non-binary sportspeople

I met a non-binary person today. We were in Berlin for the day playing in the Winterliga, which is a co-ed ultimate frisbee tournament with 30-min games, where for 15 min the line-up has three women and two men and for the other 15 min has two women and three men E.g.

1st half: w w w m m
2nd half: w w m m m

Before our last game, we were approached by a player on the opposing team, who was born with a male body and identifies as neither man nor woman (or both man and woman). They wanted to discuss how they were to be perceived with regard to the line-up – a line-up which is defined by sex. They proposed to play as the gender that had the ‘majority’ in the half in question (e.g. in the example above, as a woman in the 1st half and a man in the 2nd half).

The rationale behind sex-defined line-ups in co-ed games is to use sex as a rough categorisation of a player’s athleticism, with the aim of achieving more even match-ups. The idea is that each team should have a number of men and women equal to those on the opposing side because the average woman is less athletic than a man. It’s the same reason why sports have single-sex divisions at all, actually.

This particular player today was an average male player and a strong female player. This was a significant point in our discussion as a team, which made a decision based on practicality rather than principle. If it had been based on principle, it wouldn’t matter if they were a good or bad player. But we took into consideration how their male body, playing as a female player for half the time, would practically impact the game.

In the end we agreed to their proposal. It must take a hell of a lot of energy to initiate this discussion every single game. They admitted that this level of gender complexity is beyond most sports, and ultimate frisbee, with its focus on spirit, respect, and sportspersonship, is the only co-ed sport they can play. With single-sex divisions they still have the option of playing open, which is often interpreted as ‘men’ (because the alternative division is ‘women’), but in actual fact is for everybody. It just so happens that it is mostly men who play, as women would be, on average, physically disadvantaged.

After the tournament was over, we showered, packed our bags, and went to get döner kebabs. As we ate we discussed this discussion again, this time really thinking it over without the pressures of a loud gym, a ticking clock, and adrenaline-fueled brains. It was clear that not everyone saw the situation the same way and that there was no natural consensus. But what impressed me was the rational, respectful exchange: no one got worked up or felt like they had to defend their opinion; rather, each presented his/her own opinion or introduced a few more relevant facets for the others to chew on.

It was certainly a very thought-provoking team discussion, as the situation was simply completely new for us.

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