An Ultimate source of Pride

Graduate student Jenna Weiner finds lessons in Ultimate Frisbee, and acceptance on the University campus

Graduate student Jenna Weiner, in addition to pursuing degrees in Hydrology and Communication Studies, is also a high-level collegiate Ultimate Frisbee player.


7/25/2018 | By: Staff Report  |

We live in an age of acronyms, some of which can describe groups of people, or organizations, or how we might think.

For Jenna Weiner, a 24-year-old graduate student in Communication Studies at the University, perhaps one of the most important acronyms in her life speaks not only to who she is, but how she views the world.

Weiner, who has played the sport of Ultimate Frisbee throughout college, embraces one of the foundations of Ultimate - what competitors of the fast-paced game often call "Spirit of the Game," or "SOTG" - in the most hopeful of manners. In SOTG, she sees how important lessons can be transferred from a game she loves to the society she hopes to influence.

"Ultimate is self-officiated, so there's an element of respecting and acknowledging your competitors that is not as clear in other sports," says Weiner, who is transgender. "Tied in with this is the concept of Spirit of the Game that is written into the rules of ultimate. SOTG says that Ultimate should be played competitively but not in a win-at-all costs mentality, and that competitors should respect the decisions that are made by their opposition and assume that any and all calls are made with a proper intention."

She continues, "I mention this to highlight the broad culture of acceptance and respect within Ultimate and that carries over to interpersonal relations with people in my community. They understand that people make decisions for good reasons and if you're a decent person, you're generally treated as such, competitor or not. Ultimate has a real sense of community around and through it, both in smaller communities and across the globe, and I think some of those elements of being understanding of different beliefs or cultures and respecting people's opinions and decisions in good conscience makes a big difference."

Since graduating from UC-Berkeley and beginning her graduate studies here (she is currently also working on a master's degree in Hydrology, the field of interest which originally brought her to northern Nevada), Weiner has experienced a great deal of change in her life.

She enrolled at the University as Ph.D. student in Hydrology, and then, in May 2016, "two weeks before I moved to Reno I realized that I was transgender. That obviously set off a whole set of changes, including a change in scholarly/career interests."

Although the realization might sound abrupt, Weiner had actually spent a lot of time over the years thinking about her gender. (Please read Jenna's NSights Blog post, "Life in Transition: A Moving Experience," for a more detailed account of her transition.)

Since then, she has developed a keen interest in important issues surrounding gender and the transgender community, particularly for transgender athletes.

"I focus my work on the issues of gender and sports, especially transgender issues in sports," she says. "I talk about and work on things like policy, how we can better use inclusive language, and other related questions. Going forward, I hope to work in the field of sports and gender, doing some advocacy and activism to better the lives of trans and non-binary folks. I also more broadly want to do some education to help make people more aware of trans experiences."

She's found the campus and its people to be supportive of her interests, from understanding professors who have encouraged her, to classmates and teammates in Ultimate Frisbee who have been friends almost from the beginning of her time as a student at the University.

"Most people I've interacted with have been helpful without issue, but in particular The Center had been a fantastic resource for me, especially (Center Coordinator) Ricky Salazar who I've worked with quite a bit on a number of projects," she says. "Also my (Hydrology) advisor Adrian Harpold, and my entire lab group have been awesome throughout the whole transition process. And then of course my on-campus ultimate community and teammates for being great friends since the first week I arrived in Reno.

"I think my experience on campus has been so good because, for one, the people have been so great. I've had very few poor interactions, and generally people don't seem too bothered and just accept me as I am. That being said, part of my remarkably good experience is due to privileges I have. I'm a white, well-off woman who has a supportive family and my friends from every stage of life have been great. With that sort of support network and privilege it makes everything easier, including my experience on campus."

Weiner realizes she is in a unique position, in that her own journey is still ongoing. She hopes, however, to help other transgender individuals through advocacy of policies and rules in Ultimate that could help society at large in its understanding and appreciation of transgender athletes. America, whether on purpose or on accident, has often used sports as a way to make society more inclusive and equitable, whether it was Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier in Major League baseball in 1947, Curt Flood's legal challenge of baseball's reserve clause in 1969 that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, eventually leading to free agency in sports, or tennis great Billie Jean King's victory over former men's U.S. Open and Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs in 1973's "Battle of the Sexes."

Ultimate is a relatively new sport, but the possibilities it has to help remind society about respect, decency, fair play and equity, are part of the reason why Weiner is so enamored with it.

"I love Ultimate because one, it's an awesome and super fun sport to play, but two, the people are fantastic," she says. "Accepting, thoughtful, welcoming, competitive, it's an amazing environment to be in. Again going back to the Ultimate community, in the last couple of years I've made connections around the country and around the world that I never would have expected to ever make, but that's the power of Ultimate and how we do really often operate as a true community."

The power of Ultimate lies in its ability to bring people together, she says.

"When I first started playing Ultimate consistently, it was just a fun thing once a week with some friends and that was basically it," she says. "Even in my first five years of playing, I was playing just to play and didn't have much real awareness of any of the issues or discussions that were going on in the community. So when I decided to reach out for the first time and speak up, I thought my contributions would be seen and then forgotten but of course it's become much bigger than that. I am constantly and consistently amazed at the discussions that I've had, the connections I've made, and the progress that I think we're seeing in Ultimate in just the last year or so. It's really remarkable and it gives me hope that some of this same change can be taken to other sports, to other aspects of life, and applied and used to help make positive change for trans folks everywhere."

Weiner is well aware that Ultimate, like many other sports right now, is currently wrestling with how best to ensure that all competitors, including competitors who are part of the transgender community, are given a fair opportunity to play.

"This is clearly a very complicated issue and so I think we should approach it with a flexible mentality," she says. "Inclusivity of all people of all genders should be the priority, so in an idyllic situation anyone should be able to compete as the gender they identify as no questions asked, but it's unfortunately often not that simple.

"There is a biological reality that people with higher testosterone levels are broadly more suited for athletics and sports than those people with lower levels of testosterone, but I don't think that should keep people from competing in the gender division they identify as. So then a compromise needs to be reached, to include as many people as possible while still maintaining a level of "fair" competition, although another discussion about the actual definition of "fair" could be had.

"If I had to design a better system for trans athletes that generally operates within the current structures, I'd likely try to be as inclusive as possible as much as possible, with some hormone requirements for higher level competition. That way there are few restrictions to enter and play for the majority of the population. For competitions like world championships or such, they would have a flexible hormone requirement that would allow for "fair" competition while also acknowledging the different effects that hormones can have on different people."

On Saturday, an important event - The Northern Nevada Pride Parade - will bring Northern Nevadans together to help raise awareness, show support and celebrate the LGBTQIA+ identities in our community. Members of the University community are encouraged to participate, and can do so by meeting at the corner of Fourth Street and Virginia at 9:30 a.m. Parade participants will walk down Virginia Street, under the Reno Arch, and end at Wingfield Park for the Pride festival.

Weiner helped organize the University's involvement in last year's Pride Parade. She says that Pride's greatest value is its ability to bring people of all walks of life together.

"One is just the name, Pride, which means being proud of who we are and not being afraid to show it to the world," she says. "For so many years LGBTQIA+ folks have had to hide who they are and Pride is a chance to show ourselves to the world and celebrate who we are.

"Another is the ability for an event like Pride to bring people together and form bonds within our community. The LGBTQIA+ community is relatively small all things considered, but it's big enough that people aren't necessarily all connected with each other. Pride is an opportunity to come out, meet people who may have similar stories to yours, and create those connections. I know last year when I was at Pride I met a fair number of trans folks there who I had never met before and it was awesome seeing everyone out for the day."

And if a game of Ultimate breaks out right after the parade on the grass of Wingfield Park, expect it to be played the way young people like Jenna Weiner would want it to be played: With a lot of love, a lot of understanding, and a lot of respect, for all the competitors involved.

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