Say “New Zealand” and most people will immediately think of its beautiful countryside, their popular Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and the adoration for rugby as New Zealand’s national sport.
The game is a labor of love for Petone RFC and Wellington Pride player and Sky Sports New Zealand analyst Alice Soper since her first appearance in a game at age 13 in her hometown of Wellington. Even as a young player, she was drawn in by the special fellowship of the sport.
“It’s the camaraderie that is so strong in rugby, and you get a wider range of people within a team,” Soper said during an appearance on the Outsports podcast The TransSporter Room Wednesday. “In playing rugby you have those who love to lift and love to eat but hate going for runs, but you also have the little fast people who love going for runs. Having those different people and figuring out how to co-exist as a team makes the sport very fun.”
That ethos drives Soper to lead on the pitch and to advance the sport off of it. She’s been called “an unshakable voice” for speaking out for equity issues in the game. On June 22, she shared her thoughts on World Rugby’s proposed trans athlete ban to Radio New Zealand’s “Morning Report.” In her words, the proposal was “complete nonsense”.
She elaborated, saying that research of those seeking the ban is too steeped in larger misconceptions of women in sport. “It's based on a lot of assumptions on what women, both trans and cis, can do, and we’re just beginning to get the sport science there,” Soper said. “It’s only been the last couple of seasons when people have even talked about periods and how that affect our training cycles. For so long, all sports science has been based on that idea that I am a ‘small man’ and I should be trained in that way,” she noted. “We have such a range of diversity that is within our sport to whether you are a tiny person or a big strong girl, anybody can be in our game. Let’s continue to encourage that.”
Special mention to all my mates who were super concerned about women’s rugby last week, nows your chance to show your support!— Alice Soper (@alicesoapbox) July 29, 2020
Soper went on to criticize the those who are strident on the trans issue, yet have little to say about any other of many issues of women’s sport. She notes that even with minuscule backing, women’s rugby in New Zealand is approaching similar levels of success as their well-known men’s efforts have. “We’re never been given the same resources and the things we achieve with nothing are incredible,” she explained. “Another thing that annoys me with patriarchy in sports is that when sport makes a loss for men, that’s ‘investment,’ but for women that’s ‘unacceptable.’ We need to get over that and start funding sports correctly and appreciate sport for what it is, which is a social good.”
Whether it was the World Rugby plan for a ban, or New Zealand Rugby’s lack of focus —leaving women’s players waiting to learn when the 2020 season would start, while the body spent a majority of firming up the elite men divisions — Soper spoke out. It’s no surprise given her day job as a community organizer who works closely with local government on a number of issues. In 2017, she was a field organizer for a winning Labour party campaign which sparked the rise of perhaps the most famous New Zealander in the world right now.
It was after that election, and playing top-division rugby in England that she began coming to terms with a piece of herself. “In moving there, and getting out of my hometown you start to reevaluate the story you tell about yourself,” she answered. “It was over there I had a relationship with a girl. I never really went anyway but I was thinking, ‘If I was a dude, I think I would call this a crush’, and I think I probably just need acknowledge what it is. That was the beginning, and once you realize a thing you can’t unrealize it.”
After separating from a male partner at the start of 2020 and through the shock of the Covid-19 lockdown, Soper’s coming out followed a lot of introspection. “For a long time there was a whole obviousness about it, but once I figured it out, it was fine,” she recalled. “Now family was supportive. When I called my dad up to have a conversation about it, he laughed for a minute-and-a-half, but when he stopped he said, ‘But you knew that, right?” She said none of her friends were surprised and told her, “‘Good job for figuring out what we already knew!’”
Check out Alice Soper’s full interview on The Trans Sporter Room podcast. You can also watch a video of her conversation with us on the podcast’s Facebook page. Download, listen and subscribe on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, Spotify and wherever you’ll find Outsports podcasts.