How the Disc Golf Pro Tour Tried to Bar a Trans Woman From Competing and Why They (Sort of) Reversed Course

Natalie Ryan successfully sued the DGPT for discrimination. Twice.

The sport of disc golf is far more than fancy Frisbee. In two separate divisions of the Disc Golf Pro Tour — female and mixed — players compete for purses that can reach over $100,000. DGPT, the official pro tour of the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), found itself in hot water last month when the organization tried to “solve the problem” of a transgender woman who had twice sued for being barred from competing in Female Professional Open (FPO) events.

On July 14, the DGPT released a statement concerning the remainder of the 2023 season. Five FPO competitions, including one held annually at Kensington Metropark in Milford, Michigan, would be canceled. The DGPT sought venues in other states where the likelihood of being sued by trans woman Natalie Ryan was less likely. 

Previously, Ryan fought for and won the right to compete with cis women at tournaments in California and Minnesota. Ryan’s battle for equal rights stems from the PDGA Policy on Eligibility for Gender-Based Divisions, updated earlier this year. It’s a detailed document focused on a menu of variables including, among other things, hormone replacement therapy, testosterone levels and gender-affirming surgery and is meant to establish that trans women are not eligible for FPO competition unless they transitioned before puberty. It’s no coincidence the update that would exclude Ryan was announced the season after she started winning tournaments. Ryan was devastated by the news. 

“I’ll be honest,” Ryan said. “I cried myself to sleep a few nights. I thought I was kind of going to walk away from the game entirely. And I was very lost at that moment.”

Ultimately, Ryan rallied. She filed a lawsuit contending that the new PDGA policy violates her civil rights under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.

The DGPT is transparent about its motives.

“These adjustments have been made in order to protect competitive fairness in the FPO division and to limit financial burden in locations where the PDGA Policy on Eligibility for Gender-Based Divisions may become the subject of last-minute litigation harmful to the tour,” a statement reads. Further, it expresses concern for maintaining the “operational viability” of the FPO division.

Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, said that while she doesn’t know the details of Ryan’s predicament, Ryan would likely have had a legal path forward if she were to sue to compete in the state, under Michigan’s newly amended Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. 

“The Disc Golf Professional Tour [is] basically making the argument right now that excluding trans women is to protect the women’s sport,” Knott said. “But in this case, it’s my opinion that they’re completely removing all women. So you’re not protecting the women’s sport. You’re basically saying that this sport is not inclusive to anyone but cis men.” 

Knott and Ryan both noted the lack of evidence that trans women have any biomedical advantage over cis women when it comes to sports competition.

Ten days after the original announcement, the DGPT abruptly switched course. 

A new designation, the United Series, was created specifically for both trans and cis women who wish to compete in FPO events this year,  but only where the five FPO competitions had been canceled. Those five are now reinstated, and all FPO athletes may compete equally for the same payout. 

Pride Source queried the DGPT’s communications director regarding the cancellation and reinstatement of certain women’s events. The reply:

“I appreciate you reaching out. Unfortunately, I am not able to provide media availability at this time regarding this topic. However, I can say that the recent announcement of the United Series will allow more transgender female athletes to compete at multiple high-level events this year and the DGPT is committed to finding a sustainable path forward for our sport that celebrates and welcomes transgender athletes as gender eligibility policies evolve across the international sporting world.”

Ryan believes the reason for the partial reversal by the DGPT was the outcry expressed in blue states where the five FPO competitions would have been canceled. Cis women would be hurt, too. And that was untenable.

Ryan and other transgender women still will not be permitted to compete in FPO events this year in Missouri, Kentucky and North Carolina, states known for being hostile to trans folks and where a lawsuit would surely be unsuccessful. The mixed division events will go on as scheduled.

Pride Source asked Ryan whether she planned to compete in the United Series in the Discraft Great Lakes Open to be held Aug. 17 to 20 at the legendary Kensington Metropark Toboggan Course.

“I will be competing for sure,” Ryan said. “I will be there next week, a week early, since I’m still excluded from a different elite level event in Burlington, Kentucky.”

In response to the United Series announcement, Ryan posted the following on social media:

“While I’m beyond happy that all women will have a chance to compete in the canceled events, I’m struggling to see how the DGPT’s decision today is a good one. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly not a bad decision but choosing to discriminate sometimes rather than all the time is still a losing strategy. This new policy is nothing more than the DGPT patting themselves on the back and thanking themselves for being so ‘inclusive.’ Nevertheless, progress is progress.”

Ryan won the Great Lakes open last year. She’s looking forward to competing again and said she hadn’t looked into this year’s prize.

“I’m not really playing for the money,” Ryan said. From the very start, her intent was “to just be visible so that other trans folk could have someone to look up to, could see someone like them and root for someone that they actually kind of agree with. 

“And that was the only reason I had ever tried to do this,” she added.