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Outsports Asshole of the Year: World Rugby

This year’s dishonor for doing the most harm to LGBTQ sports goes to the governing body for the sport of international rugby, awarded in this case for banning transgender women athletes. The ADF takes second place.

Shelby Weldon/Pascal le Segretain/World Rugby/Getty Images

The annual Outsports Awards are for the most part representative of our positive, uplifting perspective of LGBTQ sports and the people who play them, coach them and support them. It’s how we honor our heroes, stars, role models and other inspiring people from across the community.

All but one award reinforces the message that we have spread for 21 years: Courage Is Contagious.

But just like in life, there’s always that one asshole determined to ruin a good thing. That’s what our Asshole of the Year Award is made to do: To call out those who stand in the way of progress, equality, individuality and love.

Throughout 2020, let’s agree: we all saw a lot of assholes. Too many to count! And they made a hard year, an almost impossible year, that much harder, that much more impossible to overcome. We’re sure you have a long list of your own.

One could argue Covid-19 is the asshole of the year, given how its killed 1.76 million people worldwide and infected at least 19 million people here in the U.S., and counting. And yes, the pandemic did impact sports worldwide, including those in which gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans and queer athletes competed. But the truth is, a virus does what it does without thought, intent or malevolence. To really be an asshole, you need to be a person.

We’ll skip over those assholes who dispute what the science says about the coronavirus and the vaccines, and get right down to it: For this award, we chose the assholes who stood in the way of inclusion in LGBTQ sports in 2020. We say there was no greater asshole this year than the World Rugby organization.

In February 2020, World Rugby organized a forum to begin what its officials called “a comprehensive, collaborative and transparent review” of existing policies on women’s rugby, to determine whether transgender women athletes should compete with cisgender women.

It was organized by a World Rugby Executive Leadership Scholarship recipient and psychiatrist, Dr. Araba Chintoh. She is Canadian and a member of WR’s High Performance Rugby Committee.

A video produced by the group featuring Dr. Chintoh purports to show their intent was to be fair. We’ve asked to view the full, unedited video recording of the forum.

According to the only two transgender people present at the forum and a cis American woman representing International Gay Rugby, Prof. Megan Gottsches of the College of Charleston in S.C.:

  • Those making decisions did not hear from a single trans woman rugby player.
  • The only trans rugby player present, trans man Verity Smith, who is seen in the video as some sort of prop, was not given an opportunity to present any testimony. However, he was permitted to ask a question, and used that opportunity to inquire about a Qualtrics online survey for World Rugby, which asked cisgender players: “Are you aware of, or suspect you might have played rugby with or against a Transwoman [sic]?”
World Rugby Survey by Qualtrics Online
Screenshot from powerpoint

According to World Rugby, almost 40% of respondents answered yes, more than 25% said no, and 35% said they were unsure.

Smith’s question was: “What does a trans athlete look like?”

Word got out in July that the group had come up with a recommendation to ban trans athletes.

To fight the proposal, Outsports put together a series of stories in August 2020 featuring trans women rugby players. Click here to see the collection and see why they stood up against oppression.

But instead of putting the issue to a vote in November as had been promised, World Rugby issued “new transgender participation guidelines” in October:

The group announced a recommendation, that trans women not be permitted to play “women’s contact rugby... at elite and international level” events.

“It was concluded that safety and fairness cannot presently be assured for women competing against transwomen [sic] in contact rugby.

“As a result, the new guidelines do not recommend that transwomen play women’s contact rugby on safety grounds at the elite and international level of the game where size, strength, power and speed are crucial for both risk and performance...”

So, in other words, a ban.

NCLR called it correctly: “This is pure bigotry. There is no justification for reversing the current inclusive policy, which has been in place for nearly two decades.”

Chintoh’s only concession: “Unions will be able to exercise flexibility on a case-by-case basis at the community level of the game, for which the unions are responsible, while World Rugby will continue to prioritise inclusion strategies to ensure that the trans community remain an active, welcome and important member of the rugby family,” she said in a statement.

But neither Chintoh nor her World Rugby colleagues bothered to consult Shoshauna Gauvin, Grace McKenzie or Isabella Macbeth, all of whom are trans women who play rugby in the U.S. and Canada, Covid-19 permitting.

A spokesperson for World Rugby told Outsports following publication of this story why the recommendation was issued without a vote. “The matter did not require a vote of the Council in November,” he said, “because it was an athlete welfare matter and therefore was under the auspices of the EXCO [executive committee].”

It was especially troubling to see this line in World Rugby’s announcement:

“...based on the available evidence, it was concluded that a balance between safety, fairness and inclusion could not be provided for transwomen playing women’s contact rugby.”

Fairness? To whom? It seems to World Rugby and its supporters, fairness applies only to cisgender women and girls. For those who think this only impacts trans athletes, don’t forget: trans people come in all varieties: gay, lesbian, bisexual, and more. Even straight.

The only good news, besides the fact that the proposed “ban” is now only a recommendation in some parts of the world, is that World Rugby has promised to review these guidelines annually.

If they live up to their word this time, that could get them off our asshole list next year.

Other Honoree: The Alliance Defending Freedom

The Southern Poverty Law Center labels ADF an extremist hate group, and explains why here. The ADF calls itself a Christian religious organization of attorneys and business people “advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, freedom of speech, and marriage and family.”

What they did in 2020 isn’t up for debate: the group spent the year fighting two key battles in federal courts to stop trans women athletes from competing with cisgender female competitors.

One case is in Idaho, where a state law banning all trans student athletes is on hold by order of a federal judge, and the other is in Connecticut. There, ADF represents three cisgender young women in a federal lawsuit who claim a state scholastic athletic association and local boards of education are discriminating against them and violating Title IX of the Civil Rights Act Education Amendments of 1972, by allowing trans women and girls to compete in school sports according to their gender identity. That right is guaranteed to them by the state’s constitution, and Connecticut’s governor and state attorney general have stood up to ADF and their allies in the Trump administration, who threatened to withhold federal funding for continuing this policy.

One of the young women suing claimed it was impossible to beat two Black trans girls — Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller — in their sport, track and field. Yet within nine days of announcing the suit, Chelsea Mitchell outran them both in at least two events.

Neither the Connecticut nor Idaho case is likely to be decided until sometime in 2021.

ADF did score one victory in 2020: working with the Betsy DeVos-led U.S. Department of Education to threaten to withhold precious federal funding from Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, and force it to rescind its transgender participation policy. FPU buckled, which is especially sad since that’s the school that produced the NCAA’s first-ever out trans track and field champion, CeCé Telfer.

No doubt ADF will only work harder in 2021 without the support of a biased anti-trans administration to prop up its bigotry and exclusionary efforts. We’ll be watching.

If you want to follow either World Rugby or ADF, try using Google.

Outsports is unveiling the 2020 honorees every day through Wednesday, Dec. 30.

Prior Assholes of the Year:

2019: IAAF aka World Athletics

2018: Soccer Fans Who Chant Gay Slurs

2017: Fans who chant gay slurs

2016: Nico Hines and the Daily Beast

2015: Lance Berkman & Rajon Rondo

2014: Tony Dungy

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been edited to include additional information provided by Verity Smith, Megan Gottsches, Joanna Harper, rugby writer and attorney Tim O’Connor and a spokesperson for World Rugby. The most significant changes are: Smith was heard at the February forum organized by World Rugby, when he asked a question; the addition of the survey he asked about; more information about the data presented by opponents of transgender inclusion; and the statements from the spokesperson for World Rugby denying the organization made a decision on trans athlete participation prior to the forum, and explaining why no vote was taken on the recommendation.