Discovering and celebrating my trans identity through Ultimate Frisbee

the voice and vision of a new generation
Image credit: Rey Tang

Discovering and celebrating my trans identity through Ultimate Frisbee

April 30, 2020

I love Ultimate Frisbee—a sport invented as part of the counterculture of the ‘70s by a group of students in a parking lot. In high school, I’d spend most of my weekends freezing in the frosty Fall air with my teammates on the sidelines. Flashforward to college, I started playing for the Northwestern Men’s Club Ultimate A-Team. But ever since the fall of my freshman year, I began to question my identity and my place on the gender spectrum. After digging and digging into my soul as to why I always felt so unhappy and uncomfortable, I finally levelled with myself and recognized: “I’m a woman.”

It was a simple truth filled with complicated and life-shattering implications. I’d always think to myself: transitioning is impossible—it’s just too difficult. My head was filled with transphobic notions that I’d never pass, that I’d never be seen as just another woman.

However, I got through those dark moments by clinging on to my dream to participate in athletics as myself. At practice, my eyes would always drift over to the other side of the field to where the other women were practicing. No matter how bleak things seemed to get, I always wanted to be a part of the Women’s Team—for me, this was the most concrete way to re-imagine my gender and life as my true self.

I always felt a deep-rooted nervousness and discomfort whenever I thought about leaving the Men’s Team for the Women’s Team. From the pit of my stomach, I’d notice this intense fear flare up and prickle my body with hot shame. Despite my anxieties, however, the need to live my truth finally allowed me to realize that I was on the wrong side of the field.

With a great amount of anxiety, I first told my coaches in confidence that I was trans, and then to the rest of my team.

I was greeted with overwhelming acceptance. Members from both the men’s and women’s teams messaged me their support. I remember trying on a skirt for the first time, and no one batted an eye. In fact, a few women even approached me, and with a casual ease told me that they loved my look.

In short, I had finally found a home.

Current USA Ultimate—the governing body for College, Club, and Youth Ultimate—guidelines follow those of the NCAA, which state that, for a transgender woman athlete hoping to play in the college women’s division, they must first undergo 12 months of testosterone suppression treatment before becoming eligible.

Over the Summer, I played with a Mixed Club team and was forced to be a male-matching player, meaning that I could only defend male-identifying players on the field since I still wasn’t eligible under the USA Ultimate rules. I was miserable—it wasn’t about the actual match-ups, but rather that I felt my identity was invalidated every time I stepped onto the field. On the other hand, somewhat paradoxically, these complicated feelings then motivated me to work even harder, as I wanted to shed labels and not just be known as “the trans player,” but rather as “that girl who worked her butt off”. However, regardless of how well I did, I still struggled with reconciling my love for the game with being placed in a position that denied me of my true self.

Currently, I am eligible to play at sanctioned tournaments with the Northwestern Women’s Ultimate Team.

I started my medical transition back in February 2019. In the time since, I’ve noticed a few changes. My speed started losing some of its edge. I squat less weight than I used to be able to. At tournament weekends, I find my muscles becoming sore faster than they had before.

However, when it comes to comparing the Men’s and Women’s divisions, I’ve noticed there are really only slight differences in our athletic abilities. Although societal scripts insist there are vast differences in physical ability among genders, I’ve found equal amounts of difficulty facing high-level players of both women’s and men’s divisions.

I also strongly believe that much of the perceived athletic disparity between genders is more social than biological, and I’m not alone in this thinking: many scientists and researchers in the field of sport and gender are debunking similar myths by using scientific and social research.  

For those who think women are not as talented on the field as men, consider this: in each new class of Ultimate Frisbee recruits, it’s likely that fewer female athletes played in high school than male players. Girls’ Ultimate at the Youth level is oftentimes crippled by a lack of overall support - both financial and societal - therefore causing this disparity in numbers. Subsequently, systemic issues like lack of support for Girls’ Youth Ultimate hinders College Women’s Ultimate. This problem is also compounded by the reality that women’s involvement in sports, overall, at every level is still not valued, celebrated, or encouraged nearly at the scale of men’s athletics. 

Every day, I’m so grateful that I get to play College Women’s Ultimate. Although athletics may seem daunting for queer people just starting out on their journeys, I dream of a future where future trans* players can play on, uninhibited.

Rey Tang is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and a junior at Northwestern University double-majoring in Radio-TV-Film and Economics with a minor in Computer Science. She's also the Creative Development Chair for The Multicultural Filmmakers' Collective, and a player for the Northwestern Women's A-Team.

the voice and vision of a new generation