Chess and trans rights: another pawn in the culture war?

Several national chess federations have announced they will not be adhering to the international governing body’s new restrictions on trans players

A hand moving a chess piece on a board
(Image credit: Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

The English Chess Federation (ECF) has said that it will not enforce restrictions on transgender people’s involvement in the game, in defiance of new rules introduced by chess’s international governing body.

The ECF joins several other national chess federations that have come out against the changes, including those of the US and Germany. The national chess associations’ rebellions come in the wake of new regulations introduced two weeks ago by the International Chess Federation (Fide) which modify the participation guidelines for trans men and women.

Among the new rules is a restriction on trans women participating in Fide’s women’s events until “further decisions are made” – a ruling that effectively bans trans women from taking part in women’s events for two years.

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The new rules will also affect trans men, who would will lose any titles they hold from women’s events, though Fide said it would reinstate those titles “if the person changes the gender back”. Fide said it needed to make regulations on transgender players after receiving “an influx of requests for gender changes”, NPR said. In response to this, the body ultimately ruled that “change of gender is a change that has a significant impact on a player’s status”.

‘Shaky science’

Fide’s argument “has been common among international governing bodies that oversee sports with intense physical activity – which chess does not”, NPR said.

The National Center for Transgender Equality in the US said the new guidelines were “insulting” to all women and the game itself.

“It assumes that cis women couldn’t be competitive against cis men – and relies on ignorant anti-trans ideas,” the non-profit organisation said in a post on Twitter.

Despite the backlash, there have “already been several defences of Fide’s decision”, said Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian. “But rather than being based on any firm evidence, they seem to be constructed out of sexist assumption and shaky science.”

Mahdawi points to the assertions of Debbie Hayton, a trans woman who writes frequently for conservative outlets, who wrote an article for UnHerd last week titled “Why I support the trans ban in women’s chess”. In it, she contended that “it’s possible that evolution has left men with an innate advantage in chess”.

Hayton pointed to studies which show that men have better spatial awareness than women. But, said Mahdawi, “while you can certainly cherrypick lots of studies that show men’s spatial abilities are superior, there are also lots of recent studies that refute this.”

‘Thinly veiled bigotry’

Fide’s policy is “part of a familiar anti-trans dogwhistle line of thinking that LGBTQ+ folks have been seeing for years,” said The Pink News. “It is thinly veiled bigotry that seeks to bar trans women from competing in women’s categories.”

Arguments about the “disparity in physicality” of trans women over cis women have led multiple sports governing bodies worldwide to instigate trans bans in recent years “over alleged concerns around ‘fairness’”, the site said.

But even disregarding the fact that “several studies, experts, sporting teams, athletes and activists have testified that this discrepancy doesn’t actually exist”, the “argument that trans women have a so-called ‘advantage’ in physical sports holds even less water in the realm of chess, where physicality has little to no place in tournaments”.

Ultimately “women’s chess isn’t helped by gatekeeping definitions of women”, said The Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi. “If your argument for excluding trans women is that women have inferior brains than men then you are no feminist, you are a pawn of the patriarchy”.

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Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.