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Bay Area flanker gets in the scrum against World Rugby’s proposed trans ban

Seeing her place on the pitch threatened, Grace McKenzie helped forge an internet ‘start-up’ against transphobia.

Grace McKenzie
Grace McKenzie (in green) zeroes on a tackle for the Golden Gate Women’s RC rookie squad. In July she helped start a petition to zero in on World Rugby’s proposed ban on transgender women in the sport
Grace McKenzie

For Grace McKenzie, a 26-year-old go-getter seeking to make a name in Silicon Valley, being a flanker on the rugby pitch is as integral to her life as a tech development pitch.

“I’m absolutely obsessed with that role! You are in the action every second of the game,” she exclaims about her position. “You hit every single ruck. You’re involved in the scrum. If they get the break you have to hit that scrum half.”

She been a player with Golden Gate Women’s Rugby Club in San Francisco for 2 years and she doubles as the club’s recruiting coordinator. It’s a fitting role for McKenzie, who had never played the sport when she herself was recruited in 2018.

McKenzie (in green) preps to receive the line-out
Grace McKenzie

“I was recruited at a tech conference for queer women and folk here in the city. My now best friend and co-recruitment coordinator came up to me and asked if I wanted to play rugby,” McKenzie remembered. “I was shocked because I thought as a trans person there was no way i’m allowed to play organized sports whatsoever because I had bought into what the media was saying. She was adamant that there was no problem with it whatsoever. Just come to a practice and everybody counts.”

The rugged play and the communal spirit of rugby was love at first sight. She even scored a try in her first game with the club. “I had no idea of what was going on, but I had an errant bounce that came to me and I scored. It was amazing!” she beamed.

For McKenzie (left), rugby means competition and community
Grace McKenzie

Rugby gave her more than a sport to play, a team to play on, and and aid in growing into themselves as a transgender woman. “I went from being a nervous wreck with anxiety just to get on the subway and go grocery shopping in the early days of my transition to being accepted wholeheartedly by a community.” she said. “It's made me a more confident person and it's made me able to show up in the world as myself.”

Those thoughts were on McKenzie’s mind when the news of World Rugby’s proposed ban on transgender women hit the doorstep of Golden Gate Women’s Rugby. The proposal was drafted by a working group that included a representative of the UK-based anti-trans organization, Fair Play For Women.

In response, she, along with teammates and supporters, built a petition on Change.Org. Since going online last month, over 17K players, including U.S. elite-level players, coaches, club officials and supporters worldwide have signed on in opposition to the proposal.

McKenzie notes scientific and sporting inconsistencies within the single study used by World Rugby to build their data. “It looks at eleven non-athletic trans women. It didn’t study athletes. It doesn’t have a control group of cis women. It studied a group of trans women against a group of trans men,” she stated. “It's not rugby-specific. It doesn’t look at injury rates or actual indicators of safety. Its makes an illogical leap to change that one muscle group in non-athletic trans can people a 20% advantage in sport. Any academically-minded person would say this is inconclusive, we need more evidence. This doesn’t say anything.”

Among the players and clubs who have signed the main contention is there is a great deal of diversity of body types in the sport and that current regulations adequately address issues of safety without exclusion. “Women who play rugby understand the game is too small to subdivide us and the game works without safety issues as it currently is set up and there is no need to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” McKenzie continued.

McKenzie contends for the ball on the line-out

McKenzie went on to say that another way this fight is an example of the adage that “The Personal Is Political”, harkening back to growing up in Ontario, Canada, questioning their gender identity. Youth sport was a place to hide, in a sense. After graduating from University of British Columbia in 2015, and making the move south to queer-vibrant San Francisco, they found sport as a means to heal and grow. To her, and many supporters, this fight and related struggles over sport are backdoor tactics in the attempt to threaten transgender rights worldwide on even larger issues from health care access in the U.S. to the continuing gender recognition reform struggle in the UK.

“These groups that claim to be concerned about women and girls in sports? It's not their single motive,” she emphasized. “They have an anti-trans bias and they are using sports as a wedge to get public opinion to shift against trans people. This is part of a larger push against LGBTQ folks. They lost the battle over marriage equality, so now they turn to trans people.”

You can hear McKenzie talk about the proposed trans ban, her transition, the term “biological male” — she’s a biologist! — and her fandom on this week’s episode of the Outsports podcast, The Trans Sporter Room.

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