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Rugby league joins clampdown on transgender athletes in women's sport

The International Rugby League said it needed to further consult and balance transgender participation against “perceived risk” to other players.
The England women's national rugby team
The England women's national rugby team warms up before a match in Warrington, England, on June 18.Charlotte Tattersall / Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

The International Rugby League (IRL) banned transgender players from women’s international competition on Tuesday until further notice, following global swimming’s decision to restrict trans athletes’ participation at the elite level.

The league said it needed to further consult and balance transgender participation against “perceived risk” to other players.

“Until further research is completed to enable the IRL to implement a formal transgender inclusion policy, male-to-female (trans women) players are unable to play in sanctioned women’s international rugby league matches,” the IRL said in a statement.

The ban, which comes after FINA voted on Sunday to restrict transgender athletes in elite women’s swimming, was condemned by transgender advocates and sportspeople.

“It’s disappointing. We’re human beings the same as everyone else,” transgender woman Caroline Layt, who played elite women’s rugby league in Australia after transitioning, said.

“It just tells trans kids and trans adults that you’re not worthy. Don’t even bother. Don’t even bother showing up. What’s the point?”

Other sports have policies restricting transgender athletes in top women’s competition, including rugby union, cycling and Australian Rules football.

The International Olympic Committee, however, said in November that no athlete should be excluded from competition on the grounds of a perceived unfair advantage, while leaving it up to sports federations to decide.

The International Cycling Union said last week it had tightened its eligibility rules.

Other sports are reviewing their policies.

World soccer governing body FIFA said it is in a consultation process over transgender participation while World Athletics boss Sebastian Coe praised FINA for its stance.

‘Cruel decision'

A top medical official at FINA told Reuters on Monday he hoped other sports would follow the organization’s lead.

“To my mind, FINA’s approach to this was very enlightened, it was very balanced, it was informed,” FINA’s Sports Medicine Committee vice chairman David Gerrard said.

However, U.S. soccer player Megan Rapinoe, a two-time World Cup winner and an Olympic gold medallist, said the FINA decision was “disgusting” and “cruel.”

“We’re (framing) everything through ‘God forbid a trans person be successful in sports.’ Get a grip on reality and take a step back,” she told Time magazine.

The IRL said it would work with the eight nations competing at the women’s Rugby League World Cup hosted by England in November to obtain data to inform a transgender policy in 2023.

“The IRL will continue to work towards developing a set of criteria, based on best possible evidence, which fairly balance the individual’s right to play with the safety of all participants,” the organization added.

Ian Roberts, the first elite rugby league player to come out as gay, said transgender athletes should be welcomed into the sport and likened concerns about their participation to the homophobia he experienced in the 1990s.

“This is almost like the modern day equivalent,” the 56-year-old said.

“I would have hoped we would have matured as a community and as a society beyond that. Equal is equal.”

The ban is unlikely to affect many international players in women’s rugby league.

There are no transgender players competing at the international level in the sport’s heavyweight nations Australia and New Zealand.

The governing body of Australia’s domestic National Rugby League (NRL) competition declined to comment on the international ban and said it was still formulating its own transgender policy.

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