This article is part of a series highlighting the lives and perspectives of trans people in rugby, in partnership with International Gay Rugby.
Captain Shoshauna Gauvin has served her country in the Canadian Armed Forces since she was 16. Next week she officially becomes a veteran, having served nearly half her life in the military, as she is leaving her post as an engineering officer and looking forward to life as a full-time civilian again.
She’s been playing rugby for about as long. And if the rumblings coming from World Rugby are any indication, her rugby career could be headed in the same direction. Gauvin is a trans woman, and as many policy makers in the sports world find ways to build trans inclusion, her sport’s international governing body may ban her and other trans women from playing the sport she loves.
Gauvin’s experience through the sport before, during and after transition speaks to the very heart of why banning trans women from sports does not make sense on issues of safety, fairness, science and so many other arguments people use to attack trans women.
Gauvin entered the military and rugby before she ever imagined transitioning. She made her way onto the men’s rugby team at St. Mary’s Univ. in Nova Scotia, where she said she played in every match and started in most of them.
As her need to transition grew, it was in rugby that she realized she was playing the “right sport, wrong team.” She just shouldn’t be on the men’s team. She was a woman.
As she transitioned, she wasn’t sure she had a future on any pitch. Yet after several years away from the sport, rugby called to her again, and playing on a women’s team post-transition became a dream. When she landed at Queens Univ. in Ontario, she charted a course back into the game.
She called the team’s coach and got a tryout. A conversation with the director of athletics explained why the St. Mary’s men’s rugby team was on her athletic records. While policies weren’t clear, Gauvin knew she met the International Olympic Committee’s trans policies to compete. With some hard work she earned a roster spot and was finally in the right sport and on the right team. When inclusive policies from Rugby Canada and U Sports followed, she began competing again.
Yet her transition had effected her game. One of the hallmarks of her pre-transition reputation both in the military and in sports had been her strength. Now post-transition, this was a whole different ballgame.
“I was very strong as a soldier,” Gauvin told Outsports. “During my deployment I was routinely bench pressing upward of 315 pounds. Very few could match what I lifted. Now as a woman athlete, I have had to rebuild a ton of strength. I came into tryouts after transition underpowered. Even now after two years of training I am not the strongest woman on my team, I struggle to lift half the weight I used to. I’ve been benched this past year for several games, simply because there are more skilled, fitter, stronger women than me.”
Half the weight. It’s an anecdotal observation we’ve heard from many trans women, that their loss of strength isn’t just measurable, it’s impactful.
While she played in every match and started most of them on her men’s team, she now has to fight to earn playing time on the women’s team. She’s been benched for several matches.
“If I had some distinct advantage, I would have at minimum retained my positional equivalent and not gone down. And in many ways, I’ve been spending the last two years working to fill the gaps.”
Gauvin looks at the proposed trans-women-ban policy currently being considered at World Rugby as misguided and destructive.
“There are plenty of trans women who are 145 pounds and can only lift 85 pounds. By being trans, it doesn’t make you automatically stronger.”
Gauvin also points to measurable differences within men’s sports that are heralded, while differences in women’s sports are looked at with suspicion.
“In men’s sports nobody questions when a linebacker lines up a wide receiver, despite there being a huge difference in height, weight and strength,” she said. “We put those hits on a highlight reel. To now claim that these differences when involving a trans athlete are somehow unique is disingenuous.”
Gauvin said she has never been the cause of any serious injury in women’s rugby.
Still, she acknowledges that a transition period for trans women is justified before participating in women’s sports.
“Given the social landscape, I am in favor of reasonable restrictions for competition, particularly around contact sports,” she said. “I have relied on these guidelines to help dispel myths about the safety and fairness around trans inclusion. Trans women should be able to train without restriction and compete, without the need for disclosure, in competitive contact women’s sports after a reasonable period of taking hormone replacement therapy.”
On the verge of retirement from the Armed Forces, Gauvin now hopes to lean on the sport of rugby to continue to build community and a sense of place. These avenues can be difficult for LGBTQ people to identify, and in particular trans women in the midst a worldwide cultural battle over their belonging.
“What is the point of sport? To me, it’s not just to win a championship. Self-improvement, community building and other purposes are all important. For me, mental health is significant particularly as a soon-to-be veteran. It’s problematic to remove those benefits from someone based on faulty evidence.”