The ban on trans women in chess is not just transphobia. It’s misogyny.

Concept of feminism with chess queen piece on female symbol. 3D illustration. International Women's Day. March 8. Copy space.
Photo: Shutterstock

Every week, conservatives lose their minds anew. It doesn’t take much to trigger this inexorable natural process; usually it’s something like the new Barbie movie or Minnie Mouse wearing pants. Still, when they channel that misplaced outrage into actual, injurious discrimination, it never fails to shock.

Most recently, conservatives achieved something particularly ugly: The banning of trans women from all official women’s chess competitions worldwide. The decision, enacted by the International Chess Federation (FIDE), naturally stirred up controversy. 

Though purportedly evening the playing field…somehow…FIDE belied its own messaging by simultaneously announcing that it would strip all trans men of their hard-earned titles. FIDE also failed to understand how transness works, claiming that a trans man could regain his title if “the person changes the gender back to a woman.”  Thus, the resultant message was, “We are unapologetically transphobic.”

Yet, as trans journalist Ana Valens pointed out in an op-ed for The Mary Sue, there were other factors at play that made this decision difficult to parse. “I [don’t] think my pre-transition years gave me some sort of innate advantage at chess,” they wrote. “Yet FIDE is treating trans women as some sort of threat to the integrity of cisgender women playing chess.”

Why, exactly, did FIDE believe that trans women would have an advantage over cis women in chess? For many, there appeared to be a more enduring, equally problematic conviction rooted at the core of this FIDE decision: misogyny. After all, trans men could still compete in men’s events, despite not being able to win titles and all that. Clearly, it wasn’t transness itself that was turning trans women into superpowered chess studs. It was the fact that trans women were assigned male at birth, or AMAB.

Faced with this challenge, FIDE countered: “Of course men and women are equally intellectually capable. However, in chess as a sport, other factors like physical endurance may play a role.” 

This created another question: “Huh?”

Yes, we are all familiar with the oft-cited statistic about the fastest man in the world being faster than the fastest woman. But chess requires… sitting. Are men better at sitting for longer periods of time than women? 99% of the most dramatic moments from Keeping up with the Kardashians are of them sitting on a couch and glaring at each other.

Clearly, FIDE’s reasoning was an improvised, thoughtless argument, one that did not effectively parry public criticism. After all, even if one attempted to apply logic to it, it would still read as misogynistic. Here’s my best shot: Chess requires physical endurance because… squinting for a long time… so, men are better at this because… Genesis? 

Actually, one Twitter mansplainer really did attempt to explain the “physical endurance” aspect of chess, hilariously burying himself in the process. “Men have larger prefrontal cortex as a [sic] evolutionary feature of being hunger and gather scociety [sic] for 200,000 years,” he wrote in a now deleted tweet. “Quit pretending biology doesn’t exist.” His fellow Twitter users proceeded to blind him with science. 

But we really shouldn’t be surprised that FIDE – and, thus the chess community at large – has revealed itself to be misogynistic. Anyone who’s seen The Queen’s Gambit will be unperturbed to discover that only 2% of all competitive chess players are female. Well, actually, that’s a little perturbing, considering that The Queen’s Gambit took place in the ‘60s. Six decades later, things haven’t changed much from that fictional setting.

But  we might as well posit after all of this that in giving the anti-trans movement a platform, FIDE has revealed the whole movement to be misogynistic. TERF and anti-trans activists don’t simply believe that sex is an immutable binary; they also believe that men are intellectually superior to women (and something something natural law, something). When they conflate the two concepts in their minds, they create a mystical idea that men are imbued with superpowers at birth and that they are fated to be better at, uh, chess. Nothing, not even Estradiol, can strip away that noble cause.

Additionally, the vast majority of people, including anti-trans critics, have not yet embraced the notion that womanhood isn’t one-size-fits-all. There are many ways to express womanhood – visually, rhetorically, sexually, spiritually – and transness will forever hold a place in that spectrum. 

In order to truly empower women and help them thrive, trans panickers must recognize that the gilded cage they’ve built to protect traditional womanhood has long since broken. Over the years, the spectrum of womanhood has burst through that cage, bending and twisting its frame, extending to support women from every persuasion and corner of the world. 

And, yes, many of them are better at chess.

Don't forget to share:

Support vital LGBTQ+ journalism

Reader contributions help keep LGBTQ Nation free, so that queer people get the news they need, with stories that mainstream media often leaves out. Can you contribute today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated

Judge rules parents can’t yank kids out of classes because they use books with gay characters

Previous article

Tell us about the LGBTQ+ heroes in your life this weekend

Next article