By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)

Our managing editor of sports, Dirk Smith, recently caught up with wheelchair rugby player and trans/nonbinary sport advocate, Verity Smith (no relation), to learn more about Verity and his work, especially in building more inclusive sport structures and returning to play after being one of the only people who had been severely injured playing the sport of rugby.

Dirk Smith (DS): I appreciate you taking the time to have a chat with me, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

Verity Smith (VS): Sure thing, my name is Verity, and my pronouns are he/him. I’m a trans man. I’m a rugby player and also the trans inclusion in sports manager for the Mermaids. Mermaids is a charity that supports families with young gender diverse children. Through the Mermaids we build support groups, conduct surveys, campaigning, we have a Youth Network to connect young trans people. What we do is work within the community to support young people and ensure their voices get heard. Regarding myself, I play wheelchair rugby now and prior to my accident I played professional women’s rugby for 26 years. Unfortunately, in my last game, my spinal cord was crushed during a tackle. As a result, I now play wheelchair rugby for the Leeds Rhinos. It’s not always been that easy shift either as I started playing rugby when I was 11.

Back then, I was a bit bigger than the girls at that age, but I couldn’t get any game time for under 16 or under 19s. Back then my dad was a paramedic, and they said, look, if we speak to your dad, and he agrees, would you be allowed to play an open age? So, then my dad said, “well, if she can hold her own, then go for it!” And my first game, my own coach had to play for the opposition because there were a one shot and with my first tackle, I absolutely wiped her off her feet and never looked back. I played under age for a very long time and there wasn’t much concern for health and safety back then. I played League, and Union in Yorkshire County, North of England, played all over Super League as well. I’m now back in the Super League again in another version of the game. But in regards to the work that I do now it wasn’t always that way.

DS: What happened when you started to transition?

VS: I got beaten up on the pitch whilst playing rugby, I went to play a team they took umbrage to me playing, saying that there’s a man on the team. They were getting off all those sorts of comments and lots of swear words. At one point, I went in for a tackle, handed the girl off, and she split a lip. While we were down on the floor, I called a shout out because she wouldn’t release the ball, she made that sort of noise way and as I opened my mouth to shout at the ref, she spat blood in my mouth, then her whole team went for me. While my teammates saw that go down, we had a lot of younger players who didn’t know what transgender me, but every single one of them kids took a step forward and supported me. They didn’t need to know what trans was, to them I was just their teammate. My coaches then decided to say, “either we have to let them win, or we fight this.” At the time, there were no policies for me to go on the men’s team back then there was nothing. People asked, “if you’re really a guy, why do you want to play women’s rugby?” And it’s like, does it matter where I play? I just want to play, and I’ve been with these women for 26 years.

DS: Indeed, but it appears the dynamic definitely changed after you transitioned enough for another team to notice.

I know the game inside out and a lot of people say that because I’m on testosterone I should change divisions, and all these sorts of things. But what a lot of people don’t realize is I had polycystic ovarian syndrome  for 20 years. A hysterectomy at 22 and I went through menopause at 19. So, I’ve been on testosterone on and off for over 20 years and it was never a problem until the word trans came into this. I’m not any bigger because of it, I’m actually only 5’6”, just over 12 and a half stone. I’m just more of a technical player because I played for 32 years this year and I know the game inside out. It doesn’t matter what size you are, it’s how you play the game. So, when they say trans women are going to come and take over sport, it doesn’t matter how big they are if they’ve got no technique and/or they’ve never played before. I’ve seen a lot week ins and week outs because they’d never played before against teams and people that are more technically competent in that game. So, for me being a lot smaller, I hit the headline news that “dangerous trans woman tries to infiltrate women’s rugby team. Referees are leaving the game because trans woman taken over” and first of all, one I’m a trans man, so do your research and two, speak to me before you put this information out there. I had reporters who purposefully let my dogs out of the garden just so that I come out and answer the door.

DS: Wow, that’s intense and a lot of extra s**t that most athletes will never deal with.

VS: I’ve been doxed, I’ve been put on the dark web with my personal information. But you know what, if everything that I am going through now saves one person or one child, then it’s absolutely worth it. The best thing you can do in sport is to play as your authentic self. Not having to hide who you are and having your name and pronouns respected without having been dragged off the pitch because another team told the referee that I shouldn’t be playing and I’m dangerous. That happened once at three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and you can’t get ahold of anyone from the RFU at that time, so I got removed off the pitch in front of my friends. What happened afterwards was another one of my teammates who is a lot bigger than me a lot and a lot taller than me. She was allowed to play, and she just railroaded everybody on the opposing team. I just sat there smiling. Yes, it’s just crazy. So, I decided to use my platform to make sure that other young people didn’t have go through the life that I did.

DS: When you came out, did you worry about getting kicked off the team?

VS: I got told that if I came out as trans I wouldn’t be able to play. It is hard because being a rugby player is the one thing that I had. I lost my parents when I was very young, and rugby was my go-to. So, it was going to be hard to lose that too. I had to decide between my gender identity and my athletic identity. I’m 42 now and I’ve only just started being able to be myself. I’m a trans gay man. I’ve got my partner; I also have a disability. The sport only supports my disability, but it doesn’t support my gender identity, and it doesn’t support my agenda. Thus, I am making sure that we have these conversations around what’s actually happening. It’s been a massive roller coaster ride; I’ve had teams stand in front of toilets and not let me into my own changing facilities. All because they have this preconceived perception about the way I look, I had a beard before, but I used to shave it all the time just to make things easier for myself when I played women’s rugby. Now we talk about hormones, they thought I was gonna be 6’4” with a six pack. Good luck in that I’m 5’6” and just over 12 stone,  I’ve got a dad bod and have gone bald. So, it’s definitely nothing to do with anything like that.

DS: You mentioned that using your platform to help ensure younger trans kids didn’t have to go through all this?

VS: I now work for Mermaids which, as I mentioned, is an organization built around supporting trans and nonbinary youth. Within sport, I’ve been working with different people around Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. I’ve been working with people from the International Olympic Committee and have been in the conversations regarding World Rugby. I was the only trans rugby player in the world that was allowed into that meeting, although I wasn’t allowed to speak. Sport England wasn’t allowed to speak, the International Gay Rugby wasn’t allowed to speak, but a lot of the gender criticals were allowed to speak. Then all of a sudden, we’ve got a ban before I even went to vote.

So, it’s about getting the correct information in the right spaces, and making sure people have a voice and supporters with lived experience. So that’s what I’m mainly doing at the moment. I’ve alsojust written a trans inclusion in grassroot sports training module, as well and we’ve released our first ever research regarding young gender diverse kids, and what sport means to them.

DS: Tell me a bit about Verity outside of sport?

VS: I got married to a woman to try and fit in as a gay woman so I could still play my sport. That wasn’t me. So, I’ve only just started living my life in the last five to six years, and you know what, it’s the best time of my life. I get to be myself in that sport and just living life being out there. I’m happy, I’ve got a partner, two dogs, I’ve got some red goldfish. We’re nothing exciting. We just want a normal life the same as anybody else. It’s about finding those teams, finding your tribe.

DS: I recently interviewed with another trans/nonbinary athlete activist, Salem Lemmon who brought up an important point about many of these kids being denied access to the sport and then growing up never learning how to play.

VS: Especially considering the fact that you’re having to out yourself to play as well when nobody else has to out themselves to play. Now then my only protection is the fact I’ve got my disability and wheelchair rugby is open to anybody, all genders. able bodied, disabled bodies. We need to be looking at this as well, because a lot of the research they’re using is incorrect as well. It’s a lot of opinion pieces. We’ve seen it from the Canadian Sports Institute. We’ve seen it from Monash University that works around the world, there is new research coming out as well but these gender criticals are not willing to look at them. They’re only wanting to look at the same research and opinion pieces from people because their voices are louder. Five, six years ago, we didn’t have this it was more around looking at how do we make it more inclusive? How do we get more non binary players playing? How do we support young trans people under 18? We didn’t hear this. We were working towards inclusion in the last five years, these gender critical voices have piped up and since then it’s been the worst time in our history for sport.

So, it’s about looking at what we’re doing, where that information is coming from and making sure we’re working with the community, not people from outside the community. Social media plays a massive part of this as well and if it goes into newspapers, it’s got to be correct. If it’s on social media, it’s got to be correct rather than making assumptions. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t get involved in the conversation, because it just creates more harm. Young people are seeing this. I had kids a few years ago, and we were talking about sport, and they said, how am I supposed to live, when the people I look up to hate me? They were referring to two very famous females athletes that have been pushing prejudicial stuff out there. I think that’s really sad because we need role models. How are you supposed to carry on if you don’t know what you’re going to be when you’re older? I think that plays a massive part in this as well that we’re kids need to see themselves within their sport, within their community and just within their lives as well.

DS: Last fall I almost had the chance to meet you at the Leap Sports Scotland Conference on LGBTQ+ Sport. I also remember hearing Paralympian, Robyn Love talk about her experiences as a wheelchair basketball player. She talked about how Wheelchair Basketball has become a model for gender inclusive sports with a healthy mixture of gender diverse players all playing together on the teams. Is this a similar case with Wheelchair Rugby?

VS: We’ve got one cis female on our team, there’s myself as a trans man, we’ve had an uptake on nonbinary players, younger trans players and gender diverse players not just on my team, but throughout the different leagues as well. So, it’s nice to see that is actually coming out there. I played a game in Warrington a little while ago and there’s some young gender diverse kids who asked their parents to bring them down to watch. It was nice just being able to see that and to see the difference that is making because the Wheelchair Rugby league is all genders, all abilities and disabilities, able bodied people’s, it’s for absolutely everybody. It’s great having that family back and we are seeing that change within our sport at the moment, it is so inclusive, and we are thriving. But we need to be able to then recreate that within other sports, especially when we’re talking about trans women, and they think they’re going to be bigger and better. Imagine having a Land Rover with a one-liter engine. They don’t talk about the HRT effects; they don’t go out there and assess these terms. When the four 14-year-old girls got banned by Rugby England. They were just kicked out, they had no sport, no mental health support, nothing. They are young person’s left alone with nothing to help them in any way. Sports like Wheelchair Rugby, Wheelchair Basketball, and such, these are the sort of sports where we can still get them involved, still get them playing whilst we work with these national governing bodies to have a look at what what’s happening. While we’re going through this research, why are we not actually going out there,  meeting these people and seeing them play.

Because while all of them that have been banned most are simply not the biggest on the team nor are they the best on the team. We need to start actually having some common sense and actually working with the community to actually do this while continuing to have these conversations as well. if a cis man decided that they wanted to transition and come into rugby and take over, that simply wouldn’t happen. They go through the same process as every other trans woman. They’d have to be on the hormones for an extended period of time and have to reduce their size and do everything else the same as anybody else. So no, you can’t just decide that you’re going to transition and take over the sport. It’s something that’s not out there. But again, it’s something that’s been pushed by the gender criticals in that narrative within social media despite their being no evidence or cases of it ever actually occurring.

DS: Certainly, some very important points and questions to consider there. I appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us and help us better learn. How can people connect with you and your work?

VS: Definitely follow the wheelchair rugby league. If anyone wants to get in touch through Mermaids or through myself on social media, give us a shout. If you are thinking about getting involved with the team and you are struggling to make that first step, reach out, get in touch, we’ll have that conversation and we’ll find those teams for you.

Photo Credit: Verity Smith