Story at a glance
- World Rugby has effectively banned transgender women and some transgender men from playing.
- The governing body says it will consider a mixed-gender league for transgender players.
- Players and several national unions are protesting the decision.
Rugby is on the rise, according to a new report from World Rugby on the sport’s strong growth in both established and emerging rugby nations during 2019. And a large part of that unprecedented growth is driven by women, according to the sport's world governing body.
But not all women will be allowed to play, under new guidelines released last month which have banned transgender women from playing women’s rugby. Any man or woman who transitioned post-puberty and has taken testosterone during puberty or adolescence is banned from the sport. The one exception is for transgender men, who must obtain a Therapeutic Use Exemption to the league’s prohibition of testosterone use and “provide confirmation of physical ability” to play.
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World Rugby will permit transgender players to play in a currently nonexistent mixed gender category, which the organization “has committed to exploring” as an option along with its unions, associations, International Rugby Players and trans-advocate groups Gendered Intelligence and International Gay Rugby.
But national rugby unions for some of the top teams in the sport, including New Zealand, England, Canada and the United States, are rejecting the ban.
"World Rugby's guidelines don't apply to our community game here in New Zealand and we're committed to ensuring the game's inclusive and safe for all. We know there is more work to do and we want to get it right. We will be consulting more broadly and doing more work to develop guidelines that are relevant for New Zealand communities," New Zealand Rugby's Chief Transformation Officer Nicki Nicol told NZME.
"Rugby Canada has made clear that the draft guidelines, as currently presented, are not policy that can or will be adopted should they move forward. Rugby participation in Canada will continue to be guided by the existing Trans Inclusion Policy and the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms," said the Canadian Union in a statement.
In a statement, World Rugby clarified that the guidelines will apply to all World Rugby tournaments at the international level, but national unions have jurisdiction on a domestic level. The decision comes as the rights of transgender athletes are being questioned across the world and the country.
For Grace McKenzie, a transgender woman on the Golden Gate Women’s Rugby Club in San Francisco, that leaves her wondering whether she has a future in rugby. She started a petition this summer when a draft of the guideline change was leaked and has gathered more than 18,000 signatures calling to keep the sport open to transgender women.
Much of the organization's rationale is based on the risk of injury to players, as outlined in the guidelines, as well as some level of performance advantages. Experts say there is little to no scientific research about the performance of elite transgender athletes, but World Rugby cited studies indicating residual advantages for transgender women who undergo testosterone suppression.
“It’s about policing female bodies,” said Verity Smith, 39, of Britain, a transgender man who competed on women’s teams for 26 years before transitioning and was a silent observer at the World Rugby deliberations, told the New York Times. “These governing bodies automatically assume that all female-bodied athletes are not as strong as male-bodied ones, when that simply isn’t the case.”
Research also shows that access to puberty blockers can decrease the risk of suicide in transgender teens. And while that choice might save their lives, it may cost them a future in a sport they will never get to love as much as McKenzie now does.
“Trans women who are starting their journey with the game are going to be dissuaded to participate at a big level in rugby or to push their performance from going to those higher levels or to play at all,” McKenzie told NBC News. “I think that’s sort of the larger tragedy that’s coming up.”
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