Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

World Rugby forum highlights lack of consultation and double standards regarding transgender athletes

Posted on 10 September 2020 by Becky Thompson
Photo: CA News Forum
Photo: CA News Forum

Verity Smith was the only transgender rugby player present at the World Rugby forum that was about transgender women playing rugby. A wheelchair rugby athlete himself, Smith says rugby has always been an inclusive and open sport. 

Smith is a member of International Gay Rugby (IGR) and was present at the forum as an advocate for trans players. 

However, the forum ended up being nothing like what Smith was expecting. 

“Because we already had the policies in place, I, myself thought that it was going to be looking at how to make it easier for the application process, how to get people more educated, how to let people know that these policies exist and how they can get involved in sport.”

He explained that when he walked into the room, things had very clearly shifted in a different direction. 

“The way people were talking and who had been invited into that process. It’s supposed to be fair and open because there’s always going to be different sides to the information.

“But, allowing people that don’t even believe that trans people should exist into a space where they’ve got no information on sports, for me, it was taking a step back and it’s not moving forward.”

Participants from the World Rugby forum on transgender women. Photo: World Rugby
Participants from the World Rugby forum on transgender women. Photo: World Rugby

The inclusion policy that is currently in place in rugby is the International Olympic Committee (IOC) policy which was established in 2003. 

And, as Smith says, transgender athletes have been competing for years with no issues and there are currently no reported injuries by trans women in the UK.

“We don’t know in regards to other unions, but we’ve not had any reports, but I’m sure that if something did happen we would have seen it in the headlines. And this hasn’t happened. 

“So why start making it more difficult for a marginalized group of people that are already struggling to get involved in sport. 

“We know sport helps with mental health. It offers social skills, a family and a support network that people don’t necessarily get.”

While World Rugby will be announcing their decision on their proposed guidelines after a vote by all the unions in November, a critical issue to the debate is that no transgender women rugby players were consulted at the forum. 

The consultation process, however, is still ongoing with World Rugby asking unions to speak to their members and give feedback on the proposal.

As the only trans rugby player present at the initial forum, Smith says the voices that need to be heard do not include his. 

“No trans women were actually involved in this. And in the lead up to it, none of them were asked what their thoughts were, what their views are.

“They’re not even asking or speaking or working with the people that are involved, if they did this with a person of colour and stopped them playing, what would be said?”

National federations around the world have been reviewing the guidelines since their proposal, with countries like New Zealand saying they may have to be taken into account. 

However, others are taking a stand against it.

On September 3, Rugby Canada announced that they would not be adopting the new proposed policy from World Rugby if it is ratified. 

“Rugby Canada has completed their feedback submission to World Rugby as part of the consultative process regarding circulated draft transgender guidelines,” a statement on their website reads. 

“The submission included the full version of Rugby Canada’s Trans Inclusion Policy, as well as documented lived experiences of Canadian rugby trans participants that were consulted as part of the feedback process.”

Photo: International Gay Rugby
Photo: International Gay Rugby

In addition to the lack of consultation of transwomen, the process has highlighted a double standard when it comes to discussing trans men and trans women in sport.

Many say that this is due to the fact that cis women are perceived as weaker than cis men, meaning if someone transitions from female to male, they don’t have advantages over the men. 

Whereas if someone transitions from male to female, they are perceived to have advantages over the women they are competing with and against. 

Smith explained that testosterone and hormone therapy affects everyone differently, but the rules in place don’t examine individual cases. 

“For trans men, as soon as you’ve had one amount of testosterone or one piece of gel, you’ve got to go straight to a men’s team. Everybody’s bodies are very different. They may have different receptors, that testosterone might not have the same effects.

“Years ago, they used to have a two-year transitional period, which I think they should do now. So that gives someone time to make their own choices without being forced into having a label and saying, you’ve got to go here.

“People are going to be very different in regards to how their transition looks, not everybody’s transition is the same.”

Unfortunately for Smith, he suffered a severe back injury which came before he was able to go and play for the men’s team, but he says that each player should be given the opportunity to play for the team where they feel most like themselves. 

Going forward, more conversations and research is a key part of this process. 

“For trans women, they’re making it so much harder. And they’re not actually talking to them. Trans men seem to have just disappeared from the conversation, no one’s wanting to discuss that. 

“But for trans women, they’re just in the limelight and they’re just getting hit constantly by hate groups, by not being allowed in women’s only spaces and now they’re not allowed to play sports. 

Smith will stay involved as an advocate for trans inclusion in rugby, but is firm about the need to include female trans voices in the process

When it comes down to a discussion around safety in rugby, Smith also explained that closer examination of all levels and genders need to be assessed. 

“They allow Premiership men’s rugby players when they retire to go play club rugby where they can wipe the floor with people. And there’s not an issue with that and it’s just like, where’s it going to end?”

Rugby has always been a contact sport with different sizes and body types able to play. 

Smith explained that at the forum, most people in the discussions were not aware of the number of transgender female athletes playing in the UK. 

According to him, there is only one in England and one in Wales. 

“There’s no injuries present and nothing’s been properly looked into, and they don’t even have the facts.

“We need people to do the research. But why remove the policy before it’s even done [the research], just because they think that something could happen when we know nothing has happened previously.

“We all know how rough rugby is played. We need it to be safe. And we need it to be safe for everybody.”