Bad move

New and clear policies are needed in the international tournament chess arena. But barring trans girls and women from competition only increases the feelings of exclusion and discouragement they are already likely to face.

BRATTLEBORO — As a trans woman who has been a tournament chess player for five decades, I find myself targeted by the recent ruling about transgender chess players by FIDE (a French acronym for an organization that translates as "International Chess Federation") and the news cycle surrounding it.

Given the relatively large number of people in our community (as well as the chess-playing community of the region) who are aware that I am in this position, I feel compelled to share my perspective.

When, in 2015, I became legally female in Vermont, I also changed my gender marker with the United States Chess Federation (USCF). This immediately made me the top-rated female player in the state, and shortly thereafter, I received an invitation to participate in a national women's event.

I declined, mostly because I did not want to be embroiled in exactly the sort of controversy addressed by the FIDE ruling.

However, in 2018, USCF officially adopted a welcoming and inclusive policy toward trans players, and consequently I may decide to participate in such tournaments.

* * *

First, let me provide some background for readers unfamiliar with the chess world.

Originally founded as a players' union in 1924, it has evolved into the organization responsible for international ratings, the granting of certain titles such as international master and grandmaster, and the world championship cycle, including procedures for determining challengers as well as the format and conditions of world championship matches.

It is worth noting that FIDE's evolution has included quite a few schisms, political controversies, and corruption scandals, some of them quite recent.

What was FIDE's ruling regarding transgender players? The gist is twofold.

First, new and clear policies are needed, which the organization has committed to formulating within the next two years.

Second, in the interim, trans girls and women are barred from playing in women's events, and trans boys and men are stripped of any women's titles they may hold.

As with any well-publicized trans-related news story in the current political climate, reactions from all sides have been histrionic. I hope to provide a more nuanced view.

* * *

As a parent, I have some empathy for the frustration of feeling that your child is being squeezed out of opportunities by those who, according to the gender they were assigned at birth, would neither have had nor have needed such opportunities. The fact that chess is not primarily a test of physical capability does not fully mitigate this concern.

It is true that, at the international level with which FIDE is concerned, the very need for women-only events and titles has been frequently called into question, most notably by some strong female players themselves.

Others argue, however, that given the disproportionately small number of tournament-level girls and women in chess, it is important to encourage them and provide opportunities that many of them would not have were they to compete against the much larger pool of male players. Whatever the various reasons are for the historical underrepresentation of girls and women in chess, the disparity remains quite pronounced.

I also understand the gut reaction of those who fear that male players will "game the system" by pretending to be trans in order to steal prizes and titles. Again, USCF's 2018 policy, which has been reaffirmed in the wake of FIDE's ruling, welcomes and includes trans players while providing specific protections against fraud.

The first part of FIDE's statement, calling for the development of clear policies, makes perfect sense, and I do not agree with those who deride the ruling's two-year window for accomplishing this. For an entity as large, complex, and multinational as FIDE, two years seems fairly reasonable.

The rest of the ruling, however, is more than a little problematic.

* * *

Regarding the potential impact of trans players on opportunities for cis girls and women, please consider that, until quite recently, the very existence of trans people was essentially erased from public policy and discourse.

When I took my first tentative steps out of the closet in 1997, the only resource I could easily find online was a memorial site dedicated to trans girls and women known to have been murdered. It was not a short list.

I believe there are some important differences between cis women and trans women, and I'm open to a range of views and approaches to respecting those differences, but it is vital that we argue in good faith.

This means, first and foremost, letting go of the often-unspoken assumption that trans people are either lying or deluded. Of course, a few of us are, but those who seize on and trumpet such examples never seem to ask themselves how prevalent dishonesty and delusion are among cis people - or, indeed, any reasonably large group of humans, however categorized.

Failure to ask this sort of question is called "default thinking," and I believe it to be at the root of most forms of prejudice.

For any readers who don't "believe" in trans people, I strongly encourage you to talk to some and get to know us. If you engage in such conversations in good faith, you will find that we are just people.

If we can accept that most trans people, like most people in general, are doing the best they can to understand and express their lived experience, then we can perhaps consider the frustration of the parents of trans children upon seeing them squeezed out of numerous opportunities, while also being used as political footballs in the media.

Also, such children face increased risk of various forms of violence and bullying, as well as (not coincidentally) a higher risk of suicide.

* * *

This brings us back to FIDE's ruling.

The number of trans girls and women who play tournament chess is much smaller even than the number of cis girls and women who do so, and barring them from events only increases the feelings of exclusion and discouragement they are already likely to face.

Why, during this two-year window, does it make more sense to bar them than to leave them be?

And in what universe does it make sense to say, on the one hand, that during this time trans women who play are, in effect, not to be considered to be women, while at the same time asserting that trans men who play (of whom I was able to find no specific examples whatsoever on the internet) are also not considered to be or have been women and thus must be stripped of their titles? This part of FIDE's ruling is puzzling, pointless, and punitive.

Many of the countries within which FIDE operates are, to put it mildly, socially conservative, and I suspect this statement may have been as much about appeasing them as anything else.

If, within the time frame they've established, FIDE creates a clear set of guidelines that affirm and include trans players while providing protections against gaming the system, I will applaud them. Their handling of this ruling, however, does not inspire confidence.

The pool of female tournament chess players, trans and cis combined, is small enough that all such players ought to be encouraged rather than discouraged.

There's room enough for all of us, and perhaps one good thing that will come from FIDE's ruling is that the internet is abuzz with the idea of girls playing chess.

Kira J. Storm started playing tournament chess as a child in Massachusetts in 1973. She has lived, worked, and parented in Brattleboro since 1997.

This Voices Viewpoint was submitted to The Commons.

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