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England rugby told ‘try harder’ over plans to ‘safety check’ trans women by height and weight

Maggie Baska April 1, 2021
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The England team during the Women's Six Nations Tournament match between France and England on February 02, 2020 in Pau, France. (Naomi Baker/Getty)

The body that runs the English rugby union has been criticised over a proposal that would allow transgender players in women’s games but only under strict conditions.

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) proposed that trans women who weigh more than 90kg or are more than 170cm tall could face an assessment by a coach to determine whether they pose a safety risk to other players before being allowed to play in women’s rugby in England. The policy, which is on the RFU’s website, suggests that trans players of this height or weight – or both – may have a “material performance advantage” over cisgender women in rugby matches.

The proposal also specifies that a trans woman’s testosterone levels must be at or below a set level for at least 12 months before their application to participate in women’s rugby through the RFU.

The RFU document also said trans men will have to provide a written and signed declaration that they are “aware of, understand and accept the associated risks of playing men’s or boy’s contact rugby” with cisgender players. Under the policy, non-binary and gender non-conforming players wishing to compete in women’s rugby must also undergo such an assessment if they were not assigned as female at birth.

But Verity Smith, a youth sports worker at trans charity Mermaids, said in a statement he is disappointed the RFU’s policy will “effectively mean many trans players, particularly trans women, will be blocked from taking part in Rugby Union games”.

“Forcing players to comply with height and weight restrictions just because they’re trans, when cisgender player face no such restrictions, is discriminatory,” Smith said. “We thank the RFU for its attempt to make rugby more inclusive for players, but unfortunately, they must try harder.”

The proposal comes nearly six months after the global rugby governing body World Rugby officially banned trans women from playing at an elite or international level. World Rugby argued that allowing trans women to play rugby would pose a safety risk to cisgender women.

However, the governing body said trans men will be allowed to play on teams with cisgender men, but they will be forced to confirm that they understand there is a greater risk of injury by doing so.

The RFU and other national bodies are not obliged to use World Rugby regulations. In fact, the RFU follows the International Olympic Committee’s guidelines, which allow trans women to compete in women’s sport if they take hormone suppressants to lower their testosterone below a certain level for at least 12 months.

But the RFU said it has been forced to rethink its policy after “research has identified that differences in height, weight and strength provide transgender women with a potential advantage over cisgender women”. The RFU said the new policy “seeks to strike a balance between inclusion, fairness and safe participation” in rugby.

The Guardian reported that, over the past three years, the RFU has received 39 applications from trans men, seven from trans women and four players identifying as men but wishing to continue playing in women’s rugby. All have had to be cleared and approved by an independent panel.

The RFU said an external consultation period on the policy will run until 16 April.

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