Last week, the International Chess Federation — FIDE — issued a ruling stating that transgender women have “no right” to compete for women’s titles. It is the latest in a long list of organizations moving to exclude trans women from their ranks in response to political pressure. The approving response of the right-wing media to this categorical ban in a non-physical game shows the emptiness of their rhetoric around trans women’s supposed athletic advantages — and the deeply misogynistic, bioessentialist underpinnings of the reactionary anti-trans movement.
On Fox News, former college swimmer Riley Gaines applauded the move, saying, “You hear the argument about brain size and brain ability. … That's missing the point. The point is that the women's category is meant for women.” Gaines, once an aspiring dentist, has built a career opposing the inclusion of transgender women in women’s sports, claiming that trans athletes have an unfair physical advantage over cis athletes — a line of argument she seemed to undermine by expanding her advocacy to a non-physical board game.
In a segment on Fox News’ America’s Newsroom, contributor Tyrus said that “we’re seeing mediocre biological men … all of a sudden they become star athletes when they switch over to women’s sports.” (In a separate appearance this week, Tyrus said that he would physically abuse his children if they told him their pronouns.)
Other members of right-wing media were quick to abandon the charade that their main concern about trans inclusion was a matter of physical fairness. An article in anti-trans sports blog OutKick, which is owned by Fox Corp., explained the decision as “all about logic” and “critical thinking.” Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk reacted with glee at the opportunity to promote a bioessentialist view of the difference between men and women.
In another article praising the decision, The National Pulse pointed out that there is “currently only one woman among the top 100 chess players worldwide — and she is only the third woman in history to achieve such a ranking.”
There’s a simple explanation for the disparate performance between men and women in chess though. One study found that 96 percent of the variation in performance could be accounted for by the vastly larger number of men than women who play chess — a disparity exacerbated by historic misogyny within the world of chess, as well as refusing to address sexual harassment against women today. Furthermore, trans women are not interchangeable with cis men: one study observing the brains of trans women prior to medical transition found significant differences, and another provides evidence that medical transition can effect profound changes within the brain.
But the anti-trans movement is not moved by evidence any more than it is driven by fairness. An ideology that argues that trans women are men, and that in competitions ranging from sports, to beauty pageants, to trivia, to board games, men have an unfair advantage is driven by misogyny at its core. It’s the same ideology leading a shocking number of men to believe that they could score a point against the best female tennis player in the world. The threat from trans athletes is not that we might win, but that our losses might reveal the emptiness of that ideology of male superiority. Women were, after all, only excluded from major league baseball after a female pitcher struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the same game. Trans women have been eligible to compete as their lived gender in the Olympic games since 2003, with nary an Olympic medal to show for it. If we are allowed to continue, people might start to notice.
And continue we will: in response to the new policy, the German chess federation swiftly announced that transgender women would continue to be able to compete with women, along with the American, British, and French chess federations.