World Rugby is considering banning trans women from playing women’s rugby over safety concerns linked to recent research. If it decided to enforce the ban, it would be the first international sports federation to prohibit trans women from competing.
World Rugby said that it was committed to “ensuring a safe and inclusive playing environment at all levels of the game”.
The federation currently follows guidelines set by the International Olympic Committee in relation to trans athletes.
In February, a World Rugby transgender workshop sought a “comprehensive review” for the sport, bringing together experts to look at a “rugby-specific framework for all, prioritising athlete welfare, inclusion and fairness”.
According to a leaked copy of the 38-page draft report, there is likely to be “at least a 20-30% greater risk” of injury when a female player is tackled by someone who has gone through male puberty. It also indicates that the latest science indicates trans women retain “significant” physical advantages over biological women.
The workshop was divided about how to incorporate trans women into rugby
The report continues: “Current policies regulating the inclusion of transgender women in sport are based on the premise that reducing testosterone to levels found in biological females is sufficient to remove many of the biologically-based performance advantages. However, peer-reviewed evidence suggests this is not the case.”
Experts in the workshop were divided about how best to incorporate trans women into rugby.
Dr Nicola Williams, director of the women’s rights advocacy group Fair Play for Women, said: “The sensitivity around this issue around transgender issues, and the fear that people would be called transphobic for raising concerns has meant that most sporting bodies have buried their head in the sand on this. So, World Rugby must really be commended for their bravery and integrity, for tackling this head-on and following a science-based approach.”
The advice proposed could change if the scientific evidence shifts
However, Joanna Harper, a medical physicist at Loughborough University and herself a transgender woman, said: “I certainly understand all of that and I think putting restrictions on trans-women is a reasonable thing to do, but I certainly don’t agree with this idea of an outright ban.”
The draft document acknowledges that the advice proposed by the working group could change if the scientific evidence shifts. It also recommends that trans men should be allowed to play against biological men, but only if they undergo a physical assessment and sign a consent form.
In a statement to BBC Sport, World Rugby said: “The latest peer-reviewed research confirms that a reduction of testosterone does not lead to a proportionate reduction in mass, muscle mass, strength or power. These important determinants of injury risk and performance remain significantly elevated after testosterone suppression.
“This presents a clear safety risk when transgender women play women’s contact rugby and this position is reflected within draft guidelines that are currently out for stakeholder consultation prior to the World Rugby Council considering the matter later this year.
“Rugby is an inclusive and welcoming sport and World Rugby is fully committed to continuing to work with relevant groups to explore appropriate participation pathways for transgender athletes and is funding further research into the safe participation of all players in rugby. This is in addition to extensive non-contact participation avenues that are available to everyone at union level.”
No-one should be denied the lifesaving power of sport
– Athlete Ally
The potential move has been criticised by several advocacy groups. The LGBT+ sporting organisation Athlete Ally said in a statement: “Today, as World Rugby considers an outright ban on trans women athletes, we urge the World Rugby Working Group to draw from already existing inclusion policies developed by medical experts and designed to promote safety and fairness for all, such as the IOC guidelines which have been in place for years without issue.
“Trans women play sports for the same reason cisgender women do: for the love of the game, and the love of the lifelong community it brings. No-one should be denied the lifesaving power of sport.”
Cardiff Lions, Wales’ first gay-inclusive rugby team, also slammed the proposals. On social media, the club wrote: “After reading a leaked document from World Rugby which proposes the ban of trans women from rugby we stand with the trans community and strongly disagree with this proposal. We feel this is wholly unjust and abhorrent.”
It’s another barrier for the trans community to face, it’s just not acceptable
– Gareth Waters
The team’s chairman, Gareth Waters, said: “It’s detrimental because all trans women have had, in order to play rugby, barriers to getting through such as ensuring that their testosterone levels are low enough and that their oestrogen levels are high enough, in order for them to be able to play.
“That is not the right message to be sending at all. We should be doing what we can and working with the unions, to ensure that rugby is still an inclusive sport and that there is an area for trans people if they wish to join. It’s another barrier for the trans community to face, it’s just not acceptable.”
A decision is expected to be finalised when unions vote on the proposals at a World Rugby Council meeting in November.