A little over a year ago now, I started coming out as transgender publicly. Although I wasn’t fully out to my classmates, most people on the University of Nevada, Reno ultimate teams that I played with knew that I was trans, and that I planned to play with the women’s team in spring. I was excited to finally play on a women’s team, but I wasn’t sure what rules USA Ultimate (USAU) had for transgender athletes.
I wanted to make sure I knew and understood whatever those rules were, so I reached out to USAU for direction. A member of the USAU staff got back to me fairly quickly, and steered me to USAU’s transgender policy document, which was last updated in July 2016. They also noted that the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF) had just, within days of this conversation, updated their policy.
Due in large part to the recent changes in WFDF’s policy, the staff member indicated that the USAU Diversity and Equity Working Group would likely be discussing potential updates and revisions to their policy within a few weeks of our exchange. While having no additional guidance at that moment outside of their current rules, they assured me that they would get back to me after the holidays and keep me in mind as a resource for their discussions going forward.
With my questions momentarily answered, and with pledges made that further discussions were going to be had, I wished them a happy holidays and looked forward to hearing from them later about the progress they were making. That was the last significant, clear update I heard from USAU.
Ultimate Canada Transgender Policy Update
As I waited through the year for any word from USAU, I kept an eye out for changes to ultimate transgender policy from other organizations. To my surprise and delight, there were multiple advances related to trans policies, the most consequential of which came from Ultimate Canada, the Canadian counterpart to USAU, in November.
The policy, which you can find here, is a remarkable document. Thorough and detailed, yet concise and precise enough to fit on a mere two pages, it sets a strong precedent that other organizations could reasonably follow. It bases itself in four main guiding statements from the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), paraphrased below:
- Athletes should be able to participate in the gender with which they identify, and not be subject to requirements for disclosure of personal information beyond those required of cisgender athletes.
- Hormone therapy should not be required for athletes to participate in the gender category that is consistent with their gender identity, unless the sport organization can prove that hormone therapy is a reasonable requirement.
- Individuals should not be required to disclose their transgender identity or history to the sport organization in order to participate unless there is a justified reason requiring them to do so.
- Surgical intervention should not be required for an individual to participate in the gender category that is consistent with their gender identity.
While some of these are echoed in the USAU policy such as points 1 and 4, point 2 is not, and point 3 is entirely absent and unaddressed in the current iteration. One of the strengths of the Ultimate Canada policy is its coherent handling of these complex issues while allowing for potential updates as new information becomes available. It incorporates multiple actionable pledges that seek to make further progress in the inclusion of trans athletes, aiming to also involve trans players in any updates or modifications to their policy.
The key point of the Ultimate Canada policy, though, is that they follow the expert opinions of the CCES and no longer require hormone therapy to be eligible to compete. This, in tandem with eliminating additional disclosures, puts transgender athletes on near-equal footing with cisgender athletes, and affirms that trans players are no different than their cisgender counterparts in regards to athletic ability and eligibility.
Though no policy is perfect, Ultimate Canada’s new policy goes a long way towards normalizing trans athletes’ participation in ultimate. Eliminating hormonal restrictions and disclosure requirements are major steps forward, and steps USAU should consider taking when they update their trans policy.
The Vancouver Ultimate League’s Inclusive Registration Policies
Moving to relatively smaller-scale developments, in July the Vancouver Ultimate League (VUL) released a set of changes to their registration process to make it more inclusive of transgender players. In addition to aiming to be more broadly inclusive, their primary updates focused on the gender identification and gender matching registration options.
The gender identification field now includes “Another Gender” and “Prefer Not To Say” alongside the standard Man and Woman choices, making an effort to move away from the traditional binary perspective. The gender matching field, which is new for the VUL, allows players to dictate what gender they would prefer to match up against, although this remains within the binary of the current system as there are only two options: Men and Women.
On whole, the VUL’s new policies set a great example of how local leagues can fairly easily be more inclusive of trans athletes. Minor adjustments to registration choices and other intentional efforts for inclusivity make for a more welcoming and open environment for all people, something I think most ultimate players would embrace.
Other Potential Policy Changes
Although Ultimate Canada’s new transgender policy and the VUL’s new registration policies are important advances in the inclusion of trans players in ultimate, there is of course more we can do to be more inclusive of trans and non-binary individuals. Potential changes to gender ratios in mixed and college eligibility could be two of these next steps.
In mixed ultimate, gender ratios have traditionally been 4:3 men/women or women/men for standard 7v7 play, with variations depending on the type of ultimate and the availability of players. Unfortunately, this system ignores and excludes genderqueer and non-binary individuals who don’t identify as men or women.
One of my suggestions for addressing this issue is adopting a 3-3-1 gender ratio, with 3 men, 3 women, and 1 non-gender-designated spot. This wouldn’t be too drastic of a shift from the current format, but would be more inclusive to non-binary, genderqueer, and trans players. It would also allow for more flexibility and creativity in matchups if one spot on the field was not limited to strict gender matching.
In 6v6 leagues, the best adaptation of the 3-3-1 would probably be a 2-2-2 format, keeping a balance within the binary while still being inclusive of genderqueer and non-binary people. The 3-3-1 system and similar changes would obviously need further refinement and testing before being widely used, but I think they offer a relatively straightforward switch that can easily and quickly make ultimate more accessible to genderqueer and non-binary players.
Another potential change is tied to USAU’s current transgender policy, specifically the requirement that trans women complete a year on testosterone blockers before being eligible to play women’s or count as a woman in mixed. Although this effectively year-long ineligibility doesn’t significantly affect club competition opportunities, it does considerably impact college competition opportunities due to the restricted nature of college eligibility.
Through this rule, USAU takes away at least 20% of a college trans woman’s eligibility with no ability to make up for that time. Therefore I would recommend that, if USAU keeps its current policy, they restore that eligibility to trans women if a reasonable case can be made for it. This would help, but not fully, make up for the injustice that is taking away a healthy woman’s eligibility due simply to her gender identity.
These are only two of many small, but meaningful, changes that ultimate could make to be more inclusive of trans and non-binary people, and address previous injustices. Even though some would need further development, others could be readily incorporated into the next update that USAU makes to its transgender policy.
Reflections on the Year
While I was excited and encouraged by the new policies of Ultimate Canada and the VUL, I was also rather frustrated and annoyed that USAU did not make any changes to their policy. Despite assurances that they would update it, and in light of the rapidly shifting environment of trans inclusion in ultimate, it was unfortunately surprising that no progress was seemingly made.
Particularly galling has been the total lack of information and transparency around USAU’s process and discussions. I, multiple times and through multiple channels, have offered my input to their decision-making but have heard nothing except platitudes that “discussion is ongoing.” If one of the main advocates for trans inclusion in ultimate hasn’t heard anything about USAU’s trans inclusion discussions throughout the whole year, it makes me wonder if this discussion is even happening or if USAU is taking the stance of putting it off until the problem goes away.
The reality though, is that this issue of trans inclusion in ultimate is not going away. More trans ultimate players will come out, and USAU will have to continue to manage that with their limited, insufficient, and behind-the-times policy. It’s true that trans, genderqueer, and non-binary people make up only a very small portion of the ultimate playing populace, but that doesn’t mean that we should be discounted or excluded from these conversations, or from the sport we all love so much.
In a bigger picture, ultimate has a real chance to be a pioneer in sports on the issues of trans athletes and USAU should not waste that opportunity. They now have the great examples of Ultimate Canada and the VUL to follow, so this next year is as good as any to start legitimately and transparently working towards those precedents.
Looking Forward to the Future
In the next year, I am hopeful that USAU will make trans inclusivity a priority, and implement a similar policy to that of Ultimate Canada’s. I’d also like to think that city leagues will use the example of the VUL’s inclusive policies as a springboard to develop their own inclusive policies, and help foster a welcoming, inclusive environment in all areas of ultimate. And although they may not be achievable this year, I think concepts such as the 3-3-1 gender ratio and restoring college eligibility to trans women should be carefully considered for future policy updates.
What I’m really hopeful for in the future, though, is a continuation of the increased awareness, discussion, and support of trans players that I’ve seen in the last year. Between trans topics being brought up during the USAU Vision Tour, numerous chats I’ve personally had throughout the year, and the previously mentioned Canadian policy changes, it’s been quite the year, and I’m optimistic that this year was just the start.
I’d like to close with just a quick personal note of thanks. Thanks to everyone who’s supported me, listened to me, and been there for me throughout this whirlwind of a year. Just a year ago I was trying to find my way as a trans woman in ultimate, and couldn’t have imagined all the amazing conversations and experiences that I’d have this year. So thank you all, and I hope that you’ll continue working with me this next year to make ultimate even more welcoming and inclusive.