Why this matters
The Rugby Football Union in England has been among the most aggressive bodies limiting transgender women's participation, cutting back on opportunities for professionals and community players alike on the basis of questionable scientific analysis.
Julie-Anne Curtiss is still trying to understand how the decision was made to ban her from playing rugby with her teammates. She had joined Hove Rugby Football Club in November last year, transferring from another community club, Seaford, so she could play closer to home. The swap, as she remembers it, went smoothly: “I reached out to Hove, and they said, ‘Yes, we’d love to have you.’”
That was not something Curtiss took for granted. A transgender woman, she had been nervous until recently even to ask whether it was OK to join in a social game of touch rugby – a low-contact adaptation of the game in which tackles are made by tagging an opponent with two hands – with women in the local park.
An enthusiastic response she received in that park felt like a lifeline. Curtiss was recovering from gastric sleeve surgery to aid with weight loss, and she wanted to seize this chance to make a fresh start with exercise and healthier living. Rugby was the natural game for Curtiss to return to. She was born and raised in Zimbabwe, grew up with the sport, and had drifted in and out of playing all through her life.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns put an end to the local touch games. When one of the other players asked if she wanted to come along to Seaford for a full-contact trial, she worried anew about whether people would welcome her – but they did. “Again, it was just open arms,” she said.
There were hoops to jump through. Curtiss had to prove that the concentration of testosterone in her blood serum had been fewer than 5 nanomoles per liter continuously for a period of at least 12 months; not a problem in her case, as hormone treatment had reduced it to near zero. After that, she was just another member of the team.
It was the same story after she switched to Hove. “We’ve never ever had any complaints, as a club, about Julie playing,” says Charley Brunton, a player for Hove’s first fifteen. “She’s never caused any injuries. She’s a great character and a great person, and we really enjoyed having her around. We’d still love for her to play with us.”
Despite the camaraderie and competition Curtiss found in community rugby, she soon was in the middle of an abrupt change of course by rugby's leaders in the United Kingdom and around the world. The sport's new restrictions, seen in other sports as well, threaten to severely limit participation for – and in many cases outright exclude – non-gender conforming athletes, especially transgender women.
Shutting the Gates
On July 29, a group of people who have mostly never met Curtiss ruled that she could not play. By a vote of 33 to 26, with two members abstaining, the council of the Rugby Football Union (RFU), England’s governing body for the sport, agreed to update its gender participation policy, limiting competition in its women’s category to athletes assigned female at birth. The ruling was, in practice, a ban on trans women.
It was the latest in a series of similar actions taken by sporting bodies across the U.K. this summer. The RFU was joined in its decision by the Rugby Football League, which governs a separate code of the sport that is popular in the north of England.
In April, British Cycling suspended the transgender and non-binary participation policy it had introduced fewer than two years before. Then, three weeks before the RFU Council met for its vote in July, the British Triathlon Federation announced that it was introducing a new “open” category for “male, transgender and those non-binary who were male sex at birth” – separate from its “female” category, which is open only to those assigned female at birth.
Each body offered its own reasons for these decisions, but all of them cited a guidance document published by the Sports Council Equality Group (SCEG) the year before. The SCEG, which brings together representatives of national sports councils representing England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the U.K. as a whole, had commissioned its own review into transgender inclusion and ultimately concluded that it would be up to each governing body to set policies appropriate for their own sport.
Among a list of 10 guidelines for rulemakers, there were assertions that: “Competitive fairness cannot be reconciled with self-identification into the female category in gender-affected sport” and that “[b]ased upon current evidence, testosterone suppression is unlikely to guarantee fairness between transgender women and natal females in gender-affected sports.”
The overarching recommendation, however, was for rulemakers “to think in innovative and creative ways to ensure nobody is left out.” The SCEG stressed that “[w]e want this guidance to open up rather than close down opportunities for everyone, recognizing that many other people already feel excluded from sport and physical activity.”
This discussion unfolded amid a political climate of open hostility to trans inclusion from the governing Conservative party. Then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson said "I don’t think biological males should be competing in female sporting events,” and that sentiment was echoed by his culture secretary, Nadine Dorries.
The RFU acknowledged this context in a nine-page FAQ document that accompanied the announcement of its policy change, asserting that it had not been influenced by such voices. “Along with other sports, we met with the Sports Minister [Dorries] and heard their views,” the league’s policy reads. “However, it was made clear at the meeting that the decision [is] for each sport to make through its own decision-making process.”
The issuance of new guidelines by World Rugby in 2020 prompted the RFU to begin its review. Citing “documented risk of injury and the prioritization of player welfare,” the global governing body recommended against transgender women being allowed to play women’s full contact rugby at the international level, but it left flexibility for each country’s own union to set the rules for domestic participation. The French Rugby Federation, for instance, voted unanimously last year to allow transgender women to continue competing in the women’s category.
What led the RFU in a different direction? The FAQ cited a “consultation process using several different methods alongside the review of peer-reviewed public studies. The consultation included engagement sessions with key external stakeholder groups, internal RFU sessions that included RFU staff, executive and council members, and an open online survey, which received over 11,000 responses.”
No details were revealed of the public’s responses, however, and many within the sport felt closed off from the process. “I never heard of or saw this survey before the decision,” says Brunton. “I’m quite involved with the RFU. As a supporter, I’m signed up to all the newsletters. I also have a player’s account and a coach’s account and a referee’s account. I’ve been playing for 14 years, and the RFU has funded me as a female coach in the game, and they never reached out to me.”
The FAQ document asserts, “Consultees were a mix of individuals, organizational representatives, current and former players, people from the LGBTQ+ community, women’s rights groups, and other specialist groups,” but it does not identify them. Curtiss asked through her club chairperson whether it would be possible to obtain minutes of the council meeting leading up to the vote. “The RFU just shut the gates, locked them, and said: ‘No. The deliberations of the council are for the council alone,’” she says.
‘Just Going Through the Motions’
To Curtiss, that seemed to have been the stance at all stages in the process. At the time of the vote, she was one of just three transgender women playing on women’s teams in the U.K. And yet it was only after news of an imminent decision had leaked and a small protest convened outside the RFU’s headquarters in Twickenham, West London, that someone spoke to her directly to even acknowledge that the review was going ahead. “I wanted to know, why now?”she says.
The RFU leaned on the same research used by World Rugby to underpin its position, citing studies that found the athletic advantages conferred by male puberty were diminished by subsequent testosterone suppression – but not sufficiently to create a level playing field.
As the FAQ also acknowledged, however, one limitation of the science in this area has been a lack of research into the effect of hormone treatment specifically on athletically trained individuals. Two such studies are expected to mature later this year; one is from Joanna Harper at the University of Loughborough and the other from Blair Hamilton at the University of Brighton.
It is unclear why the RFU did not delay its decision until reviewing the results of these soon-to-be-available studies. Harper expects to publish the results of her study later this year. Global Sports Matters was not able to speak with Hamilton before publication but understands that she may be working on a similar timeline.
The RFU certainly is aware of Harper’s work. Representatives of the governing body met with her in 2016 and again during World Rugby’s consultations two years ago. “I did then have some back and forth with the RFU when they were initially, after World Rugby’s decision, looking to implement a case-by-case policy,” Harper says.
Ultimately, that idea seemed not to please anybody, leaving too much open to subjectivity of what is acceptable in any given circumstance. The SCEG had raised the concern that case-by-case assessments might even be illegal, breaching the U.K.’s Equality Act since “some transgender people will be included, some will be excluded through criteria outside of their own control.”
In any case, Harper says that: “Once the RFU moved away from this case-by-case policy, I never heard from them again.” There are echoes of that same pattern when she recounts her interactions with British Triathlon. Invited to present data at the start of this year, she came away with the impression that the governing body was engaging seriously with a complicated topic and wanted to hear her contribution.
“You could see that people in the room had different opinions, but that’s not unreasonable,” she says. “Of course, a group of 10 or 15 people aren’t all going to think the same way. There were meaningful questions asked. It was a very productive use of time.”
A few months later, she was invited back to speak with a consultant appointed by British Triathlon to help them formulate their policy. “That was a very different thing,” she says. “The consultant had lined up a day of meetings. Verity [Smith, a transgender man and former rugby player] and I were the first two people to meet with her.
“Later in the day, (the consultant) was bringing in people from anti-trans organizations like Fair Play For Women. She was meeting with them separately. I think the fact that a) we were first, that we wouldn’t have a chance to interact [with] anyone else, they could counter anything we said. She was just going through the motions with us. It was so clear.”
‘From One of the Most Inclusive Sports to One of the Least in 7 Votes’
Harper is not one to gloss over the complexity of this topic. Although transgender herself, Harper says she has been criticised by “some trans activists who want to pretend that there’s no real difference between trans women and cis women when it comes to sports. Trans women are on average, taller, bigger, and stronger.
“But the idea among many, many people … that trans women are just like men is so far from the truth. We have gathered some fairly compelling data to show that trans women aren’t like men, and hopefully some of that data will start to see the light of day soon.”
Harper cannot provide full results of her research while studies are still ongoing, but her previously published work offers some insight. In 2021, she co-authored a review in the British Medical Journal looking at how hormonal transition impacted hemoglobin levels.
“One of the things that we found was that hemoglobin levels in the trans women went from typical male to typical female values within three to four months,” she said. “And while endurance performance is, of course, multi-factorial, hemoglobin may be the single most important value associated with endurance. It’s why athletes go to altitude to train. It’s why athletes dope with EPO.”
In Curtiss’s mind, the RFU passed up an even more obvious line of enquiry: Why not conduct its own study, given the very small pool of transgender women currently playing the game in England?
“I said to them, ‘You’ve got a great opportunity here. You operate under an ethos. It’s right there on a plaque outside your stadium that says ‘rugby is a game for all’,” she recalls. “Why not do a study on the three of us? Put a moratorium on your decision and work with us? Bring us in. Study us. Look at our impact; measure our tackle strength. All the equipment exists at Twickenham because they use it on all the England players.”
That suggestion received short shrift, and the RFU pressed ahead with its vote. Council members are not officially permitted to discuss details of what went on behind closed doors, but it is clear from the final vote that the room was divided. Outside, there were angry responses even from players at the highest levels of the game.
“From one of the most inclusive sports to one of the least in 7 votes,” tweeted Poppy Cleall, an English forward who was nominated for World Player of the Year in 2021. Her former international teammate Sacha Acheson, now the head coach of the Bristol Bisons, tweeted at the RFU that “you’ve just got on the wrong side of history. To all those that this affects, which will be the entirety of women’s rugby, I’m so f***ing sorry.”
At 52, Curtiss knew she was close to the end of her playing days in any case. She had expected this to be her last season. “But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, when I transitioned in 2016, I stood on the shoulders of everyone who’s gone before me and fought for my rights so I would be in a position to do that safely.”
After consulting with a solicitor, Curtiss took legal action against the RFU. “I spoke to Lui Asquith of Russell-Cooke, and they said to me, look, there is a prima facie case to be made here that they have breached the Equality Act. Given that it’s prima facie, the emphasis is on them to demonstrate why they passed this ban. The onus is not on you to try to find the information; they are legally compelled to provide it. But only if we bring a case.”
The RFU has until Sept. 30 to respond to a pre-action letter submitted by Russell Cooke at the end of last month. It has said that it will “robustly defend” its new policy, defining the claimant’s letter to be “without merit.”
These proceedings will be watched closely by interested parties on all sides – and certainly by other governing bodies considering their policies around gender inclusion. The possibility of a domino effect, with other sports following the lead set by rugby, triathlon, and cycling in the U.K., certainly exists. Other sports are conducting policy reviews behind the scenes, though precedents in both directions have been established and then toppled rapidly in recent years.
The physical and social benefits of athletic competition are clear, but across the globe, many are still unable to enjoy them.
Can sport evolve to be more inclusive and adapt to the bodies, minds and circumstances of everyone who wants to play?