“Ultimate frisbee” was invented at a New Jersey high school in 1967 by Joel Silver, Jared Kass, Jonny Hines, and Buzzy Hellring. Today, it’s known simply as “Ultimate,” and is played by millions of people in over 40 countries around the world, including over 5 million players in the United States alone.
Ultimate is typically played 7 versus 7, on a 120×40-yard grass field, with a regulation 175 gram plastic disc. Players score points by completing a pass caught in the endzone, while an incomplete pass results in a turnover and an immediate change of possession. Combining aspects of American football, soccer, basketball, and handball, Ultimate is a fast-paced, high-intensity game. Most physical contact between players is illegal, but Ultimate rewards exciting athletic plays like huge throws, quick running “cuts,” and “layout” dives.
All Ultimate players compete according to an ethical code of sportsmanship known as “Spirit of the Game.” According to USA Ultimate’s guidelines,
“Ultimate has traditionally relied upon a spirit of sportsmanship which places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of the bond of mutual respect between players, adherence to the agreed upon rules of the game, or the basic joy of play. Protection of these vital elements serves to eliminate adverse conduct from the ultimate field. Such actions as taunting of opposing players, dangerous aggression, intentional fouling, or other ‘win-at-all-costs’ behavior are contrary to the spirit of the game and must be avoided by all players.”
According to SOTG, most Ultimate games are self-refereed – at pickup games and championship finals alike, players make calls and resolve disputes among themselves. Some high-level games are officiated by “observers” with the power to make a limited number of calls and to advise players about the rules, while the two new North American professional leagues, the American Ultimate Disc League and Major League Ultimate, made the controversial decision to employ traditional referees. But at every level, players tend to embrace a culture of rigorous sportsmanship and respect for their teammates and opponents.
In North America, most players are first introduced to Ultimate in college, but an increasing number of high school and middle school programs are popping up everywhere. Cities like Seattle, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Boston boast summer leagues with thousands of participants, and every year, thousands of weekend warriors travel from all over the world to play at massive tournaments like Potlatch in Washington State, Kaimana in Oahu, or Lei-Out in Santa Monica. Under the jurisdiction of governing bodies such as USA Ultimate, Ultimate Canada, and the World Flying Disc Federation, hundreds of college and club teams compete every year in Regional, National, and international championships, in Open, Women’s, and Mixed divisions.
Even during Ultimate’s rapid rise to prominence, it’s still, according to an often-repeated joke, “the most popular sport no one’s ever heard of.” But recently, we’ve definitely been enjoying more media exposure – Ultimate may not be mainstream yet, but it’s increasingly mainstream-adjacent. Plays from the 2014 College Championships and the two pro leagues occasionally find their way onto the SportsCenter Top 10. Brody Smith’s trick shot videos get hundreds of thousands of views on Youtube, Ultimate apparel companies like Five Ultimate are holding their own, the AUDL and MLU are nurturing a growing fanbase, and more and more of our top players are truly world-class athletes. But even amid its exploding popularity, Ultimate maintains its own unique and insular culture. While the sport and its top athletes get more competitive, more athletic, and more accepted into mainstream sports culture, there’s a still a significant undercurrent of weirdness to the game that’s probably not going away anytime soon.
Linda, a trans woman who recently retired from the sport, explains:
“Your average Ultimate player is weird. Some of them are really weird. At tournaments like Potlatch and Lei-Out it’s like a constant, zany party happening between points.”
Mike, a self-described “rec player” from Vancouver, agrees.
“There’s a sense of humor everyone has about it. You play hard, but you laugh with your teammates and cheer the other team no matter what. Even at serious tournaments people dress in stupid costumes and bring jello shots to keep things light… You get addicted really quick. There’s a reason they call it ‘Cultimate.’ Even at your first few times playing, everyone around you is having a great time, and encouraging you to come back. You kind of get sucked in and there’s no going back.”
And the Ultimate community is as tight-knit as it is insular. According to Mina, who has won national championships and competed for Team USA,
“There’s also this unique assumption that if you play Ultimate, you must be a good person. Meaning, I could go literally anywhere in the country and find a couch to crash on through the community. Even if it’s a friend of a friend of a friend, twice removed, I could walk into their house and feel welcome and safe. That’s a lot of trust.”
There’s a major debate in the sport right now about whether Ultimate’s eventual mainstream success is going to come at the price of its unique and quirky culture. But for the time being, Ultimate’s hippie and yuppie origins continue to characterize that culture. While the sport is becoming more diverse as it gets more popular, the average Ultimate player is white-collar, college-educated, and politically liberal, and for better and for worse, our culture tends to reflect that player’s values.
To research this article, I put out an open call for interviews with LGBTQIA-identified Ultimate players. (Please note that I have changed some names and identifying details to protect their privacy.) Pretty much unanimously, they concluded that Ultimate is relatively a very easy place to be openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
For Bacon, a player from Los Angeles, the acceptance she found in the Ultimate community helped affirm her decision to come out.
“Coincidentally, I started playing Ultimate at about the exact same time I was first ‘out.’ Not to get all sappy, but it was a beautiful gift in my life to have Ultimate while I was dealing with all of the emotional struggle of being newly ‘out.’ … It’s such a non-issue for everyone in the community that it’s hard to pinpoint anyone who’s been exceptionally positive, because everyone is. The only other thing I could say that really affirmed to me how accepting the Ultimate community is was when marriage equality happened in California. My Facebook newsfeed was just flooded with support from so many people in the Ultimate community. It’s really reaffirming to see that in bulk, especially from so many straight players. I just hope new queer players can feel as welcome as I felt when I started playing. Ultimate is the first sport I ever played where I could truly be myself and that’s just one of the many reasons it’s so special to me.
Jenn, a bisexual woman from Southern California, was nervous about telling her college team about her girlfriend, but was pleasantly surprised by their reaction.
“It seemed like at the time I was the only LGBT-identified person on the team. But as I progressed with my career, gay issues seemed to become more of an accepted and mainstream issue. In my second year, I started dating my current girlfriend and brought her into the sport to play on my team. The whole relationship was new and scary for both of us. We kept it officially hidden that we were together for a long time. My main issue for keeping our relationship ‘in the closet’ was because I didn’t want to upset anyone else. Being on an all-women’s team, I was worried about tournament sleeping conditions, like when they crammed thirty people onto a tiny floor space. I didn’t want to make people uncomfortable at all. I didn’t know how people would react to having to share a sleeping space with two women who are dating. Slowly but surely, we started to come out to people one friend at time. Each and every ‘surprise we are officially dating’ conversation went better than I could have ever imagined. Most responses went from ‘Duh, I already knew’ to ‘I am so happy for you guys.’ We never had any sort of negative reaction from anyone in the Ultimate community. If I were to join a new team, I know that I could introduce her as my girlfriend no problem and no one would blink an eye.”
Mina had a similar experience:
“For me, the frisbee community is the reason I was able to come out and be open about myself. I came from a conservative area growing up where there weren’t really LGBTQIA role models. … Having been surrounded by frisbee players who are so completely nonchalant and open to LGBTQIA people, it was surprisingly easy to tell them the first time I started dating a girl. What was this huge, shocking deal to me, to them was barely shrug-worthy. It also helped that some of the people I most looked up to, my mentors, my club captains, the people that took the young little college kid under their wings, were gay. It’s not often in this world you have such influential, open, accessible people everywhere you look.”
And Alan, a trans man who has competed at the national level, credits Ultimate with saving his life.
“When I started playing I was severely depressed, self-harming and suicidal, mostly due to dysphoria. I started playing in an attempt to get out of the house and distract myself, and I fell in love with our beautiful game. I haven’t self-harmed since the week before I started playing frisbee. I came out to the leadership team and they were just so supportive and loving and caring. … The support they gave me blew me away. In the six weeks before Nationals, I was struggling with dysphoria, relationship issues and injury issues, and my teammates really helped pull me through. They had my back.”
As Ultimate players, we’re pretty immersed in our own culture, so it’s easy to forget how rare a community like that is in other sports. Several players I interviewed were lifelong athletes, playing other sports since childhood, but not picking up Ultimate until college or even later. And they told me about how they felt unwelcome or chose to remain closeted in those athletic environments.
Tracy is a highly-decorated athlete from Canada. For twenty years, she has represented her province and her country in several sports, but she still struggles to reconcile her identity with the culture of some of the teams she played for.
“Growing up I played a lot of soccer, and I also played softball right through my twenties. It was weird because in a lot of sports there were lots of women who were clearly gay, including the coaches sometimes, but no one ever talked about it. Part of it was you wouldn’t have been welcome, but part of it was I think we didn’t want to be a stereotype, the big lesbian jock, you know? It was messed up. … But I’ve been playing Ultimate recently and it seems like it’s an easier place to be who you are. People don’t seem to have the same uptightness about gender or sexuality that they do in other sports.”
Seth Harrington is the founder and president of Big Gay Frisbee [link: BGFultimate.com ] . Based in Los Angeles, the organization organizes pickup games, leagues, tournaments, and other social events for LGBT players. According to Seth, BGF is a place where people who feel excluded from traditional sports can compete as part of a team.
“I have a bunch of friends and they’re all gay and a lot of them weren’t very sporty growing up. They didn’t do a lot of team sports. But Ultimate is not very intimidating. It doesn’t have that macho or paternalistic culture that’s associated with other sports. So I started organizing these frisbee games to give my friends and I an opportunity to play team sports. I definitely experienced [exclusion] myself. I lived in Texas in middle school, and then I lived in upstate New York, and when I was growing up we’d experience this sort of thing where the guy players would bond by dismissing weak players as faggy or gay, and that definitely put me off from playing soccer. I did play sports like track and cross country, but that was always in my mind. So when I started BGF it was as much for me as for anyone else. I think for most of my players, it’s been a very positive experience. They’ve had an opportunity where maybe growing up they’ve felt intimidated or not included by sports, and now they feel included.”
While everyone I interviewed agreed that Ultimate provided a uniquely open and inclusive environment for them, several players expressed moderate concerns that Ultimate’s rapidly growing popularity is on a collision course with its LGBTQIA-friendly culture.
Jamie Nuwer is one of Ultimate’s most celebrated amateur athletes, with a playing and coaching resumé a mile long. She also chairs the USAU and WFDF medical committees and writes about sports medicine on the blog Injury Timeout. According to Nuwer, protecting Ultimate’s unique culture and community is something that will require conscious effort.
“Where Ultimate can really help LGBT people is by continuing to have this spirit of inclusiveness as the sport becomes more mainstream. One of my concerns is that as the sport gets more mainstream, you’ll get all these people playing, and it’ll become just like any other sport. I work in sports medicine and most other sports are completely homophobic. So it’s important to me that as the sport gets more popular we continue to have the inclusive community we have now. It’s not happening yet, but I have a concern that it will happen, as the governing bodies continue to bring in people who aren’t from the Ultimate community, and those are the people who are going to get Ultimate out there. As we bring more and more people in who have only played traditional sports, that’s something that could very easily be lost. Members of the Ultimate community should work hard to teach our new leaders about the values of Ultimate. For example, I think Tom Crawford [the CEO of USAU] has done a really great job learning and understanding the values of Ultimate.”
Controversially, USA Ultimate made the decision not to support either pro league because of their use of referees and their lack of investment in women’s Ultimate. But in many ways, the front lines of the collision between the old-school Ultimate community and mainstream sports culture is going to be the MLU and the AUDL.
In 2013, Elliot Trotter, a player for the MLU’s Seattle Rainmakers and blogger for Skyd Magazine, came out publicly via an article on Outsports. In the history of American professional sports, he was only the fourth active male athlete to do so, but his announcement received almost no attention outside of the Ultimate community. Compared to the media frenzy around Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins, and Michael Sam, by Trotter’s own admission, his coming out was a relative non-event.
“Alternative sports and women’s sports, being smaller communities, are often able to not only be more quick to progressive attitudes, but also don’t garner the same attention. In some respects I think that’s the shake that Ultimate gets. I’m sure Ultimate, gay athletes, and I would all benefit from more press, but that’s not really my goal. My goal is to play a sport that I enjoy, and inspire as many people as I can in the process. I’ll be excited to see when the world uncovers just how awesome Ultimate is.”
“I would say reactions have been positive or neutral. We have a pretty accepting culture. The positive reactions range from curiosity about my relationship to high fives to extended ‘thank yous’ that last way past my attention span. [Ultimate] attracts a certain kind of person. It’s hard to pick a fight when nobody wants to fight you. I think the hippie thing is on its way out… [but] I love how accepting the Ultimate community is. I can be who I want to be.”
Kittredge isn’t alone in his belief that high-level and high-profile Ultimate is compatible with a culture of acceptance. Judy Jarvis is an elite club player and former Team USA member who is also the Director of the LGBTQ Center and Women’s Center at Vassar College. She argues that the values of respect and acceptance are so entrenched in college Ultimate that they tend to permeate the highest levels of the sport.
“I think it’s absolutely possible for an Ultimate team to be top-notch, ultra-competitive, and still very queer-positive. I can attest to it from experience. … Many people start playing Ultimate because they are drawn to the open and accepting community, and then they perpetuate the same kind of sports culture that they came seeking. It’s been such a welcome surprise to find that even the hard-core competitive teams I’ve played on still managed to keep alive that sense of nurturing, queer-positive community. ”
And despite her concerns about the costs of Ultimate’s growth into the mainstream, Jamie Nuwer comes to similar conclusions about how the values of SOTG tend to positively impact governing bodies from the ground up.
“I would say that in the frisbee community I’ve never heard of a single piece of bigotry, ever. Which is really, really cool. And if I had, it would really upset me. And I think that because the community creates a policy of inclusion, USAU makes that a written policy. … The things that make the sport special, such as sportsmanship, also embody respect for each other. The players create this environment of inclusivity and USA Ultimate makes that environment into policy.”
The majority of the Ultimate players I interviewed felt there was a connection between SOTG and Ultimate’s LGBTQIA-friendly culture. But they had other explanations, too – several players, like Linda, thought that Ultimate’s quirky sensibilities also had a lot to do with it.
“Ultimate players are weird. They’re quirky. There’s already some gender nonconformity there. You look around your team or your tournament and there are guys wearing skirts, guys wearing pink, girls who play with the boys, and the boys all accept them. I wasn’t out at the time, but I felt like being trans was just another kind of weirdness. I wasn’t afraid what would happen if they found out.”
And Judy Jarvis has a theory that our inclusive culture also has roots in the student leadership of college programs:
“Ultimate is not a varsity sport in college. This means that the team can decide to tip the focus of practice and tournaments towards community building, having fun, building confidence, and learning about each other, instead of always hard-driving to win. Vassar [Jarvis’ college team] never had a coach, and I think a completely peer led team meant the captains and other leaders could decide its culture. And if there were any LGBTQ leaders, we could feel comfortable being ourselves and modeling confidence – we didn’t have to do anything to win the ‘approval’ of a coach. I think the fact that many people start playing in a college or university setting contributes to that kind of queer-positive vibe continuing on women’s teams at the club level.”
Additionally, several of the players I interviewed pointed out that because men and women so frequently play Ultimate together, male players tend to develop greater respect for their female peers, and that this culture of respect tends to positively impact their attitudes towards LGBTQIA teammates. Ultimate’s historical and contemporary regulations emphasize the participation of – if not explicitly *all* genders – both men and women. Club, national, and international championships all feature a “Mixed” division. And the “Open” division, which is usually played almost exclusively by men, is called “Open” because it was traditionally open to everyone, both before and after there was a separate Women’s division – and it is still open to anyone, regardless of gender, today. Pickup games around the world are typically mixed as well. As Seth Harrington puts it,
“I think Ultimate provides a comfortable home for LGBTQIA athletes in part because Ultimate has always been a co-ed sport. There’s always been a general level of acceptance, because you’ve always had men and women playing together, so it’s kind of just one extra step to have gay and straight athletes playing together.”
I started this project anticipating that our community was welcoming to LGBTQIA players, and the people I interviewed were even more positive about it than I expected. But of course that’s not to say that our community is perfect, or that Ultimate is always a safe or welcoming place. Kate, who attends weekly pickup games near her home, says that some of the men she plays with are sometimes rude or insensitive about her sexuality.
“When you play Ultimate, you’re surrounded by the kind of straight people who are most likely to be cool about it. They’re young, liberal, urban types. But even those type of people can make mistakes or disappoint you.”
Too often, LGBTQIA players are still subject to the same microaggressions, slurs, and fetishization they experience outside the Ultimate community. The players I talked to who described these instances wanted me to emphasize that they tended to be careless statements from well-meaning but clueless teammates, as opposed to overt bullying or exclusion, and that they were a rare exception. They encouraged other LGBTQIA people experiencing discrimination to find another team or pickup game that made them feel more welcome.
And as with other communities and institutions, transgender and intersex people experience unique challenges and discrimination in Ultimate, even compared to cisgender lesbian, gay, and bisexual athletes. In almost every sport, the participation of transgender and intersex athletes remains extremely controversial, and media coverage and popular discussion of the issue tends to disintegrate instantly into misinformation and overt bigotry.
Ultimate’s “Open” division is open to people of any gender, but the Mixed and Women’s divisions can be difficult to navigate for intersex and transgender athletes. Moreover, the people playing with or against them often lack the tact and awareness to be good teammates and competitors.
In the Mixed division, teams must field specific ratios of men and women for each point; typically, before the point, each player on the team starting on defense chooses someone of the same gender on the other team to defend. I’ve personally witnessed deeply disrespectful statements and behavior occur when the defensive team can’t or simply won’t properly identify the gender of their opponents. And while coaching, I’ve had to ask my own players to refrain from using transphobic language to describe players on the other team.
Basically, like all other sports that create divisions based on sex and gender, Ultimate has to do a better job at creating and implementing rules that accommodate transgender and intersex athletes without intimidating or subjecting them to undue scrutiny. Currently, USA Ultimate’s Policy on Transgender Athletes is modelled after the NCAA rules, while most other national governing bodies and the WFDF have adopted the same rules as the International Olympic Committee. In general, transgender women can compete in the Women’s division after one year of hormone replacement therapy. Anecdotal evidence suggests that USA Ultimate handles the issue discretely and fairly on a case-by-case basis – they require only a doctor’s note documenting the athlete’s HRT. But these policies still require individual athletes around the world to negotiate with specific Ultimate teams, governing bodies, and tournament directors. And sometimes, the problem is not that there is a bad policy, but that there is no policy – at this time, Ultimate Canada does not currently have a policy on transgender and intersex athletes, but Executive Director Danny Saunders assured me that they will have one soon:
“We are scheduled to re-examine our policies this fall and I’ll add the topic of trans*, transgender, or intersex athletes to our policy agenda so that we can be proactive in developing a policy [consistent with our] Equity and Access policy, which has a goal of ‘… developing and providing opportunities for all individuals in the sport of Ultimate to reach his or her maximum potential in fitness and excellence.’ ”
We need to keep actively working to create a community that is welcoming to trans and intersex people, and while we’re doing that work, I figure that Ultimate has a few advantages where other sports don’t. We have the uniquely inclusive culture that I’ve been talking about throughout this article – fortunately, the best, coolest sport in the world is also a relatively new sport, so we can avoid antiquated traditions and regulations that don’t serve us, even as Ultimate gets more mainstream.
But above all, our advantage and our guide should be the Spirit of the Game. To play Ultimate, you have to agree to the basic principle that sportsmanship is more important than winning. Unlike other sports, we assume that when people commit infractions such as fouls and picks, they’re doing it by accident, not because they’re attempting to cheat. For SOTG to work – and it typically and emphatically does work, in pickup games and in championship matches alike – you have to not only respect your opponent but trust her, trust that she respects the system as much as you do, trust that she’s making the call as she sees it. Claims that trans women participate in women’s sports to gain an unfair advantage are generally pretty ludicrous, but in Ultimate, they’re even more ludicrous. According to SOTG, it’s simply unacceptable for us not to trust intersex and transgender athletes to decide on the division and defensive matchups that most accurately reflect their bodies, abilities, and identities.
In concluding this project, I’m optimistic that the Ultimate community can survive its growth into mainstream sports culture with its unique values intact, and that this growth gives our sport an important opportunity to positively influence that culture. The WFDF was recently recognized by the IOC – we may not be Olympians yet, but we’re earning our place in the spotlight. Our growing prominence gives us the opportunity to remind the world what athleticism and sportsmanship really look like. But that means we have to speak clearly and deliberately about who we are.
And that’s important on an individual as well as community level. Elliot Trotter says that’s what drove his decision to come out publicly.
“I shared my orientation because I know that it had the potential to inspire others to feel more comfortable with being themselves within sports. I thought about how growing up there was never a gay athlete that was open about who he was, out there opening doors so others could feel that they too could be themselves and participate in sports. So being actively communicative about who I am seemed like the right thing to do.”
Almost all of the people I interviewed backed up Trotter’s conviction – they all wanted me to emphasize how crucial having Ultimate mentors and role models had been to them. And Jamie Nuwer sees the issue with even more urgency:
“I think when talking about inclusivity and support, we have to talk about how LGB people are 5 times more likely to kill themselves, and trans people are 20 times more likely to kill themselves. From my perspective, I always try to be an open mentor for other athletes who are struggling with coming out, and I’ve probably mentored a dozen kids on a variety of teams throughout the coming-out process. If other people in the Ultimate community can be out and proud, it’s really a life-changing thing for people around them who are coming out. I’d encourage anyone in the LGBT community to reach out to other players and offer to be a mentor.”
During these interviews, I was struck several times by the dissonance between how differently individual people see their communities. One woman thought there were very few lesbians in Ultimate, while another said they were everywhere. Another person had never met a gay man who played. Another athlete said that she wasn’t sure if she knew any LGBT people who played Ultimate, when I knew for a fact she’d played on a team with several. Some athletes who I know personally told me they’d felt alone at first, or unsure about how people like them fit in. My conversation with Jamie Nuwer made me realize that I personally need to be more outspoken in how I conduct myself as a player and especially as a coach. That’s also why I chose to include so many quotes in this article – because I wanted people to hear the voices of our LGBTQIA Ultimate community. I hope that hearing about Ultimate in our own words will help encourage other people to check out the sport, or to assure people who already play that there’s a community of friends and mentors already out there for them.
I want to extend my deepest thanks to everyone who contacted me and agreed to be interviewed. It was a pleasure speaking with all of you, strangers and friends and new friends, and I look forward to seeing you all on the field someday soon. I’m really proud and honored to be part of our wonderful community. Happy pride month!
How To Get Started
Are you interested in trying out Ultimate? Here are some tips and links to help you along.
If you’re in college or university, see if your school has a team. In Canada and the USA, the fall semester is usually the best time to start playing. Many schools also have intramural leagues.
For everyone else, pickup games are also a great place to learn to play. Check out www.pickupultimate.com to find a game near you.
In the USA, find organizations, leagues, and teams near you through USA Ultimate: www.usaultimate.org/local/
Around the world, find your national governing body through the WFDF: http://www.wfdf.org/members-
If you’re in or around Los Angeles, “like” the Big Gay Frisbee page on Facebook for updates on clinics, games, and other events. At BGF, everyone of all genders, orientations, and skill levels is welcome. www.facebook.com/BigGayFrisbee