Photo by Renato Manzionna
By Nicola Pettinger Brown
“Rugby is a sport for all – and we still mean it!” Eleven words superimposed on the rainbow flag. A crisp statement shared by the Danish Rugby Union on their RUGBYdk Facebook page – quickly reposted by Copenhagen Wolves Rugby Club and several others. The sentence may seem like a truism by those who know rugby, but scratch the surface and the sentence belies a deeper-running discussion.
Rugby is a relatively unique sport because the game relies on a wide variety of body shapes and sizes to make a good team. There are the heavier front-row players who use their weight and strength to compete for the ball whereas smaller, faster wing players are likely to use their speed to bypass a competitor.
No matter someone’s shape or size – there is a place on the pitch. This applies not just in the amateur game, but also at the elite level – for example, a study on RugbyPass.com showed male front-row players (hookers) in Europe’s upper leagues weighed in at an average 106kg (with one player clocking a mighty 121kg) while their winger counterparts averaged nearer the 91kg mark with some down in the 80-90kg range.
The same wide range of physical body types is shown in the current squad of the England ladies’ team – Loose head prop (position 1 on the pitch) Hannah Botterman’s bio reads 169cm and 100kg, while her scrum-half teammate Natasha Hunt (who wears number 9) logs 63kg for all her 165cm. Inclusivity in the squad also runs to age, with Morwenna Talling being born in 2002 whereas fly-half Katy Daley-McLean was born 17 years earlier in 1985.
But let’s get back to ‘everyone – and we mean it’. This was first posted on 21st of August 2020 and re-posted in October and November, as a response to World Rugby announcements banning transgender participation in international-level women’s rugby. For a sport that has a reputation for inclusivity, this sparked calls for action; such as Toronto Muddy York Rugby Football Club hosting a video statement from player and trans-woman Shoshauna Gauvin, calling on organisations to fight for an inclusive sport, which by nature includes trans and non-binary communities. Shoshauna, an experienced rugby player, explains that while no one denies the need to ensure safety and fairness in sport, “the question is how to go about this in a reasonable way, with reasonable guidelines and policies. Every individual has a right to be treated in a fair manner and we need to respect that regardless of gender identity.”
Shoshauna raises the question of how players who have transitioned could navigate certain Unions’ policies which are possibly complex or unclear, noting “if the process of applying for a player licence is too daunting or invasive for the individual, then a group of participants are de facto excluded.” She also highlights that flipping policies containing height/weight guidelines on their head, these can even have a negative impact on cis women in the game. “Think about it – cis women might find themselves challenged to ‘prove’ their gender simply by being over 90kg or taller than 170cm!” She notes that these heights and weights are not unusual in the game, whether at community or elite level. Shoshauna notes that “transition is a long process. When you begin to present as yourself at the end of this, your physician and identity documents show your female gender – this should be enough, unless there is a clear safety concern.”
National leagues are free to make their own rulings on transgender participation. As rugby is an amateur sport in Denmark, the Danish Union has welcomed the mandate to remain inclusive, also in terms of gender identity and has regulations in place. In the UK, the period for consultation on the proposal covering transgender and non-binary players has been extended until May 5th 2021. This illustrates the challenge of being faced by a Union who claims to have the responsibility “to promote the safety and equitable treatment of all taking part. Harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated…”. According to the RFU video accompanying the policy proposal, we learn that the Union has received a total of 51 applications to play as a transgender athlete over the past 3 years including 7 transgender women and 39 transgender men. For context, there are around 380,000 registered rugby players in England.
Copenhagen Wolves were one of the first teams to repost RUGBYdk’s standpoint, and they believe we are closer to reaching a good solution for everyone. This is an encouraging outlook for inclusivity in the sport and the result of many months of intense work by the club. When the World Rugby policy intention and decision were announced, Wolves stepped in to raise the question of inclusivity for transgender players in Denmark, because it is important that the voice of these players are heard, even if indirectly. As a club, Wolves recognise they are not experts and have relied heavily on the experience of others – not least from Pan Idræt and International Gay Rugby – to ensure that the voice of transgender players has been heard appropriately.
Jimmy Knud Christensen, Chairman of Copenhagen Wolves Rugby Club, talks about how the period between the World Rugby announcement nearly a year ago, and the current decision of Danish Rugby to ensure “rugby is a sport for all,” has been a testing time – especially for those players who have been left in limbo, not knowing whether they are to be excluded. However, despite the pressure that this steep learning curve has brought, Jimmy focuses on the result of what Copenhagen Wolves have achieved – the starting point for him is that we should welcome all players inclusively. He, like Shoshauna, recognizes that safety issues could arise, but notes that because it is such a small percentage of the playing population, it should be possible to consider it on a case-by-case basis. He recognizes that for a small union it can be difficult to craft a policy and hopes that umbrella organisations such as DIF will help unions like the DRU in this matter.
Copenhagen Wolves, Jimmy’s club, is marvellously diverse with a huge range of nationalities and identities pitching up for training each week. For those identifying along the LGBTI+ spectrum, the Wolves’ passionately flying rainbow flag provides a safe, warm welcome. The overriding principle of the club is that rugby should be FUN! Openly more focused on the social side of the game than trophy-hunting, there is a place for everyone – no matter age, nationality, gender or sexual identity, or previous experience.
In the spirit of full inclusivity, players don’t even need to have touched a rugby ball before attending a training session. The club runs regular, designated ‘Intro to rugby’ events – these are repeated as many times as a player needs, so that with time everyone can be included in training no matter how quickly they feel comfortable in joining the wider team.
Jimmy speaks passionately about how the club builds a community for its members around the sport. He recognizes that for some players, being out or coming out in previous teams may have been challenging, saying: “We can celebrate that here in Denmark, we are further along the journey and provide a safe, welcoming environment for all. And being inclusive means that we welcome non LGBTI+ players too”. Right now, such players comprise around 30% of the 25-odd enthusiastic team-mates who attend the training sessions each week.
“At Wolves, we focus on ‘us’ as a team”, says Jimmy. “Some new joiners may not have played a massive amount of team sports before, because the team environment may have been challenging for them due to their gender or sexual identity. This means we have a great opportunity as a club to build an inclusive and welcoming community.” The team has an extensive social calendar, with all members voting on the year’s activities ranging from beach trips to movie nights. The current members range in age from 18 to 60+ and each person takes responsibility to arrange one of the socials, ensuring the club includes everyone, no matter what.
When pushed a little further, Jimmy explains that in his experience, rugby teams really are inclusive. Wolves as a club recognise that the stereotypical rugby player is a large, dominant male – but insist this is misleading. “As a big guy, I need the small and fast players around me!” laughs Jimmy. “No matter your body shape or size, or how fast you are, there is a place for you on the team and on the field. This is what makes the sport so truly amazing.”
Newbies are especially welcome, and a buddy is partnered up for each new member so that they have an easier way of making contact, especially if feeling a little shy.
Lockdown has of course been a testing time for many of the club’s members – and it’s here that Jimmy believes the Club has really lived up to its mantra of inclusivity, supporting players by lending an ear, dividing training into smaller groups per coach to comply with regulations, and following up on any player who may be experiencing issues. Jimmy notes that LGBTI+ players can have additional challenges and smaller support networks and the act of sending a text, giving a quick call and actively listening can make a huge difference. This is not a practice limited to Wolves – rugby clubs are often known for the “third half” (the social element after a game) – but is another example of how Jimmy and the team go the extra mile to ensure everyone actively feels included.
On a related yet somewhat separate note, DRU’s president Jens Aage highlights that Touch rugby (a non-contact version of the sport) is on the rise in Denmark. In this version of the game kids, adults, all ages and all gender identities can play on the pitch at the same time having inclusive, energetic fun.
But wrapping up for today, we should not and cannot ignore the ongoing consultation on transgender inclusion at an elite level, and our responsibility to ensure everyone can access sport no matter how they identify. Decisions which are made at a high level have consequences all the way through to those who look up from the grassroots.
And here at the grassroots level, rugby in Denmark is a solidly amateur sport with a focus on “unity” and “respect” as two of its five core values. Wherever an individual identifies within the LGBTI+ community, whatever their gender identity, the sport can provide an inclusive welcome. So, with the words of DRU clearly stating that rugby is “a sport for all – and we mean it!”, why not follow Copenhagen Wolves, and give it a try?
- 1min47 seconds https://www.englandrugby.com/about-rfu/rfu-policies/transgender-policy