Rugby latest battleground for trans women as England breaks ranks

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A ban on transgender women competing in international rugby matches will not stop them playing the women’s game in England, the sport’s governing body said on Wednesday in the latest split over trans competitors in sport.

World Rugby, which controls international matches, banned trans women from international female games last week, saying they were a risk to fellow players.

But trans women will still compete in English women’s matches if they maintain testosterone levels below a certain level for a year, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) said.

More evidence, it said, was needed to justify a full ban.

The issue of trans competitors in women’s sport is hotly debated, with opponents saying it is impossible to keep competition safe and fair.

Supporters say the evidence does not support a ban.

“The RFU does not currently plan to adopt World Rugby transgender guidelines as it believes further scientific evidence is required,” a spokeswoman for the RFU, which has about 37,000 registered female players, said via email.

“The RFU is committed to LGBTQ+ inclusion as well as safety and fairness across all levels of the game,” she added.

World Rugby justified its ban by saying the hormones that trans women take to lower their testosterone do not override the physical benefits already accrued in male puberty.

Level playing field 

Eight Australian federations, including those for tennis and Australian Rules football, issued guidelines to encourage the participation of trans athletes earlier this month.

Rugby Australia now requires trans athletes get a medical specialist to complete a consent form that specifies their “physical development, skill level and experience are appropriate” for full-contact sport.

Rugby Canada said in September that trans athletes would continue to compete freely, with no requirement for them to take hormones or disclose their transgender status.

Olympic guidelines in place since 2015 say trans women can compete in women’s sport if they keep their testosterone levels below 10 nanomoles per litre. Many sports bodies, including RFU, now use a level of 5 nanomoles.

Verity Smith, a trans man who plays wheelchair rugby league having previously played women’s rugby, called England’s stance “a massive step forward for inclusion within the game”.

Smith said a tackle by a 5-foot-tall player born female had caused the injury that put him in a wheelchair and there were no reports of injury caused by trans women in the women’s game.

But Fair Play For Women, which campaigns against trans women in women’s sport, said the international ban put safety top of its agenda in a sport that carries a heavy injury toll.

“World Rugby has put the safety of its professional female players first,” the group tweeted. “If the RFU don’t do the same then thousands of amateur players will be left asking why they don’t deserve the same protections.”