Rugby league trailblazer, former NRL enforcer Ian Roberts condemns transgender ban

Ian Roberts, the first elite rugby league player to come out as gay, has 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) says male-to-female transgender athletes will 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 to restrict transgender athletes from elite women's competition and to look at setting up "open" categories for transgender competition.

Ian Roberts.
Ian Roberts. Photo credit: Supplied

Former Australian rugby league international Roberts, who came out in 1995, says the IRL's decision is "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 said.

"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 says it is working to develop criteria "based on the best possible evidence" that balances the right to compete with the safety of participants.

Roberts says the heated debate about transgender athletes in elite sport reminds 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," said Roberts. "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.

"You couldn't have gay men in the locker room. We obviously moved past all that, we matured, re-educated ourselves.

"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."

Roberts played more than 200 games in his 12-year NRL career - predominantly for Manly Sea Eagles - as well as 13 tests for Australia and nine State of Origin appearances with New South Wales.