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World Rugby's transgender ban a 'dangerous precedent,' critics say

The sport’s international governing body issued new guidelines barring trans women from playing women’s contact rugby due to “player welfare risks.”
Rugby player Grace McKenzie.
Rugby player Grace McKenzie.Jackie Finlan

Two years ago, Grace McKenzie thought team sports were no longer an option for her. As a transgender woman, McKenzie said she didn’t think she’d be allowed to play after transitioning and was “pretty sad” because she has been a lifelong athlete.

McKenzie, 26, said she was surprised when a player invited her to a practice with the Golden Gate Women’s Rugby Club in San Francisco. She went and has “never looked back,” because “the entire team was extremely welcoming and inclusive.”

Now her sport is has become less welcoming to elite players. On Oct. 9, World Rugby, the sport's governing body, released new guidelines that bar transgender women from playing rugby internationally because of "player welfare risks."

McKenzie described the move as “a slap in the face.”

The updated regulations are among the most exclusionary policies for transgender athletes instituted by an international federation to date. They are a departure from major governing bodies’ policies on trans inclusion, including the International Olympic Committee’s rules that permit trans women to compete in the Olympics provided they maintain a certain testosterone level for 12 months prior to competition.

World Rugby’s new policy comes on the heels of other efforts to restrict trans women from playing women’s sports. In September, a group of Republican senators introduced a bill that would make it a federal civil rights violation for transgender girls to compete in women’s athletics. At the state level, the Department of Education threatened to withdraw funding from Connecticut school districts that permit trans girls to compete with cisgender (nontransgender) girls, and Idaho attempted to enact legislation over the summer banning trans women and girls from playing women’s sports. A number of high-profile female athletes, including the runner Paula Radcliffe and the tennis star Martina Navratilova, have also recently condemned the inclusion of trans women in women’s competitions.

However, in the days since the new rugby guidelines were published, McKenzie has been joined by a chorus of athletes, national rugby governing bodies and researchers who have spoken out to say that the regulations do not reflect the culture of women’s rugby, that scientific evidence does not support the restrictions and that the guidelines perpetuate pernicious myths about transgender women in sports.

National rugby unions that represent the top teams in the sport — including those in New Zealand, England, Canada and the United States — rejected the ban, stating either in advance of the new guidelines or when they were published that they do not agree with the rule, that it does not align with their policies for the inclusion of trans athletes and/or that they would not enforce it domestically or at varying levels of play.

World Rugby said in a statement that the 45-page guidance was published after “a comprehensive and consultative review with multiple experts” and that transgender men would still be permitted to play on men’s teams.

“While the guideline applies to all World Rugby tournaments at the international level, the respective national unions who have jurisdiction at domestic level will be able to exercise flexibility in their application based on national requirements,” the statement said.

In a section with guidelines for trans women, the regulations state that trans women who transitioned before puberty would be permitted to play women’s rugby “subject to confirmation of medical treatment and the timing thereof.” However, this does not reflect the realities of coming out as trans nor the accessibility of gender-affirming care, according to Joanna Harper, a researcher studying trans women athletes at England’s Loughborough University.

Harper, a trans woman herself, said, “Technically, no one starts medical transition prior to puberty.” For many transgender individuals, she added, “the process of going through puberty made us realize we were trans.”

Multiple requests from NBC News to interview officials from World Rugby were not fulfilled.

‘Welcomed fully into the team’

When McKenzie, who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, started playing rugby, she had a quick initiation into the sport from the pitch to the locker room.

Because she is transgender, McKenzie had to be medically cleared before she could play. This entailed abiding by USA Rugby’s guidelines and notifying her coaches, who had to get permission from the league. The process was relatively fast, and four days after her first practice, McKenzie played in a game.

“I had literally no idea what was going on,” McKenzie told NBC News. “I was lucky to catch an errant bounce from a kick from the opposing team out of the wing and actually scored a try in my first game, so that was pretty wild to me.”

Later in the season, when the team was in the locker room after a game, McKenzie told her teammates that she is trans.

“I made the choice to come out openly to my teammates during that, and it was a really sort of heartwarming experience,” she said, adding that she was “welcomed fully into the team regardless of my identity, so that really meant a lot to me.”

Naima Reddick greets a young fan.
Naima Reddick greets a young fan.Mike Lee

Rugby’s ethos as a “come one, come all” sport is what appealed to Naima Reddick — who recently retired after playing for USA Rugby in the Women's Rugby World Cup in 2010, 2014 and 2017 — when she started playing the sport two decades ago. Today, it’s one of reasons why Reddick, who is cisgender, feels World Rugby’s decision to bar trans women “was made in a room without the input or without any weight given to the input of the women it was going to affect.”

Earlier this year, World Rugby announced it had convened a working group to review its policies for trans inclusion, which were previously based on the IOC’s regulations. Unions then submitted their own feedback on behalf of their constituencies at the end of the summer, ahead of a November board meeting in which members were going to vote on a policy. However, the guidelines were released ahead of the meeting, according to Reddick.

Harper, who had advised the IOC on its policies, was invited to participate in the working group and present her research to World Rugby. She said she felt the organizers' decision to allocate more time and the first and last speaking spots to presenters who supported the ban was "indicative of their mindset" going into the process.

Fair Play for Women, a United Kingdom-based group advocating for the exclusion of trans women from women’s sports, participated in the working group. The group presented in favor of the ban, calling for the need to determine “who’s in and who’s out.” Critics of trans inclusion in women’s sports argue that trans women have an unfair advantage conferred by physiology, a position that has been contested by a long list of scholars and women’s rights organizations.

In July, The Guardian reported on a draft of the guidelines, which prompted McKenzie to start a petition garnering over 18,000 signatures calling on World Rugby to reconsider what McKenzie described as a “pre-emptive” policy, given that no known trans woman has ever competed at the national or international level of the sport.

“We’re not dominating the sport. We’re not taking away opportunities from cis[gender] athletes,” she said.

Reddick said there are gender inequalities in the sport that women would like to see addressed, but they are unrelated to the presence of transgender athletes.

“We don’t have the same financial backing. We don’t have the same field time, airtime, media and advertising. We don’t have any of the same support as the men’s game, but you want to protect us? Protect us from what? I don’t need protection from the women on my team,” Reddick said.

‘A conjuring of the needed science’

Several researchers who study the science of gender and sport told NBC News that there is not sufficient evidence that supports World Rugby’s conclusions and cautioned that science has historically been used opportunistically to discriminate against marginalized individuals.

Presently, there is not a clear, consistent relationship between testosterone levels and athleticism, which means that sports’ governing bodies are creating policies that justify exclusion in advance of science, according to Katrina Karkazis, a cultural anthropologist, bioethicist and co-author of “Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography.”

“There’s kind of either a conjuring of the needed science by people who are already supportive of these particular kinds of policies or a reading of the science through that particular lens,” said Karkazis, who is currently a senior visiting fellow at Yale Law School's Global Health Justice Partnership and a visiting professor of gender and sexuality studies at Emory University.

World Rugby, however, asserts its new guidance is backed by science, saying in a statement emailed to NBC News that “the available evidence in relation to testosterone suppression does not currently support transwomen playing full contact international rugby on safety grounds.”

While related, “testosterone is not a uniform driver of muscle strength,” and physiological differences “in and of themselves” do not cause injuries, Karkazis said.

World Rugby released a document summarizing the research used to reach its decision, including comparing performance ranges of “biological males and females.” The document states the data did not include transgender women who play rugby.

According to the guidelines, World Rugby compared the “forces and inertia” that a “smaller and slower player” would face against a “much larger, faster player” to calculate the risk.

But, according to Harper, this calculation is not based on gender — it’s “based on size differential between two players, and they're not taking any of that data from trans women.”

“The positions in rugby are designed so that some of the positions are filled by very big strong people and some of the positions are filled with much smaller, fast people,” Harper said. “So, this size difference is actually an inherent part of the game. That doesn’t seem to bother rugby, unless of course it’s a trans woman who’s bigger.”

Experts told NBC News that the guidelines incorrectly assume that trans women have the same athletic attributes as cisgender men, which overlooks the lived experiences of trans women, who face discrimination and barriers to participation, omits the impact of hormone therapy and gender affirming medical care on athletic performance, and ignores individual differences in peoples’ biology.

“Why is everyone assuming that a trans woman is like a professional football player size?” Reddick said. “I never met this mythical 6-foot-3, 250-pound trans woman that everybody keeps saying is going to come play and ruin it for me, but I can tell you that I run my 5-foot-5 180-pound body through a whole lot of people.”

‘A very dangerous precedent’

The ban on trans women in elite and international women’s rugby has led to questions about the implications for all women playing the sport and fears that it will have wider consequences for the safety of trans women.

When gendered regulations are applied to sports, they can lead to the policing of any woman who doesn’t fit norms, particularly for women who already face greater scrutiny, according to Karkazis.

For women’s rugby athletes playing in countries with legislation that protects trans individuals from discrimination or whose unions have trans-inclusive policies that contradict World Rugby, it is unclear how the guidelines will play out on the world stage. Reddick said she fears it will create a ceiling for trans women, who may not be selected to advance in the sport if they are not permitted to participate at the highest levels.

There are concerns beyond rugby that the policy could have a cascading effect on other sports' governing bodies and make the climate for trans people more dangerous.

“I would say this is a very dangerous precedent on a number of levels, not only for international and national sport governing bodies but even when we look to this current election and the overall climate around the world for trans people and especially trans women,” Anne Lieberman, the director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, an organization promoting LGBTQ inclusion in athletics, told NBC News.

For McKenzie, the consequences are both personal and far-reaching. She fears she’ll lose a safe and affirming community and that the new guidelines will deprive a future generation of trans women of playing a sport with a diverse community that “showed me that the definition of what a woman is is very broad.”

“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 said. “I think that’s sort of the larger tragedy that’s coming up.”

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