Image courtesy of Gavin Thompson

Being Gay and Playing Ultimate

It’s great. Let’s make it even better.

There’s a great little story up on Skyd at the moment written by South African Ultimate player Keketso Motjuwadi. You should take a moment to read it, but basically it charts his experiences as a gay sportsman and how years of homophobia, whether intentional or unintentional, made him feel uncomfortable pursuing both team and individual sports despite his natural talent and his love of competition. Until he found Ultimate…

It’s an uplifting story and one that highlights one of the major benefits of playing Ultimate - its diverse* and inclusive** community.

All Ultimate players should be proud of the environment that we have created for our sport. But we should not take it for granted.

As Motjuwadi pointed out, more and more elite athletes are coming out in the world’s biggest sporting leagues. But many continue to do so only after retirement or in the twilight of their careers. These trailblazers are important for creating wider acceptance of homosexuality in sports (and in society) but we still have a long way to go before ‘out’ gay sportsmen and women are the rule rather than the exception.

Just this week, writing about the AFL Grand Final, sports journo Erin Riley was trolled mercilessly after calling out fans at the game for being racist, homophobic and sexist. The language she experienced at the final and in reaction to her article was extremely hurtful and inexcusable (“I was only joking”, “you’re being oversensitive”, “it’s just part of the game” — these are not valid reasons for insulting someone’s gender, sexuality, race, etc.)

What has been crystallised for me by these articles is that the community matters most. To use an example from Ultimate, even if WFDF and all the teams competing at Worlds in 2016 came out against homophobia, if you still encountered terms like fag or gay used regularly in your local league, in the ulti message boards you frequented or at tryouts for a team you wanted to play for, all that top-down work would be for nothing (probably less than nothing).

Four years ago or so, a group of Australian Ultimate players tried to get an initiative called Lambda Ultimate off the ground. It was meant to be a safe space for gay Ultimate players to hang out, talk, and share ideas about increasing Ultimate’s presence in the gay community. It failed for two related reasons. Firstly, many did not really see the need for such a group in a community as open and welcoming as ultimate (I don’t think this is true). Secondly, I think many closeted or quietly gay Ultimate players were still not 100% comfortable participating in the group.

I was in that second group. Many ‘gay-friendly’ people quickly joined the Facebook group to express (or ‘prove’) their support for the initiative but many of those people were part of teams that I had repeatedly heard making incredibly sexist or homophobic remarks at tournaments around Australia. These remarks were never directed at individual players (thankfully in Ultimate they almost never are!), but made me feel that I couldn’t express myself freely in a group that was meant to be a safe space.

Over the years I have felt more comfortable being myself (time will do that) and have come to better understand the difference between real discrimination and casually offensive remarks. But if you put yourself in the shoes of anyone who lacks confidence because of their sexuality, race or gender and hears these slurs on a semi-regular basis, you can see that Ultimate is far from perfect.

We should strive to make our community better, so those just starting Ultimate or just understanding their sexuality feel comfortable playing the game that we all love.

We are all guilty of homophobia, sexism and racism occasionally. But by being aware of the power of the words we use, we can do better.

Don’t call your friend or teammate a faggot. Or gay. Or a bitch or a slut. And leave the jokes about race to those who have actually have lived it. I know you probably don’t mean it, but what does it say about you and your sport to somebody who doesn’t know you or Ultimate? It may sound impersonal to you, but to those hearing it, it hurts them directly.

I was so lucky to find Ultimate. Sexuality has never been a big deal for me and being gay is just one part of my life. Part of the reason I can be so relaxed about my sexuality is Ultimate and the strong, supportive community provided by my family, friends, teammates and the sport I love.

We are an awesome community as evidenced by Motjuwadi’s story. But our sport is only as good as the people who play it. Let’s all do our bit to keep our community as fun, inclusive and awesome as it currently is.

A short post-script. I think the above article is even more relevant midway through 2014 Uni Games, an event that sees a large number of ‘non-Frisbee’ people playing Ultimate, and our community interacting with other sports people more than at any other time in Australia. If you’re playing, take the opportunity to be an ambassador for your sport when it comes to stamping out racism, homophobia and sexism. Somebody who is yet to experience the inclusiveness of our community first-hand may really appreciate it.

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