Transgender rugby players will be barred from international women’s competitions while officials develop a formal inclusion policy, the sport’s international governing body announced on Tuesday, the latest federation to ban transgender athletes as the sporting world tries to balance inclusion, fairness and safety.
The International Rugby League (IRL) said it considered “several relevant developments in world sport” when making the decision, including the International Olympic Committee’s recent guidance that each sport should determine their policies governing the inclusion of transgender athletes.
The ban means trans athletes will be barred from competing in the women’s Rugby World Cup in October.
In explaining its decision, the IRL said it had a duty to balance the right to participate with the “perceived risk to other participants” and the body will undertake further research to finalize its inclusion policy in 2023.
The decision follows a vote on Sunday from FINA, swimming’s global governing body, to bar the majority of trans women from competing in elite events and comes amid reports that a number of other sporting federations are considering similar policies.
Lord Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, hinted on Monday that track and field could suit and bar trans athletes from women’s competitions, telling the BBC that “biology trumps gender” and “fairness is non-negotiable.”
FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, told Reuters it is also reviewing its policies, though would not comment on specifics.
The inclusion of trans people, especially trans women, in sport is a divisive and contentious issue that has troubled sporting federations for years. The IOC’s recommendation that individual sports handle the matter themselves means that rugby league and swimming are likely the frontrunners of many new policies. Not all policies will bar trans women from competing and cycling’s international governing body, which also updated guidance this month, tightened its eligibility criteria though did not bar athletes.
Debates over trans inclusion in sport have recently flared in cases of trans success, notably the competition of New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, a trans woman, at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and the success of Lia Thomas, a trans woman and former University of Pennsylvania swimmer, who became the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I individual national title in March.
Critics tend to argue that trans participation is unfair and at the expense of other athletes, with the biological advantages like elevated testosterone levels used to justify excluding competitors from events that fit with their gender identity, even if they have transitioned. Scientific research suggests there may be a possible advantage for trans women competing in women’s events, though this is far from definitive and does not necessarily back barring trans athletes from competing. Despite the purported advantage trans athletes have, there is scant evidence that trans athletes invariably dominate the sports they compete in. For example, despite nearly two decades of eligibility at the Olympics, the first openly trans athletes qualified for Tokyo 2020. Of these athletes, just one—Canada’s Quinn, a trans nonbinary soccer player—scored a medal. Hubbard also competed, as did nonbinary skateboarder Alana Smith. While neither medalled and Quinn won gold, media coverage and commentary was dominated by Hubbard.
Activists have spoken out against the bans as discriminatory and not rooted in science. Joni Madison, the interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said FINA’s “discriminatory decision is a blatant attack on transgender athletes who have worked to comply with longstanding policies that have allowed them to participate for years without issue.” Madison said the policy was an example of swimming organizations “caving to the avalanche of ill-informed, prejudiced attacks targeted at one particular transgender swimmer” and urged FINA to rethink its decision. The policies are “fueled by discrimination, not facts,” the organization added.
By Robert Hart, Forbes Staff