When Grace McKenzie was 25, the awkward bounce of a rugby ball changed her life.
‘It became my first ever try,’ she explains. ‘I’d only been on the field for 10 minutes and it had been terrifying until that moment. But then, the ball bounced weirdly and I ended up scoring.
‘In that instant a passion was sparked and I knew I’d found the sport for me.’
Until then, as a transgender woman, Grace, had always assumed that she would never be able to play team sports again after she transitioned. But then, the software developer had a chance conversation at a Lesbians in Tech event in San Francisco, which changed everything.
‘I sat down at the bar and someone walked over and simply said “do you want to play rugby?” I explained I was transgender and she replied, “we don’t care, just come out and try”.
‘I remember coming to that first practise session and being absolutely petrified. I was thinking I don’t belong here, I’m forbidden. I ended up playing my first game four days later and was absolutely obsessed with it.’
After being so welcomed by the Golden Gate Women’s Rugby Club, Grace says she found an acceptance she never expected.
However, this acceptance of trans women in rugby has been rocked recently through a decision by World Rugby, the sport’s governing body, after a change to the rules regarding the inclusion of transgender women players.
As a transgender woman Grace, now 26, never expected to be able to play team sports once she transitioned (Picture: )
After conducting a nine-month review based on concerns following a prominent Swedish study of 11 trans women, which revealed after a year of testosterone inhibition they maintained muscle strength in their thighs and only lost five percent of muscle mass, World Rugby concluded testosterone reduction did not lead to a proportionate reduction in muscle, strength and power.
In short, they felt that when transgender women played against cis women in contact rugby it could pose a significant safety risk.
While initially the ban was considered for both amateur and professionals, which would have directly affected Grace, on 9 October 2020, the organisation announced that the ban would apply to professional players only.
They also gave each nation the choice to implement this change within the amateur game.
However, many – inlcuding the UK, New Zealand and the United States, where Grace plays – have rejected the ban both domestically and at national level, instead opting to keep to the current 2015 rules, which allows trans women to play any level of rugby if they lower their testosterone levels for at least 12 months.
Scientist Joanna Harper, is a transgender woman who has advised the International Olympics Committee (IOC). According to her, it’s perfectly reasonable for World Rugby to be concerned about players’ safety.
‘But if you read their report, the figures simply don’t stack up,’ she says. ‘Not only have they suggested that a cis man tackling a woman is the same as a trans woman tackling her – which isn’t accurate when you actually compare mass – they’ve also included a risk per tackle ratio, which doesn’t take into the account that very few tackles are made by trans players in the grand scheme of things. I’m all for safety, but this rationale just doesn’t hold up.’
Prior to playing for the women’s team, 31-year-old Hannah, played for the Australian men’s handball team. (Picture: Graham Denholm/AFL Media/Getty Images)
This isn’t the first time there have been disputes over the inclusion of transgender athletes in sport, both professionally and at grassroots level, despite the IOC allowing the participation of trans sportspeople since 2003.
The group Fair Play For Women was set up in 2017 to discuss concerns about the impact of transgender policy on the participation of women and girls in sport.
When they held an event in July 2019 about the issue, over 700 people attended including Olympic medallist swimmer, Sharron Davies and cyclist Victoria Hood.
One of the examples Fair Play For Women use is that of Australian handball player Hannah Mouncey, who stands 1.88m (6ft 2in) tall and,weighs 100kg (15st 10lb).
Prior to playing for the women’s team, 31-year-old Hannah, played for the Australian men’s handball team.
‘Of course her size and strength gives her an advantage,’ says Joanna Harper, who has also written a book about the subject called Sporting Gender: The History, Science and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes. ‘And given that she had played internationally before on the men’s team, many people assumed she would be unstoppable in the women’s game.
‘But while she was successful, she didn’t dominate. When the women’s team played the 2018 championships in Asia, Hannah was the third highest scorer for a team that eventually placed fifth. Yes, she had advantages and was reasonably successful, but nothing more. So this idea that trans women are going to take over and dominate women’s sport doesn’t ring true.’
Even so, several high profile sports personalities alongside Sharron Davies, such as Kelly Holmes, Paula Radcliffe and Martina Navratoliva, have also raised concerns over the inclusion of trans athletes.
Several high profile sports personalities have also raised concerns over the inclusion of trans athletes. (Picture: Getty)
In an interview earlier this year, Sharon said: ’Michael Phelps has size 15 feet; your average female swimmer has size six. If someone is a good swimmer and they decide they want to transition to being a female, none of our girls would stand a chance.’
Meanwhile, over in America, the families of three female high school runners in Connecticut, filed a federal lawsuit to block trans athletes from girls’ sports earlier this year, arguing that it has led to the cis girls being deprived them of track titles and scholarship opportunities. Earlier this year, the state of Idaho attempted to enact legislation banning trans women and girls from playing women’s sports.
Since World Rugby published their guidelines last month. Grace, now 27, has launched a petition opposing the ban, which has so far received more than 18000 signatures. But, for her, it isn’t just about sport.
‘It makes me feel like a second class citizen’ she explains. ‘When the news first broke in July my stomach just dropped. This is the worst case scenario. It seems politically motivated rather than something based in science and evidence.’
Speaking over Zoom from her living room in San Francisco, Grace explains how she feels World Rugby have misunderstood the impact hormone replacement therapy has on a trans person’s body.
Grace (left) feels World Rugby have misunderstood the impact hormone replacement therapy has on a trans person’s body. (picture: Grace McKenzie.)
‘My aerobic capacity was significantly hampered throughout transitioning, which is pretty normal,’ she says, adding that it means she no longer has the stamina she had pre-transition.
Grace also admitted she is not as strong as she used to be. ‘I notice it in little things like being able to carry stuff. Visibly you can also see my muscle mass has decreased over that time.’
This is something former professional cyclist Phillippa York can also relate to.
The 62-year-old is praised as one of Britain’s greatest cyclists and won the King of the Mountains competition at the 1984 Tour de France before leaving the public eye in 2000, after making one last appearance as Robert Millar at the Commonwealth Games.
She never spoke about her reason for quitting the spotlight and went on to transition between mid 2000 and 2003 after suffering from gender dysphoria.
‘There’s a myth that the medically transitioned athlete keeps the same power and levels as before, but we don’t,’ says Phillippa. (Credits: Ken McKay/ITV/REX)
‘It’s not the same as body dysphoria,’ she explains. ‘Being an elite athlete I understood my body in a different way to most people. To put it simply it was a means to produce the efforts I needed, a tool to be used to it’s maximum potential. The gender stuff was more a case of how I saw myself, how I felt, my place in society.
‘I understood what my issues were in my early to mid twenties,’ she adds. ‘But I’d known from the age of about five that I would rather have been a girl.’
It was only in 2017 that she finally returned to public life after her 22-year-old daughter Liddy encouraged her to take up a position commentating on the Tour de France for ITV.
‘There’s a myth that the medically transitioned athlete keeps the same power and levels as before, but we don’t,’ says Phillippa. ‘There’s a massive drop in testosterone, haemoglobin (the protein found in the red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body) falls, the ability to train is affected. The idea that a trans athlete will dominate because of their birth sex is false.’
Of course, there are some transgender sportswomen who have been extremely succesful in their field. Fore example, Rachel McKinnon – now known as Veronica Ivy – became the first trans woman to win a world age group (35-39) title in master’s track cycling in 2018, while Laurel Hubbard, a trans weightlifter from New Zealand has earned a handful of silvers and golds at international level.
Rachel McKinnon – now known as Veronica Ivy – became the first transgender woman to win a cycling world title in 2018 (Picture: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
However, Grace argues that the strain of transition makes it nearly impossible for most women like her to recover enough to reach the sporting standards of elite women. ‘There’s the psychological effects of low male hormones to consider too and the social aspects of transitioning to cope with.’
According to Joanna Harper, World Rugby’s bid to ban trans women – which has also been criticised by 84 academics in a letter to the governing body – sets a ‘dangerous precedent’.
‘At the moment, there is no fight to be had in theory, as there are no openly trans international level players,’ she says. ‘Combine that with the fact that if no national federations go along with the ruling, then there is simply no one to ban. Even so, the decision is something I vehemently disagree with as the research doesn’t add up. I’ve approached World Rugby about doing studies comparing trans women playing rugby to cis women in the sport, so we can get some real data before we make decisions like this.
‘The most important question isn’t do trans women have advantages, it’s can we have meaningful competition between trans and cis women.
‘I understand the need for guidelines at international level,’ Joanna adds. ‘But at amateur and grassroots, can’t we just let people who enjoy sport, play it?’
Meanwhile, Grace says, ‘no man in his right mind would go through this process to just do better in sport.
‘No lad is waking up one day putting a dress on and going out to ruck women on the rugby field. It’s really based in fear mongering as opposed to anything that is legitimate.
‘We need to start with the issues rather than finding solutions to problems that don’t exist.
Earlier this year, the state of Idaho attempted to enact legislation banning trans women and girls from playing women’s sports.. (Picture: TNS via Getty Images)
‘What I really want to see more of is actual studies done on transgender athletes. There is very limited science investigating how hormone replacement therapy affects them.’
Until 1999, the IOC had conducted gender verification tests at the Olympics but the controversial screenings were dropped before the 2000 Sydney Games.
The ruling, which had been long been debated by the IOC, covered both male-to-female and female-to-male cases and also stipulated that hormone treatment must have ceased at least two years before competition.
12 years on from the initial trans inclusive decision in 2003, further guidelines issued in November 2015 from the IOC stated that athletes who transition from male to female can compete in the women’s category without requiring surgery to remove their testes provided their total testosterone level in serum is kept below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months.
Despite this, there has never been an openly transgender athlete at the Olympics despite more than 50000 Olympians participating since 2004.
‘The problem is the number of athletes who transition is tiny so to do a proper investigation, it’s difficult’ explains Phillippa. ‘The answer will be some kind of compromise once everyone stops shouting at each other and looks at the facts, not the what ifs.’
According to Grace, what seems a more significant problem is the impact anti-trans policies have on trans people away from sport.
‘Any time you implement a policy which others trans people and single them out it is going to breed animosity,’ she explains.
‘It makes me feel less than human. It’s a clear message that I am different, and lesser, than cis folks. It makes me question whether I am worthy enough to participate in the things that bring me joy. It’s a horrible feeling.
‘The [World Rugby] announcement in itself doesn’t make me feel unsafe, but it increases my experience of minority stress because I know it bolsters the beliefs of people who may wish to cause me harm, and that makes me fearful.’
Figures obtained by the BBC say hate crimes against transgender people recorded by police forces in England, Scotland and Wales rose 81% last year, while research from LGBTQ+ Charity Stonewall suggests that 27% of young trans people have attempted suicide and 72% have self harmed.
Grace personally undertook two years of weekly therapy before transitioning and believes if more myths around transitioning are dispelled then the lives of trans people will improve.
‘You are making a decision: do I transition and become more in line with my authentic self or do I keep hidden, live in pain and retain that position in society. It’s a horrible catch 22,’ she says.
‘It’s like choosing voluntarily to set your life on the extreme hard mode. You go from having everything easy and being granted all the privileges in society to living life in the most difficult way possible as a member of a marginalised group.’
However, the ongoing debate about the inclusion of trans athletes is not something scientist Joanna Harper feels will be settled soon. ‘Not in my lifetime,’ she says. ‘I just don’t see a solution that will make everyone happy.’
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