“Living your best life,” isn’t a catchphrase for Verity Smith, it’s becoming his status quo for 2022.
The British wheelchair rugby player for the Leeds Rhinos — and proud transgender man — recently moved into the starting unit of a team at the top of the table in the UK Wheelchair Rugby League. The Rhinos took sole possession of first last Saturday with a 62-40 win over the rival Wigan Warriors, their fifth straight in what is building into a banner season.
Apparently trans men don't play competitive sport as we could not possibly compete with cis men.— Verity Smith (@VeritySmith19) June 25, 2022
But here I am living my best life pic.twitter.com/acU1paUU35
In June, Smith was holding a championship cup and a gold medal from the Betfred Super Challenge final where his Rhinos defeated French side Catalans Dragons, 48-34.
This season is quite a distance from where this ride begin, with an injury suffered during a match in 2018 where a hard tackle crushed his spinal cord.
At the time, Verity was starting his gender transition yet continuing to compete in the women’s game. He thought rugby would be out of the question.
“I thought I had lost my family, I had thought I had lost everything when I ruptured my spine,” Smith noted in an interview on The Trans Sporter Room on July 20, “These guys just gave me everything back and a new lease on life. I still get to throw that ball. I still get to go out with my team. It’s just a different way of playing.”
The inclusive wheelchair rugby squad is an example of what Smith is pushing for throughout all sports. In September 2020, the influential UK-based trans-rights organization Mermaids named him as their Trans Inclusion in Sport Manager.
He approaches the job with the passion he shows on the playing field. He pushes to get trans youth a place to play in local clubs across the UK, and he advises governing bodies on inclusive policy.
That latter goal has often been contentious and frustrating.
Smith was the only trans rugby player who was a part of World Rugby’s working group in 2020. That group proposed the first international ban on transgender women competing in the women’s game.
Smith, who encountered prejudice on the pitch as he started his own transition, had life experiences that he says World Rugby ignored.
Recently he was brought on to work with British Triathlon to build a trans-athlete policy, and he was met with frustration there as well. That governing body pushed through a measure prohibiting transgender women from female events starting in 2023. Instead, trans women, along with cis men, trans men and non-binary athletes, would be allowed to be in an “open” category while having to hold a “male” competition license.
“It’s casting the community as second-class citizens,” Smith tersely said about the policy changes that have been proposed through a number of sports. “If you go through puberty after the age of 12, then you can’t compete. But what 12 year old can get puberty blockers, a GRC [Gender Recognition Certificate], hormones? Effectively, it’s a blanket ban, and it's absolutely horrendous. This is about policing what women’s bodies are and how they should able to act within a sport.”
“The biggest thing that is playing into this in the UK is that gender critical voices seem to be the loudest,” he continued. “It’s cis people making these consultations that have no background in trans lives or lived experience.”
The grassroots is where Smith is making his impact. He termed the reports and emails he receives of trans youth being told they cannot participate with a club or a school as “heartbreaking.” He often intervenes directly, trying to match an athlete seeking a place to play and be affirmed with clubs who seek the same goal.
“We’ve had children and parents emailing in saying they were told they could participate in the school’s sports day in the gender they identify in,” he explained. “I’ve have emails from club asking me what their sports’ policy is. I’m collecting a lot of information for lists of inclusive clubs to create a map of the UK where young people can go, or their parents or teachers, where they can find places to be involved in sport however that looks like for them.”
Smith also cited that some governing bodies are receptive and willing to listen and learn. He cites his own story as a catalyst in that process.
The day before he leads that workshop, Smith will don the Rhinos jersey again for a match against the Halifax Panthers to move a step closer to sweeping all the prizes in the league. He says being on pitch to win the Super Challenge — the league title — and the postseason Grand Final tournament is the most definitive statement he can make for inclusion.
“I’m 41. I’m coming to the end and retirement,” Smith said. “I’m going out on my terms and my way, to make sure that trans kids know that they are loved and that they can go out and play sport.”