World Rugby must act on the issue of transgender players
Just over a week ago BBC Sport ran an article about Kelly Morgan, who was born Nicholas Gareth Morgan, and after transitioning to a transgender female now plays in Wales for Porth Harlequins Ladies. If you doubt the divisiveness of this issue, witness the debate on social media. It is toxic even for a platform not known for civil discussion. The rugby authorities have to recognise how disruptive this issue could be, and it must be taken seriously, for many reasons.
Rugby, rightly, aims to be an inclusive sport, but this will be undermined if it does not get its policy right on the issue of transgender players. If it is not careful the agenda will be dictated by a variety of groups who do not care about the consequences for the game, provided their view prevails.
Despite there being very few transgender rugby players, the Morgan story attracted hysterical comments like: “This is the death of rugby.” I read many claims that women’s rugby will be flooded by men who suddenly decide to become transgender so that they can succeed when they could not do so in men’s rugby.
As an initial observation, men do not suddenly decide they want to become transgender women. Even a cursory glance at their stories shows the decision is taken over time, frequently years. It often provokes ridicule, exclusion and, in extreme cases, abuse and violence. It is not a trivial decision.
Many comments betray ignorance of the fact that in both men’s and women’s rugby there are disparities in the size, weight and power of players, not least because of the physical requirements of different positions. This does not automatically make rugby unsafe for smaller, lighter or less powerful players and contact sports involve the risk of injury.
These comments should not be ignored, because left unchallenged they become accepted wisdom. Women’s rugby has had to fight hard to overcome the impression that it is not suitable for females because of the collisions that are an intrinsic part of the game. This struggle will be far more difficult if people believe that transgender women render the game unsafe because of their physical superiority.
Making informed decisions about transgender females playing
rugby is hampered by a lack of scientific evidence. Current studies are confined to purely athletic measurements. There is little or no rugby specific evidence and no information on the issue of contact, which differentiates it from other sports. It is not surprising that rugby has followed athletics in its policy for transgender females, requiring them to take medication to lower their testosterone levels to a specified range before they qualify to play women’s rugby.
The problem is this is not universally accepted. Some academics claim the range is wrong and needs to be five times lower to remove physical advantages. They also point out that transgender women retain the advantages of denser bone structure, greater muscle memory and overall size. Bone density is important in rugby, as it affects the ability to absorb impacts.
It is not only the fairness of competition; rugby has the added dimension of physical safety. The case of Smoldon v Whitworth and Nolan (1997) ruled on the duty of officials and governing bodies and highlighted the issue of physical disparity when considering safety. Rugby has a duty to ensure players are as safe as is reasonably practical. Until rugby has better information on this safety issue, it would be wise to restrict transgender women to playing non-contact rugby. This would be allowed by section 195 of the Equalities Act 2010, which makes it lawful to restrict the participation of transsexual people to uphold fair or safe competition.
Two of my four daughters have played rugby and women’s rugby has my total support. It accounts for more than a quarter of the global playing population and participation in England has grown 28 per cent since 2017. These achievements could be jeopardised by just one incident of serious injury or one successful legal action caused by participation of a transgender woman.
Legally, morally and for the good of women’s rugby, World Rugby needs to act now. As soon as comprehensive research shows it is possible to put transgender female rugby players in a position where they pose no greater risk of harm than natal females, they should be able to play full contact and be welcomed into an inclusive sport that has a good record of accommodating lesbian and gay people. Those who still disagree should be honest and admit their real agenda is not safety.
For now it is wise to restrict transgender women to playing non-contact rugby