World rugby recently conducted an expert panel into the participation of trans athletes – particularly male to female athletes – in rugby. This comprised of medical, legal and ethical expert opinion on the topic as well as contributions by those affected, notably players and others involved in rugby. I was disappointed not to have been asked to provide the expert philosophical opinion as I felt that I was able to offer a unique perspective in understanding the game as a player and coach as well as having a day job of philosopher of sport. But I think the omission was one ignorance rather than deliberate slight. Nevertheless, the convenor, Ross Tucker, asked if I would provide a written contribution which I give below:
Thanks for asking me to email your thoughts to pass on to the World Rugby consultation. Just to give you a little background on myself. I am currently a Reader in Applied Philosophy at the University of Gloucestershire and have a background in both philosophy and sport. I played rugby for over 15 years at various levels including national representation, and was part of national league and cup winning teams in both the 15s and 7s form of the game. Similarly I have coached women, again at various levels in both the 15s and 7s form for over 20 years. Overall, I have been involved in women’s rugby since 1995 and would consider I have very good knowledge and understanding of the game as both as a player and as a coach, but also from the perspective of an academic specialising in the philosophy and ethics of sport. I have published several books and many peer-reviewed articles in the philosophy of sport, am a former Chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association and am currently Associate Editor for the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport.
On the issue of trans athletes in rugby, I have the following comments to make. First, as I’m sure you’re aware, it is vital to recognise that any policy decisions affects the lives of real individuals, and with both populations (trans individuals and women) suffering from endemic societal discrimination, any policy recommendations need to be sensitive to this. My second comment is related to the concept of sex. I’m not convinced by the argument that sex is non biological but nevertheless the notions of biologically male and biologically female presuppose that there is a definitive and categorical means for determining this. However, as sports authorities have discovered over the years, sexual anatomy, chromosomal makeup, genetic markers and testosterone, etc. may not perfectly align for 100% of the population. And using proxies such as testosterone again presupposes that a) this is a reasonable substitute for sex, and b) it is a determinant of fair competition.
In relation to the specifics of rugby, it is worth bearing in mind the history and development of the women’s game. Women’s rugby was always marginalised and often (unreasonably) viewed as the epitome of the sport for ‘butch lesbians’. For a woman, particularly in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s (and perhaps even today) to play rugby was to attract a fair degree of scorn and ridicule. Fortunately this is now changing. Nevertheless, rugby was a ‘safe’ environment for many women who didn’t always feel welcome in other sports or in other aspects of society. In particular, it allowed large, strong and powerful women to succeed at sport due to the attributes it tested. This is really important to remember if there is any suggestion that size and body mass is a relevant factor to determine physically safe sport for women. On a personal level, I have played with and against many women who have been much taller than me (I am 5’4”) and larger than me (in my playing days I was about 10.5 stone) and with a very ‘masculine’ appearance. But that was accepted because women’s rugby has always been a sport that is inclusive and accepting of all women’s bodies – again, due to the fact that it was a marginalised sport that many men believed was not appropriate for women to play. Facing someone who was significantly larger in stature and size is an accepted risk of rugby, and primarily requires good coaching techniques to ensure players can manage contact effectively. Any proposal to limit the size of players would radically alter the game at all levels and for all sexes. (And although there does seem to be a more recent deviation to a norm with male players since professionalisation, one only has to remember the difference in size and stature between players such as Jonah Lomu and Rory Underwood at the 1995 men’s World Cup to illustrate the acceptance of size difference in rugby.)
As such, it is important to be sensitive to the history of women’s rugby and not to produce policy that may vilify the very players that rugby has always attracted and accepted. Whilst male to female trans athletes may have a significant advantage in both physique and physiology it is not likely to be outside the total range of all women players. I would encourage World Rugby to commission some research that considered the upper quartile of women players in terms of physique over the last 30 years (though unfortunately I doubt this data would be available) and then compare this to male to female trans players. My intuition (from experience) is that male to female trans athletes would not be outside these limits even though they may be at the top of these limits. As such, an argument based on excluding trans athletes on grounds of size and player safety seems wholly unreasonable and unsupported by evidence, other than anecdote. Players are injured by other players for a variety of reasons: poor tackling technique, poor body management, poor officiating, poor luck and illegal aggressive behaviour (I have a list of personal injuries from all of these). Considering the prejudice that trans athletes face in their wider lives, to give the impression that they are some kind of ‘monster’ who is likely to leave a pitch full of broken players behind them, just plays into the prejudice they already face.
Any policy change needs to consider the effect that it would have on current and future female-born players and current and future male-born players who have transitioned to female. From my perspective, the primary factors needed to be considered are the history of women’s rugby, its inclusivity and the type of players that it has always attracted, and to ensure that World Rugby does not seek to maintain or promote the narrative around trans-athletes being abhorrent and unwelcome in sport. Whilst the safety of players should be a key consideration, and rugby is a fairly high risk sport due to its contact element, it is far better to ensure that there is appropriate medical support (something that many clubs still do not have) and to ensure that all players receive quality coaching. My view is that this is where there needs to be significant investment in the women’s game. Not to vilify trans athletes who are likely to have suffered significant prejudice in their wider lives.
I realise that emotions run high in this area, primarily because women’s sport has always faced a tough struggle to be accepted and funded. I recognise the fears that some women have who may feel threatened at what they see as the prospect of ‘cheating men entering and ruining our sport’. And I do share concerns about the numbers of children and young adults who show signs of body dysmorphia and who wish to change sex as a result. Not withstanding this, I think that a much more pragmatic and sensitive approach can be taken in respect to rugby. Policy should ensure that individuals cannot ‘game the system’ in being able to identify as one sex on one day and another sex on another day. As such, it seems reasonable to specify a period of time that an individual must have lived their life as their non birth-assigned sex before they are allowed to participate in rugby. However, any policy that seeks to use testosterone or body mass or any other sex marker to prevent individuals participating in rugby is not reasonable and justified. Rugby should remain as inclusive as possible at the same time as it accepts and mitigates the risk as a contact sport.
I hope you are able to present this to the panel. As I said, I would have like to have been able to participate in person but recognise that other appointments and invitations have been made. Please do contact me if you have any questions or require more detail.