Chess becomes latest sport to ban transgender women from competing in women’s events

By Louis Shankar

Published Aug 22, 2023 at 12:27 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Last week, the International Chess Federation (commonly referred to by its French acronym FIDE) announced that trans women would be banned from competing in its official events for women until a full official review has taken place. FIDE is an international organisation based in Switzerland that acts as the governing body of all international chess competitions. Chess is classified as a sport by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and seems to be following other sports in developing uninformed and reactionary trans-exclusionary policies.

Now, it’s important to note that chess tournaments tend not to separate participants by gender in most cases. Nevertheless, certain tournaments are divided by gender with the aim of encouraging more women to get involved in chess, as men greatly outweigh women at all levels of competitive chess.

No doubt you’ve seen The Queen’s Gambit—and, while this is a fictional story, it nonetheless demonstrates effectively the sexism and gender imbalance at play in the chess world.

There’s a common contention by ‘gender-critical’ and trans-exclusionary campaigners that men would simply “identify” as women in order to gain an advantage in competitive situations. There’s little to no evidence of this ever happening. To disadvantage all trans women based on hypothetical abuse of the policy is fundamentally flawed and it’s something we’ve seen dominate recent conversations regarding non-cisgendered sports athletes.

Excluding trans women from women’s chess would seem to suggest that men’s dominance in chess is for biological rather than social and cultural reasons. This is a gross misunderstanding of the dynamics of discrimination, masquerading misogyny as feminism, as ‘gender-critical’ perspectives so often do. As LGBTQIA+ news commentator Ari Drennen points out: “What would you call an ideology that claims that being assigned male at birth gives you an unfair advantage at sports, beauty pageants, trivia, and chess?” The implicit answer is, of course, misogyny.

FIDE’s decision has drawn criticism from both the chess world and international LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups. Yosha Iglesias, a professional chess player, said the policy would lead to “unnecessary harm” for both trans players and women. Iglesias is trans, with the FIDE rank of ‘chess master’. Speaking to sports inclusion advocacy group Athlete Ally, Jennifer Shahade, two-time US Women’s Champion and woman Grandmaster, also criticised the decision, describing the policy as “ridiculous and dangerous.”

“It’s obvious they didn’t consult with any transgender players in constructing it,” she said. “I strongly urge FIDE to reverse course on this and start from scratch with better consultants.”

It certainly seems short-sighted to announce these policy decisions before conducting a full review. Additionally, it was reported that trans men who had previously won women’s titles would lose those titles. In a statement, FIDE explained: “The transgender legislation is rapidly developing in many countries and many sport bodies are adopting their own policies.”

Policies on trans competitors do need to be developed by all international sporting bodies—but these should be developed in a sensitive and in dialogue with trans people. It shouldn’t be necessary to make this final point but, sadly, it clearly needs reiterating. More often than not, such policy exposes contradictions in how and why we categorise different sporting competitions: when does an advantage become unfair?

The English, French, German, and United States Chess Federations have all already announced that they won’t be banning trans women from their national-level women’s competitions. Ironically, the motto of FIDE is “Gens una sumus,” which is Latin for “we are one family.” Right…

I’m curious to see how this might relate to Rishi Sunak’s plans for a “Great British chess revival,” and whether this will prove an opportunity to drag chess into his government’s ongoing culture wars. Since the English Chess Federation’s decision on Monday 21 August 2023, there’s been no reaction from the UK government, although it is currently the summer recess.

The government just announced that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will invest £500,000 in the ECF over two years. The plans include proposals for 100 new chess tables installed in public spaces and £2,000 grants for schools in disadvantaged areas to improve visibility and promote the game, starting at primary school level.

As highlighted by broadcaster and journalist India Willoughby, it wouldn’t be surprising if Home Secretary Suella Braverman or Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch waded in to unnecessarily complicate matters. Despite the litany of economic and social problems currently engulfing the country, the government has recently made a surprising U-turn on its single-sex bathroom policy—a trivial and unnecessary war against inclusivity.

The whole chess revival seems to be part of this distraction: investment aimed at a non-existent problem, a sticking plaster on a decade of under-investment in schools and services for children—and precisely the sort of out-of-touch decision we should expect from Sunak and his government. £1 million is a generous investment in chess, but will it really make a difference for disadvantaged children?

Chess might often seem inconsequential but, as both these stories show, it can become a battleground for larger social issues.

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