Editor’s note: This story contains discussions of suicidal ideation.
In July of 2022, the Rugby Football Union (RFU), the game’s governing body in England, voted to ban transgender women from playing women’s contact rugby, and trans player Julie Curtiss is leading the opposition to fight the decision.
The RFU’s reasoning behind the ban, they said in their July statement, was to ensure ‘fair competition and safety of all competitors.’ They added that their decision was based on the latest available scientific research.
For Curtiss, that decision has impacted more than her ability to play a sport, as she says it has impacted her mental health. It has also put her at the forefront of a global debate about trans athletes competing in elite sports, after she launched legal action against the RFU in September.
‘Feeling stuck on the sidelines’
During the first COVID-19 lockdown in England, Curtiss, who is based in Brighton, suffered a mental health breakdown and says she strongly considered taking her own life.
But, with no memory of what stopped her from driving her motorcycle off a cliff, she says she managed to get herself back to her home, and later, thanks to rugby, she found her way back to herself.
Curtiss told ESPN about her journey: “I think it [the pandemic and lockdowns] affected all of us quite, quite heavily. So I’m not saying it’s something that was unique to me, but I did have a significant breakdown.
“I’d ridden my motorcycle up to Beachy Head and I was really ready to just ride off. And I can’t quite remember why I chose not to. But I got myself back to Brighton. I realised I needed to make some changes in my life.
“Once the lockdown was lifted, I started playing rugby. The impact on my mental health was just phenomenal. Just all of that suicidal ideation and depression… I’m not saying magically went away, but I was so much more able to deal with it.”
Having played rugby earlier in life, the 52-year-old, who came out as transgender in 2016, had lost touch with the sport after having kids. Her return to the field with amateur side Hove RFC was a salve, and losing it again due to the ban has been devastating.
Curtis, who is on hormone therapy and had met the RFU’s prior requirements to play, added: “I had another breakdown. And it part of it is the mental anguish of actually trying to have this fight [against the ban]. Part of it is not being able to play the sport that I love.
“Although I’m still involved with Hove rugby, not being able to play and feeling stuck off on the side… And everybody always wants to talk about and I love to talk about it. And I’m glad they want to talk about it and want to find out how things are going.
“But at the same time, it’s just this constant thing of feeling like you have been kicked into the long grass and just discarded with no forethought.”
The risk factor… in theory
Joanna Harper, a leading researcher studying transgender athlete performance at Loughborough University, explained that there is a “theoretical risk” any time an athlete who is larger than another rugby player collides with a smaller player.
Harper told ESPN: “Anytime there is a collision between two people, the person with the smaller body is at an increased risk. And so that is always going to be true, that the larger mass and strength is protected and creates more force more on the smaller player.
“So, if a small person and a big person collide — a small person has a greater risk. Not every trans woman is larger than every cisgender woman, but on average transgender women are [larger] than cisgender women. So, there is certainly going to be an increased risk.”
However, Harper — who is transgender herself — also explained that there is still a lack of data on the topic of trans women in sport, particularly on the size of the potential risk of trans women in rugby, a game that is inherently dangerous.
She added: “How much this risk increases is uncertain. It’s not clear that, as population group, trans women are any larger or stronger than [cis] female props are, as a population group.
“And certainly, if you don’t have that data, whatever the theoretical risk is, it’s not any larger than the theoretical risk that exists when props tackle scrum-halves, and that’s a risk that is already an accepted part of the sport.”
Holly Taylor, one of Hove’s positional coaches and also a [cisgender] player, told ESPN that of the players on their team, Curtiss certainly was not the one she’d have named to cause damage to an opponent.
Taylor, 32, said: “I’ve played with and against Julie-Anne and have never had any issue with the fact she is transgender. I’ve tackled her, she’s tackled me, and she is no more a threat to me than any other player in our team.
“Far from being a problem, we love having Julie-Anne at Hove RFC, not only for her personality but because of her exceptional rugby knowledge, and if you look at our team, you would not pick out Julie-Anne as the player most likely to cause an injury.
“I am a huge supporter of rugby’s values of inclusivity and support. This ban goes so far against those values that I think they will be irrevocably damaged.”
The shoulders for future generations
At the time of the vote about the ban, Curtiss was one of seven transgender women who were registered with the RFU and one of only three who were actively playing the sport.
So while there are currently very few trans women who play rugby, Curtiss feels passionate about the door remaining open for future generations who may discover a love for the sport, pre-or post their transitions.
She said: “When I came out in 2016, and I transitioned publicly, I was able to transition into a safe space where my rights were protected. So even if people didn’t accept me, I had a right to be accepted and to be present and to participate.
“But I didn’t fight for those rights, I benefited from them. I came out on the shoulders of those who had gone before me and had managed to secure these rights so that people like me can transition in a safe environment, in the workplace and in public.
“So, I thought, ‘I can’t not be the shoulders for the generation that comes after me.'”
For Curtiss, being the “shoulders” for future transgender rugby players means fighting against the ban. This prompted her to launch a legal challenge against the RFU in September, arguing that the ban violates Section 7 of the United Kingdom’s Equality Act 2010.
The Act states: “A person has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if the person is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.”
Responding to ESPN’s request for comment, an RFU spokesperson said: “We believe any potential claim is without merit and we will robustly defend the case.”
The governing body believes the ban is validated under Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 which states that participation in a “gender-affected activity” can be restricted if necessary to ensure “fair competition” or the “safety of competitors.”
There have been no further court dates or timelines set for the case, as it stands.
Harper, who was a part of the forum on transgender women that World Rugby held in February of 2020 — eventually leading to a ban on trans women competing in women’s rugby at an international level — acknowledged that the RFU is in a difficult position with the lack of data on trans women within the sport.
“I do think that the people who run rugby do have a responsibility to players, and especially female players, to try to have a game that is safe — within the context of it not being all that safe. So, I do feel a little bit of sympathy for them,” Harper said.
“However, I think the suggestion that that three or four, or some single digit number of trans women out of 10s of 1000s of women playing rugby in the UK creates some sort of population safety risk, I think that’s an extremely difficult argument to make.”
A safe space lost
After the ban, the RFU suggested to Curtiss that she could stay involved with the sport by coaching, playing touch, or by refereeing. And, while coaching is an ambition for her, and she has been voted in to manage the second team at Hove, she couldn’t accept their offer.
For Curtiss, her place of safety had been removed: “The first time I was down at the club, after the vote went through … I remember needing to go to the bathroom. And for the first time since I’ve transitioned, I was suddenly not sure which bathroom I was supposed to use.
“And it really struck me because that had never been an issue for me at work. Having that situation where suddenly I’m feeling like I’m at a rugby club [and] rugby is now no longer a safe space for trans women. We are no longer accepted.
“[It was] the first time I really questioned my own legitimacy in the society.”
While playing rugby helped Curtiss’ mental health, she remains part of a particularly vulnerable community. According to research done by Stonewall and Mental Health UK, 46% of trans people have considered suicide and as high as 71% are dealing with depression and anxiety in some form.
As Curtiss shared her vulnerabilities on how this ban has affect her mental health, she explained that, in addition to being barred from playing the sport, she had not been offered any mental health support from the RFU following the decision.
She said: “They [the RFU] were just like, ‘Okay, decision made. We’re going to move on now. So, as a trans woman, you can play touch rugby, you can coach, you can ref, you just can’t play contact.’
“But not like, ‘Can we offer you any counselling? Because we understand this as might have a negative impact on your mental health.’
“They just seem to have been blissfully ignorant of the impact that they’ve had.”
She continued: “I know that every single trans player who was affected by this decision suffered a great deal of mental anguish as a consequence of it, similar to mine.
“I just can’t believe the RFU didn’t stop and think … ‘We need to offer some kind of support to these people, because we’re taking away something that’s clearly really important to them.’
“It’s wilful ignorance on their part, that they assume they could make this decision and we would just pick ourselves up and walk away.”
Harper weighed in on how sport can have an impact on mental health: “Sport is very important to the well-being of people in general. There has been study after study that has shown that people who participate in sports are happier and healthier, both mentally and physically.
“If you have to take away somebody’s sport, and then not offer them any sort of help, it does seem heartless.”
While Curtiss has taken on a prominent role in challenging the ban, she explained that the process has been a double-edged sword for her.
“On one hand I feel like at least I’m doing something, on the other hand doing something is very triggering for me as it requires me to constantly revisit this issue and immerse myself with the filth on Twitter to stay up-to-date,” she said.
When prompted further about why she decided to be the one to take on this battle, even at the expense of her health, Curtiss explained: “I’m not saying the debate [about trans athletes in contact sports] shouldn’t happen. I’m just saying this decision is unlawful.
“The point is, we need to move past this, but we can’t move past it with this decision having been made, so it needs to be challenged.”
A true success of the case for Curtiss would be the chance grow the sport further by creating opportunities for young trans girls — opportunities that she herself never had growing up — to play rugby with girls and have access to the communities and the mental health benefits that come with it.
She added: “Young trans girls out there, even if they wanted to, [they] have absolutely no pathway, we need to build that pathway, we need to figure out how do we grow the sport?
“How do we bring these kids into the game, let them experience this beautiful game — where it doesn’t matter if you’re skinny, fat, short, tall, fast, slow, there is a position for everyone on the field.
“And … if there was any sport out there that has a level playing field for different physiologies it’s rugby. Rugby is such a unique sport; it has a golden opportunity to embrace this diversity.”