Transgender women will no longer be allowed to play in female contact rugby competitions in England due to safety and fairness concerns, under new recommendations from the Rugby Football Union to be voted on next Friday.
It marks a significant U-turn by the governing body, which until now has allowed transgender women to play at grassroots and club levels provided they undergo an independent medical assessment.
However, after a two-year review that began in the autumn of 2020, it has decided to fall in line with World Rugby’s guidelines, which ban transgender women from elite sport.
In a statement explaining its decision, the RFU said it had looked at the emerging science, consulted with other governing bodies and held a game-wide survey with over 11,000 responses.
It said: “The review and consultation concluded that peer reviewed research provides evidence that there are physical differences between those people whose sex was assigned as male and those as female at birth, and advantages in strength, stamina and physique brought about by male puberty are significant and retained even after testosterone suppression.
“This science provides the basis of the recommendation that the inclusion of trans people assigned male at birth in female contact rugby cannot be balanced against considerations of safety and fairness.”
At the moment, the RFU believes there are six transgender women who are playing community rugby in England. All had to be cleared and approved by an independent panel, which examined their testosterone levels and whether they posed an increased risk to opponents based on their size and weight. Such rules have also applied to the Premier 15s, although it is understood that no transgender women play in the elite game in England.
However, the RFU has now conceded that “the case by case assessment is not without difficulties and can result in players not being permitted to participate”.
It added: “In light of the research findings and work of World Rugby and the UK Sports Councils, and given the difficulties in identifying a credible test to assess physiological variables, it is recommended that this is no longer a viable option at this time and does not necessarily ensure inclusion.”
In 2020 World Rugby became the first international sports body to ban transgender women from the women’s game after an eight-month review. It concluded that it was not possible to balance inclusivity with safety and fairness given that those who had gone through male puberty are “stronger by 25% to 50%, are 30% more powerful, 40% heavier, and about 15% faster than biological females” and warned of a greater risk of injuries if transgender women were not banned.
The RFU had initially resisted following suit but now the recommendation to the RFU Council will be that it follows World Rugby’s rules, which apply to the senior England women’s side. Girls and boys will still be able to play in the same teams up until the age of 12.
England’s governing body stressed that it was committing to encouraging opportunities for everyone to participate in rugby, including non-contact formats of the game. It confirmed that it had contacted those affected to offer support.
Trans men will, however, be allowed to continue to play in the men’s game “if they provide their written consent and a risk assessment is carried out”, it added.
Last month Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, met with 15 British sports organizations in which she urged them to adopt the policy announced by swimming’s governing body Fina – which states that anyone who has gone through male puberty cannot enter women’s events in elite swimming competition.
Fina’s policy means that the transgender American NCAA champion Lia Thomas will be blocked from participating in the female category at the 2024 Olympics.
World Athletics president Sebastian Coe has recently hinted that this sport might follow swimming’s lead, stating: “I’ve always made it clear: if we ever get pushed into a corner to that point where we’re making a judgment about fairness or inclusion, I will always fall down on the side of fairness.”