SYDNEY (Reuters) - Ian Roberts, the first elite rugby league player to come out as gay, condemned the sport's decision to ban transgender players from women's internationals as a setback for tolerance and inclusion in the broader community.
The International Rugby League (IRL) said on Tuesday that "male-to-female" transgender athletes would be barred from women's international competition until further notice as it conducts further research to finalise a formal policy.
The IRL's ruling follows global swimming's decision on Sunday to restrict transgender athletes from elite women's competition and to look at setting up "open" categories for transgender competition.
Former Australian rugby league international Roberts, who came out in 1995, told Reuters the IRL's decision was "disappointing" and could potentially drive transgender athletes away from sport.
"As a community I thought we had progressed past this and we had matured enough to understand this and accept every person’s right to be who they are and live their honest self, live their truthful self," he told Reuters in an interview.
"I do think there needs to be a conversation about this and how they reached that decision - and the reasons they reached that decision.
"I mean there’s so much misinformation and disinformation around this subject."
The IRL said it was working to develop criteria "based on the best possible evidence" that balanced the right to compete with the safety of participants.
Roberts said the heated debate about transgender athletes in elite sport reminded him of the controversy triggered by sportsmen coming out in the 1990s, including former soccer player Justin Fashanu.
Briton Fashanu was the first professional soccer player to come out as gay.
"It’s almost like the same storyline. Back when I came out and in 1990 when Justin Fashanu came out, it was seen as like the destruction of men’s contact sport," said Roberts.
"You couldn’t have gay men in the locker room ... We obviously moved past all that, we matured, re-educated ourselves.
"And this is almost like the modern day equivalent - like, these trans women are going to destroy the sport, predominantly be the victors and the major winners.
"It’s not what the history shows."
Ricki Coughlan, one of Australia's first transgender athletes in professional running, said the IRL's move was a "failure of governance" that discounted diversity among transgender women in performance and physical characteristics.
Coughlan entered women's running competitions after she transitioned and passed a number of tests by Australian athletics authorities over a period of 18 months in the early 1990s to determine her suitability to compete with women.
She said transgender athletes should not be locked out of elite sport by blanket rules and would be better off being assessed on a case-by-case basis.
"Thus we will fit in with what we’re really looking for in sport, which is meaningful competition," Coughlan told Reuters.
"We can have that without insult and injury to transgender people."
She also took exception to FINA saying it would set up a working group to establish an "open" category for transgender athletes in some events.
Coughlan posted a segregation-era photo on social media showing separate water fountains for white and Black people in the United States.
"I’ve compared that on social media and elsewhere to creating a water fountain for Blacks in the 1950s in America," she said of FINA's "open" category proposal.
"You see a big, fancy, shiny water fountain for the white folks and for the Black ... folks they get this little dirty, grubby basin off to the side.
"And it’s like saying, 'We’ll include you but you’re over there.'"
(Writing by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)