Breaking barriers or breaking bones? RFU transgender decision puts women in danger

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Human physiology dictates that being born and growing up male confers some glaring, quantifiable advantages when it comes to rugby. In the men’s game, the forces exerted on the head and neck are 20 to 30 per cent greater than on the women’s side due to mass differences alone. At a time when anxieties over concussion and paralysis have never been so acute, World Rugby has consequently seen fit to ban transgender women at international level, deeming the risk of significant injury “too great”.

Remarkably, that stance has been rejected this week by the Rugby Football Union, which is refusing to create any such barriers in the amateur ranks until more evidence is provided. In effect, the RFU, by refusing to accept the findings of the international federation, is kicking the can down the road. A full data set on the physical superiority of transgender women on the rugby field would take years to compile. In the meantime, an untold number of female opponents could be put in unacceptable danger.

World Rugby’s research documents how men, on average, sprint 15 per cent faster, throw 30 per cent further, have 40 per cent higher endurance and punch 160 per cent heavier. Not unexpectedly, these fundamental disparities are magnified in rugby, where the forces generated in a male scrum can be more than twice as intense as in the female equivalent.
One answer to this bind is to require a defined reduction in testosterone before enabling a transgender athlete to compete in women’s rugby. The RFU’s benchmark is that trans women can continue playing club rugby in England so long as their testosterone in serum is no more than five nanomoles per litre continuously for at least 12 months. Trouble is, science suggests that this does not go nearly far enough in blunting the edge of those who have been born male and gone through male puberty. World Rugby argues that the lowering of testosterone removes only about one-fifth of the muscle and strength benefits of being biologically male.

The story last year of Kelly Morgan, a transgender player for Porth Harlequins Ladies, offered some telling anecdotal insights into the problem. At almost 6ft, she was advantaged not just by her male adolescence but her experience of having played in the men’s game, for east Wales, as Nicholas Morgan.

Hers was presented as a stirring human interest tale, a refreshing taboo-buster, with Morgan declaring: “It brings a smile to my face.” The alarms started to sound, though, when Brian Minty, the team’s founder, said: “She’s going to be a good player – as long as we can stop her injuring players in training.” Or when Jessica Minty-Madley, her captain, described her folding one opponent “like a deckchair”.

All just harmless joshing, then, until somebody is seriously hurt. “Women are at risk of having their necks broken here,” says Dr Nicola Williams, spokesman for the campaigning group Fair Play for Women, and a staunch critic of the RFU’s decision not to follow World Rugby’s lead.

“When a male collides with a female, the increased risk of neck injuries is clear. Then you add in the increased speed of those males, and the turning force. All the thousands of amateur women players have been let down. World Rugby only protects a small number of elite players, so why aren’t club-level amateurs afforded the same level of protection? How can the RFU say that they support women’s rugby if they can’t do this?”

What is at stake here is the sanctity and integrity of the female category in sport. Already, the addition of trans women to female fields has caused some serious distortion of the competition. Take New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard, formerly Gavin, who decided to make her entrance on the women’s weightlifting scene in 2017. Her results are self-evident, with two gold medals at last year’s Pacific Games.

Hubbard’s rivals could legitimately ask why their chances of victory have been taken away by somebody who did not transition until her mid-thirties. In rugby, where the stronger bones and greater muscle mass bestowed by male development threaten grave injuries for women facing trans competitors, the situation is even more difficult to defend.
Nancy Kelley, chief executive of Stonewall UK, said that she was “deeply disappointed” by World Rugby’s move to ban trans athletes. Except Williams argues that this characterisation of a ban is misleading. “Trans women can play rugby, they just shouldn’t be able to play it in the female category,” she says. “We have to be able to say no. It has to matter, otherwise what’s the point in having the female category at all?

“Twelve months ago, the RFU published its transgender policy. It acknowledged Stonewall, Mermaids, all the trans lobby groups. But where were the women’s groups? Women should be involved. It’s their category. This is about women’s safety, about fairness for women.”

Instead, the mood of the moment ensures that trans issues in sport are invariably portrayed through the prism of inclusion. The RFU’s statement this week specifically underlined its commitment to the LGBT community. But World Rugby’s position did not arise out of an attitude of cold indifference. At its meeting in February on the trans debate were a cross-section of scientists and ethicists, all trying to reach the most equitable resolution. Williams reports that three RFU representatives were also present, only to jettison the conclusions eight months later.

Soon enough, England’s governing body will have to explain, to all the amateur women they represent, why. If injuries mount, they could find themselves caught up in a blizzard of litigation. The impression, alas, is that they are letting science be clouded by ideological sensitivity. Breaking down barriers is all very well, but not when it leaves the potential for breaking bones.