In June, several athletic governing bodies—including Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which oversees international cycling competitions, and the International Swimming Federation—tightened restrictions on transgender athletes, saying such policies will create a more fair and level playing field. Other sports have since followed suit.
Meanwhile, two quirky but fiercely competitive sports—quadball and Ultimate—are taking a different approach: radical inclusion.
Quadball (formerly and still best known as Quidditch) is a contact sport that was created on college campuses in the mid-2000s as a Muggle version of the fictional field game played on flying broomsticks in the Harry Potter series. Ultimate (formerly known as Ultimate Frisbee) is a team sport that involves throwing a flying disc down a field to score points in an end zone. Both sports’ governing bodies are implementing rules designed to allow as many and as varied competitors as possible. They argue that equal access to their leagues is more important than equal levels of challenge for every competitor, and that “fairness” should begin by centering the most marginalized athletes on the field. “Why not start with inclusion, with trying to bring as many people as we can into the great thing we call sport and all that it offers people?” says Jenna Weiner, the first out trans woman Ultimate player, who consulted on policies for U.S. Ultimate.
Most mainstream sports regulate the bodies and biology of trans participants with policies that require transfeminine people to be on hormone-replacement therapy or forbid such treatment for transmasculine athletes, or they require trans athletes to monitor their hormone levels, noting that testosterone can be used as a performance-enhancing substance. (There are some exceptions to this, but these are the norm.) More extreme policies require genital exams or chromosomal verification. These rules exclude people who can’t access, or don’t want, certain aspects of medical transition, like hormone therapy and surgeries, which take money and time. Even policies that only require legal documentation matching the athlete’s lived gender can pose a barrier: the processes to change names and change gender markers (the M, F, or X on a license or other legal document) can be long and convoluted, and most states don’t even have legal gender markers for nonbinary people.
U.S. Quadball and USA Ultimate, the sports’ national governing bodies, decided not to go down that road. According to multiple sources within both organizations, they instead asked what barriers to entry might exist for trans people to participate in their sports, and how policies might create—or alleviate—those barriers. In response, U.S. Quadball and USA Ultimate implemented rules that allow athletes to self-identify their gender, no questions asked, and that explicitly include nonbinary people. “We understand that the process of transition is a very personal (and expensive) decision, and is influenced by many factors, none of which are, or should be, because a sport requires it,” says U.S. Quadball in its cleverly named gender-inclusion policy, Title 9 ¾. It also states that the league “hopes to be a positive example for other sport leagues as well as a way to positively influence how players view other genders.”
It was this kind of inclusivity that drew 22-year-old nonbinary athlete Mac to the quadball team at Boston University, where they played for three years. (Mac asked that we not use their last name.) Mac had become interested in the sport as a young child when they saw people playing on the Boston Common, running around with brooms between their legs. When they joined the team at Boston University, they weren’t yet out as trans, but the knowledge that it was an all-gender sport was appealing to them. “[Quadball] helped me figure out that I wanted to come out, because I felt comfortable playing,” Mac says. “I had never really been involved in team sports after they got gender separated, because it didn’t feel right for me. Being able to just play a sport where it’s about what I can do with my body, rather than the ways I don’t get along with my body, was really huge for me.”
“Every practice, even if it wasn’t the best practice, is still infinitely, infinitely better than every other practice I’ve had in my life before this season,” Rio Chuck says.
U.S. Quadball first implemented a policy that allowed for gender self-identification in 2011, a year after it formed to govern the quickly growing sport. In July 2022, the sport announced it was changing its name from Quidditch to quadball in part to distance itself from J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, who has come under fire for anti-trans comments in recent years. It’s a drastic move, but U.S. Quadball felt it had no other option. “For Rowling to use her power and influence to demean and put down trans people—it’s very shocking after she spent so much time writing these books where a lot of people found acceptance and love for being who they are,” says Mary Kimball, executive director of U.S. Quadball.
Meanwhile, USA Ultimate first drew up its trans-athlete policy in 2018. Initially, it followed the lead of the World Flying Disc Federation, which governs international competitions, including ones in which USA Ultimate teams participate. The World Flying Disc Federation policy follows the International Olympic Committee’s 2015 rules requiring transfeminine athletes to be on hormone-replacement therapy for at least 12 months before competing, and to submit to regular testosterone-level testing. But within a year, USA Ultimate decided to reconsider. “We looked at—and then pretty quickly discarded—other policies that exist,” Kellan Gibboney, a community liaison and gender-equity consultant for USA Ultimate who helped develop the new policy, told me for a story I wrote for Sports Illustrated earlier this year. In December 2020, the current, more inclusive rules went into effect.
USA Ultimate’s new policy allowed 26-year-old nonbinary athlete Rio Chuck to join the San Francisco Nightlock, a women’s club team, for the first time in their 13 years playing Ultimate. “Growing up, there was no point when I ever looked at the best men’s team and was like, I want to play for that team,” they say. “And never was I like, Oh, I want to play for the best coed team. I was always like, I wish I could play in the women’s division.”
Chuck, who isn’t currently considering hormone therapy or any other aspects of medical transition, thought their only option would be the men’s division. As a result, they switched to coaching a few years ago. But the new policy made it possible for them to join a women’s team in 2021, resulting in the best season Chuck has ever had. “Every moment is like the best moment of my life. Every practice, even if it wasn’t the best practice, is still infinitely, infinitely better than every other practice I’ve had in my life before this season,” they say.
The implementation and enforcement of these policies has not been without incident, however: U.S. Quadball has faced accusations of players faking their gender in order to manipulate the rules. Kimball says she can only think of one example of that happening in her years overseeing hundreds of games, but the allegations have left a mark. “What these accusations have done is create an uncomfortable space for athletes who haven’t come out yet—or even if they are out—because they know their gender might be questioned if they do,” she says. “If you start trying to enforce it by demanding proof, you have consequences around making people uncomfortable by having to disclose.” That, Kimball says, is the last thing the league wants to do for their trans and nonbinary players.
Despite the bumps, the policies have mostly been received with overwhelming support. By allowing trans athletes to lead the way in ensuring participation for all, U.S. Quadball and USA Ultimate are making a road map for other sports to follow—if they’re willing to change their approach to fairness and inclusion. This matters on and off the pitch: trans people’s rights are being eroded across the country, making it a much more hostile place to be openly trans or gender nonconforming, and much of this broader human-rights fight is being waged through athletics. “We are being used right now as pawns, and our athletes are being caught in the crossfire,” says Kimball. “What’s happening nationwide with trans rights is heartbreaking, and I hope we can use sports to provide a safe environment but also as a way to speak up, because we have a voice.”
Mac, the Boston University quadball player, emphasizes how important it is to have access to a supportive sporting environment. “Being able to be a trans athlete gave me so much more joy within my body and helped me feel comfortable and happy,” they say. “I don’t know how else I would have gotten to this place without quadball.”