As a transgender teenager, former elite British rugby player Verity Smith was told he would be kicked off the girls’ rugby team if he began living as a boy – even if he did not start hormone therapy to transition gender.
Forced to choose between a love of the sport and a wish to live openly as a trans man, for years Smith chose rugby – delaying his gender transition for more than two decades.
Now, he fears many other trans youths may face similar dilemmas, as lawmakers and a growing number of sports bodies worldwide restrict trans participation in grassroots games.
“I don’t ever want another child to go through my life of worrying … (that) they’re going to lose their sport,” said Smith, 41, who had a lengthy career in women’s rugby before finally beginning his transition about four years ago.
“The question shouldn’t be where they are allowed to play, it should be, ‘How do we get them involved?'”
A growing number of sporting bodies are moving to restrict trans athletes from competing in elite women’s events, amid heated debate about how to balance inclusion and fairness.
Such policies at professional teams are now increasingly influencing decisions over inclusion at school and community-level events, say LGBTQ+ groups.
“(The impact) is trickling down,” said Abby Barras, a researcher at Mermaids, a British charity that supports trans children.
“Certainly, lots of trans people find a way around barriers to play their sport, but not without some harassment.”
Some women’s rights groups and sporting bodies say action is needed to restrict trans players so as to ensure fairness and, in the case of contact sports, to protect the safety of players who were assigned female at birth.
Trans groups say exclusions lack scientific basis and leave vulnerable gender minorities facing stigma.
British rugby is at the centre of the debate after sporting bodies England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU) and Rugby Football League (RFL) last week recommended that only players assigned female at birth be allowed to play in the women’s category.
“For all contact Rugby League from Under-12s and above, there will be a female-only category, in which players will only be permitted to play in the gender category of the sex that was originally recorded at birth,” the RFL said.
The RFU said until further peer-reviewed data was available it had decided “a precautionary approach is appropriate to ensure fair competition and safety of all competitors”.
British Triathlon earlier this year barred all trans women from competing in the female category at both elite grassroots levels, instead allowing them to participate in an “open” category alongside men.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in 18 U.S. states have passed restrictions barring trans school or college students from competing in sport categories matching their gender identity, according to think-tank the Movement Advancement Project.
Many are focused solely on limiting access to women’s sport – but some also restrict trans boys and young men from competing according to their gender identity.
The debate over trans inclusion largely centres around whether trans women who have gone through male puberty could have an unfair advantage.
“The female category exists for a reason,” said Fiona McAnena, director of Fair Play for Women, a British group that opposes trans women being allowed in female single-sex spaces.
“What should be happening is making sure it’s perfectly acceptable to have your gender expression, but still compete in the category of your birth.”
There is limited research on how medical transition impacts sporting ability, with studies on the topic typically including very small numbers of participants.
Trans women lose speed and strength after they start taking hormones but still have some performance advantage over other women after two years, found a small study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2020.
A 2015 study of eight female trans runners by medical physicist and trans woman Joanna Harper found their race times slowed so much they retained no advantage.
“Trans women may have advantages in sports like basketball, but disadvantages in sports like gymnastics,” said Harper.
“The question … is whether there can be meaningful competition.”
Only two trans women have made it to Olympic level in their sports since the first inclusive policy was introduced in 2003.
“With the unfair advantage argument, theoretically trans women would be winning all of the events they take part in. Yet they are not,” said Vixx Thompson, director of British sporting network Trans-Fitness.
“Inclusion is so vital. We know the various benefits sport and activity can have for people – making new friends, maintaining good health. It can really help people to deal with mental health issues.”
MENTAL HEALTH EFFECTS
The impact of policies that exclude or deter trans people from sport can be heavy, say rights groups and players.
Numerous studies have found trans and gender non-conforming people suffer from high levels of poor mental health, and they are less likely to take part in physical activity or sport.
Several sporting bodies are looking into creating new open categories specifically for trans and non-binary athletes.
But other LGBTQ+ sports clubs have raised concerns about how long they will take to set up and whether there will be enough people to fill them, with studies suggesting only about 1% of people are trans.
“It’s not about medals,” said Smith, who now works as a sports inclusion manager at Mermaids and plays in a wheelchair team following an injury.
“Sport teaches you to make friends, it’s a point of community. These are children and they’re missing out.”
Reporting by Lucy Middleton; editing by Sonia Elks.
GAY TIMES and Openly/Thomson Reuters Foundation are working together to deliver leading LGBTQ+ news to a global audience.