The sport of Ultimate has a short history, but a conscious one. It was started by a group of school children in America in the 1970s and has evolved into a sport played worldwide, now holding a presence at the World Games and hosting its own World and Continental Championships.
Its sporting community is known for cultivating open, welcoming environments. Where the sport is most popular, in the US, there are a number of openly gay players in professional leagues, as well as thriving LGBTQ+ leagues, such as Big Gay Frisbee, set up in 2013.
In the first of a two-part series, in attempt to gain greater perspective on life as an athlete in the relatively smaller UK Ultimate scene, where LGBTQ+ leagues are still a hope for the future, I spoke to one of my teammates, Cassie, who happens to be a trans athlete, to discuss her experiences…
So Cassie, when did you start playing Ultimate?
I started playing Ultimate at University, though I had been introduced to throwing and the concept of an Ultimate game beforehand whilst I attended my boarding school (this was pre-transition/coming out in my single sex boarding school). I joined immediately when I realised how much fun it was.
‘I perhaps took it for granted that I had entered a sport which felt so open, casual and friendly!’
Did you think of Ultimate as being an accepting sport before you started playing?
I guess you could say I didn’t consider it too much initially, but it was luck and I perhaps took it for granted that I had entered a sport which felt so open, casual and friendly! Had I joined any other mainstream sports, embedded myself within their grain and then come out, the whole upheaval from switching to women’s training would have been rather distressing, and I loathe to think about how these other sports would have been way more clique/laddy/bitchy/catty. That’s so not me.
What have your experiences been like in the sport? Have you felt supported in the teams you’ve played for and the sport’s governing body (UKU)?
My experiences in sport from the beginning of my transition have been extremely positive on the whole. I often note that Ultimate is the one sport that filters a lot people out, those who aren’t open to taking frisbee seriously, those who are a bit close minded and all that jazz…
‘With my close teammates at university, it was almost if nothing ever changed – if anything my bonds became stronger with the other girls […] the connections and friendships suddenly meant a lot more.’
My own transition between teams in frisbee has been a lot smoother in university due to the fact that you often have everyone playing together. [Switching gender teams in] other sports would have required a lot more mental strength and caused a lot more distress, as you suddenly would have moved over to a team where you didn’t know your new teammates or where you stood in the whole pecking order of things.
A lot of the negativity was overwhelmingly my own prejudices and overbearing fears, gendered notions, changes in my life, a perceived lowering of status or reputation that I know doesn’t exist, but is peddled and ingrained into by society and our accepted heteronormative norms. With my close teammates at university, it was almost if nothing ever changed – if anything my bonds became stronger with the other girls because I had always wanted to talk to them more, but the connections and friendships suddenly meant a lot more. So, my girls supported me and it was a really alarmingly smoother transition from one to the other, for the better.
‘I reckon that a lot of trans people are driven away from sports from societal notions and expectations, and attitudes towards the difficult subject, and so steer clear of unnecessary distress and worry.’
However, at tournaments, you know, in the outside world, I still had involuntary barriers up, I didn’t want to be hurt and so would be hypervigilant for looks, stares and negative responses. This paranoia is not at all healthy or sustainable, and my mental health always took a little dive. I always remember how I felt when changing after a tournament, looking round for a shower, looking for somewhere private because my mind just breaks me with imposter syndrome. I’d often find myself in tears for fear of who I am, where I am and being so overtly different. I didn’t want to feel like I stood out like a sore thumb and so really avoided communal changing room affairs. It would also just fuel my own sense of “I wish I could just be so nonchalant about it like all the others”. So overall these are occupational hazards, if you will, of being transgender.
But on the whole, taking for instance, being offered to trial for Spice Ultimate, I was kind of taken aback that I would be allowed to just like that be accepted into it without so much of a raised eyebrow. I perhaps think the only issues initially were my legitimacy to take part in certain University competitions and found myself needing to delve through UKU papers to find whether I was able to simply participate. Such is the downfall of society, I reckon that a lot of trans people are driven away from sports from societal notions and expectations, and attitudes towards the difficult subject, and so steer clear of unnecessary distress and worry.
Stay tuned for part 2 which discusses the ‘spirit of the game’, and whether Ultimate is doing enough to support the LGBTQ+ community.
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