Joanna Harper: World Rugby’s proposed transban is based on ‘false assumptions’

Joanna Harper
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The news that the leaders of World Rugby had proposed a ban on trans women in their sport leaked out last month in a report in a British newspaper, shocking many. Not Joanna Harper.

The Canadian-born transgender woman had been one of only two trans athletes afforded the opportunity to attend the February forum organized by the group, dubbed the “transgender participation working group.” The other was Verity Smith, a trans man and the only trans rugby player present on behalf of International Gay Rugby; he was given the chance to ask a question at the forum about a World Rugby survey. Harper was the only trans woman athlete present, and is not a rugby player.

She is, however, a runner and an author, and delivered a presentation on behalf of Loughbourgh University, where she is part of a team studying how elite trans athletes compare to their elite cis competitors.

That’s an approach that Harper told Outsports was unique compared to the other scientists and medical experts attending the forum. There were also attorneys and advocates on both sides of the trans athlete inclusion debate, each invited to make presentations, under the premise the World Rugby officials might have open minds.

“Well, frankly, I think they had their minds made up, before they called the meeting,” Harper said. “It would have been nice to have seen a trans woman rugby player there, but I doubt it would have made any difference.”

A spokesperson for World Rugby told Outsports after publication of this story: “It would be inaccurate to state that a decision had been made prior to the forum.”

Talking with the soft-spoken and erudite Harper on an international call is an education in itself. She conveys her deep-bench insight and knowledge of this subject with ease and common-sense examples, as she did on Cyd Zeigler’s podcast, Five Rings To Rule Them All, back in February, and in her 2019 book, Sporting Gender: The History, Science, and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes. It’s certainly a complex topic with precious few studies, which she has seen opponents of transgender inclusion twist to fit their own narratives.

In its proposal for a ban that will be either approved or rejected this November, World Rugby cited research by South African researcher and podcaster Ross Tucker. He claims to have found that there is “at least a 20 to 30% greater risk of injury when a female player is tackled by someone who has gone through male puberty.”

“This idea of a 20 to 30% risk that they floated out, in increased risk, for trans women tackling cisgender women, this was based on cisgender men tackling cis women, and so, it doesn’t apply to trans women,” said Harper. “I would admit that there is probably some theoretical risk of, as a group, of transwoman tackling cis women. However, just talking about that misses a very important point, and that’s that very few tackles in a match in a tournament in the world are made by transwomen. And if you talk about a percentage increase in risk, you shouldn’t be talking about it in terms of tackles, but rather in terms of of matches or tournaments or leagues. And if we look at it in terms of a match, it’s very seldom the case that there’s even one transwoman on the field.

“Let’s assume that each team playing has one trans woman play. Then there are 15 players on each team on the field. Then, if there’s one woman, a trans woman, on that team, which is an unusual occurrence, then fewer than 10% of the tackles will be made by a trans woman,” Harper postulated. “And so, if you look at the increased risk in the match, it’s 10% of whatever the risk is for a given tackle. So, let’s assume that the risk for trans women tackling cis women is roughly half of that for cis women tackling. And so, then you’re looking at 10% of 10%, or a one percent increase in risk in that match. And then so rather than a 20 to 30% increase in risk, you’re talking about a one percent increase in risk. And that’s for the match in which there’s a trans woman on the team. There have been zero international matches in which there’s been an openly trans woman and there will be few to come.

“And in a tournament, let’s say, the Rugby World Cup, in which it would be very unusual if even one team had a trans woman, then you’re talking about only one team in 10. We have a situation where you have one trans woman on the field. So, then you’re talking about one tenth of one percent of an increase in risk for the Rugby World Cup. Rather than talk about an increased risk per tackle, you should be looking at a tournament basis. And as I said, even one tenth of one percent of the increase in risk is an overestimation. So this idea, this 20 to 30% increase, it doesn’t hold water, when you look at what actually goes on in a rugby match, in a rugby tournament. And so that’s a very important point to make that they entirely gloss over.”

In addition to questions about his data, Tucker has also been criticized for declaring without hesitation he is “sympathetic” to opponents of inclusion.

Some of the data presented to the workshop in February by Emma Hilton, Ph.D. and Tommy Lundberg, Ph.D. was later published in a much-debated Karolinska Institute paper, in which the researchers claim medical transition has little impact on a trans woman’s strength. Hilton and Lundberg published this study on the internet in May without any peer review, a must for serious research; Last week, The New York Times reported it’s only now undergoing that process.

“These studies also make the false assumption that non-athletic, hormone-naive [meaning they have not yet begun a medical transition] trans women will have the same strength and muscularity as cisgender men,” said Harper. “They cited a not-yet peer-reviewed paper [Hilton & Lundberg] that has been released to the public, to the Internet, a practice frowned on in science communities. I’m the first author of a review of similar papers that has also been submitted for scientific review, and we won’t be releasing that to the public until it’s been reviewed.”

The research Lundberg presented, as well as Hilton’s, Harper’s, Tucker’s, and the survey results, are all posted online here.

Even though she does not yet have a PhD, Harper was invited in 2018 to move across the Atlantic to work on this project, based on a paper she published in 2015, which she said was just “a hobby” at that time.

“Loughbourgh University, which is considered by many to be the world’s best sports science university, started up a program to look at transgender athletes,” said Harper. “And then they found out that I don’t have a PhD, and so they said, ‘Well, why don’t you come over here, do the studies and earn a PhD?’ I said, ‘That sounds good to me!’ So, the fall of 2019, I packed up and moved to England.”

Although she can’t release details of the paper still being researched, Harper did share one crucial finding with Outsports:

“One of the things that we note in that paper is that if you look cross-sectionally at the data, you can see that the trans women in these groups, prior to starting hormone therapy, have substantially reduced strength and muscularity when compared to cisgender males,” she said. “To understand that, you need to go beyond this idea of hormones and to look at the population of trans women. If you look at trans women as a population group, trans women are far more likely to starve themselves so they can look like models than to build muscle. That’s the population they’re studying as opposed to athletic trans women.”

Harper also weighed-in on the whole “biological male” debate, which just this week, trans attorney Chase Strangio of the ACLU tweeted is a term invented by inclusion opponents “for the exclusive purpose of being weaponized.”

“The thing that I will say about biology is that sexual biology is complex and pretty much any biologist would would agree to that. There are a number of factors that make up sexual biology. Many people, myself included, feel that the gender identity is biologically-based. And so, trans women are never entirely 100% ‘biologically male,’ if one assumes that gender identity is biologically-based,” Harper said. “Some of the biological characteristics, such as secondary sex characteristics and hormone levels, are also one measure of sexual biology. And those things are quite changeable with hormone therapy and with surgery. One of the one of the characteristics of sexual biology is gonads. And those, of course, can be removed. And so both hormone therapy and surgery can change the aspects of sexual biology that one is born with. Certainly some aspects of sexual biology, such as chromosome patterns, are pretty much immutable. But much of sexual biology can be changed in the transition process.”

And that is what World Rugby seems to be ignoring, that trans women are women. Not the same as cis women, that is undisputed; but trans women are not men.

If you’re interested in reading more, check out the documents below, which include materials from World Rugby that are in the public domain as well as a joint letter by Harper and Dr. Derek Glidden, a psychiatrist specializing in autism who is the lead clinician at a British health center for trans patients, whose research suggests gender dysphoria may be linked to autism spectrum disorder. About the fact that transphobes and TERFs use his research to attack and demean trans people does not discredit his findings, Harper told Outsports: “The fact that anti trans folks use this link for negative propaganda doesn’t diminish the research demonstrating the link.”

Transgender Guideline Paper for Consultation (1).pdf

APPENDIX ONE - 200704 TGWG XCO TRANSGENDER GUIDELINE.pdf

APPENDIX TWO - 200714 TGWG FAQs .pdf

letter to world rugby clean.docx

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: Smith and Harper’s roles at the February forum organized by World Rugby, where he asked a question; 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.

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