I thought the panic about trans women in sport had reached its nadir when they banned us from badminton, but I was wrong: this week, trans women were banned from the famously physical endurance sport of… chess.
I’m not making this up.
The reason elite international chess has some gendered categories is for positive discrimination; there’s a huge drop-off of girl chess players around the age of 13, and there’s a lot of evidence that where boys are steered towards the game, girls are steered away from it. It’s not a biological issue but a social one. The gendered categories are designed to boost inclusion of people who are not cisgender men, which of course is a category that should include trans women.
It’s interesting to note that while yet again there are no actual cases of trans women being a problem in this sport, there are currently multiple allegations against straight cisgender male chess players, including grand masters, with credible claims detailing misogyny, sexism and sexual assault of women players.
What’s particularly galling about this is that the self-proclaimed “feminists” who support trans exclusion are all over this with claims that yes, trans women should be excluded, not because of physical strength this time but because of course, women’s brains are inferior to men’s. If you’re born in a female body you get a little lady brain, they argue, and that means you need your own special lady-brain category in chess so that the big strong clever men don’t win with their big science brains and make you go boo-hoo.
I despair, but the little bit of me that’s still optimistic hopes that this will finally make people appreciate the bigotry behind trans sporting bans: the science has not changed but there has been a seemingly daily parade of sports lining up to ban trans women. That’s particularly true in England, which seems second only to Russia in its race to exclude trans women from everything. It does make you wonder what conversations are going on behind the scenes between the sporting bodies and Sport England, the government agency that funds so many of them.
Update, 21 August:
Some interesting developments here: the English, German, French and US chess governing bodies have rejected the policy set out by FIDE, the International Chess Federation; the German Chess Federation (FSB) issued a strongly worded statement making it clear that they believe the policy is discriminatory, probably illegal and utterly unwelcome.
The president of FIDE is Arkady Dvorkovich, former deputy prime minister of Russia and a friend of Vladimir Putin. This isn’t the first time he’s been accused of using FIDE to advance Putin’s political aims; earlier this year the European Chess Union’s vice-president accused FIDE of running a “soft power game” that was being “directed by the Kremlin”.
It’s clear that FIDE is at odds with most national chess governing bodies. And that makes the so-called feminists loudly supporting its policy look even more repellent as they stand proudly against chess players and with Vladimir Putin. But then, there’s a precedent here: in 2022, Putin praised JK Rowling and claimed that Russia was a victim of cancel culture. So he’d fit right in at a UK anti-trans event.