This article is featured in Skyd Magazine’s Winter 2016 Issue, available now on Amazon.
Community. Competition. Friendship. Passion. Joy. This is why I play. I’m (very) competitive, yes. But ultimate hasn’t kept me for this long for that reason. My teammates and the surrounding community keep me coming back, season after season. I feel understood, welcome, and cared about.
There is no better context to talk, joke, goof, and generally “man-out” than on Ironside. Our dialogues span all realms of life–real and imagined–from intellectualism to pro sports to dungeons-and-dragons. Often, our interests in women come up. These discussions also span a wide range: from our wives and girlfriends, to the hottest character in Game of Thrones, to the upcoming tournament party. Before heading to the party, the single guys on the team get a good pep talk about what ladies might be out there for them.
But, take a look at what’s happening here. Heteronormativity: The assumption that heterosexuality is universal and can be applied to all. I wrote “our” interest in women, as if all men are interested in women. When my teammates play the role of “wingman” for other guys, they automatically they set their sights on women.
Lately, I’ve been wondering whether men’s ultimate creates a culture where gay men feel supported. I don’t think so. I have played men’s elite for more than a decade and have never knowingly played with a gay teammate. In the entire scope of my career, from high school to club and all the fun teams in between, I know of three gay men I’ve played with. In each case, I learned of their identity long after the fact. I believe the men’s division does not create a welcoming culture for gay athletes, and that male players have an opportunity to change this. This would potentially offer a deep sense of relief for some players who haven’t shown their true selves in their own community. Additionally, we could offer a model for other sports to follow in this regard. By creating a safe space for potentially gay teammates to reveal their true identities, we could break a heteronormative mold that is pervasive in male athletic culture.
Let’s quickly talk identity. I am white, male, straight, and able-bodied. I was raised in an upper-middle class family. I am very privileged. The word privilege deserves italics because it is a giant concept that deserves many pages of attention. To dilute those into a sentence: my various identities have placed me into the easiest and most advantageous role in society.
Consider my gender privilege. As a man: I don’t feel like my body is being examined when I am in public. I don’t question whether people will judge my abilities based on my gender. I believe in my potential to be powerful, partly because men predominantly hold power in the hierarchies of our society. Not to mention, ESPN has historically aired my division in the primetime slot. And there’s a pro league I can play in if I want.
Moving on to sexuality: American culture is heteronormative–in general, people are presumed to be straight. Other sexual identities aren’t readily recognized or approved by the mainstream.
Now, consider my heterosexuality as privilege. As a straight man, I fulfill the social expectations that attach to gender. Because the assumptions about my sexuality as a man are true, I naturally feel understood and accepted at a basic level. I don’t have to make an effort to explain who I am attracted to–it is assumed by others. I don’t have to question whether my sexuality will be approved by my teammates–I’m considered “normal.” I don’t have to limit my natural self in light of what other people might think or feel. Who I am is accepted without question or explanation.
Even though the ultimate community is a progressive and loving one, we have not broken away from the norms that define male athletes as straight athletes; we have not created a safe space for our teammates to identify as gay athletes.
Why does this matter?
First and foremost, I love my teammates. I want every one of them to feel the acceptance and belonging that I feel on my team. If one of my teammates doesn’t feel comfortable revealing his true self around the rest of us, that is not okay with me.
That’s not the only reason this topic matters, though. In many ways, ultimate players believe our sport to be unlike any other. We take pride in showcasing fair play along with fierce competition. We love the camaraderie within the league, the passionate commitment of players and coaches, and the lifelong connections that are formed. Many of us are deeply proud of the model ultimate provides for society.
But, there are many strides necessary to take to make before we can truly claim ourselves as a 21st century model. Attaining gender equity, dismantling economic barriers, and drawing a diversity of participants are paramount in my opinion. I care very much about these causes. Efforts such as the Girls Ultimate Movement demonstrate the active role players can take to change our sport. I’m writing this article because I see an opportunity to make change on an individual level, on an issue no one else is talking about. Deconstructing a heteronormative culture is an effort that calls for action from individual teammates and individual teams; this action can take place during the practices and tournaments we are already attending.
To do this, we must have an awareness around the messages that we send, and the conversations we are part of. Use language that is inclusive, as opposed to normative.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” can be replaced by “are you dating anyone?”
In group settings, avoid assuming all guys are interested in women. Speak up and call out when heteronormative discussions or themes are present. “Who’s the hottest Game of Thrones character?” can be clarified by “you mean men and women?” Maybe that feels like an awkward statement to make among a group of men–that’s exactly the point. Existing as a straight man in a heteronormative community means we automatically feel comfortable with the status quo. Imagine if you weren’t straight. Now, every one of these status quo conversations puts you in an awkward place.
Breaking away from a heteronormative sports culture doesn’t require institutional or organizational change, and shouldn’t fall on individual players who don’t yet feel safe enough to fully reveal their true self. It should fall on those of us who are lucky enough to fall into the privileged group that actually identifies the way our culture tells us we “should.”
Men’s players should check their assumptions, words and actions when it comes to the identity and sexuality of their teammates. We should have sensitivity towards what another’s experience might be during a heteronormative conversation, or when they feel underlying heterosexual assumptions on their team. If men can make these spaces more inclusive and safer for other men who aren’t inherently included or safe in our society, we will truly be building a model sport to be proud of, and for mens athletics around the world to follow.
I care deeply about my teammates–they are much more than fellow comrades competing on the field. They are people I trust, and people I can reveal my true self to. I want to know that every one of my teammates feels the same way–that they can be their true self around me, without fearing judgement. By speaking up on this topic, I hope to move towards that reality.