World Rugby’s transgender policies are discriminatory, and this student is fighting to change them

"Transgender athletes can't wait, and neither can the sport of rugby."

Jean Kim and her rugby teammates at Fordham. CREDIT: Jean Kim/Athlete Ally
Jean Kim and her rugby teammates at Fordham. CREDIT: Jean Kim/Athlete Ally

World Rugby claims that it is, officially, “A Sport for All.” But it turns out that its policies ensure something quite different.

Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending LGBTQ discrimination in sports, issued an open letter to World Rugby on Wednesday asking the international governing body to update its policies that block the participation of some transgender athletes.

“Requiring athletes to choose between their gender identity and their sport is counter to everything for which sport stands. This is discrimination, but it can easily be remedied,” the letter reads.

The letter, which was signed by nearly 400 athletes and organizations in the international rugby community, was spearheaded by Fordham senior Jean Kim.

Last summer, Kim found herself in the midst of a deep depression. She decided that when she got back to school in the fall, she would find a club or activity that she was passionate about — something to get her out of the house on a regular basis and help her re-engage with the world. It didn’t take her long to find exactly what she was looking for: rugby. In fact, she credits rugby with saving her life.

“I’m on the verge of graduating, and it breaks my heart that I might never be able to step on the field with my teammates as an equal.”

“I just fell in love with the sport,” she told ThinkProgress. “And the team was extremely friendly and welcoming. It offered a sense of family that I had lost prior.”

From the moment Kim began practicing with the Fordham club rugby team, she felt this was a sport she could participate in for the rest of her life; she even dreamed about going pro. But almost instantly, those dreams were crushed when she found out that she would not be allowed to compete alongside the rest of her teammates in matches — just because she is transgender.

Because it’s not an NCAA-sanctioned sport, USA Rugby oversees collegiate rugby. And because USA Rugby does not have its own transgender guidelines, it defers to the international governing body of the sport, World Rugby. But World Rugby’s transgender guidelines are outdated and discriminatory.

In short, the current policy forces transgender athletes to undergo genital reassignment surgeries before they are permitted to compete.

When Kim found out about this policy, she was devastated. “They took away my hope,” she said.

But Kim wasn’t deterred for long — she decided she wasn’t going to be excluded from the sport she loved without putting up a fight. With the support of her Fordham teammates, Kim began reaching out to other rugby clubs to gather signatures, and earlier this year, she brought her campaign to the attention of Athlete Ally.

“”Requiring athletes to choose between their gender identity and their sport is counter to everything for which sport stands.”

Kim told ThinkProgress that it’s important to permit transgender women to compete without undergoing surgery because not only does surgery have no impact on hormone levels, but it’s also an incredibly expensive, invasive procedure that has an extended recovery time and that isn’t even available in all countries. Plus, if you’re a transgender woman, the rule stipulates you have to wait a full two years after surgery to be able to compete; most surgeons won’t perform the operation until the patient is 18 years old, which means the athlete would be 20 until they were permitted to compete in sanctioned rugby matches.

These type of restrictions prevent transgender people of all ages and abilities from being involved in the sports world, and subsequently from experiencing the mental, physical, and social benefits of athletics. This is particularly harmful for the transgender community considering the rates at which its members suffer from isolation and depression.

Kim said that critics need to remember that transgender athletes “aren’t trying to game the system; they’re just trying to live.”

Hudson Taylor, the executive director of Athlete Ally, told ThinkProgress that Athlete Ally is hoping World Rugby will decide to change its transgender policy at its upcoming November meeting. It is advocating for the federation to adopt a policy similar to the International Olympic Committee’s, which allows transgender men to compete without restriction and requires transgender women to go through only one year of hormone replacement therapy before they are allowed to compete, as long as their testosterone levels remain at IOC-mandated levels throughout their eligibility.

“Current World Rugby policies require transgender athletes to undergo a series of unnecessary, expensive, and sometimes unwanted surgical, medical, and legal barriers just to compete in the sport,” reads Kim and Athlete Ally’s open letter to World Rugby. “The current policy mirrors the 2003 Stockholm Consensus, which the International Olympic Committee has since overturned, stating ‘to require surgical anatomical changes as a pre-condition to participation is not necessary to preserve fair competition and may be inconsistent with developing legislation and notions of human rights.'”

Kim just hopes that whatever changes happen, they happen quickly.

I just want to be able to play with my college for one semester, before I have to leave,” Kim said. “I’m a senior, and that’s why I’ve been pushing so hard, I’m on the verge of graduating, and it breaks my heart that I might never be able to step on the field with my teammates as an equal.”