New Zealand rugby grapples with transgender debate

Chief Financial Officer Nicki Nicol speaks during the New Zealand Rugby Union Annual General Meeting at New Zealand Rugby House on April 27, 2017 in Wellington, New Zealand.
Chief Financial Officer Nicki Nicol speaks during the New Zealand Rugby Union Annual General Meeting at New Zealand Rugby House on April 27, 2017 in Wellington, New Zealand.
Image: All Blacks Collection/Getty Images

The question of trans athletes participating in women's sports has become an explosive issue in recent years and reports that World Rugby might soon ban it on safety grounds looks set to intensify an already fractious debate in New Zealand.

A draft report by World Rugby, which was obtained by the media last week, said there was a "20-30% greater risk" of injury if a female player was tackled by someone who had gone through male puberty.

New Zealand Rugby Chief Operating Officer Nicki Nicol told reporters last week that while an outright ban had not been codified the report does look for "some restrictions for some trans women".

"We have to recognise that based on research and evidence that is one of the recommendations," Nicol said on a conference call.

"But we have been encouraged by World Rugby to come up with a policy that is relevant for our market."

Nicol added that the situation was "complex" and it would take several months of discussions before NZR could even formulate a policy on an issue that divides opinion.

Women's sports advocates argue that the naturally acquired physical benefits a transgender woman receives by going through male puberty last long into adulthood and the World Rugby research proves it is a health and safety issue in contact sports.

They also see it as an issue of fairness, a key driver of competitive sports and one which has major ramifications at an elite level, Save Women's Sports New Zealand spokeswoman Ro Edge told Reuters.

"If they had been a mediocre athlete in the male field then they come across to the female division and win everything, how would you feel (as a competitor)?" Edge said.

"There is no fairness in that, and the desire for inclusiveness is having an unintended negative consequence for women and girls, because they are losing out on having fair and competitive sport."


Transgender advocates, however, say inclusiveness should be the overriding factor and that stopping trans athletes from participating in women's sport only increases the stigma and discrimination they face.

"Trans people are generally discriminated against across every aspect of life," Gender Minorities Aotearoa national co-ordinator Ahi Wi-Hongi told Reuters.

"We know that a very high percentage of trans people don't play any sport because they don't want to deal with discrimination or they feel they won't be allowed to or they will face negative feelings about playing from other people."

One of the major issues for sports organisations is that they may not know how many trans athletes are competing.

Nicol said NZR did not track gender identity in their player registrations but said they wanted to get better information.

"Hopefully as we go along we will see the marginalisation decreasing," Nicol said.

But trans women make up only a very small proportion of a sport's potential athlete pool, Gender Minorities Aotearoa's Wi-Hongi said, and those who have transitioned typically steer clear of sports that highlight masculinity such as rugby.

A 2019 Waikato University study found that only 14% of trans-people participated in any regular sporting competition compared to a national average of 26% for the general population.

Edge said that biological females had been marginalized in competitive sports for decades and that the pathways for women and girls into sports had to be protected.

"Participation in sport is hugely valuable. Diversity in sport is also really important," Edge said. "Everyone should have the ability to participate in sport in an inclusive and welcoming environment. I totally get that.

"But while everyone has the ability to play sport, they don't have the right to play in any category they choose. We have to protect the pathways for women and girls in sports."