Society / August 25, 2023

The Trans Sports Panic Has Reached Peak Stupidity

Now chess, of all things, is banning trans women. Really!

Frankie de la Cretaz
Image of chess pieces lying in disarray on the floor.
(Getty Images)

All bans on transgender people’s participation in professional sports are ridiculous, but some are so ridiculous that they leave you speechless. This week saw the introduction of just such a ban—one that should baffle pretty much anyone. That’s because it concerns perhaps the last sport anyone should have expected to make such a move—in the process, laying bare the real motivation behind these bans, since they never were actually about fair competition.

That sport: Chess. (Really? Yes, really.) As of this week, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) has instituted a new policy about trans chess players. To say that it defies the stereotype of chess enthusiasts as intelligent people is putting it mildly.

Under the new policy, trans women are banned by default from competing in women-only chess tournaments. (There are no bans for all-gender events.) To get around this ban, players must provide documentation that any changes to their gender meet all the requirements of their local government. Even then, FIDE says, “further analysis” would be needed until a trans woman gets the green light to play—a vague process that FIDE says could take up to two years. In addition, any trans men who won women’s titles before their transition will have those titles taken away, while trans women retain theirs. As with most of these policies, nonbinary players are not addressed.

Chess now joins cycling, track and field, swimming, and rugby, among other sports, in instituting bans on transgender women’s participation at the elite international level. But while other bans have relied on arguments about physical advantages that may be held by transgender women—despite no scientific evidence to support this, as well as the International Olympic Committee’s issuing new guidelines urging international federations to move away from these exclusionary policies—the chess ban clearly implies that trans women might have an intellectual advantage over cisgender women.

FIDE’s attempts to dispute this are feeble at best. “Of course men and women are equally intellectually capable,” FIDE told The Washington Post. “However, in chess as a sport other factors like physical endurance may play a role.” (In other words, women are as smart as men, but perhaps not as good at sitting in a chair for a while and thinking about where a little horse should go on a board. How empowering.)

FIDE’s new policy—and its pathetic attempts to defend that policy— underscores two things about the trans-exclusionary wave that is sweeping all levels of sport. The first is that these rules are based not on science but on misogyny. Whatever FIDE says, there is no reason to ban trans women from competing against cis women in a chess competition unless you believe that men (because people who discriminate against trans women see them as “biological men” and believe a person’s sex to be an immutable binary) are smarter than women—or that there is something so inherently vile about trans people that cis people must be protected from them even while playing a board game. The bans in more physical sports rely on this same belief: that someone who was designated as male at birth will always beat in athletic competition someone who was designated as female at birth. Not only is this demonstrably false, it relies on a blatantly sexist and bigoted worldview.

This argument is even more surreal when you consider that many of the trans-exclusionary organizations that support these bans under the guise of “protecting” women’s sports or standing up for women’s right to “fair” competition are run by women. They are essentially arguing that their idea of feminism is one in which men are smarter and physically superior to them, which seems, at a minimum, contradictory to the very tenets of the movement. (Hilariously, trans women were also recently banned from the Miss Italy beauty competition, so trans women are also apparently prettier than cis women—add it to the list of things trans women excel at.)

“FIDE’s transgender policy is ridiculous and dangerous,” grandmaster and two-time US champion Jennifer Shahade said in a statement to Chess.com. “It’s obvious they didn’t consult with any transgender players in constructing it. It’s also sinister timing that this comes out just as chess is finally reckoning with sexual assault and harassment in chess highlighting the links between misogyny and transphobia.”

Shahade makes an important point. Earlier this year, eight women, including Shahade, brought sexual harassment and assault allegations against grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez. In August, 14 prominent women chess players in France wrote an open letter calling out the systemic sexism and sexual violence that has impacted generations of women trying to break into the sport. It seems that FIDE has decided to use trans people as a distraction from the actual problem facing the sport—swapping one type of misogyny for another and making trans players the villains, rather than focusing on the men who govern and control the sport.

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The second thing that the FIDE fiasco reveals is that these policies were never actually about fairness in competition, but about erasing trans people’s ability to participate in public life. There is plenty of evidence that shows that “fairness” is much more complicated than blanket statements or bans regarding hormones or chromosomes or genitals could ever account for. But these discriminatory policies and the people who make them have shown no interest in engaging with trans people to find ways to include—rather than exclude—them. They also seem wholly uninterested in hearing about the harm that this kind of discrimination does to trans folks.

At the end of the day, banning trans people from playing sports, entering a beauty competition, using a bathroom, or being taught or considered in school curriculums, all have the same end goal and the same impact. They are intended to disappear trans people. As Chase Strangio, deputy director for trans justice with the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project, told Democracy Now! earlier this year: 

How quickly have we gone from that rhetoric [around trans participation in sports]—which was understood to be false, including by proponents of it—to this current climate in which we are criminalizing trans adults going to the bathroom, where we are banning evidence-based medical care that is supported by every major medical association, where we are criminalizing gender expression in drag performance, and now we hear the rhetoric behind all of this, which at its core has always been about pushing trans people out of public life and eradicating transness.

One encouraging sign is just how many national chess federations—including American, English, French, and German—have said they do not plan to abide by the guidelines set forth by FIDE. But the fact that they have been proposed at all has revealed just how sinister these attacks on trans athletes really are. They’re not based on logic or science. They’re based on prejudice, plain and simple.

Frankie de la Cretaz

Frankie de la Cretaz is a freelance writer whose work sits at the intersection of sports, gender, culture, and queerness. Their work has been featured in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Vogue, The Washington Post, Bleacher Report, The Ringer, and The Atlantic, among others. Their book, Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League, cowritten with Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, was named one of the Los Angeles Times’ “10 sports books we loved in 2021.”

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