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Disc Golf’s Lia Thomas Moment

As a biologically male player continues a meteoric rise on the female circuit, women are starting to speak out.

· 19 min read
Disc Golf’s Lia Thomas Moment
DGPT photo of professional disc golfer Natalie Ryan.

For female professional disc golfers, the July 29–31 Discraft Great Lakes Open (DGLO) in Milford, Michigan represented a watershed—marking the first time in the young sport’s history that an Elite-series tournament offered women the same first-place prize money as men. “It should have been a great moment,” one of the female competitors told me once the crowds had gone home. “But then the thing ended, and the winners weren’t a male and a female. It was basically two males.”

By this, the woman was referring to male star Calvin Heimburg, who won what is formally called the “Open” division (but which, in practice, is 100 percent male); and the female-division winner, Natalie Ryan, a trans woman who’s been playing disc-golf tournaments for only three years. Despite this lack of experience, Ryan already is starting to make victory something of a habit, winning not only DGLO, but also a second Elite event in Leicester, Massachusetts this past weekend. As a result, Ryan is now ranked as one of the world’s top five female-classified disc golfers.

The first-place prizes at DGLO were US$6,000—hardly a bonanza by the standards of professional sports. But for disc golf’s touring women, many of whom have spent a decade or more on the road, trying to scratch out a living as full-time athletes, it’s a huge amount of money.

“The [current] female tour only came on the scene in 2016,” a well-known female pro told me. “There’d been a tour going on since 2000, but in those days, even most of the top professionals had side jobs. The men’s game was probably economically viable as a full-time occupation by the early 2010s, but the women’s game wasn’t really viable until a few years ago. So yeah, the timing of this is interesting. It’s just all too convenient that now is when [trans women] decide to jump in and make a splash.”

Ryan is not the first openly transgender disc golfer to compete in a Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) event—a distinction claimed by a Massachusetts trans woman named Kelly Jenkins. Nor is Ryan the first openly trans disc golfer to win a prominent event—a distinction that belongs to Dutch player Laura Nagtegaal. And in both 2021 and 2022, the PDGA Masters World FP50 championship (for women aged 50 or over) went to a trans woman named Nova Politte (who, at 6‘4”, self-describes as ”the tallest female disc golfer in the world”). But Ryan’s victory was different, because DGLO is such an important tournament. Thanks to its Elite Series classification within the Disc Golf Pro Tour (DGPT), it ranks as one of the few events that allow top players to compete for the annual Tour Championship, which in turn can yield higher payouts and more prominent media opportunities.

Among the tight-knit touring group of about three dozen top female players, concerns about male-bodied disc golfers once remained largely confined to private conversations, as most were anxious to protect the feelings of trans players and avoid offending corporate sponsors. But Ryan’s DGPT victories seem to have prodded some of these women to become more vocal. This month, two of them—whom I’ll refer to as Jane and Mary in the reporting that follows—spoke to Quillette on condition of anonymity.

Until recently, disc golf occupied something of an ambiguous place in the sporting hierarchy, halfway between niche hipster hobby and mass-participation activity. But the sport positively exploded during the COVID years, when otherwise housebound athletes found themselves looking for something new to do with their time and energy (myself among them). And the boom has done much to bring disc golf into the mainstream. The game is simple, cheap, safe, and fun—basically regular golf, but with discs and baskets instead of balls and holes. And for many, it’s proven equally fun to watch as play. Major US tournaments sometimes attract tens of thousands of fans. The sport has also developed a rich Internet subculture, including a US$99-per-year subscription-based broadcast called Disc Golf Network.

Rounds of disc golf recorded on UDisc, a popular scoring app, by year, 2016-2020.

Because disc golf is a modern sport played mostly by young people, it tends to channel a liberal live-and-let-live ethos. Recreational drug use isn’t uncommon, and even some of the most skilled professionals seem to exhibit something of a beatnik attitude. Hyper-competitiveness is generally shunned, and a spirit of inclusion typically prevails. So it’s easy to see why a progressive posture toward transgender participation would come naturally to the people who enjoy and govern the sport. This attitude was encoded in a Statement on Transgender Athletes & Community Guidelines put out by the Disc Golf Pro Tour earlier this year, indicating that the DGPT “recognizes the validity of the transgender experience [and] support[s] the decisions made by any members of the disc golf community to live their life in the most authentic way possible.”

Meanwhile, industry publications such as Release Point have covered the issue of gender largely through Pride-themed homages to trans disc golfers. In early 2021, a PDGA Event Support and Training Manager named Mike Sullivan authored a long Twitter thread in which he assured everyone that “women’s divisions are not in danger of being dominated by whatever South Park satire version of transgender women you might be concerned about,” and warned that those voicing concerns had been swayed by “people with bad intentions” such as podcaster Joe Rogan.

Yet the PDGA’s own reported data suggest that performance differences between males and females are stark. In the “Advanced” amateur division (a classification that is technically open to all amateur players but which is almost entirely male), players typically are capable of throwing a maximum distance of between 300 feet and 450 feet. In the case of “Advanced Women,” on the other hand, the corresponding figures are a third lower: 200 feet and 300 feet. The world record for longest disc golf throw by a man is 1,109 feet. For female players, the record is 569 feet. And it is worth noting that Ryan, the female tour’s only trans player, also happened to win disc golf’s 2021 US Distance Championship in the female category with a throw of 458 feet.

Nor is the male-bodied advantage in disc golf confined to full-throttle open-field drives. According to Jane and Mary, the disparity also manifests itself on densely wooded holes, which sometimes require players to contort their bodies in awkward positions while shooting around trees from a standstill.

“I would say that one of the biggest advantages of the [male-bodied] players is their ability to scramble in tight situations when a disc goes off the fairway, to just stand there and blast a shot through the woods,” Mary tells me. “I’ve seen both [trans player] Chloe [Alice] and Natalie [Ryan] do this. They’re just standing still and throw the kind of [forehand shot] that I’ve never seen a female throw even under perfect conditions.”

“What makes it worse is that Ryan’s form isn’t even that good,” says Jane. “If it were, she’d be out-throwing us by even more. So while the rest of us spend years refining our form, trying to keep up and get more distance, she’s been in the sport only—what?—three years or something. And she’s already said [publicly], ‘Oh, I’ve got my form down. I don’t need to practice that.’”

“One time, a friend on the tour—another female golfer—told me about Kelly [Jenkins] throwing a 320-foot thumber [a difficult overhead shot launched over tall obstacles with an unusual grip] at women’s nationals,” Jane adds. “And then, when people were standing there in disbelief, [Jenkins] says, ‘Ha ha, softball!’—like, telling people that she learned to do this kind of shot from playing softball when she was young. But I know women disc golfers who’ve played softball their whole lives. They’ve never seen a woman throw a disc like that.”

Statistic: Gold medal winning distances in the Men's and Women's javelin throw at the Summer Olympics from 1908 to 2020 (in meters) | Statista

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who’s studied male-female differences in other sports that involve throwing. The world javelin record, for instance, is 98.5 meters for men, but just 72.3 meters for women. In shot put, hammer throw, and discus, men and women tend to throw similar distances, but do so with differently weighted objects: For men, the metal ball used in shot put and hammer throw weighs more than seven kilograms; for women, just four kilograms. In discus competition, the disc used by men weighs two kilograms, while women use a disc that weighs just one kilogram. Earlier this year, The New York Times profiled pitcher Kelsie Whitmore, the first woman of our era to play in any league partnered with Major League Baseball. Whitmore’s fastball tops out below 80 mph, a speed that’s commonly achieved by male high schoolers in their mid-teens.

On August 2nd, days after Ryan won the female division at DGLO, the Disc Golf Pro Tour put out a statement titled DGPT Reiterates Statement on PDGA Transgender Competition Policies, noting (somewhat euphemistically) “an increase in the volume of questions and feedback from the disc golf community on the topic of gender-based divisions and fair play,” and emphasizing that Ryan, and the tour itself, are simply going by the policies set down by the PDGA—policies that permit biologically male players to compete as females, so long as they bring their blood testosterone levels down below 10 nmol/L.

The problem, as critics of male-bodied participation in female sports often have pointed out, is that academic reviews of musculoskeletal changes in transwomen have shown that the strength loss associated with post-pubescent testosterone-reduction regimes is small, and so the trans strength advantage over biologically female competitors persists. As discussed below, moreover, there seems to be some confusion about whether the PDGA is enforcing even its own loose standards.

Tennessee-based player Jennifer Castro, who competes in the Amateur Masters Women 40+ category, says that “I personally know of women who refuse to sign up for events if a transgender is playing, not because we hate them but because we feel we have zero chance, so what is the point of wasting our money on registration fees?”

Jennifer Castro, photographed following the 2022 Alabama Women‘s Disc Golf Championships

In late August, Castro became so exasperated by the PDGA’s permissive stance that she mounted a sort of sting operation, presenting herself anonymously to the organization as a transgender woman seeking to compete in a female category. After Castro’s inquiry was routed to the PDGA’s medical committee, outgoing board member (and five-time Women’s Open World Champion) Elaine King wrote back with the following advice:

If you meet the criteria to play in gender-based divisions then you can register with the PDGA as “F” or “female.” You are under no obligation to discuss your personal information with anyone. No one may challenge your eligibility to play in a female division unless they can provide evidence that you may not meet the requirements. Note that a player’s appearance is NOT a basis for any challenge … Some transgender women have voluntarily elected to provide proof of their eligibility to the Medical Committee in confidence. In doing so, any potential question about their eligibility to play in that division could be quickly settled. However this is purely voluntary and not required.

In the days since, Castro has gone on a very public Facebook campaign, citing King’s message as evidence that, except in cases where a player who’s already listed as male seeks to change status to female, “transgenders don’t need to submit anything upfront. [The PDGA] is just taking their word that they meet the criteria medically.” Castro also has linked to a TikTok video by trans female competitor Chloe Alice, who’s confessed on Instagram to neglecting to take prescribed testosterone-suppressing “pretty pills” (as Alice describes them) for days at a time.

@chloe_alice__ My pretty pills! #trans #transgender #transmtf #transftm #lgbtq #prettypills #estrogen #testosteron ♬ original sound - Chloe Alice

Castro believes that she’ll pay a price for speaking out, but told me during a recent phone call that she doesn’t care. “I don’t play at the pro level, so it’s not like my livelihood is on the line,” Castro told me. “Unlike the pro women, I can speak my mind and say what they’d be saying if they felt they could.”

At a recent Nashville tournament, Castro reports, her sponsor, a small local company called Momentary Bliss discs, politely suggested that she take a less “hostile” approach with her anti-PGDA commentary. Castro refused, and the partnership was ended.

According to four-term PDGA Board of Directors member Wilbur Wallis, “it is almost certain that this topic”—by which he means trans women competing in protected female disc-golf categories—“will be discussed at length at the upcoming PDGA Fall Summit,” and he has asked that interested members submit “scientific studies” for consideration by the PDGA’s newly formed Medical Subcommittee on Gender-Based-Divisions to review. It is possible that the process Wallis outlines will end with the PDGA taking steps to exclude natal males from protected female categories. Much as the controversial participation of trans NCAA swimmer Lia Thomas in female races caused a reckoning within that sport, so might Ryan’s triumphs spark a similar reckoning in disc golf.

On the other hand, because disc golf is a relatively young and (until recently) obscure pursuit, those “scientific studies” Wallis is looking for are in short supply. What few academic articles exist in regard to disc golf tend toward titles such as Disc Golf, a Growing Sport and Disc Golf as a Public Health Option. Since it might be years before authoritative peer-reviewed studies that focus specifically on male athletic advantages within disc golf are produced, the PDGA board would likely have the cover it needs to maintain the status quo, should that be the preferred option of a majority of board members.

In this regard, it’s worth noting that the seven-person PDGA board of directors includes the aforementioned Laura Nagtegaal, a trans woman who self-describes on the PDGA’s website as “a volunteer counsellor for gender-questioning and transgender folx … active (both on an activistic and philosophical level) in advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion.” In 2019, shortly after transitioning to female self-identification, Nagtegaal entered the Amateur Masters Women 40+ World Championships, and won by 21 strokes in a field of 17 players. According to King, Nagtegaal also runs “a closed [Facebook] discussion group for transgender women [disc golfers].” Another board member is Leah Tsinajinnie, whose listed priorities include expanding disc golf’s appeal to “people identifying as LGBTQ+.” The other five members are all men.

According to one source I spoke with, several board members are sympathetic with the complaints of women who want male bodies excluded from protected female categories. But they also feel reluctant to act unless their stance is publicly supported by a critical mass of high-profile players. For their part, on the other hand, many top players reportedly don’t feel they can provide that public support until the board signals clearly that plain talk about male and female biology won’t be denounced as transphobic.

It’s a collective-action problem, in other words. According to Jane and Mary, about 80 percent of the women on tour oppose the inclusion of male-bodied players in female divisions (a figure that’s admittedly impossible for me to confirm). But no one in this majority group wants to be among the first to come forward, for fear of being labelled a bigot—thereby allowing the other 20 percent to hold sway.

Moreover, any PDGA move to tighten the rules on female participation in protected female categories will have the effect of invalidating—or at least implicitly devaluing—victories that have already been earned by trans disc golfers. In particular, board members would face the mortifying prospect of retroactively demeaning their own board colleague’s 2019 Amateur Masters Women 40+ World Championships. Ryan, too, would go from someone being feted weekly in PDGA corporate media to, overnight, a male-classified also-ran who happens to have a few awkwardly asterisked victories in the female record books. In such a scenario, it would be difficult not to feel sympathy for these trans women, and others like them, all of whom relied on the existing rules set by the PDGA.

On the other side of the ledger, however, are the vastly more numerous biological women who see the presence of trans women as more than just a competitive and financial threat, but also a source of on-field social and psychological tension.

“My experience is that about half of the trans women are really fun to play with,” Jane tells me. “With the other half, they have this really obvious masculine energy—and so you’re constantly being reminded that you’re basically playing with an amateur-level male. It’s gotten to the point that even the players that I personally like who are transgender—I can't watch them play. I don’t watch them throw. I don’t watch them putt. The sight of it reminds me that I’m in an unfair situation and it makes it hard for me to maintain my mental game. I’m just constantly thinking about, you know, ‘Wow, she shouldn’t be able to throw that far because that’s really bad form, but it went 400 feet.’”

“I’ve been playing sports since I was in kindergarten,” Mary says. “I was always small, but I didn’t care what the sport was. I would take on any girl, any woman. But then with this thing that’s happening now, it’s different. No matter how much I work out, that’ll never be enough to have the physical advantages of a person who’s a male and can be strong without [going to the gym].”

During my research, I spent a lot of time reading social-media threads and arguments about trans disc golfers participating in protected female categories. Readers won’t be surprised to learn that attitudes break down largely (though not entirely) by medium. On Twitter, where discourse on this subject tends toward fashionable, hashtag-compliant political postures, the dominant view is that of Sullivan, the aforementioned PDGA manager who instructs women that “we don’t have evidence that there’s an unfair [trans female] advantage.” On Reddit, the argument is more mixed. Then there are the deeply tribalized private Facebook groups—one of which I was given access to—that tend strongly toward one side or the other.

Almost everyone acknowledges that trans women have at least some physical advantages over their biologically female competitors. The question comes down to whether those female competitors should be forced to accommodate male bodies as the price of inclusion. Jane, Mary, and Castro argue that the answer comes down to science and the reality of human biology. Their opponents say that it comes down to attractive-sounding moral imperatives such as “recogniz[ing] the validity of the transgender experience” and giving trans individuals the “comfort to be who they are, on and off the fairway, every day of their lives.”

This kind of battle is playing out in dozens of sports, and has been for years. But disc golf provides an especially interesting case study, because Ryan’s sudden ascent has caused years’ worth of female concerns to spill out in a compressed time period. The regulatory environment has also become a lot more fluid of late, giving women hope that things might change.

The PDGA has a long-term goal of getting disc golf admitted as an Olympic sport. And since 2010, PDGA rules on trans participation have tracked the pronouncements of the International Olympic Committee, including the IOC’s 2015 standards, which established the 10 nmol/L testosterone standard for trans women. But in 2021, following the controversy surrounding the appearance of middle-aged trans female weightlifter Laurel Hubbard at the Tokyo Games, the IOC created new guidelines that allow “each sport and its governing body to determine how an athlete may be at a disproportionate advantage against their peers, taking into consideration the nature of each sport.” This means that the PDGA is now at liberty to go the way of World Rugby, which recently declared flat-out that “Transgender women may not currently play women’s rugby” (though the violent nature of that game arguably makes it a special case); or the international governing body for swimming, which recently barred swimmers who “experienced any part of male puberty” from women’s events.

The disc-golf case study is also informative in the way it lays bare the different motivations of powerful actors within the sport’s overall community. According to industry estimates, females account for just 20 percent of elite players, and about 14 percent of active competitive players at all levels. For many years, groups such as Sara Nicholson’s Throw Pink have sought to recruit women into the game. It’s an obvious growth opportunity for the sport, and so one might think that female concerns would rank high on the PDGA agenda. But in reality, the most powerful voices are often the corporate sponsors who effectively supply the bulk of touring pros’ income. The #MeToo movement had its heyday years ago, and many of these companies are stepping over themselves to present themselves as champions of more faddish causes. The vast bulk of disc buyers, after all, aren’t professionals in sex-protected categories, but recreational consumers playing in mixed male-and-female leagues. Rainbow stickers and slogans about inclusivity lend themselves well to marketing campaigns. Angry women describing their frustrations with all those stickers and slogans, much less so.

“I actually had a candid conversation with my sponsor the other day for an hour about this issue,” Mary told me. “And toward the end, I said, you know, ‘If I can just be as honest and blunt as possible, I think [the situation] is disrespectful because no man will ever understand or know what it’s like to be a woman.’”

Like other players—including one who showed me a long set of text messages with her sponsor—Mary says she got a fair hearing. But in the end, she still wasn’t given permission to go public with her concerns, unless it was done in concert with a critical mass of other tour players. Again, the collective-action problem rears its head.

Both Jane and Mary report receiving private messages of support from male colleagues. But in those cases where male disc golfers speak out publicly, it’s more likely to be in the service of transgender rights. (Castro’s Facebook page, for instance, has been regularly trolled by a male player named Sam Gibson, a progressive activist known for his participation in the Occupy Portland movement.)

Even some top female veterans have lent their voices to the cause of trans participation in sex-protected categories. This includes Paige Pierce, the sport’s all-time highest earnings leader and a pre-eminent female presence within PDGA branding.

In January, about a dozen female players avoided the highest female division of a small Alabama tournament, apparently in order to protest the PDGA’s laissez-faire approach to trans women. When that move left Chloe Alice (whose TikTok video about “pretty pills” was referenced above) playing alone in that division, Pierce and several other high-ranked women signed up to play alongside Alice as a gesture of solidarity. On Instagram, Pierce then explained her decision this way:

This isn’t an event I would typically play being that it was during my off season and it was a lower tier of an event. I wanted to talk with you all about why I chose to play. It was a local event and I started to hear talk around town that there was a big group of women that had initially signed up for the event only to later drop out of the division because one of the competitors is transgender. I want to stop here and take a breath. I am not sure my exact opinions on what ‘should’ happen yet. Should we have a separate division? Should we test hormone levels of every competitor? I don’t know. But should we ban [them al]together and leave them behind? HELL NO. I am sorry for my language, but I feel very strongly about this … We are all a part of the frisbee family. We are all doing our part to find our own happiness. As I write this I am finding that I AM going to make a New Years resolution. Whenever I hear someone passing judgement towards another, I don’t nod or let it pass. I stop them in their tracks and remind them, we are all human. Let’s spread love, not hate.

For Pierce’s supporters, the move was the epitome of grace and empathy. “You’re using your power and privilege for good! We look up to you, Paige!” said one commenter. Another replied, “Paige, you’re awesome, and a shining example of how we should treat others. You made a horrible story an awesome story.”

But as Jane and Mary see it, Pierce’s declaration was a low blow, even a betrayal. A group of female players were protesting what they see as a discriminatory anti-female policy, and the game’s biggest female star swooped in to present herself as a saviour figure. What’s more, Paige suggested that those behind the act of protest were motivated by “hate” and a desire to “ban” transgender people from the sport, which both Jane and Mary see as a complete misrepresentation of what had happened. (Pierce, Ryan, and Nagtegaal were given an opportunity to provide comment for this article, but did not respond.)

Other commenters suggested that Pierce was merely being opportunistic with her virtue signalling at a time when no trans competitor had yet presented as a serious tour threat. But in the months since, that’s changed, of course. At the MVP Open, Ryan’s victory bumped Pierce from a second place finish down to third. And of the last four Elite tournaments in which Pierce and Ryan have both competed, Ryan has bested Pierce in three of them. The former, as already noted, has been playing competitive disc golf for just three years. The latter is a 16-year veteran who’s won the Women’s Open World Championship in five out of the last 11 seasons.

It’s notable that Pierce hasn’t, to my knowledge, spoken publicly about the issue of trans inclusion in female events in recent months. And some fans are wondering why. Back in January, a commenter on her Instagram post darkly noted, “Just wait until you finish second behind a ‘man’ for a few years. [Your] opinion will change.”

Maybe it already has. We’ll find out in coming days, I suspect, as I am told that there is a petition that’ll soon be making the rounds among touring female players, finally putting on public record a majority opinion that, till now, the women have largely confined to private conversations. What remains to be seen is whether PDGA officials, faced with such a document, will respect the “validity” and “authenticity” of the biological female experience.

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