This article is part of a series highlighting the lives and perspectives of trans people in rugby, in partnership with International Gay Rugby.
NOTE: On Oct. 9, 2020, World Rugby unexpectedly issued new “transgender participation guidelines” that amounts to a ban on trans women, without a vote that was promised for November, and without a single shred of scientific data on actual trans women rugby players. A spokesperson for World Rugby told Outsports after publication of our report: “The matter did not require a vote of the Council in November because it was an athlete welfare matter and therefore was under the auspices of the EXCO [executive committee].”
ORIGINAL REPORT: To tell Verity Smith’s story, it’s important to know where he’s been.
The British transgender man played rugby for 26 years. He played both codes, Rugby Union and Rugby League. Smith was a member of the Rotherham Ladies team in the U.K., including during his transition in 2018 from female to male, which was rough, because someone outed him using social media and sold his story to the news media.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
“I was assaulted on the rugby pitch during a game and had blood spat in my mouth,” he wrote in an autobiographical post on Trans Can Sport. “I’ve also been removed off the pitch and told I was a danger to women. I have been refused entry into my own changing rooms and toilets by the opposition.”
Smith did not quit. In fact, with supporters cheering him on, he continued to play and even won a national award based on a public vote, the first trans athlete to do so.
But then there was “the rugby accident,” as he calls it.
In 2018, his spinal cord was crushed in a rugby tackle that left him with a debilitating, life-altering and painful disability as well as nerve damage. Nine months after a friend organized an online fundraiser to get him a wheelchair, he’s still one-third shy of his goal.
These days, he is diversity and inclusion lead for International Gay Rugby and chief diversity officer for the World Barbarians Foundation rugby club, “for unaffiliated players and other rugby harlots from around the world.”
In February, the sport of rugby’s governing body, World Rugby, invited IGR to attend a forum in London to discuss whether transgender women players posed a danger to the health of cisgender women rugby players, and if true, what to do about it.
The organizers also invited scientists, lawyers and other advocates on both sides of the transgender inclusion debate, including representatives from Fair Play for Women, a group that bills itself as advocates for the right of women and girls in the U.K. However, its presentation at the forum makes it clear, their view of “fair play” does not include trans women athletes.
“Ignoring the sex performance difference between women and transwomen is dangerous, indefensible and unsustainable,” Nicola Williams, PhD, director of Fair Play for Women, told the forum attendees. “Continuing to ignore that difference makes the game of Rugby unsafe for women. Unfair for women. And will ultimately exclude women from their own game.”
On the other side was a trans-led charity dedicated to “increase understandings of gender diversity,” and a psychiatrist specializing in autism who is the lead clinician at a health center for trans patients, whose research suggests gender dysphoria may be linked to autism spectrum disorder. That’s a highly-disputed subject but of great interest to TERFs and transphobes like Ryan T. Anderson.
And then there was Smith.
“I don’t think it’s dangerous,” Smith told SkyNews at the time. “Sport is for everybody, I’ve had to play women over a foot taller than me. I’ve had to play women a lot bigger size-wise than me. So why would it be a danger?”
Smith represented IGR alongside its other representative, cisgender ally and College of Charleston Prof. Megan Goettsches.
Neither were given an opportunity to present any testimony. However, Smith 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]?”
Smith’s question was: “What does a trans athlete look like?”
Trans athlete and researcher Joanna Harper did address the forum, representing Loughbourgh University, where she is part of a team studying how elite trans athletes compare to their elite cis competitors.
With Harper there, Smith was not the only trans athlete to address what World Rugby called “the transgender participation working group,” but he was the only rugger in the room who’s ever played on the pitch and lives an authentic life as a transgender person.
We learned in July — thanks to an article leaked to a British newspaper — that after hearing from Smith, Goettsches, Harper and those arguing against exclusion, the World Rugby decision-makers are proposing a ban on trans women rugby players without hearing from any.
“Trans women should have been at the forefront of this and it should have been a person-centered approach by actually speaking to the people it is going to affect. And I think as well, taken out of context, how many trans women actually play rugby? Because it is very, very little.”
But the support for Smith and IGR from rugby players worldwide has been very, very big. Clubs around the world have taken public stands against the World Rugby proposal. One trans rugby player in San Francisco, Grace McKenzie, organized a petition against the proposed transban that has attracted more than 17K signatures.
“The petitions are going really well and people are getting on board and looking at them,” Smith told Outsports, adding that there is a downside to all that support.
“We’re getting a lot of hits on social media from TERF groups at the moment, specifically trying to hammer individual clubs that are trying to support or retweet or put their names down,” he said.
This month, IGR sent World Rugby a 230-page position paper rejecting its proposed ban on trans women and non-binary rugby players.
It cites another problem, according to Smith: the research relied upon by World Rugby and, not coincidentally, provided by Fair Play for Women.
“Everyone’s really focused on this Tommy Lundberg research, and also Ross Tucker,” Smith explained. At the February forum, Lundberg presented data from a study he later published at the Karolinska Institute, claiming medical transition had little impact on a trans woman’s strength, and Tucker’s scientific finding cited by World Rugby that “at least a 20 to 30% greater risk of injury when a female player is tackled by someone who has gone through male puberty.” Lundberg has been criticized for publishing his study without undergoing peer review, a must for serious research; Last week, The New York Times reported it’s only now in that process. And Tucker has come under attack for comparing cis men to cis women, instead of trans women athletes to cis women athletes, and declaring without hesitation he is “sympathetic” to opponents of inclusion.
“The information that they’re using is cis females vs. cis males on the extreme,” said Smith. “They’re putting trans females in there under the male category, when we know it’s different for trans women when they’re transitioning, and how each woman’s transition may be very different from everybody else as well.”
What IGR and transgender advocates have called for is more research that actually applies to this question.
“The fact is, there’s no data on trans rugby players in a rugby environment,” Smith said. “There’s no data for trans female rugby players within rugby... We need that information first. We’ve been playing since 2003 with no concerns and there’s no registered injuries that we are aware of, definitely not in the U.K. So why change something when it’s already working?”
Tomorrow in Outsports, Joanna Harper explains why her research into trans athletes is different, and shares her suspicion that World Rugby made up its mind on transgender inclusion even before its February forum. Following publication of our reports, a spokesperson for World Rugby said that is not the case.
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: what Smith was heard saying 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 statement 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.