By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
Back in 2020, World Rugby, the governing body of international competitive rugby, announced an updated to their guidelines regarding athletes who identify as transgender women. Their “Transgender Guidelines” simply state that trans women “may not currently play women’s rugby” and include a long list of their arguments to justify their policy. While they present a bunch of bullet points and statistics, it is important to note that none of their sources are cited and there are no clear references to back up their claims. As is typical with anti-trans athlete arguments, their reasoning is based on junk science that is not representative nor based in reality but rather rooted in transphobia and more deeply, a desire to regulate women’s bodies.
Sadly, that has not stopped World Rugby from doubling down on its policies that have also imposed restrictions on trans men. Policies that use outdated and incorrect language, representative of their perception of reality, to state that trans men are only permitted to play in the men’s division “after the process of sex reassignment has begun, if this reassignment includes supplementation with testosterone.” They also require trans men to undergo a risk assessment to “ensure they are not putting themselves at an unacceptable level of risk when playing against men.”
When World Rugby announced these… policy changes, sports diversity leaders and activists around the world spoke out against the policy, especially given updates to the International Olympic Committee’s policies regarding trans/nonbinary/intersex athletes. Unfortunately, World Rugby’s ban is still in place and national governing bodies (NGBs) around the world have implemented similar bans within their own organizations and continue to do so. The latest being the Scottish Rugby Union whose ban went into effect on February 1st, 2023. While Scottish Rugby Union claims that the ban is based on “current research in line with World Rugby’s policy”, it is clear that the policy makers are not conducting any research nor have any basic understanding of the principles of the scientific method. There is currently no research that definitively supports any restrictions or bans on trans athletes from playing in the gender division that aligns with their gender identity.
Our statement on @Scotlandteam‘s updated Gender Participation Policy.
— LEAP Sports Scotland (@LEAPsports) January 24, 2023
As the current rise of transphobia in western countries, more and more sport national governing bodies across a wide variety of sports are imposing blanket bans on trans athletes which, again have no scientific basis in reality, but seek to severely restrict and discourage trans people from participating in sport altogether. The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee released its own statement clarifying its position on transgender athlete participation, stating that “It is not fair if athletes cannot participate or compete in sport because of their gender identity – participation in sport should be available to everyone.”
The statement also acknowledges that more research is required in the field, of which it’s important to note from the author of this article, as a research scientist himself, that in order for more research on trans athletes to be done, we need to have trans athletes out there for whom we can have as participants for said research. Thus, blanket bans are not just limiting people’s access to the physical, mental, and social benefits of sport, but also limiting participants to conduct research to answer the very questions that transphobes are asking.
Many organizations, such as International Gay Rugby (IGR) and Rugby For All have continued to speak out for keeping rugby open and inclusive to everybody while keeping the pressure on the likes of World Rugby, NGBs, and other organizations in challenging their restrictive policies. They also offer resources and, in the case of IGR, opportunities for trans/nonbinary/intersex athletes to get involved with rugby and continue to play. The most important challenge to the discriminatory policies is through participation, truly showing that the arguments, fears, and misinformation often peddled to justify discrimination are false, simply through the act of playing rugby. LGBTQ+ sports organizations and events, such as International Gay Rugby and the biennial Bingham Cup have been doing this for decades and will continue to do so, regardless.