My name is Ashleigh Buch, and I am a transgender woman who plays ultimate for the up and coming women’s club team, Kansas City Wicked. I am writing this piece with the hope of adding my voice to a very small minority of ultimate athletes who are trans or non-binary, and to increase awareness of our experiences as players. My journey as a trans female ultimate player is one that has been fraught with difficulty and heartbreak and, at one time, took me away from the sport, but it is also one that has seen me grow into a strong and confident woman who is unashamed to be her true self.
While ultimate is a large part of my life, I am also a Mandarin-Chinese linguist in the Air Force. I have served in the Air Force for eight and a half years. I am extremely passionate about fighting for trans rights and trans representation across all fields, but my focus has primarily been on the military. It was that fight for my right to exist in the military that ultimately gave me the courage to return to the sport as myself.
Like many, I began playing ultimate in college, and I joined Iowa State Ultimate Club (ISUC) during my junior year of school. I had played the sport a little bit after a few summer cross country practices, and I quickly fell in love with it, but I had absolutely no technical skills, and I could barely throw a disc. The two things I did have going for me were that I could run fast and run almost nonstop.
I was nervous about joining the team for many reasons, but at its heart, it was because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to be my true self. I also knew from my previous experiences with team sports that I was going to end up on the periphery. In the past, I was closed off from everyone because if someone were to discover the real me, I was afraid that I would face negative treatment from those in my life. Not opening up and forming real relationships with my teammates was the only way I knew how to protect myself.
While I learned a lot about ultimate and improved my game immensely during my time playing for ISUC, so many of my fears came to the forefront of my experience. It was an incredibly dysphoric experience trying to keep up this image of somebody I wasn’t. I tried desperately to put forth a masculine presentation, but I failed miserably. I was pretty sure most everyone on the men’s and women’s team at ISU either thought I was gay or just super metrosexual.
Having to hide behind a mask not only hurt my heart, but looking back on it, it stunted my growth as a player. Because I was so distant and often struggled with being around my teammates, it became difficult for me to ask for help regarding different parts of my game or understanding more advanced aspects of the sport. Unless we were at practice or a tournament, I rarely, if ever, spent time with my teammates. It was a suffocating and lonely experience.
Paralleling many of my experiences as a child and teenage athlete, I found myself desperately wanting to be a part of the women’s team at ISU, Woman Scorned. I fit in with many of the women so much more naturally than I did with any of the men. While there wasn’t a shortage of great players on ISUC, I found myself admiring and respecting the games of many of the women much more. When you are surrounded by incredible players like Rachel Derscheid, Melissa Gibbs, Taiwo Misra, Magon Liu, Sarah Hoistad, Jasmine Draper, and so many more, it is easy to be star struck.
They played each game with so much passion, and they fostered an incredibly empowering and supportive environment where they could be themselves unabashedly, something I deeply desired. I loved how they talked to each other on the field from the sideline and encouraged each other on the field. The cold reality was that I would never be a part of that team, and I struggled with that almost daily. It hurt my heart and further increased my dysphoria.
I know it sounds like I am coming down hard on the men’s team, but it is more that I didn’t fit in with those guys and the culture of the team. I am still friends with most of them, but if you were to ask them how I fit in with the team, they would almost certainly tell you that I was this incredibly quiet and shy individual who was almost always closed off from them. Looking back, I think that if I had come out about being trans while playing for the team, I have no doubt they would have supported me. At the time though, the thought of that terrified me. Because of the negative way in which society views and treats trans people, closing myself off was the safe thing to do.
Joining a Women’s Team
A few years later, I quit ultimate because I was in the midst of my transition, and I faced some bullying at the local summer league. This spring, I made the decision to return to the sport. Only this time, I was going to return to the sport as my genuine self, as the woman that I am. I didn’t want the fact that I am trans to be a hindrance to living my life any longer. Because of my proximity of Kansas City and what seemed like a team with great chemistry, I decided to reach out to Wicked to gauge their interest in letting me participate in their upcoming open tryouts.
I ended up sending a super awkward message to their Facebook page basically regaling them with my life story. Thankfully, the person in charge of their page is Steph Rupp, one of the most amazing people I have ever met and who is now one of my dearest friends. She was totally cool about it all, and after talking it over with the captains, she let me know that I would be welcomed with open arms.
Over the following weeks, I fought an internal battle of deciding whether I should try out. Indecision and fear almost overcame me the day of the first try out when I was about 40 miles away from Omaha on the road to Kansas City. I was at the point of turning around, but I made the decision to press on. The thought of returning to the sport as myself and being surrounded by so many incredible female ultimate players was something I deeply desired. Despite my fear, the decision to try out was the right decision. After a good showing at the invite-only tryouts, I was notified that I made the team, and I was overcome with emotion. It was something that I thought would never be possible, yet there was the confirmation right there. I was officially part of Wicked.
I struggled a lot throughout this past season. It was filled with many ups and downs, and there were a lot of tears. I am pretty sure I cried at every other practice, every power weekend, and most tournaments. Estrogen-based puberty is no joke. I struggled mightily with my confidence to the point where I was afraid to throw anything other than a quick dump or a quick give and go.
I was so afraid of letting my team down, and I was afraid that if I happened to do anything well, it would be because I was trans and not because I was a good player. It wasn’t until toward the end of the season did I break free of my funk. After a few in-depth conversations with my frisbee role models, Clare Frantz, Steph Rupp, and Amanda “Coffee” Borders, they helped me get out of my head, and I finally began to blossom as a player. The culture of our team is one of empowerment and support of each other through all the ups and downs.
Many of the misconceptions and questions of fairness surrounding trans female athletes scared me about opening up about my experience as a trans woman playing for Wicked. So often as a trans woman, my identity is boiled down to one part of my identity, the fact that I was designated male at birth. Because of that designation, there are a lot of assumptions made about me such as having an innate biological advantage over my cisgender female counterparts. Not only is that an unfair assumption about me, but it is also insulting to all of the incredible cisgender female athletes out there who will accomplish more than I can ever dream of. I was afraid that anything that I was to achieve in ultimate would be credited to me being trans rather than to the all of the hard work and effort I put into growing as a player. More importantly, I am afraid that people will downplay Wicked’s accomplishment because of my trans status. We are some of the hardest working individuals you will ever meet, and if anybody took anything away from what we have accomplished because I am trans, it would tear my heart out.
One of the common misconceptions about transgender female athletes when it comes to women’s sports is that we are doing it so that we can dominate the sport in a way that we couldn’t in the men’s division. It pains my heart to hear that so often repeated. Aside from the extensive changes your body undergoes with hormone replacement therapy (HRT), the overwhelming majority of trans female athletes simply want to compete in an environment where they fit, somewhere where they don’t have to be somebody other than themselves. Team sports are a communal environment, and if you don’t fit for whatever reason, they can become a lonely place.
Another aspect to the question of fairness for trans athletes is how HRT affects the body. My athletic capabilities underwent a dramatic change. I dropped to nonexistent levels of testosterone while my estrogen was cycled in a way that matched those of an average cisgender woman. I went from having what now seems like endless energy that I used to balance a busy schedule with a heavy workout load to being constantly tired.
Despite the same level of exertion, after HRT, my strength decreased sharply and my running pace slowed. It became difficult to not only put on muscle mass, but to maintain any previous muscle mass. While at the same time, that lovely hormone, estrogen, made it easy to put on fat and in turn gain weight. That is exactly what happened. My body began changing rapidly and it never looked back. I basically went from being perceived as a high-level male athlete to being a high-level female athlete.
Finding a Home
Transitioning and playing for Wicked are the two best experiences of my life. Everything that I had desired in my life and in sports fell into place. I had reached the point where my mental, emotional, and physical health were finally at peace with one another, and for the first time in my life, I began to live. My participation on Wicked opened a new aspect to my being. I had finally found a place where I could be myself and play a sport I loved. I was surrounded by and lifted up by some of the most incredible people I have ever met, a group of women who supported one another. While these women are not Scorned, they are Wicked, and they make my heart sing. My journey is most certainly not over, but for now, I am home. #wickedlove
Ashleigh Buch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Instagram at ashleigh.kathryn, or on Twitter @AshKatRyn. Interested to learn more about her fight for trans acceptance in the military? Check out articles about her in the Omaha World Herald and on the Offutt Air Force Base news page.