This article is part of a series highlighting the lives and perspectives of trans people in rugby, in partnership with International Gay Rugby.
Isabella Macbeth was not introduced to rugby through traditional means. She never played the sport growing up and didn’t join the club team in college. Macbeth’s first run-in with the bruising international phenomenon came several years ago at Charleston Pride, where she approached one of her friends at the rugby tent. About two-and-a-half years into her transition, Macbeth jokingly asked if she would play for the men’s or women’s team. Her friend did not smile.
Instead, he led her directly to the women’s team, and said his friend was interested in joining. The captains and players present welcomed her with open arms. Since then, Macbeth has considered the Carolina Hurricanes her extended family.
“I’ve had a great community and friendships that replaced those that I lost during my first few years of transitioning,” Macbeth told Outsports. “People found out and stopped talking to me. It definitely came in at the right time. (I’ll) put it that way.”
Since then, playing rugby has served as Macbeth’s solace. But her standing with the Hurricanes is now in jeopardy. World Rugby, the international governing body of rugby clubs, is considering a ban on trans women for women’s rugby, according to a leaked report that was first published in the Guardian. In it, the body claims to cite studies that show cisgender females are at greater physical risk when tackled by individuals who have gone through male puberty. Australian rugby union and rugby league athlete Caroline Layt, who transitioned in 1995, told Outsports that World Rugby didn’t consult any transgender women involved in the sport when drafting its proposal.
Currently, World Rugby regulations on trans participation fall in line with the International Olympic Guidelines. Various organizations, including International Gay Rugby, as well as women from across the sport, are lining up in their opposition to the reported ban.
If enacted, the ban would effectively jettison Macbeth from her team, the Hurricanes, who are part of USA Rugby. Her presence would be against the rules, and if challenged, the results of her games would be void.
Press release from @IGRugby of their rejecting @WorldRugby’s proposed ban of trans women rugby players #TackleTransphobia @VeritySmith19 @KirstiMiller30 @imsroyer @ChardonnayM @outsports @PrideinSportAU pic.twitter.com/niP8XVD8vU— Trans Sport Advocacy (@adv_trans_sport) August 23, 2020
Incensed by the proposal, Macbeth has drafted an open letter to World Rugby. She stresses how important playing the sport has been for her mental wellbeing, and the needless cruelty of the possible restrictions. “Growing up I never felt right in my body but I worked so very hard to hide that fact,” she writes. “Even after transition I was ashamed of who I was as a person. Then I found rugby. Rugby gave me the universal dream of belonging to something greater (than) myself, and finally being a part of something where my body wasn’t an issue.”
Macbeth’s journey has taken her across the Atlantic Ocean, back to the United States, and many oyster shucking competitions along the way (yes, you read that correctly). Attending college in Holland, Macbeth studied hospitality, and moved back to her native Charleston after graduation. Following a stint at a local raw bar, she began her career in hotels, which coincided with the start of her transition. Macbeth says she quickly felt the rigid culture of corporate hospitality management “was not the right place to be transitioning,” so she quit, and started applying herself in an industry where her looks didn’t matter: competitive oyster shucking.
In due time, Macbeth went to Nationals, where she placed seventh. Then she finished second, and now, she’s one of the best oyster shuckers in the world.
But it’s her involvement with rugby that gives her the greatest joy.
“When I was first getting my feet wet and all, I was scared to come out on the field, and whatever people’s perception of me would be,” Macbeth said to Outsports. “ I quickly learned they’re willing to go to bat for you. You’re literally family to them. As you go out and play other teams and go to social receptions, you realize, ‘Wow, this person who I was just on the field with and in harsh competition against, we’re sharing a beer and our arms are around each other singing songs. I think that social aspect after the games creates that family bond you don’t see in a lot of other competitive worlds.”
Though there are other LGBT players on the Hurricanes — and throughout rugby — Macbeth says she also feels a deep kinship with many of the game’s cisgender women. She began reading stories about female rugby players who didn’t feel comfortable in their own bodies before playing the sport. They thought they were too tall, too muscular, too broad-shouldered. Then they found rugby.
To Macbeth, rugby represents inclusion. World Rugby’s proposed transgender ban flies in the face of her life-changing experiences with the sport. “As other relationships fall apart and end, you build a deeper relationship with your team,” she said. “However bad the day is going, you know even if you’re having trouble getting motivated to come out to practice and you show up late, they’re there to greet you with open arms and big smiles and afterwards they’ll say, ‘You didn’t really seem there. What’s going on?’ It’s just a lot of support.”
Macbeth has heard rumblings of the proposal for months, but the rumors haven’t lessened the sting on the news. Most of all, she says she views the proposed ban as an attack on her humanity.
“When we say, ‘rugby is for everyone’ — and I truly believe that — by saying, ‘trans people are not allowed,’ is basically saying, ‘rugby is for everyone, but you’re not human, so you’re not everybody,’” she said. “We are still all human, and there’s a place for everyone out there.”
Editor’s note: In a previous version, Macbeth’s last name was misspelled. We apologize for the error.