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Excluding trans women from rugby doesn't feel right

By Stella Mills

Trending on RugbyPass

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In 2020, World Rugby was the first international federation to create a policy that specifically excluded trans women from competing at elite level in women’s sports. Player safety was considered central to this decision, with the governing body citing that trans women have “Size, force-and power-producing advantages” over their cis female counterparts, resulting in increased risks to player safety.

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Rugby is a sport that’s well known for its inclusivity, it is widely praised by many for the fact that people of all shapes and sizes can find a place on the field. Therefore, this decision is understandably a highly divisive one and one which continues to stir debate.

Those that support the decision reference scientific research which suggests transgender female athletes possess an unfair advantage over their cis female counterparts due to their biological makeup. Specifically, the research suggests the lowering of testosterone only reduces trans womens’ athletic performance by five to ten per cent when compared to pre-transition performance.

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Those that disagree with the ruling argue that hormone therapy is enough to mitigate differences in performance and that the decision is transphobic in nature.

USA D2 rugby player Grace McKenzie, an American trans athlete, told RugbyPass that her performance has altered greatly since her transition: “Your body completely changes when you go through a transition, as a result of hormone therapy. Pre-transition I used to be able to squat 185lb, now I can only manage 90lb. This isn’t due to a lack of training, I still train hard for my sport, it’s because my body has changed physically.”

Grace McKenzie

Trans rugby player Grace McKenzie (L) who plays D2 rugby in the US

“The reality is every trans women’s physiology is different in the same way that every cis women’s physiology is different.”

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Due to the contact nature of the game, rugby raises specific concerns which are not necessarily present when evaluating other, non-contact, sports. For example, in Olympic lifting, weightlifters compete as individuals. Therefore, they do not ever physically come up against each other, the only individual they can cause injury to would be themselves, so the rules could potentially be applied differently here.

This is particularly important considering the recent decision to allow Laurel Hubbard, a transgender athlete, to compete at the Olympics. Criticism for this decision is rooted in fairness and equality, whilst World Rugby’s ruling was couched in a player safety argument.

Player safety in rugby is the number one issue on everyone’s lips– but has the discussion been had with cis female players regarding their thoughts on this? Do they really feel like they are at a competitive disadvantage playing against trans women?

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The answer to this remains unclear.

Grace did acknowledge that World Rugby had interviewed a small section of international players, but most declined to give a straight opinion because they were unsure. I suspect this is down to a lack of education on the issue. Players need to be presented with all the facts, opinions and arguments to enable them to make a fully informed decision.

I, even with the scientific evidence stacking up in favour of the ruling, still don’t feel entirely comfortable supporting it. Idealistically, we should be guided by scientific research. However, for me, it still doesn’t feel like the best option. There must be a way to design the game, so it is safe and inclusive for everyone.

Defending World Rugby’s decision, Jon Pike, writing in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport made an interesting point in his  recent research paper on the subject: “World Rugby is uniquely fitted for the role of protecting rugby and rugby players: it is not uniquely placed for the role of securing a world free of discrimination against trans people.”

The player safety argument is a strong one, especially in a sport like rugby. However, if the science is so solid in its findings that an international federation feels confident to make a landmark decision based on them, it does beg the question as to why transgender women are still being actively encouraged to play the sport.

Just a few weeks ago the French Rugby Federation (FFR) board voted unanimously to overturn World Rugby’s guidelines and will allow trans women to compete in domestic tournaments next season. FFR president Serge Simon referred to the nature of rugby, stating it is an “inclusive, sharing sport, without distinction of sex, gender, origin or religion”.

As the FFR demonstrated there is clearly room for manoeuvre here. National unions are allowed to be flexible in how they apply guidelines and recommendations.

We are still in the embryonic stages of this debate; more research needs to be completed, and most importantly everyone involved in the game, from grassroots and up, needs to be presented with all the facts to come to a fully informed opinion.

Difficult conversations must be had, that is how we evolve and learn as a society, more so it is how we make improvements to the world we live in.

It is also important to consider the knock-on effects of this decision for lower levels of the sport. It is possible that this thinking could filter down into the grassroots level, if this is the case; is it fair that younger transgender children will be excluded from the game? This is particularly pertinent given that just a few days ago the Swedish Athletics Association announced that young transgender children have the right to choose which gender team they want to play with.

It is important that more education and awareness on this subject is rolled out into the community. I think most people, like I was before, are too nervous to speak out on the issue because they are not educated enough to make an informed opinion on it. It is controversial for a reason.

We must work hard to carve a place out in our game for these women. Currently, under World Rugby’s rulings, transgender women have no place in the game, and for a sport that repeatedly brands itself as a fair and inclusive community, this doesn’t sit right.

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Excluding trans women from rugby doesn't feel right

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