The first time Natalie Ryan played the sport of disc golf, she knew there was something special happening in her life. It was six years ago and she was on her second date with her partner.
“My partner actually got me into the game,” Ryan explained. “I fell in love, you know, pretty much instantly. There’s nothing quite like watching someone throw a frisbee really far in the woods. It’s just so cool.”
Disc golf has been around since the 1970s. The sport is played like the game of golf, but the athlete throws a disc at a target.
Ryan, 29, has been competing professionally as her full-time job for the past few years across the country. Ryan, who is a trans athlete, has competed with other women.
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“There is no better feeling,” Ryan said.
The sport has brought Ryan some of the greatest highs of her life and also some of the lowest moments. At the start of 2023, the Professional Disc Golf Association — which sanctions more than 3,500 events and has 80,000 competitive disc golfers across the world among its membership, according to its website — chose to change the rules for play related to gender-based divisions.
The new rules in the leading professional league for disc golf athletes banned Ryan from playing in some tournaments because she did not begin transition during puberty or before age 12.
Ryan was banned from some tournaments she had already played in successfully in past years. One of those tournaments was the 2023 Preserve Championship in Clearwater, Minn., where Ryan wanted to compete in the female competition.
“I was heartbroken,” Ryan said. “I don’t play for the money, I don’t play for the fame, I play so that I could give trans folks a person to root for.”
A Minnesota judge eventually granted Ryan the right to play in the Minnesota tournament through an injunction. The tournament was held at the end of last month, and Ryan placed 18th out of 52 women.
Ryan does not live in Minnesota. However her attorney, Nicholas May, says the court battle will continue in Minnesota and potentially other states until the association eliminates discriminatory rules around gender. Ryan is suing the organization for violating the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
“We are asking that in Minnesota that this policy be null and void and thrown out,” May said.
May added that inconsistent and discriminatory gender rules have caused Ryan to miss out on monetary prizes and endorsements, as well as caused emotional harm.
The association declined to comment to MPR News based on the ongoing lawsuit. The association’s website contains the results of a survey which found that most of its professional women members who responded feel that transgender women should not be allowed to compete with cisgender women in disc golf and in other sports. The organization said it wants to have an inclusive sport, but also values fairness.
The PDGA went on to cancel some upcoming female division tournaments because they feared further legal action would drain their resources, according to a statement on its website.
Professor T. Anansi Wilson is the founding director of the Center for The Study of Black Life and The Law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Wilson said there are similarities the court is considering between Ryan’s case, and others like that of powerlifter JayCee Cooper, who sued in 2021 and won earlier this year after being denied the chance to compete in women’s powerlifting by USA Powerlifting officials.
The judge in that Ramsey County case ordered USA Powerlifting to immediately stop discriminating according to sexual identity and to revise their policies.
“The judge is telling this league, it’s highly likely they are in violation of the law,” Wilson said about Ryan’s Wright County case. “I’m also really worried not just about those who can afford to fight these cases, but those that could never afford to bring this suit. And that’s going to be low-income Black trans women.”
Ryan said she will continue pursuing legal action for all trans athletes. While the challenges have weighed on her, personally, Ryan said she feels the support of many people who have encouraged her to keep up the fight.
“The best thing I can say is that we’re going to win, eventually,” Ryan said. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes, it doesn’t matter how many times we have to fight this, they’re going to lose, and we’re going to be able to play every sport, everywhere.”