Chess transgender ban: rethink needed?

By Roddy Cairns - Posted on 4 September 2023

The recent announcement by the International Chess Federation (FIDE) that is to temporarily ban transgender women from competing in its female category has raised more than a few eyebrows, opening up a debate centring on fairness, discrimination and gender identity. FIDE have suggested that they will spend up to two years considering the evidence, to reach a conclusion on a longer-term policy on transgender women, but that they will not be permitted to compete in the women’s category in the meantime – and instead will only be permitted to compete in the open category (in which male chess players compete).

Of course, chess is far from the first sport to have to wrestle with the seemingly insoluble dilemma of how to treat transgender athletes (and particularly transgender women). As is common in matters of law, two sets of competing rights and interests rub up against each other when looking at this issue – and it is the incompatibility of those two sets of rights that has caused Sports Governing Bodies such a headache over recent years.

On the one hand, transgender people’s gender identity should be respected, and allowing them to compete in sports alongside people of the gender they identify as is part of that. If someone is assigned male at birth but identifies as female, asking them to compete in a category that is solely (or even predominantly) male undermines that identity, and could be psychologically and emotionally very difficult for them. One effect of that is that they may simply not compete at all and be lost to the sport, but there could also be more serious consequences.

On the other hand, there is a reason that most sports have continued to have separate categories for male and female athletes, despite society having moved away from treating the sexes differently in other areas.  The reasons and justifications for the separation into male and female categories were explored in detail by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the case of Caster Semenya (who is not transgender, but whose case engaged similar issues relating to the interplay between biological makeup, gender identity and legal status).

Having listened to evidence from a great number of expert witnesses, the CAS panel stated that: “post-puberty, generally speaking, male athletes outperform female athletes and, at elite level, this difference is insurmountable. Accordingly, in order to enable women to compete at elite level, with all of the benefits that result from such competitions and success in such competitions, it has been considered necessary to provide for what the IAAF [international governing body for athletics] calls ‘a protected class’ of female athletes. Without the protection of restricted entry into that class, the IAAF says, women athletes would be at risk of being denied the right to compete and succeed at the highest levels.”

Whilst it is impossible to make definitive blanket statements given how different each sport and each human body is, the CAS panel in the Semenya case accepted what it referred to as the “overwhelming majority view” of the experts it consulted, which was that “testosterone is the primary driver of the physical advantages, and, therefore, of the sex difference in sports performance, between males and females.”  The key physical attributes which allow for elite athletic performance were said to include “power generation, aerobic power, body composition, fuel utilisation and economy of motion.”

This blog is too short a work to discuss all of the complexities of the relevant science, but the above hopefully at least gives a background understanding of the broad scientific consensus – people who have higher testosterone levels generally have an advantage in some of the key physical attributes which permit greater athletic performance, and this justifies the continued separation of female athletes (who generally have lower testosterone) from male athletes (who generally have higher testosterone).

Which brings us back to the issue of transgender women, who in many cases will have testosterone levels that are far higher than those of a cisgender woman. Incidentally, transgender women are not alone in this regard – there are non-trans athletes like Semenya who similarly have higher testosterone levels due to differences of sexual development (DSD).

In 2022 World Aquatics, the world governing body for swimming, banned male-to-female transgender athletes from competing in their women’s category if they had gone through “any part of male puberty”, something which excluded high profile transgender woman Lia Thomas from future events and led to a major backlash. World Aquatics has since announced that there will be a new ‘open’ category for transgender athletes at the upcoming Swimming World Cup. The decision is in line with similar decisions made recently in Athletics and Cycling - previously, all three sports permitted transgender women to compete in the female categories if they were able to show their testosterone levels were below a certain level, but the recent changes do away with that option and instead exclude them from female competitions.

These developments have been highly controversial, and it is safe to say they have both their supporters and their detractors. International Sporting Federations have a seemingly impossible task on their hands, as they try to strike the correct balance between protecting a vulnerable minority group, and ensuring that sporting integrity is not diminished. They are open to criticism in how they handle that balance, and such criticism has not been in short supply. However, the proponents of excluding transgender women from these highly physical sports can, at least, attempt to justify their decision by pointing to the scientific advantage granted by the higher testosterone levels of those who are assigned male at birth.

This last point is what casts FIDE’s recent announcement in a very peculiar light. They have not provided any real justification for excluding transgender women from the female categories of chess competitions, and it is hard to find one. Fundamentally, while chess undoubtedly has a physical element, it is not a sport which utilises those physical attributes which testosterone is said to enhance – rather it is a sport which engages the brain above all else. The MP Angela Eagle (a former youth chess champion) described the ban as “ridiculous and offensive to women”, adding that “there is no physical advantage in chess unless you believe men are inherently more able to play than women”. Here, it seems that FIDE are infringing on one set of rights (the right of transgender people to compete in the category that matches their gender identity), but without the infringement being necessarily to protect the rights of another group (i.e. it is not immediately clear that cisgender female chess players need or want this protection, and indeed many have spoken out against it). Without that justification, FIDE leave themselves open to accusations of arbitrary decision making at best, and bigotry at worst.  Chess grand master Yosha Iglesias, who is herself a trans woman, described the policy as causing “unnecessary harm” to both trans players and cis women, and causing a risk of suicide to the former.

There may be some scope for the decision to be appealed – article 35 of the FIDE Charter allows for any "final decision” made by FIDE to be appealed to CAS, once all internal remedies have been exhausted. However, in a sport such as chess (which, whilst lucrative, does not have the same financial resources as some popular team sports), it is not clear whether there will be any aggrieved parties with sufficiently deep pockets to go through the CAS process.

Looking at the matter even more holistically, though, there is a debate to be had as to whether sports like chess require to have separate categories for male and female competitors at all. If the justification for doing so in other sports is to provide women with a ‘protected class’ of competition away from men with a physical (testosterone-based) advantage over them, no such protection seems necessary in a predominantly non-physical sport such as chess. There may be commercial or logistical reasons for it, of course, but if men and women are capable of competing on a level playing field in a sport, perhaps the ends of equality and sporting integrity would be best served by allowing all the top players in the world (male or female, cisgender or transgender) to compete on an open basis. After all, surely Yifan Hou and Magnus Carlsen would prefer the opportunity to prove they are the best chess player in the world, rather than merely the best in their sex or gender category?

The transgender debate in competitive sport may have only recently gained this level of prominence, but it is shining a light on regulatory issues that have existed for a long time. Whilst the separation of athletes into sex-based categories (and the potential exclusion of transgender athletes from female categories) may still be justifiable in cases where there is a reasoning grounded in science, examples such as chess suggest that in some cases the division is simply the result of tradition and a lack of modern thinking. If sports such as chess which do not predominantly rely on physicality were to do away with the male/female binary division altogether, they could simultaneously solve the difficult transgender issue, remove a source of stigmatisation of a vulnerable group, and advance the cause of sporting equality for women.