Fair or Unfair? Considering Trans People's Place in Ultimate

By Jenna Weiner, August 14, 2017

Sports, much like society at large, operate in a gender binary manner. There are separate divisions for men and women, separate locker rooms, and even entirely separate sports with the examples of baseball and softball. Ultimate changes this up somewhat with their mixed divisions, but at the college level there are still only men’s and women’s teams. This is not an issue for the majority of people, but presents an issue for trans and/or non-binary people, who are unsure where they fit in with this largely gender binary system.

At its core, this problem stems from trans people challenging the gender binary in sports, that men and women are fundamentally different physiologically and so should be separated in competition. This gender binary exists in large part because it fits into the broader binary that is embedded in society, and because it allows for “fair” competition. But what exactly do we mean when we say something is fair or unfair in sports, and then what does that look like when considering trans people in sports, and more specifically ultimate?

What is Fair? 
In sports, “fair” is generally understood as the competition being possible to win by all competitors with no advantages given to any specific group. Rules of the games help guide what is fair, and in simple contrast unfair, and often give boundaries as to what is allowable. Part of this fairness also comes from divisions in competition, limiting what may be considered unfair advantages one group may have over another. This is most often seen in the separation of men’s and women’s divisions, as it is often assumed that men competing against women would be unfair against women and for men, with men’s higher testosterone levels and corresponding muscle mass, speed, and strength.

Trans People and Fairness
Trans people though, do not fit neatly into these divisions and the differences between men and women. Through transition we shift our dominant sex hormones and take on the physical characteristics of our innate gender identities, changes that cause us to often go between and blur the line between men’s and women’s physicalities, presenting a challenge to the ingrained gender binary. These in-between situations then lead to questions around fairness being asked, since the gender binary has no good way to deal with people that do not fit into the norms. So then how do we understand and deal with the issue of fairness with trans people in sports and why does it matter in the first place?

The primary issues with trans people in sports center around trans women because most went through male puberty and have the related growth and muscle mass that cisgender women do not have. This is perceived as potentially giving them an unfair advantage because of the understanding from the gender binary that men have unfair athletic advantages over women. However, through hormone therapy (HRT) and the associated changes, this potential unfairness goes away over time and trans women become as fair competitors as any of their cisgender competition. Many sports associations, including USAU and WFDF, generally understand this and so allow for trans women to compete fairly after a year on HRT.

While this allowance is progress from not allowing trans people to compete at all, it ignores the potential unfairness even among cisgender competition. There is a wide variety of athletic abilities and builds among people, and matchups within gender divisions may be as unfair as those between men and women depending on the situation. Given this, why then is it necessitated that trans women be on HRT for a year before they can play as women, when cisgender matchups may be as or more unfair? What are we trying to accomplish when we require HRT to make things “fair,” and how does this play out in ultimate?

One Intention of Fairness
One probable intention of this attempt at fairness in regards to trans people is ensuring that they play at about the same level pre- and post-transition. For example, if they started as a rec-level player as a man, they shouldn’t then be able to walk onto an elite-level women’s team after transitioning. While HRT does reduce strength and muscle mass in trans women and makes a hypothetical case like this near impossible, the reality is that trans people may not continue to play at the same level due to different factors, with an eye on how this may play out in ultimate.

The first is simply the time of transitioning, with a year of HRT required for trans women as noted before. In a year or so as someone transitions, they will likely become a better ultimate player, which may be enough to vault them up a level.

A second is that HRT, although highly effective, will not change everything about a person that makes them a good ultimate player, and those residuals may be enough to move up a level post-transition. For example, a fast player, while losing some of their acceleration and strength, may retain some of that speed. This might give them more of an advantage in women’s than in men’s because men generally have a faster average speed.

 A final factor that is more specific to ultimate than other sports is that there are more men than women in ultimate. That means that there is more competition for spots, particularly on mixed teams, so a trans woman who may not have made a team pre-transition due to an excess of men may make that same team post-transition merely because the team was short on women. This is of course less of an issue when it comes to playing in separate gender divisions.

Why Does It Matter? 
Yet, broadening it out a bit more, what do we actually care about? Why are people concerned about trans people, again particularly trans women, being unfair against their cisgender competition? The reality may be that trans policies aim for trans people to be average or at best a little above average. Anything more and people feel that it is unfair and trans women are simply taking advantage of the fact that they were born as men, despite zero evidence to that claim. But what do we mean by average or above-average? There is such variety as I’ve noted that it’s unclear what level would be appropriate, other than it can’t be game-breaking. So then, does it really matter? And if it does matter, why does it matter?

In the end, it matters because fairness matters in sports, particularly in a sport like ultimate where the spirit of the game and fair play is written into the rules. Problems arise, though, when considering the gender binary, the concepts of fair or unfair that stem from that, and the challenges that trans and non-binary people present to it. To make progress and address these problems then, we as a sport must consider the place of trans people in ultimate and how to best be inclusive while still being fair.