Keep Rugby Open to Trans Women Athletes

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On July 19th, 2020, The Guardian reported on a leaked draft document from World Rugby outlining recommended changes to their inclusion policy for transgender athletes. Citing “safety concerns”, the 38-page document – produced by a working group that included anti-trans campaign organization Fair Play For Womenargues that trans women should be banned from playing organized rugby altogether. This recommendation is at odds with a longstanding World Rugby policy based on guidance from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), that has allowed trans women to compete without issue for nearly two decades if they undergo appropriate medical transition including testosterone-suppressing drugs. 

World Rugby claims to have based their recommendations on the “latest science”, however, two of three research scientists present during the working group meeting frequently express transphobic views online and in the media. The two are co-authors on a recent unpublished paper pending peer review which they say provides evidence that trans women retain physical advantages in sport following testosterone suppression. However, the main supporting study was conducted on an extremely small sample of 11 non-athlete trans women without a control group of cis women, and focused only on changes in an isolated muscle group as an indicator of performance, ignoring or misrepresenting numerous other factors that greatly affect athletic performance such as hemoglobin levels and VO2 max. The medical and scientific community more broadly does not support these two researchers’ conclusion that trans women have an “unfair advantage” in women’s sports. In contrast, during a legal battle against a discriminatory anti-trans law in Idaho this year, Joshua Safer, MD and Executive Director of the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at Mount Sinai in New York, offered his expert medical opinion on the inclusion of transgender women in sports by stating, “[T]here is currently no evidence that [...] stronger bones, tendons, and ligaments, larger hearts, and greater lung volume [...] actually are advantages when not accompanied by high levels of testosterone." Under legal oath he states, "After a transgender woman lowers her level of testosterone, there is no inherent reason why her physiological characteristics related to athletic performance should be treated differently from the physiological characteristics of a non-transgender woman."

The weaponization of “science” to marginalize and exclude minority communities is not new; neither is the attitude of scrutiny toward transgender athletes. Trans women specifically face higher rates of discriminatory policies than almost any other minority community at this time. Trans women who experience systemic discrimination face statistically higher rates of psychological distress, anxiety, and depression. While participation in athletics and organized sports has been shown to contribute positively to the wellbeing of athletes, these discriminatory policies threaten to take that resource away from a population that stands to benefit most from inclusion. 

World Rugby promotes itself as an inclusive sport. Its own governing document, the World Rugby Laws of the Game, lists “A Sport For All” as its first guiding principle in the foundation of those laws. Rugby is a game designed to be accessible to bodies of all shapes and sizes. On a typical squad, the physical difference between a scrumhalf and a prop can often be multiple feet of height and dozens of pounds, however, the rules of the sport and proper training ensure that all players can engage in contact safely. Moreover, women’s rugby has historically been an inclusive and welcoming community for LGBTQ individuals, including players who exist along the diverse spectrum of gender identities. Denying transgender women the right to participate is a harmful and unsupported action rooted in transphobia and poor science. 

We call on World Rugby to reconsider its recommendation and remain aligned with IOC guidelines on the inclusion of transgender athletes, support an evidence-based investigation into injury risk from trans women inclusion, open a meaningful dialogue with transgender rugby players around the world, and keep rugby open to all as it was intended to be, including trans women.