After an international rugby governing body banned transgender women from playing on women’s teams, a rugby league in England has moved to include trans women in the sport.
The Rugby Football Union will allow trans women to play women’s rugby at all non-international levels for the foreseeable future, saying they need more evidence before they could issue restrictions of any kind on a “complex subject which invokes many strong opinions.”
The decision comes one week after World Rugby instituted a policy that bans trans women from playing international women’s rugby, citing that the risk of “significant injury” was too great to allow it. World Rugby claimed that scientific research indicated that there was at least a 20-30% greater risk of injury when someone who has undergone male puberty tackles a player who was assigned female at birth.
The organization said last week that it “concluded that safety and fairness cannot presently be assured for women competing against trans women in contact rugby.” However, the conclusion was based upon only one study, which has been criticized for its reliance on non-athletes and for having a small sample size, as them. previously reported.
When the draft of World Rugby’s policy was released in September, more than 84 academics in fields ranging from sports and sociology to public health criticized the guidance and the study’s findings in an open letter.
“We are opposed to World Rugby’s proposed ban of an entire population group from playing women’s rugby: non-binary people assumed male at birth and transgender women,” the letter read. “There is no peer-reviewed, scientific evidence to justify a ban which would only be harmful to trans and gender diverse people.”
Rugby Football Union added that it would “assess the current evidence alongside safety concerns that have been raised and “also undertake further consultation with players in the women’s game to understand their views.”
“The RFU is committed to LGBTQ+ inclusion as well as safety and fairness across all levels of the game,” the organization said.
The decision follows similar moves to further the inclusion of trans athletes in other countries. For instance, Tennis Australia and governing organizations for rugby, Australian rules football, hockey, netball, water polo, and touch football all issued guidance allowing Australian trans athletes to participate in competitive play.
The International Olympic Committee has allowed trans athletes to play in the Olympics since 2004 but said earlier this year that it would issue updated guidance on trans participation after the Tokyo games, which were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In contrast, World Rugby is the first international sporting federation to issue such a restriction against trans women players, according to The Guardian.
The international ban from World Rugby attracted outcry from various LGBTQ+ groups who decried the decision as discriminatory against trans people. Nancy Kelley, chief executive of the U.K. LGBTQ+ rights nonprofit Stonewall, called it “deeply disappointing.”
“There is still a lot to learn about the impact of transition on athletic ability, but this does not mean that trans people are not already playing rugby or any other sport safely and fairly. As the world continues to evolve, it is vital that policies expand rather than restrict any sport’s potential to grow and benefit all our communities,” she said.
“We stand in solidarity with trans people across the world who’ll be disappointed by this news,” Kelley added. “We will do everything we can to make sport everyone’s game.”
The debate comes amid broader political battles over the inclusion of transgender athletes in U.S. sports. Last month, a group of Republican Senators introduced a bill which revokes federal funding from schools that allow trans female student athletes to compete in accordance with their gender identity. It also seeks to redefine the definition of sex under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to exclude trans people.
In August, a federal judge blocked a similar bill that was passed in Idaho earlier this year.
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