Transitioning Triathlete: The World Rugby Ban

Kimberley Drain, Sports, Transgender

So, again, I’m left wondering if I have a place in the world of sport right now.

Well…

It’s been an eventful year (and it’s not done!). The virus, Brexit, world leaders threatening to die (made a nice change from threatening war), the government refusing to let trans people self-identify because they know better, World Rugby banning trans women and WOMEN LIKE US launching 🚀. These are just the teir-3 events – whatever the criteria for tier 3 is!

Soooooooo … World Rugby has been given scientific evidence and changed their trans-inclusion policy to no inclusion for trans women or exclusion from the women’s game, more accurately.

So many emotions…

I don’t play Rugby. I watch a little if it’s on, that’s about it, but the announcement in October of this change of policy has been a stake through my heart for so many reasons, and I’ve been in some dark places off the back of it. The hate this is propagating is scary, and I’m fearing for my safety more than ever.

The rugby policy change only affects elite or professional athletes, but elite levels of any sport can’t exist without the grassroots and vice versa, and it’s a tragedy that trans women are being shut out of the professional game.

Certainly, the kind of blanket ban introduced by World Rugby isn’t necessary. Safety is integral, as well as creating a level playing field, but some trans women are of a size that would put other women at no additional risk, so why ban all trans women? All sports have a responsibility to the health, safety and general wellbeing of all participants at all levels of the sport or sports they govern, but what about the wellbeing of trans women? There’s been a lot of fantastic work across all sports promoting good mental health. But the way trans people are currently being treated is certainly hammering my mental health, and I’m sure it’s the same for others.

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The study referred to by World Rugby looks to be a good quality, scientific study, I have to say. I believe in science, but science often throws up as many questions as it answers. Data can often be interpreted in different ways to suit different motives. The trouble is agreeing which study becomes more or less valid than another. I fear ending up in a situation like scientific studies into cancer. One week a study comes out saying something increases or decreases your risk of cancer; the next week they’re saying the opposite.

And scientific evidence already existed, 🤷‍♀️ but this new evidence suits their agenda better, as far as I can work out. They seem to make no reference to the ever-growing scientific understanding of how trans identities develop. The basics of current scientific evidence suggest that differences in the first and second trimester of pregnancy are heavily involved in the development of gender dysphoria. So my brain was born female, arguably making me biologically female anyway.

All sports have a duty to look at new scientific evidence, but discretion and common sense have to prevail. I’m yet to see a sport played on paper or in a science lab. Anyone that knows anything about sport knows that. There are so many more factors at play than hormone levels, and that’s a scientific fact as well. Diet, the weather, general health, sleep, age, body weight, natural talent, and so many more come into play. Mental health has a huge impact on performance as well. Current or past testosterone exposure is vilified as the bad boy, but so much more goes on. We don’t know everything about the human body yet. Half of what any medical student is being taught today will be irrelevant or very different to what we understand in a few years’ time.

Kayla Sauvao of Australia and Ireland’s Alison Miller at UCD during  a Women’s Rugby World Cup match that ended Ireland 19, Australia 17. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

And, of course, trans men are allowed to carry on competing at all levels of rugby. So, as well as maintaining transphobic attitudes, World Rugby continues to maintain sexist attitudes too. In fact, it’s interesting how keen World Rugby has been to exclude trans women. I don’t think women are fragile, inferior beings that require additional protection, but World Rugby seems to think otherwise.

To make matters worse, heterosexual and cis-gendered former athletes have been queuing up to take swipes against “biological males” competing against “biological females” in recent days, generating yet more hate. Online, it appears to be empowering transphobia generally, not just with a focus on sport. It all could have been dealt with so much more sensitively by World Rugby, by former professional athletes and every man and his dog. Some of the aggressive harassment of people speaking out against transgender people has also been wrong. It’s not wrong to challenge these views, but general decency needs to be maintained.

Triathlon is a very different sport to rugby. And for me personally, my continued participation in triathlon is based on the hope that, after much gatekeeping, I’ll eventually be able to compete in the right gender (female). I manage to get through being forced to misgender myself every race I enter, but I manage this by telling myself one day that torture will end.

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I sometimes wonder if there is a need for compromise. It, of course, isn’t just about the needs of trans people. Perhaps, as far as triathlon goes, separate trans male and female categories will be the way forward, with representation of these categories right through to international level. Personally I’d hate this sort of segregation; it would be as bad as separation of different ethnicities in my eyes.

So, again, I’m left wondering if I have a place in the world of sport right now. Over time it’s been an overwhelming force of good in my life and still is. But my gender identity and sport don’t mix very well and it’s creating some unsustainable difficulties, quite honestly.

I’m not making any knee-jerk decisions. If anything, I’m training harder than ever, fuelled by all the hate, but we’ll see …

I’m just thankful that there’s a huge amount of wonderful support out there as well 🤗

Kimberley Drain is a 27-year-old trans woman, and a club-affiliated runner and triathlete (average amateur). She is one of these strange people that enjoy training more than racing … and she’s not short of opinions. Find her on Strava.

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