It was the early 2000s, and the mixed team that I had started was good, but not great. We were a typical mash of quirky talents and quirky deficiencies (great backhand hucks! Terrible decision-making!) We could play with the best teams in our section and win, but we could also lose hideously to a group of mixed masters playing zone on a windless day.
In one of our games at Sectionals we played 7 Express, who at the time was not much different than us, except they had been around longer and their swings in talent were even more pronounced. Our team felt confident we would win.
One of their players, Luke, we knew as an above-average summer league player with speed and hops, a common and commendable skill set. However, Luke didn’t pose a major threat — at least that’s what we knew about him from a summer prior. In the interim, he had gotten a sex-change operation and had returned to playing ultimate as Mary. She was faster and quicker than any women she was guarding and could sky just about any of them (and men, too). On offense, if we didn’t help cover deep, she was going to burn one of our women for a goal. Mary was dangerous on the field where Luke never was.
At first, this felt somewhat unfair. She had a male physique but was playing on the women’s line. The advantages were obvious. But fundamentally, we regarded her as an athletic player that had to be accounted for on the field. The sex change was a courageous and novel action — how much did it matter to have a competitive advantage, and how much should it be considered as such? Our team didn’t delve too deeply into the question. She got a few Ds when we foolishly hucked in her direction, we won the game, everyone on both teams was cheery afterwards, and it didn’t feel like a big deal.
But let’s say Mary stepped up a few levels of competition and her team was competing Sunday at Regionals with a chance for an elusive Nationals bid. At the time, despite spirit voting and a campaign by the then-Ultimate Players Association to promote spirit of the game, this part of the Northeast was known for a brand of less-than-spirited mixed teams. So a problem — perhaps?
I asked a female friend and competitor if she would question the validity of Mary playing against her team in a big game — a game-to-go to Nationals, for example. There was a long pause. Finally she said that sure, her team would likely compete within the rules accepted by the UPA. But, she added, she would need to have “full disclosure” from Mary first.
This sounds reasonable until one realizes how unreasonable it is. Should Mary have to announce her sex change prior to the tournament? Would her team have to alert others about her masculine features?
“Disclosure” wouldn’t be fair to Mary. But some competitors, even in our sport, don’t think this way. They have a strong (but not necessarily correct) sense of what fairness is and what a level playing field entails. To some, Mary’s prior masculinity provides her an unfair competitive advantage that must be declared ahead of time.
Let’s widen out the picture: what if she was in Track & Field? Competing at the NCAA championships? What about the WNBA? At what point does the nation decide that a transgendered woman as a sports figure is unfair?
We haven’t seen that yet. We may never. Sports is a unique arena for a transgendered person because it appears to provide advantages.
And this is why we must remember what it means to be an athlete, a competitor, a sportsman or woman. There are many factors that help determine success. Size and physical attributes are but among them. Agility? Field vision? Sixth sense? Intelligence? Emotional IQ? Cleverness? Work ethic? Durability? Dependability? Willingness to learn? Willingness to share? Love of the game? Competitive drive? Hustle? Savviness? Leadership? Consistency? Attitude?
Of all these, where does “male physique” reside? It can be an important factor — or not. You can have a male physique but fail in these other areas and not be a successful ultimate player no matter what line you are on. We see it all the time. So does Mary’s prior masculinity provide her an unfair competitive advantage? No. Is it one that should be curtailed or fessed up? No. Life is full of advantages and disadvantage for people all of the time. Who’s even to say whether she’s advantaged or disadvantaged? Not me.
While writing this article, I emailed a former 7 Express stalwart, Bob Suvanich, to ask about Mary:
“Luke had played with me the year before on another team. When Luke decided to make the transition to Mary, he wrote a letter to the UPA and got the approval to be recognized as a woman for competition purposes. Mary played for us pre-op but afterwards she legally changed her gender.
I’m not sure at what exact point Luke became Mary but I know that Luke had started taking hormone medication during the year or even earlier. I must also clarify that Luke seemed to be more into ultimate than Mary, and we convinced Mary to play with us even though she wasn’t as enthused about playing after she started her treatment/transition. I think it really affected her personal life and the medication was also taking a toll on Mary physically. She wasn’t quite what Luke used to be… I would describe Luke as a quick, fast cutter that could really jump and play bigger than his skinny 5’7″ frame. As Mary, she was still better than some but not as energetic as Luke. After that year, I began to lose touch with Mary. I’m not sure if she ever competed in other ultimate tournaments after that. I just know that she was going through a difficult time and ultimate took a back seat to her personal life.”
Wherever Mary is now, I hope she returns to ultimate just once or twice to get a run-through catch block on her girl and then turf the next throw — just because she can.
Editor’s note: Luke and Mary’s names were changed for this article.