Transmissions: Checkmate

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday August 23, 2023
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Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

As we've all seen, the last few years have been chock full of attacks on transgender rights. State legislatures have attempted to block us from public restrooms, from affirming care from our medical professionals, and from any number of other accommodations afforded to non-transgender people worldwide.

Nowhere has this been more prominent than in sports, where a firestorm has raged over trans women and others participating in women's sports.

This seemingly touched off several years ago with Caster Semenya, a long-distance runner hailing from Kenya. While not a transgender person, Semenya has naturally high levels of testosterone in her system, and her fight against being blocked from competing with other women, including at the Olympics, has long been conflated with transgender people's right to compete in sports based on their gender identity.

Likewise, Mack Beggs, a transmasculine wrestler, was barred from competing against other men back in 2017, and had to compete against girls due to Texas state regulations. Somewhat ironically, it is a photo of Beggs wrestling against a girl that is often used by bigots decrying transgender women competing in sports.

Oh, and yes, I find myself once again having to mention Lia Thomas who, after starting her gender transition and switching to the women's team at the University of Pennsylvania, has become the de facto face of those who claim allowing trans women to compete in women's sports as being criminally unfair to other, non-transgender women. Thomas became the first openly transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship with her victory in the 2022 500-yard freestyle event.

This week, yet another sport has felt it necessary to bar transgender women from competing against others of their gender. Joining competitive swimming, powerlifting, wrestling, boxing, rugby, and running, is chess.

Yes, chess. A game in which players are not known for their muscular frames, but their cerebral prowess, is barring trans women from competing against non-transgender women.

Chess competitions are managed by an organization called Fédération Internationale des Échecs, aka the International Chess Federation, or, simply, FIDE. It organizes the World Chess Championship, among other duties surrounding the sport of chess.

In a statement, FIDE has announced that it will bar transgender women from any FIDE-sanctioned women's tournaments, as well as strip transgender men of any titles they may have gained in a women's competition prior to their transition. FIDE did leave the door open for this to "evolve" in the future due to unspecified "research evidence."

Now, I am not very much for competitive sports. Long before my transition, I was the chubby kid who got picked last in nearly any sport, and usually was given a prime seat on the bench as soon as possible. So, I find myself baffled by a lot of this issue. Sports are a curiosity beyond my experience.

Also, having been an only child whose parents were busy building a business, I did not have a lot of opportunities to even try chess. It's just not a thing I do. It wasn't until high school and college before I got into other games, role playing and such, so chess is also an unfamiliar thing.

With that said, I feel there's some obvious differences between a physical sport and a cerebral one, and I honestly find myself unable to figure out why one would block trans women from competing with other women in the grand sport of chess. Frankly, I don't even understand why there is a separate category at all.

Unless, of course, chess itself is sexist.

Now, at first I just assumed that FIDE - or chess in general - felt that men simply were better tacticians than women. Or smarter in other ways, giving men a natural advantage in pushing pawns across a chessboard. Yes, there are certainly those who do feel that way, but it's also a bit deeper than that.

That there is a gender division in chess is because of a general lack of participation from female chess players, in large part due to competitive chess being a much smaller portion of chess overall. FIDE itself claims that under 10% of its membership is from women and girls who play chess, with most being under 18.

It would seem, then, that there is a strong lack of support for any woman - trans or otherwise - being a part of chess. The sport is male dominated, and this has led it to being seen as a place that is unwelcoming, even hostile, to women.

So, I suppose to counter this view, FIDE has decided to bar some women from its women's-only competitions, which are already marginalized from the general competitions, rather than focus on ways to actually make chess a more welcoming place for all women.

This should be viewed as an opportunity to FIDE and others involved in chess. Both France and Germany's chess federations are pushing back, and FIDE should consider that it needs to speed up its evolution. Transgender people are not the issue, and it would seem the sport has deeper problems than a small number of trans players in its midst.

Additionally, perhaps barring transgender people from chess should be seen as an opportunity for all sports organizations to examine their own views on transgender participation in sport, as well as their policies that may separate their sport along gender lines. Perhaps there are better solutions, based on skill or ability, versus something as simple - and flawed - as gender divisions.

Gwen Smith is between a rook and a hard piece. You'll find her at

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