Photo by Alex Nicodim/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Artillery Row

A big day for women’s rugby

Fairness and safety should be upheld

On Friday the Rugby Football Union Council will vote on whether to restrict women’s rugby to those born female. Given that rugby is a full-contact sport with a concussion problem, you’d think it obvious that heavier, stronger, faster male bodies should not be tackling women, no matter how those male bodies identify. 

It’s more than two years since World Rugby made the case, putting female safety ahead of the wishes of trans-identifying males for validation, based on the increased concussion risk for females in a clash with a male body. Thankfully, it looks like the RFU is about to do the right thing and follow World Rugby in limiting the women’s game to those born female, albeit two seasons later. We congratulate them on having the integrity to recognise the need for policy change and to act on it. 

Fair Play For Women has been lobbying the RFU and national governing bodies of other sports (NGBs) for years now, pointing out that women and girls are adversely affected if they lose their female-only teams, events and competitions. Often the answer has been that there are “only a few transwomen”. But just one transwoman in a league affects dozens, sometimes hundreds, of female players. Anyone who feels compassion for those trans players and their wish to play the game they love should consider the impact on females who have the same wish.

Their daughters are playing a game with some risk

We have heard from match referees who are afraid they will see a woman seriously injured on their watch, because they are not allowed to question whether an obviously-male player belongs on the field. We’ve heard from worried parents of young female rugby players. They know their daughters are playing a game with some risk, but if a teenage girl finds herself tackling — or worse, being tackled by — a teenage boy, it’s a whole different ball game. That’s before you factor in the girls’ embarrassment at sharing changing rooms or showers with an intact male.

Until now, those parents and referees could not object. They were advised that a transgirl is a girl and they must not comment. To point out that by definition a transgirl has a male body could mean the end of their involvement in rugby. We are relieved and delighted to see the RFU tackle this issue and, we hope, reinstate fairness and safety for their female players when they vote.

Recent policy changes by the international swimming federation FINA and the UK governing body British Triathlon show that common sense is returning. But some governing bodies such as British Cycling and the English Cricket Board are resisting. Despite being forced to withdraw their transgender inclusion policy in April this year, British Cycling, backed by cycling’s international federation UCI, is clinging to the discredited idea of testosterone suppression as the basis on which a person who’s been through the myriad changes wrought by male puberty can compete against females, who have not.

Meanwhile, males are still racing and taking titles, podium places, cash prizes and ranking points in women’s cycling in the UK. We know of one who has taken regional championships and medals at national level, and another who’s taken podium places in a range of cycling disciplines. 

Dozens have been affected

It’s easy to think this isn’t happening, because the results list female names. But each of these cyclists who have male performance advantage are displacing women, pushing them down the results, every time they race. Dozens have been affected by just a few trans competitors — and that is since the British Cycling policy was supposedly suspended. 

Cricket has not bothered with the fig leaf of testosterone suppression, saying anyone who identifies as a woman can play in a women’s team. It is not unusual for such players to be in both men’s and women’s teams, though their batting average is always much better when they play women, helped by the shorter boundary of the women’s game. There are injury risks in cricket too, where more skilled players bowl faster and hit harder, leaving other players, especially wicket keepers, open to injury. The ECB’s response to Fair Play For Women is that they are piloting a “disparity policy”, giving umpires the power to remove a player where there is such a disparity of skill that they may represent a risk to others on the pitch.

The disparity policy is not about trans players. It’s to address skill differences between, say, elite men and club-level men. It’s not clear whether this pilot even includes any teams with trans players in them. It’s hard to imagine an umpire daring to remove a trans player during a match under this policy. Is it because they are trans? Or is it because they are male? One suspects either reason would be deemed transphobic. 

Women’s sport has come a long way, with equal representation at the Olympics, but female participation at grassroots still lags far behind that of men. While the Sports Councils and many NGBs have specific targets and funding to increase female participation, they have adopted “inclusive” policies which are leading to females being excluded or self-excluding. 

Last year the UK’s Sports Council Equality Group published revised guidance stating that trans inclusion in female sport was incompatible with fairness, and in some sports safety, for females. Polling published last week by YouGov shows that the British public understand that it is not fair for females to have to share the pitch or the pool or the track with males, because sport is about sexed bodies not identities. We know it, the sports councils know it, the general public know it. Sports governing bodies must know it too. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover