Transgender women will no longer be permitted to play contact female rugby in Ireland, after the IRFU announced plans to amend its gender participation policy for the forthcoming season. The change will apply to players over the age of 12.
The IRFU said its change in policy was based on medical and scientific evidence and in line with World Rugby guidance. From this season, contact rugby for players in the female category will be limited to those whose sex was recorded as female at birth.
The IRFU said the change in policy would affect two registered players in Ireland. It has held discussions with those players to provide options for remaining active in the game, such as in tag or touch rugby, it said, adding it was “keenly aware that this is a sensitive and challenging area”.
World Rugby last year banned transgender players from competing at the elite level of the women's game, citing safety concerns. In July, English rugby announced plans to restrict transgender women from playing in domestic games.
The IRFU says the change is based on research which underlines the advantages in strength, stamina and physique brought about by male puberty.
“Recent peer reviewed research provides evidence that there are physical differences between those people whose sex was assigned as male and those as female at birth, and advantages in strength, stamina and physique brought about by male puberty are significant and retained even after testosterone suppression."
Its gender participation policy adds: “The nature of contact rugby means it is a highly gender-affected sport and one of the main reasons we have separated male and female categories. The term “gender-affected sport” relates to the differences in biological males and biological females, where averages in physical strength, power, stamina, speed and physique create a competitive disadvantage between the sexes.
“In the context of contact rugby, attributes such as strength, power and speed are known to be important factors to performance; there the recognised gap between biological males and biological females means it a highly gender-affected.”
Transgender men may continue to play male rugby once an appropriate risk assessment has been carried out by the IRFU with input from the player and his coach. There are understood to be around a dozen players in this category active in Ireland. For players aged 12-18, written consent must be provided by a parent or guardian.
Anne Marie Hughes, spirit of rugby manager with the IRFU, said the Union remains committed to inclusivity.
“The IRFU is committed to inclusivity and has worked with the players and other groups in the LGBT+ community to explain that this change is based solely on new research related to safety. This is a particularly sensitive area, and it is important that respect is shown to all members of our rugby family and the wider community.
“We will continue to work to be as inclusive as we can be and to explore areas such as tag and touch rugby, which we know some of our players are already considering, refereeing, volunteering, and coaching.
“We continue to stand with the LGBT+ community, and while we accept that today some may feel disappointed in this decision, we want to again underline to them – there is a place for everyone in rugby, and we can all work together.”
The decision has been condemned by LGBT+ groups, who have said it sets a “dangerous precedent” for other Irish sporting organisations to follow their lead.
In a statement, a coalition of groups under the umbrella of Trans Equality Together which is led by Teni, Belong To and LGBT Ireland, urged the IRFU to immediately pause its decision and said a blanket ban was a “blunt tool” that had not sought to understand the views of those affected by the move.
Moninne Griffith, CEO of Belong To, said: “This reactionary ban directly affects a very small number of trans players in Ireland, but it will have deep-reaching negative consequences across society. It is openly sending a message to trans people, their families and allies that they are not welcome in the rugby community.”
Paula Fagan, CEO of LGBT Ireland, urged the IRFU to reconsider the decision.
“Ireland should not follow the UK’s lead in trying to reduce the number of spaces that trans women can exist in safety,” she said. “There is no place in Ireland for the divisive and polarising rhetoric regarding trans rights we have seen taking place in the UK. Ireland can and should do better.”
LGBT-inclusive rugby club, the Cork Hellhounds, said they were “dismayed and disappointed” at the IRFU’s change in policy to trans players.
“We are aware of the recent announcement by Irish Rugby to ban trans women from playing contact rugby, and place stricter conditions on trans men from taking part in the sport.
“While player safety and welfare must always be taken seriously, the Cork Hellhounds are disappointed in the decision taken by the IRFU, announced earlier this week.
Trans players are and will continue to be part of Irish sport.
“As a club, we fundamentally disagree to these changes which unfairly depict trans players as a threat to safety within rugby; with little regard for the effect of each trans player’s own transition.
“We understand that this policy is subject to change next year, and therefore we strongly encourage our community and allies to advocate for trans inclusion in Irish rugby to be restored.
“We will continue to advocate for trans participation and inclusion within rugby in Cork, Munster, and Ireland.
“Ní fáilte go fáilte roimh chách.”
Meanwhile, the Emerald Warriors RFC — an LGBT+ inclusive team — said the ban was “hugely disappointing and regressive” and urged the IRFU to conduct its own research into the matter and pause the current process.
It comes as the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) confirmed they are both reviewing or developing their policies surrounding the participation of trans people in their respective sports.
Thereported at the weekend that the LGFA was developing its policy in this regard, while a spokesperson for the FAI told the : “The FAI is currently reviewing our gender eligibility policy and will consult with all relevant stakeholders including UEFA and FIFA.”