IRFU decision tarnishes our reputation for courage and compassion in a changing world

Transgenderism can be a difficult subject for non-trans observers to understand, but that makes showing kindness all the more important

The decision by the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) to ban transgender women from contact rugby is upsetting to say the least. It wasn’t a surprise that it sparked a strong emotional reaction on social media from a wide range of organisations within the LGBTQ+ community across Ireland.

The transgender issue is the hot social topic of recent times. Metaphorically and literally, it has become a political football for those of this world who believe that a transgender woman can be legally but not biologically a woman, and the others who believe that men are physically more likely to win than women in sports such as running, rugby, all kinds of football, swimming, wrestling, boxing and many others and therefore a gender division in these sports is justified.

The second view is what some commentators have referred to as the “competitive sports construct”; the belief that men are simply stronger than women and therefore have an unfair physical advantage. This in turn differs from the “social construct” theory on transgender which allows for the binary understanding of gender to be more fluid in other aspects of everyday life.

The IRFU has cited disadvantages in strength, stamina and physique as forming the basis of its decision and it is justified as a health and safety issue in line with defending the respect and dignity of all its players.

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On the one hand, I can understand the position of the IRFU but on the other hand, I can see how this decision will send a very negative and hurtful message to my friends in the transgender community

To be honest, I am struggling to find my position in all of this. As a gay man, I often maintain that I have as much in common with a transgender person as a “cishet” man – a heterosexual man who identifies with the gender he was assigned at birth. On the one hand, I can understand the position of the IRFU but on the other hand, I can see how this decision will send a very negative and hurtful message to my friends in the transgender community. And therein lies the rub.

The logical response to all of this is to turn to scientific research for guidance and justification. However, if there’s one thing I do understand about being transgender it’s that gender dysphoria makes no sense to those who live in a binary world where every aspect of human life gets divided into only male and woman constructs.

Despite my support for transgender rights, I think there are times when transgender activists are expecting too much, too fast from the general public. For example, it is just possible that the IRFU decision was not about being transphobic but about understanding inclusion and fairness from an alternative perspective. People like me may not agree with that but in winning people over, one ultimately has to try to see things from the other point of view.

The current situation on transgender reminds me very much of the struggles we faced as gay men in the 1980s when Aids was known as the ‘gay plague’

What is required, if we are to move from the current position of stalemate on transgender in Irish society, is a shift in approach. The transgender community needs to move away from predictable and emotional responses and adopt a more pragmatic approach to transgender rights, whereas the cisgender community needs to adopt a kinder, more humane approach to the issue.

1980s struggles

When it comes to facilitating social change, strategy is key. This is a lesson I have learned in almost 40 years of advocacy and activism on LGBTQ+ rights. Indeed, the current situation on transgender reminds me very much of the struggles we faced as gay men in the 1980s when Aids was known as the “gay plague” and simply doing what came naturally made you a criminal.

It is because of this that, while I find it difficult to understand what it must be like to be transgender, I do have empathy and compassion for those who find themselves in this position. Surely nobody would willingly put themselves through the torment of knowing that you were born with a body that does not match your gender identity.

And this is an issue which does not only affect the transgender individual. Each of the 234 young people referred to the Tavistock Clinic in the London between 2011 and 2021 had parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends, and teachers. To refer to transgender as a “minority issue” is to misunderstand the reach that one person can have and the impact being transgender can have on those who love them.

Without doubt, Thursday was a bad week for Irish sport, it was a bad day for transgender people, and it was a bad day for humanity. The IRFU maintains that its decision is in line with international rugby guidelines. For me, it was a lost opportunity to turn the tide of populist gender identity politics as we did in 2015 with the marriage equality referendum when we set a standard across the world in promoting LGBTQ+ rights.

The decision by the IRFU has removed some of the lustre on our reputation for courage and compassion in a modern, changing world. And while in a world where we do not have to approve, we do not have to understand and we don’t even have to agree, in a world where we can be anything, we can and should at least, be kind.

Derek Byrne is a journalist, academic and gay rights activist.