Rugby league joins swimming in barring transgender women from female international competition

Transgender women will be barred from playing women’s international rugby league for the time being, after the sport’s governing body became the second this week to announce a shift in policy on the polarising issue.

Following Monday’s announcement that Fina has effectively banned transgender women from competing at elite female swimming events, the International Rugby League (IRL) has decided to preclude athletes who have transitioned from male to female from international competition.

The IRL said in a statement that further consultation and research was needed before it could finalise its policy, but in the meantime, the ruling means that trans athletes will not be able to play in this weekend’s Test matches or at the Women’s Rugby League World Cup later this year.

The IRL said it intended to canvass the opinions of the eight teams who will contest November’s tournament in England to collect data that will inform a trans women inclusion policy in the future.

“The IRL is continuing work to review and update rules about transgender participation in women’s international rugby league and will seek to use the upcoming World Cup to help develop a comprehensive inclusion policy,” the IRL said.

“Until further research is completed to enable the IRL to implement a formal transgender inclusion policy, male-to-female [trans women] players are unable to play in sanctioned women’s international rugby league matches.”

The last time the IRL reviewed its trans inclusion policy was in January and February 2021, and it said in reaching its latest stance it considered “several relevant developments in world sport”, including the IOC’s Framework on Fairness, Non-Discrimination and Inclusion on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations.

“The IOC concluded that it is the remit of each sport and its governing body to determine how an athlete may be at a disproportionate advantage compared with their peers – taking into consideration the differing nature of each sport,” the IRL said.

“In the interests of avoiding unnecessary welfare, legal and reputational risk to international rugby league competitions, and those competing therein, the IRL believes there is a requirement and responsibility to further consult and complete additional research before finalising its policy.

“The IRL reaffirms its belief that rugby league is a game for all and that anyone and everyone can play our sport. It is the IRL’s responsibility to balance the individual’s right to participate – a longstanding principle of rugby league and at its heart from the day it was established – against perceived risk to other participants, and to ensure all are given a fair hearing.”

“The IRL will continue to work towards developing a set of criteria, based on best possible evidence, which fairly balance the individual’s right to play with the safety of all participants,” it said.

“To help achieve this, the IRL will seek to work with the eight Women’s Rugby League World Cup 2021 finalists to obtain data to inform a future trans women inclusion policy in 2023, which takes into consideration the unique characteristics of rugby league.”

It is unclear how the IRL’s decision will affect the domestic game, with the NRLW season to start in August before the competition expands by four teams in 2023.

“The NRL is undertaking ongoing engagement with experts and stakeholders regarding transgender participation,” an NRL spokesperson said on Tuesday. “The policy will be determined by the Commission after all advice is carefully and sensibly considered.”

Fina on Monday announced it would create an “open category” for trans women swimmers, but the decision polarised opinions in the sport. Olympians Cate Campbell and Emily Seebohm were supportive of the new policy, while Maddie Groves called the decision “deeply shameful”.

Advocacy groups who were scathing in their response to Fina’s decision were equally critical of the IRL.

The chief executive of Equality Australia, Anna Brown, said in a statement: “Blanket bans on women who are trans playing against other women risks violating international human rights principles of non-discrimination, which require such policies to start from a place of inclusion.

“Fina failed to meet that standard, and the rugby league’s ban also fails to do so, despite it being temporary.”

The World Athletics president, Sebastian Coe, backed Fina’s move and suggested that track and field could soon follow suit.