By: Ben Skinner, pro rugby player in Canada’s National Rugby League and Athlete Ally Pro Ambassador
I once read a great article called “8 reasons you should let your daughter play rugby” written by Tesni Phillips that said, “Let your daughters play rugby. Let them tie their boots, pull up their socks, and run onto the pitch to do something incredible.”
I think many rugby players who were assigned female at birth have probably read this article online and resonated with it, just as I have. Although I am a trans/nonbinary person, I was assigned female at birth in a setting that lacked any acknowledgment of gender or sexual fluidity. Who knew that my “something incredible” would be discovering the courage to be my authentic self? Since I started playing at the USports level 6 years ago, I’ve re-established my identity to correct years of internalizing my own transness. I am now the first openly transgender person to represent the Canada Ravens, Canada’s National Rugby League program, as I competed in two test matches against Serbia’s national team this past fall.
For all the transgender athletes out there wondering if they should follow their passion in sports – I encourage you to do it. Participate in whatever way you can, however you see fit, as your authentic self. As a tribute to Tesni Phillips’ iconic article, here are 7 reasons you should let yourself play the sport you’re passionate about, based on my own experience of choosing to both embrace my transness and continue playing elite-level rugby.
1. You will become stronger and more resilient, mentally.
This first point is both a truth and a disclaimer. It won’t always be easy to be a transgender athlete. Sometimes you will find yourself doing the emotional labour of having to explain yourself to people, or feel the need to justify your eligibility to participate in competition to those who are not governing bodies of your sport. Although a total cliché, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” can be true if you let it be. The more strenuous moments will make you mentally strong, and encourage the growth of your ability to do emotional labour for the benefit of others. Don’t get me wrong – you don’t owe anything to anyone. Period. But if you can receive these emotionally laborious instances with grace, you will become stronger and more powerful (mentally) than ever before.
2. You will find yourself a family that you can count on, day in and day out.
This is an overall sports thing, and I think many athletes can agree when I say that your teammates become family. In the rugby world, when you are playing a ferocious game of organized chaos, the people who stand by your side to protect you with all their might just as you would protect them become a special kind of family. On top of that, not only will you find a family within your immediate reach, but also an entire global community which seeks to connect LGBTQI+ athletes in an intricate web of support as a reminder that you are not alone.
3. You will learn that there are many kind, caring, open-minded people in the world who want to be your advocate.
When I started to become concerned about my university rugby career because I was possibly going to start hormone replacement therapy during my final season, I worked up the courage to go to my coach and talk to her about it. I was unsure of this, as I never really had a strong relationship with this coach. However, I was met with nothing but understanding and warmth. Shortly after, she set up a meeting with the head of the athletics department to figure out my options and eligibility, and although I did not end up starting testosterone for personal reasons, I was cared for and advocated for. This was an incredible feeling and it was the first time I realized that there are people who are on my side. You will find these people, whether in your immediate sphere or beyond through organizations such as Athlete Ally – and you will realize that if you give people the benefit of the doubt, they may surprise you in a very meaningful way.
4. You will learn to love your body in your own special way, even if some days are difficult.
Something invaluable that I’ve gained from playing rugby is learning how to love my body. As a transgender person, I’ve always had a complex relationship with the person in the mirror staring back at me. However, when I hit that rugby pitch and I make a big hit, or I run the field and score a try, the only thing I feel at that moment is happiness. When I run a mile just a few seconds faster at training, I am grateful for my body not giving up on me during those last few seconds before the finish. My body is amazing, and although sometimes gender dysphoria causes me distress, sports has shown me that when I push my body to its limits, I can do things that I never thought I would be able to do. It continues to grow, to adapt, and to allow me to do amazing things. My body doesn’t give up on me, so why would I give up on it?
5. You will help change the landscape of athletics for the better.
When I have my toughest days, this is something that I need to continually remind myself of. Since publicly coming out as trans/nonbinary and talking about it on my social media accounts, I’ve received messages from other transgender and nonbinary rugby players in support of me being so open. One message that really stood out to me was from an athlete who was new to a rugby team that had many players on it who I had played with before. When the athlete told the team that they identify as nonbinary and their preferred pronouns were “they/them”, the response was overwhelmingly positive. The team reassured this new athlete that they could grasp the pronouns quickly because they had played with me before (I use they/them pronouns as well). This put the new athlete at ease and made the team environment welcoming and comfortable. When this athlete reached out to me to share this story, I felt pride knowing that I had helped pave the way to a more inclusive environment for them. My emotional labour had paid off, and yours will too.
6. You deserve all the benefits of sport just as much as any other person.
Sports come with so many benefits, not limited to the ones that I’ve already mentioned, and you are just as worthy as any other person to enjoy these benefits. You deserve to have the support system that a team provides. You deserve to make life-long friends. You deserve to accomplish your goals. You deserve to live a healthy lifestyle. You deserve to follow your passion, push yourself to your limits, and grow stronger. You deserve this just as much as anybody else.
7. You will realize that you can do whatever you put your mind to, even if the world tells you no.
You will soon come to realize that even when someone unfairly bars you from a space that you deserve to be allowed in, it is not the end. The world once barred LGBTQI+ people from participating in society, but with our voices and our perseverance, we stood tall and made it known that we exist and we belong. Although different parts of the world are at different stages in these developments, it is inspiring to see how far the world has come. The area of athletics is of no exception, and with every day that LGBTQI+ athletes stand up and say that we belong, we catalyze changes to the “rules” and pave the way for inclusivity going forward. I am optimistic that we will continue to make leaps and bounds in this area, and that one day everyone across the world will be allowed the opportunity to participate in sports as their authentic self without fear. I am excited to work with Athlete Ally to help make this dream a reality.
With this final point, I leave you with three concluding pieces of advice: love yourself, be optimistic, and be fearless.