Early this month, the International Chess Federation, known as FIDE, issued a ban on transgender women competing in international women’s chess competitions. The ban, which took effect on Aug. 22, 2023, has resurfaced ongoing debates about the controversial participation of transgender women in female sports competitions. With the classification of chess as an exclusively mental challenge with little physical exertion, this ban is a gateway to transgender/cisgender segregation in academic competitions.
In defense of the ban, Nigel Short, the FIDE former vice president, argued that “men are ‘hardwired’ to be better chess players than women.” This statement implies that men and women have different forms of intelligence. To an extent this is true, but it does not warrant the division of trans and cis competitors. A paper in the National Library of Medicine shows that men have higher spatial and reasoning abilities than women. Though this study depicts an average difference in each gender population, abilities differ based on a multitude of hereditary and environmental factors — gender is just one of the pack. Is FIDE suggesting that women with different upbringings cannot compete with one another because one competitor yields an unfair advantage? Simply put, no two people’s brains are the same — if they were, chess competitions would cease to exist.
Even if gender differences in the brain are prominent enough to act as a barrier for male vs. female competitions, the science cannot be extrapolated to discuss brain differences between trans vs. cis women and thus does not account for trans/cis division in academic competitions. Researchers at the European Society of Endocrinology studied the brain anatomy of children with gender dysphoria (GD). In doing so, they found that girls with GD have closer brain activity patterns to the gender with which they identify, rather than the gender they were assigned at birth.
Other research has yielded similar conclusions. Researchers at the Journal of Clinical Medicine compared the similarity of trans/cis women’s brains to cis male/female brains. The study concluded that, even without hormone therapy, trans women share more neuro-anatomical similarities with cis women than cis women and cis men do on average. Such anatomical comparisons suggest that, should trans women compete in women’s chess competitions, they would not hold an unfair advantage based on neuroanatomy.
For years, the participation of transgender athletes in gendered competitions has been a source of controversy and debate. To many, the issue of transgender women competing in sports represents somewhat of a gray area, especially when transgender women set unprecedented records in female athletic competitions, a result that arguably discredits the work put in by cisgender women and ignores physical sex differences that impact athletics.
However, banning transgender women from female chess competitions entertains an interesting dilemma. For the first time, all physical considerations have been removed from the debate. Chess is notoriously a mental sport, with no physical aspects aside from the meager shifting of pawns on a table. Thus, the crux of arguments that favor the division of trans/cis participation in athletic competitions is invalidated.
With a vast history of discrimination against female athletes, FIDE’s prejudice against transgender women, and their lack of prejudice against transgender men, raises the question of the ban’s connection to sexism and misogyny.
In the official report announcing the ban, FIDE claims that “If a player holds any of the women titles, but the gender has been changed to a man, the women titles are to be abolished.” However, “If a player has changed the gender from a man into a woman, all the previous titles remain eligible.” FIDE’s unequal criteria therefore places more restrictions for a person to be considered a woman than a man in chess competitions.
Female athletes have been discriminated against since the birth of women’s athletics. In professional athletics, female athletes, compared to their male counterparts, are given less opportunities and funding, are subject to more sexualization and inappropriate behavior, and are exposed to more sexual harassment. Thus, it comes as no surprise that FIDE is exclusively targeting female transgender athletes. The ban is yet another example of misogyny in sports, only this time, FIDE is using transgender discrimination as a vehicle for maltreatment against female athletes.
A transgender athletics ban in chess could have scary implications beyond the sport. Due to its highly academic nature, it provides a gateway for future gender segregation in an array of academic fields and competitions. Soon, will private schools argue that women and men cannot compete against one another in a spelling bee due to their different brain structures? Will they rule that transgender women cannot compete in the female competition category? It is time that such behavior is called out and women are treated equally in all competitions before it becomes too late, which by the looks of it, it already has.
Talia Belowich is an Opinion Columnist from Westchester, New York. She writes about controversial issues in American politics and culture. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editors’ note: An update has been made to clarify the results of the study mentioned in the 3rd paragraph.