LGBTIQ Rugby Union Sport Transgender Womens Sport

Playing experience a missing piece in transgender player debate

As published on the Sydney Morning Herald online platforms August 8, 2020

A World Rugby working group investigating transgender participation last month made a recommendation that transgender women should be excluded from playing against cisgender women on the grounds of player safety.

On face value the group’s findings are correlated with a Swedish study whose findings were that transgender women lose less muscle volume (five per cent) than previously thought, which would indicate transgender women would be a threat to cisgender women’s safety on the field.

Under closer investigation though this evidence is somewhat nullified as no athletes were included among the 11 transgender women who took part in researcher Tommy Lundberg’s study. All 11 participants had only been undertaking hormone therapy for a period of 12 months when the study took place.

Caroline Layt playing for Sydney against Queensland in the Australian Rugby Union national championships final in 2007.CREDIT: PAUL SEISER

As a former transgender rugby player who’s played with and against cisgender female rugby players at a club and national representative level, I was extremely disappointed that no transgender women rugby players’ lived experience was included in World Rugby’s decision.

I can’t help but feel we haven’t progressed on this issue since I was playing post-transition 16 years ago and I’d like to share a little of my personal playing experience.

I was told to keep my transgender status a secret by my then club coach, who doubled as my Sydney First XV representative rugby manager, when I decided to play rugby during the 2004 season.

His reasoning was to the point and it was along the lines of that I wouldn’t make any representative teams if my trans status became known.

For that year I took his tip and played under the radar.

Caroline Layt playing for Sydney against Queensland in the Australian Rugby Union national championships final in 2007.CREDIT:PAUL SEISER

Not only did I survive, but I thrived, as I was nominated finalist in the prestigious Sydney Morning Herald rugby awards at the end of that year and I also took out my club’s women’s first grade best and fairest and leading try scorer awards.

I was also a team member of the Sydney First XV representative team which took out the women’s national championship that year, adding icing to the cake.

I can already hear the naysayers baying for my blood and saying all manner of unkind things about my “male advantage” and that “men shouldn’t be playing women’s sport” etc. But the crux of the matter is I’d fully completed my medical feminising transition years earlier, I’d been cleared by a sports doctor and sports scientists to compete as a woman in women’s sport following the Harry Benjamin guidelines and IOC policy [the standard of the time]. The other ingredient was that I had trained bloody hard from 2001 as a track and field sprinter.

Unfortunately, my precarious “cisgender privilege” dried up after my transgender status became known due to my 2005 representative coach outing me.

All manner of things were done to me over the following seasons and I quickly learned all about human nature [good and bad], but in the process I never managed to reach the heights of 2004 again.

During the following season I even had to show cause to the powers that be at the Sydney Women’s Rugby Union as to why I could continue to play on?

I supplied my paperwork, including my being cleared to play women’s sport two years earlier. Within a day of my paperwork submission I was cleared to play on.

Which brings me back to the present.

I’m hopeful my lived rugby experience can sway the powers that be.

But maybe it’s best left to Verity Carl Smith, a transgender man, who once played at the elite women’s level. He was one of two transgender people who were included in the working group.

Smith was disappointed there wasn’t one trans rugby playing woman present in the room and he called out a hastily put together survey.

“They ran out of stuff in the meeting,” he said. “It was funny how they put together a hurried survey of 200 elite female rugby players stating they had played against elite trans players, when we know there are none registered currently.

“I made the room go quiet when I asked them to explain to me what a trans athlete looks like and we know they can’t possibly have played against them.”

The World Rugby recommendations appear to say it is OK for trans men and women to risk injury, as they propose an allowance for them to play against cisgender men. As a transgender woman who was two seconds slower over 100 metres [11.28 (h.t) to 13.54 (e)] and who lost almost a third of my strength [my bench press went from 115 to 70 kilograms 1 repetition max] after transition, I feel this is a ridiculous and potentially dangerous scenario.

No transgender woman will want to play with the men anyway, as post-transition, they don’t identify that way and the only thing this proposed ban will do is reinforce trans women to play in “stealth mode” like I did in 2004.

As for transgender men, under the proposed draft, they can play against cisgender men, but they’ll need to sign a consent and waiver form due to the risk of them being injured.

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