Instead of protecting women’s sports, the IRFU’s exclusion of transgender women is actively harming it

Women’s sports have historically been a place of open-mindedness and active change, however the IRFU’s decision seems to be a disappointing step back

Amid rising transphobia and increasingly discriminatory practices against transgender people in Ireland, this latest setback for transgender women is yet another decision driven by ignorance. The IRFU’s (Irish Rugby Football Union) ban on transgender women participating in contact rugby is a dangerous and discriminatory step back for transgender women in sport. 

Rugby was the first international sport where a governing body barred transgender women from participating, with World Rugby first implementing this policy in 2020. With transphobia on the rise all across the world, it likely won’t be the last. Other sports’ governing bodies, including the FAI and Basketball Ireland, are in the process of reviewing their policies in terms of trans female participation.

A previous policy held by the IRFU used testosterone levels as a measure for transgender women to compete. A first step in a transgender woman’s transition typically involves testosterone blockers and oestrogen injections. Effects of this can include a change in lean body mass, strength, and fat distribution. As a result, many sporting bodies, including the National Women’s Basketball Association and the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States, allow transgender women to play if their testosterone levels fall below 5-10 nanomoles per litre.

The nature of the IRFU decision being a blanket policy with no potential route in as previously afforded, speaks to a larger issue of exclusion and ignorance in the rugby community’s treatment of the transgender community, even as they continue to preach diversity and inclusion, portraying themselves as LGBTQ+ allies through their participation in Pride month events. In many cases, hormones are not a major player in an individual’s athletic ability. Instead, it tends to boil down to one’s own fitness and skill level. 

The decision comes with very little input from the transgender community. The Emerald Warriors, Ireland’s first LGBTQ+ inclusive rugby team, issued a statement against the IRFU’s policy, calling on them to work closely with both the rugby and the transgender community within their decision making.

Fearmongering spread by anti-trans rhetoric claims that the inclusion of transgender women would contribute to an alleged takeover of women’s sport. This could not be further from the truth, given that this decision only affects two players. The idea of transgender women dominating women’s sport on a global scale is also far from reality, and transgender and cisgender women tend to be on an even playing field in demonstrated examples.

With the trans community facing some of the highest rates of mental health challenges, exclusion from support systems such as sport and clubs can be detrimental

Regardless, for these two players, this decision presents a tremendous setback. With the transgender community facing some of the highest rates of mental health challenges, exclusion from support systems such as sport and clubs can be detrimental. According to a study published by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, “high transgender-based discrimination was significantly associated with greater odds of PTSD, depression, and stress related to suicidal thoughts.” Transgender women all over the country have now lost an outlet they may have clung to.

LGBTQ+ youth, who all too often face ostracism and exclusion from peers or family, find support through other communities. LGBTQ+ students are already underrepresented in sport, so to then be pushed out of these communities would draw a clear line as to where the IRFU and the rugby community truly stand on inclusion. Exclusion from a support system like this could be a slippery slope of further marginalisation for the transgender community as well, with the permissibility of this decision giving way to other clubs and schools allowing similar exclusionary policies. 

I fear that, from this decision, further sports could see transgender exclusion and as a result transphobia as a whole will see a nod of approval and uptick. Already, looking at Twitter and other public forums, transphobic remarks are beginning to spread in light of the IRFU’s decision. Hateful remarks are aplenty upon searching for the IRFU policy change on Twitter, with transphobic remarks, including urging transgender women to play with other men, making up a large amount of the discourse. This decision permits more free transphobic discussion, greenlighting unacceptable online abuse and hatred towards transgender athletes.

By offering no route for transgender women to participate in the game, other than a paltry offer to assist on the sidelines, a clear barrier to participate is clear

Potential human rights violations are also embroiled in this decision. The Equal Status Acts prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity. While it permits different treatment when reasonably necessary, a blanket policy is nothing of the sort. By offering no route for transgender women to participate in the game, other than a paltry offer to assist on the sidelines, a barrier to participation is clear. 

Since its beginning, women’s sports teams have held their ground as a force for social change. In the United States and Australia, women’s soccer teams fought for years to ensure equal pay, with the NWST even filing a wage discrimination lawsuit against US soccer to ensure their own pay parity. Athletes like Simone Biles have also taken a stand for important causes like mental health within their sport.

Fundamentally, this decision only serves to harm women’s sport. It was ignorant of the perspectives of transgender women players and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, demonstrates no flexibility by discriminating against transgender players through an outright ban, and defies core principles of both the IRFU and women’s sport as a whole: diversity and inclusion. The IRFU has contributed to the rise in transphobic policy and given in to bigotry. The IRFU should reverse this policy if they wish to show true commitment to the integrity of women’s sport and diversity.