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Bodies Out of Bounds: Rugby's Unique Relationship to Gender and Sexual Minorities

By Jenn Levi

I fell in love with rugby just after I graduated college. I was living in Philadelphia and studying at the University of Pennsylvania when one Saturday afternoon, I found myself at a pitch, enthralled by the game. Shortly thereafter, I joined the university team, dropped out of graduate school, and lived to play rugby. All of the major life decisions I made over the next 5 years or so put rugby at the center.

At the same as I was becoming as an athlete, I was developing into a more fully conscious human being as well. I had started college young (too young at age 16) and did not come out as queer (lesbian, at the time) or transgender until a long time after many of my peer group had already established their genders and sexualities. The rugby world was the universe in which my gender and sexuality found a home.

Joining a team and bonding with a group of athletes, many of whom were openly queer and gender nonconforming like me, was life altering. It gave me role models, friends, lovers, and a supportive community. It affected me in big ways – building my self-esteem and giving me goals, as well as hopes and dreams. It affected me in smaller ways, too. It meant that when I was traveling and had to use a bathroom, there was a pack of us in the women’s room who others saw as men. We could laugh and share stories about being gender outlaws. It enabled me to claim and embrace my masculinity.

Rugby also fostered my identity as an athlete. Shortly after quitting graduate school, I moved to Boston and started to play with Boston Women’s Rugby Club. We were a strong team, defeating most of our competitors. And by most, I mean all but one – Beantown WRFC. Our rivalry was a great one. In most games against Beantown, we would hang in for much of the game. Each team pounding one another, fighting try for try, kick for kick. But during the time I played for Boston, we never once beat Beantown. I thought Beantown was the strongest team ever.

The strongest team ever, that is, until a team from Minnesota cruised through the Northeast in the late ‘80s to play many of the local teams. When they started warming up before our game, they didn’t look all that impressive, at least not athletically. None of their players were all that big. Maybe square but not big. But they did warm up and train in a unison we had never before seen. And once the game started, it became clear, they were amazing. They played a style of rugby that was new at the time. Our play was largely about brute strength. Big tackles, tight mauls, heavy scrums. Their play was all about fast, open play, rucking, and quick in and out scrums. The stereotypes we associated with their less impressive bodies quickly fell away when we saw how devastatingly strong, fit, and fast they were.

Of course, my team, Boston, was used to getting beat from time to time. But we did not expect what we saw when Minnesota faced off against Beantown. Minnesota ran over our rivals that weekend as well, and went on to win Nationals. Even though the Beantown players were, position for position, larger and seemingly stronger than the Minnesota players, Beantown was no match for them. That weekend, we saw the future of the game where strength, size, strategy, team play, speed, and beyond would all have to come together to optimize outcomes – with no advantage gained by having any single attribute. For some on our team, the game with Minnesota sealed for them that they would forever more only play recreationally. For others, they set goals to redesign their play and body to rise with the growing standard of the game.

I picked the latter path, at least for a while. A few years later, I started law school. I moved to Chicago, again to be sure I was in a city where rugby could remain central in my life. I continued to play competitively, training even harder than I had before. I eventually tried out for and made the USA National team. I joined a pre-Eagles squad (we called ourselves the Eagles even though USA Rugby forbid us from it) that traveled to New Zealand to play in the Rugby World Festival (a pre-World Cup event). The USA team had previously competed against European and Canadian teams, doing amazingly well in international play. But at the World Festival, we faced New Zealand for the first time.

The Kiwis or Black Ferns (like us, they were prohibited from using the better-known nickname associated with their men’s squad), were physically immense, unlike the Minnesota team. They appeared strong, fit, tall, broad, and muscular. And their play reflected it. They were also strategic and fast, having grown up seeing and playing rugby as a core part of their culture. We were outmatched. That Festival, like the Minnesota weekend, divided those who felt they could rise to that even higher level of play from those who concluded they had met their match.

Between the World Festival and the first sanctioned Women’s World Cup held in Cardiff in 1991, where I also had the good fortune to be able to compete, USA women’s rugby stepped up its game like never before. Many of us had seen the best of the best rugby players from around the world compete. We had models for ways to improve our game. We had training programs, accountability to teammates, high level coaching, international role models, and goals. And when we landed in Cardiff, we were set to play. And we did, beating New Zealand in the semi-finals and eventually England for the Cup. The level of play in those games was like nothing anyone had ever seen in the women’s game.

My time on the USA squad was not nearly as long-lived as it was for some. I continued to play at the elite level for just a few more years. International rugby politics derailed the timing of the second World Cup. And by the time tryouts for the delayed event came around, I had blown out my knee. I strived to rehab and return. But by the time I could, there were others coming up in my position (prop) who had seen all that we had seen and had doubled and tripled their efforts to train. I was, candidly, no match for their skill or their strength. I lost my spot.

My story ended happily enough. I refocused on my non-athletic, professional life. I committed to becoming an LGBTQ activist lawyer and have been fortunate to head up a legal project focused on transgender rights at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), a legal non-profit law firm where I have now worked for over 20 years.

So, what does this personal and national rugby history have to do with the upcoming 2020 WRCRA Conference? Everything. The theme and keynote for the conference is Winning Without Apology. And I have been asked to present on the unique place of rugby in the lives of gender and sexual minorities.

What I learned during my time playing rugby is to love my body and to value, appreciate, (and sometimes even love), the bodies of my teammates and opponents. The stereotypes I had about different bodies were time and again dispelled when I saw teams working together, or not, on the field. When I sometimes felt athletically inadequate because of the physical features someone else possessed that I did not, I was inspired to work harder, train harder, and study the game harder. And I was a better rugby player for it.

Much of the work I do in my lawyer life focuses on ensuring and securing policies and laws that guarantee equal inclusion of transgender people throughout our society, including advocating for the full inclusion of transgender athletes. For me, that means making rugby (and all sports) safe and supportive for gender nonconforming transgender people like me, as well as people who undergo gender transition. I count, value, and trust, transgender women as women. And I welcome them in the sport of rugby that I love and that has been so foundational to my physical and emotional well-being and development. Some transgender women are smaller, less physically developed, and slower than me. Others are taller, more muscular, and faster. That has always been true of my teammates and opponents. Their physical gifts, compared to mine, served as an inspiration to me to be the fittest, strongest, and fastest I could be. I am a better athlete for that experience. And we, as a rugby community, have always been the better for the diversity of bodies included among us.

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