My rugby career started when I was 11.
I was much bigger than the girls on my team and struggled to get games against the under 16 and 19 teams, so my coach rang my dad and asked if I was allowed to play for the open age women’s team.
The first game I played, I tackled (and subsequently wiped out) one of the opposition’s top players and the rest was history.
I played league and union in the original women’s leagues, and represented for the North East and the North of England at county level. Altogether I’ve played 30 years of rugby, with a further three and a half years playing in the wheelchair rugby league after a sporting incident in 2018.
It’s been amazing, and I’ve made friends for life with other players and coaches – but playing women’s rugby when you know you’re not a woman is hard.
It took its toll. I spent many nights crying and frustrated that I couldn’t open up to anyone about how I really felt.
The moment World Rugby announced its ban on trans women and girls back in October 2020 due to ‘significant risk of injury’ for cis women, I was both devastated and frustrated.
The ban means that any trans women and girls cannot play at an elite level or international level of the game.
This landmark ruling rippled through the trans community, as well as through people who had supported World Rugby. We knew the danger this ban could have on players and equality in the sport as a whole.
I tried to have chest surgery when I was both 19 and 23, but I was told by coaching staff that if I came out as trans, I would lose my ability to play the sport. This was upheld as there were no policies to support trans inclusion in the early 90s.
I lost my parents young – my dad died of lung cancer when I was 17 – and my mum, who was ill most of my life, when I was in my 20s. My two grandmas essentially raised me. Rugby was my one constant throughout it all. I, therefore, decided to keep quiet, despite hating the situation I was in.
I was 13 when I came out to my parents as a lesbian, and was outed at school around the same time. At 27, when I was outed again publically.
It all came to a head in 2017 when I was beaten up by the opposition during a game. This was a deliberate attack. As I was on the ground, the opposition player would not release the ball. As I opened my mouth to shout to the ref she spat in my open mouth.
The referee ordered everyone off the pitch, leaving me standing alone – while they asked everyone if I was a man or a woman – and refused to write up an incident report. This is because players and coaches on the opposition were complaining about me being allowed to play and on the pitch.
I’m still here and no longer fighting the wheelchair – learning my sport in a new way, instead
My story was cruelly sold to the press. I have no idea who by, but I had reporters in my garden who outed me to my neighbours. I was written about in the tabloids as a ‘trans woman’, and labelled a threat to other female players.
So, before this landmark ruling of banning trans players from rugby – when I was invited to attend a meeting with World Rugby – I thought that this was to make the current policy more trans and non-binary inclusive.
I’d hoped this meeting would look at ways to make the game more inclusive and supportive to non-binary players by including them in their existing inclusion policies, which had been in place for many years without issue or injury.
However, on entry, to me, it seemed that the meeting was a tick box exercise, with myself and my colleague advised to ‘observe’ rather than contribute. As soon as we walked in the room, and saw prominent people from the anti-gender movement, my heart sank.
These gender critical voices of women’s sporting groups and others were encouraged to stand up and present their case. The concerns they raised were that trans women and girls have an advantage over cis women so it is unfair to allow them to compete in the women’s categories – despite having no background in rugby or trans lived experience, like me.
I was the only trans player in the room to represent us. There was Joanna Harper in the room who works on studies of transgender athletes in the UK at Loughborough University, which was a comfort in the sense that they had invited another trans person.
But as that person didn’t have a background in rugby or contact sports, I still felt isolated, and our voices were easily drowned out by opposing ones seemingly only concerned about the safety of cis women.
It was a devastating blow.
What could’ve been a great space for a progressive conversation around inclusion became an attack on a policy that had actually been working well since 2004, with no reported injuries in England since the trans inclusion policy had been in place, allowing trans women and girls to compete under the rules set out in the previous policy; they were previously allowed to play at an international and elite level if they kept their blood testosterone levels down for 12 months prior to playing.
I believe that, if a trans person had injured a cis player, it would’ve made headlines. Versus me, who, in 2018 was rugby tackled by a much smaller cis female and became a wheelchair user because of it, got hardly any media coverage at all as a trans man injured.
Today, I play wheelchair rugby league for Leeds Rhinos, which is a mixed team. It did take a few tears and tantrums to get me here; after emailing to ask if, since I am trans, I’d be able to play on the team, I was invited to come down.
Once I’d mustered up the courage to go, as soon as they brought the wheelchairs out, I burst into tears and tried to leave. I didn’t want to accept that I had lost the opportunity to play the running game any more with my friends, and also that I was unable to move over to a men’s team after finally seeing the policies in place for trans men to play, which meant I would have to out myself in order to apply and put in an application to a panel of strangers to make a decision on whether I could play or not.
Years later, I’m still here and no longer fighting the wheelchair – learning my sport in a new way, instead.
When we talk about trans inclusion in rugby, it’s often from the standpoint of trans women and girls having a sporting advantage on account of their size or strength. But humans come in all shapes and sizes, particularly in rugby, where often strength and size is championed – unless you’re trans, of course.
As it stands, trans women and girls are being banned from sports without any proof of an advantage outside of gender critics and overzealous journalists pedalling false narratives.
And, furthermore, trans women aren’t taking over women’s sports, either. At present, there are only two openly trans women playing rugby union in England, out of around 37,000 players.
Amongst the furore, trans men who play sports are forgotten. Since we are assigned female at birth we are seen as ‘inferior’ in sport. The conversation is that boys are ‘better’ than girls so therefore we couldn’t possibly compete with the men – we fade into the background, completely overlooked.
We need to educate, not discriminate.
That’s why, at Mermaids, the charity supporting transgender, non-binary and gender diverse young people and their families, we’ve launched our trans inclusion in sports training programme, in partnership with Yorkshire Sport Foundation.
The pilot scheme that I teach is open to any grassroots sports club or governing body in Yorkshire. It provides guidance on supporting a trans young person who wants to participate in sports; as well as the correct terminology to use, education on trans awareness and tools to break down barriers many trans young people face in sports.
As a result, I recently received a call from the coach of a young trans boy I have since supported into accessing a male rugby environment. In the call, the coach told me that he had made his local rugby team, and thanked me for saving his life.
Sport means many things for many people and if I had lost my sport to the prejudices of other, small-minded individuals, I wouldn’t be here now.
Trans women and girls are still banned at an international and elite level under World Rugby games. Trans women can compete in grassroots rugby as long as they adhere to current rules and again all rugby nations rules are different. World Rugby have pledged to undertake further research – until then the ban is in place.
For trans, non-binary and gender diverse young people this removes any chance of even dreaming of becoming an international player. Their mental health is put at risk – all they want to do is go and learn to play a sport with their friends.
If we take trans out of the equation, they are just kids the same as everybody else. Why should they miss out? Sport is for everyone and we all have the right to play it.
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