The two main groups for competitive rugby in England — the Rugby Football Union and Rugby League — put forth new policies banning transgender women from female competition Friday. With the decisions, they join the world governing bodies of swimming, rugby league, rugby union and cycling, plus British triathlon, in placing heavy restrictions or bans on participation.
England’s Rugby Football Union Council voted 33-26 in favor of a new policy.
“Inclusion is at the heart of rugby values and we will continue to work with everyone to keep listening, learning and finding ways to demonstrate there is a place for everyone in our game,” RFU President Jeff Blackett said in a statement after the vote.
“We know that many will be disappointed by this decision. However, it has been based on all the scientific evidence available,” Blackett continued. “Our game can be strengthened by everyone who is involved; be it in coaching, refereeing, administration or supporting and playing noncontact forms of the game.”
Within minutes of the RFU vote, England’s Rugby League released their policy which states as of August “for all contact Rugby League from Under-12s and above, there will be a female-only category, in which players will only be permitted to play in the gender category of the sex that was originally recorded at birth.”
The RFU policy stemmed from a two-year survey based on more than 11,000 responses received to a game-wide survey on the matter. Part of that study involved a second look at World Rugby’s call to ban transgender women from participation in the women’s game in 2020. At that time, the RFU instead opted for a policy to assess individual trans women seeking to play on a case-by-case basis.
In their written statement on the new policy, the RFU said case-by-case was given consideration, but added: “In light of the research findings and work of World Rugby and the UK Sports Councils, and given the difficulties in identifying a credible test to assess physiological variables, this is no longer a viable option at this time and does not necessarily ensure inclusion.”
Rugby League noted similar sentiments.
As the final deliberations and the RFU vote took place, a group of demonstrators protested outside of the England Rugby headquarters at Twickenham Stadium in London. Opponents of the decision, such as Mermaids director for trans inclusion in sports Verity Smith, noted that this policy singles out a microscopic portion of over 380,000 players in the country.
“There are seven trans women registered but there are three playing — two full-time and one every now and then,” Smith said to the Daily Telegraph. “A 14-year-old girl has just been banned. Telling a child that they can’t play sport is telling them they are a second-class citizen. We need to start from a point of inclusion.”
Smith, a trans man who also plays wheelchair rugby for UK Wheelchair Rugby League’s Leeds Rhinos, also noted that the governing body made little to no effort to center trans voices. “Nobody is actually listening to the trans community. None of the people making the vote today has met with or spoken to any of the women,” he said.
In the days leading up to the vote and since the vote was announced, a number of rugby clubs across the UK made statement calling for the RFU to not impose a ban.
International Gay Rugby released a statement Friday: “The claims by the RFU that this is supported by research are misleading at best and could be better described as deliberate distortions of complex and inconclusive research.”
Sasha Acheson, former England international player and head coach of the inclusive Bristol Bisons side, stridently opposed the action via Instagram last week.
“Where did this new policy come from to say actually now all of a sudden it’s dangerous?” she asked. “Is it because politically there is so much transphobic behavior going this country and England Rugby just wants to jump on that bandwagon? There is no statistical facts to back that up.”
Another rugby hotbed reaffirmed a commitment to inclusion. Hours prior to the RFU Vote the head of Rugby Australia told the Sydney Morning Herald that a case-by-case policy will remain in the Australian game.
“We are aligned with World Rugby on the professional side of the game, but we decided to adopt our own community guidelines when it came to permitting transgender participants to play the game,” Rugby Australia chief executive Andy Marinos said. “We have had transgender players playing in our competitions in the past and we will continue to manage that process through our community game at the amateur level.”