough exploration of its subject and I encourage anyone interested in this discussion to read it. When I did, my immediate sense was that this was what I should have been writing. But then again, as commenter MG has pointed out, perhaps my cisgender status (IE, I’m a male who identifies as male) might make me a particularly poor choice to have been writing about transgender ultimate players at all:

“Because you didn’t or couldn’t represent the experiences of trans women in this article, you’ve instead focused on the preconceptions and questions that cis people have about them. I’m trying to draw your attention to the fact that you’re talking about this issue as a hypothetical (“We haven’t seen this yet”), and in doing so you’re ignoring the experiences and voices of actual trans people who have lived what you’re trying to discuss.

I think you can appreciate where a lot of contemporary media discourse about trans people goes wrong. It tends to focus on the prejudices and experiences of cis people. It focuses on hypothetical situations that haven’t actually occurred (What if trans perverts sneak into the wrong bathrooms? What if trans women are trying to cheat at ultimate?) instead of issues that are important to the people actually involved.”

These are valid points: who am I to get involved in a minority culture and attempt to speak of it accurately? My perspective, although not valueless, is incomplete without hearing from the other side.

Corey helped explain why (emphasis mine): “Having non-cisgendered voices—transgender and non-binary voices—is important in any space but particularly in spaces that transgender and non-binary people feel excluded. Sport is one of those key areas. Due to its binary nature, sport is often one of the sacrifices trans individuals have to make when we transition because we don’t ‘fit’ into a box or into a culture once we’ve transitioned. Having voices in sport who have transitioned and have continued to compete at any level in any sport is important because it shows young (and not so young) people questioning their identity that [sport] is not necessarily another thing you have to give up to be who you are.”

I emailed Mad Moll Green to ask a question: what should I do now as a normative heterosexual white dude? Could I rectify my mistakes? Part of the response included reasoning why the misconceptions in my article were potentially damaging:

I don’t like the idea that a trans kid who is considering ultimate will do some googling, and come away with the impression that the ultimate community is suspicious or unwelcoming, or that some jerk is going to demand a full medical report before they’ll play against her. That’s part of the reason I wrote the article for the Hub — I realized that a lot of ultimate players were cut-off from this huge, welcoming community that was available to them and I thought that a lot of non-ultimate players would dig the sport’s inclusive culture, too.

In the end, Mad Moll’s main point, which matched those of MG, Corey Alexander and many others, was that the discussion on trans women competing with other women is best left to those with that experience:

Since what you’re really addressing is specific to the women’s division (and to gender matchups in the mixed division), I think you should let women players speak for ourselves in terms of what our actual concerns and values are re: gender identity. I don’t want to sound rude, but it’s just not up to you to speak for us. Basically, trans women are the best people to talk about the experiences of trans women in ultimate, full stop.

So on that note, I will conclude. Many in the trans ultimate community, the comic strip Contested Strip, commenters on my article and others have indeed spoken out and I encourage you to read what they have put out there. Even as I complete this writing, a fascinating and fully researched article in the New York Times Magazine on the subject of gender testing for international sports competitions was published. Read it — and read what others write, and like me, you will surely be enlightened.

Finally, for those who sometimes forget that these words you are reading have real-life correlation, Corey provided me with a wonderful reminder of the importance of our sport and its core tenets:

Ultimate for me beautifully captures the duality of competitive sport and human relationships and spirit. Before transition, ultimate was my last-ditch effort to find a sport where I could relate to the people I was playing with and enjoy the sport. I never expected to enjoy it as much as I did nor did I expect to find a community that embraced and supported my transition as well as they have. I can honestly say that without ultimate I would be a very, very different person.

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  • Almost a grandmaster

    Great follow-up and ownership of your previous piece’s shortcomings! Wish the editors would put this on the upper highlighted article list since it’s more recent and contains excellent thoughts on the diversity of our sport and how we can celebrate and be better aware of such.