This summer I’ve been preparing for my fall video series tackling the controversial transgender topics of sports, prisons and washrooms. Each of these raise their own considerations, but they all bring forward the common question of when and where it’s appropriate to segregate activities or space on a sex-based criteria.

And now over the last few days the entire world has been talking about another sex-based domain that I never imagined would ever take center stage: Chess.

Why? The International Chess Federation announced that they are banning transgender women from participating in women’s chess. If these individuals wish to participate going forward, they will need to do so in the men’s league.

We could start the typical discussion of whether transgender women are men or women and thus where do they belong, but that would sidestep something way more fundamental: Why do we have sex segregated chess?!

Now, some people have argued that this makes sense because men are better than women at chess, or because women and men play chess differently, or because there are way more men in chess so they are almost statistically guaranteed to win if both sexes play together.

I don’t even know where to start with this. In general, most people agree that sex segregation is bad. We do still believe that, right?

We have only relatively recently exited a historical context where everything in society was segregated by sex: our workplaces, our societal roles and associations and certainly, our participation in hobbies and interests.

For the record, I agree that there are domains where sex-segregation makes sense, and since transgender women are biologically male, in those domains they should be aligned with their biological sex. The more pivotal question then is: when is there a basis to segregate by sex at all?

That’s what I’ll be exploring in my upcoming series on washrooms, prisons and sports, but why not get started with Chess today because other than the potential safety concerns of washrooms and prisons, many of the same principles apply.

With respect to Chess being sex-separated, I’ve broadly observed three flavours of arguments:

Now the biological argument is essentially the same as the sports argument: that men have a biological advantage that will lead to them often winning when paired against women. Compared to professional sports however, it’s not nearly as clear whether a biological advantage is upheld.

There’s conflicting research on whether there is any basis to biological males being inherently better at math, science, and chess-like activities. I’ve seen compelling arguments supporting each side of this discussion. It’s challenging because unlike a test of physical strength or speed, it’s very difficult to answer definitively because it’s nearly impossible to isolate test subjects from the second category of concerns: psychosocial, cultural and economic advantages that may lead to men performing better.

You follow? If a given male performs better at swimming than a female, we can relatively logically attribute a significant portion of that advantage to one particular physical feature: height. And height is sex-correlated. But in the case of chess, it’s not nearly so clear.

But what is pretty clear is that chess is dominated by men, right from the lower levels of competition up to the most prestigious rankings. What many supporting chess segregation have argued is that the outcome is simply inequitable because men as a class regularly beat women as a class when they compete alongside one another.

And others have counter argued that there isn’t a true psychosocial advantage and that the number of female grand masters is proportional to the number of females who enter chess in the lower ranks, thus there isn’t actually an equity concern here.

I’m not going to engage with either of those arguments directly because I want to point out the elephant in the room: In both sides of the psychosocial argument the ‘E’ would has crept in to take center stage.

Equity.

What has truly captivated me with this chess debate is how a crowd who vigorously argues against equity-based levelling has suddenly rallied behind it to champion this particular cause.

We are very used to seeing equity-based arguments taken to favour racialized individuals, trans individuals, gay individuals, and yes, even female individuals. We see examples where black school dances have been held, hiring practices are established to explicitly favour those of a particular ethnicity, race, or sex, and admittance to prestigious educational programs being intentionally skewed in favour of LGBT or racialized individuals. 

And those incidences have enraged a particular crowd who point out that segregation is a form of discrimination, and discrimination is problematic even when done in an attempt to support what might be considered an underprivileged class.

Here’s the formula we see again and again: We observe that an outcome of a system is skewed towards a particular identity class and then: rather than thoughtfully grapple with the complex psychosocial underpinnings of that difference, we indiscriminately move to invoke class-based assistance, discrimination or segregation to achieve the targeted outcome.

I’ve done separate videos about group-based equity and the problem roots in using identity markers as a proxy for other human variations. This has been happening separately in favour of transgender individuals and female individuals for quite a few years and skeptics have been quite reasonably raising concern. And one of the biggest problems with this group-based equity approach is that intersections are not mutually exclusive and the recent development with chess flips the equity arguments that have often been used to favour transgender individuals against them and champions female equity instead.

Side not: This is why I have long been against group-based equity approaches to social justice entirely. It feels pretty good when it’s done in favour of a class one happens to coincide within, and it burns pretty hard when it’s used against a class we have involuntary been enrolled within.

So what could we do other than group-based equity segregation? When we observe a difference in outcomes, we could address the root issue rather than meddling with identity inputs to get the identity result that makes us feel good. 

If men and women truly do—on average—play chess differently—which by the way studies seem to refute—and if this truly does have an impact on both the engagement of the activity and outcomes, then perhaps we need different competitions for different playing styles, because not ALL men play a particular way and not ALL women play in a different fashion. Likewise, not all men are economically or culturally predisposed to chess, and some women certainly do have this predisposition. Dividing on a men/women basis will inevitably mean playing to stereotypes that are not universally true.

It’s like using being ‘black’ as a proxy for being underprivileged when that stereotype is not all-encompassing: there are poor white families and rich black families too and if what we truly wish to do is help economically disadvantaged families, we’d be better off focusing on all underprivileged families rather than supporting black families as a proxy.

Okay, I could keep talking about equity forever, but there’s one more argument I need to touch upon before this video finishes. The third argument: that some women simply prefer to participate in a women’s only professional league.

I actually really appreciate this comment because it speaks to a truth that many of us know is present, but are not readily acknowledging. Sometimes, we just like sex segregation because we feel more comfortable in those circumstances. We feel more at home, or at ease, or see ourselves more reflected within the other participants.

There’s something soothing about the homogeneity of being in a club of people whom we can relate to and who are like us in certain fundamental ways.

And… these arguments are also rather dangerous to lean in to because while you might have some sex-based preferences of association, others have race-based, culturally based, or religiously based preferences too.

There are individuals out there who would prefer to participate in activities, employment, education and beyond with only white people, or Indian people, or people who practice their creed. What exactly makes sex-based preferences more valid than these other preferences?

And I say that as a legitimate question, because I really do get this and I empathize with the sentiment. I agree that on average men and women can have very different ways or interacting in social spaces. Trust me, I know this very well, as psychosocial reasons where the most influence in my decision to transition. I’m not like most men, I don’t understand them, I don’t fit in with them, and I don’t emotionally relate to them in the ways they seem to relate to each other.

And that’s where we have an inherent conflict: Some people would prefer to participate in white only activities, some in women’s only activities, and some in Portugeses or Vietnamese only activities, At the same time, other individuals have an acclimation towards the same activities or ways of interacting that might be most commonly done in white circles or female circles or Vietnamese circles despite not being bestowed those vertically inherited identities.

It’s both inevitable and acceptable that in private circles people will naturally group as they feel most aligned, but the question at hand in washrooms, sports, prisons, girl guides, festivals and chess is when and where we are willing to endorse institutionalized segregation.

There are so many vectors to consider: fairness, safety, biological imperatives, psychosocial conditioning, and in some cases our ever growing obsession with institutional group based equity. This muddied water of conflicting factors is why it’s so critical that we take a good hard look at what basis we are willing to segregate based on sex.

And that’s exactly what I’ll be doing in my upcoming series.

We unpacked a lot in this video, and the themes of biological imperatives, 

And it’s challenging to put forward a coherent argument for why it would never be appropriate to have a white only sewing club but a women’s only sewing club is acceptable. You can tell me that most men want nothing to do with sewing and I agree—but the few who do become entirely marginalized because we’ve turned sewing—which has no biological basis—into a sex-based domain.

You may have noticed that we kind of side stepped the biology issue in this video, since it’s difficult to get a definitive relation to something like chess. It’s an important consideration, and We’ll be coming back to it in a few weeks when we tackle women’s sports full-on since that’s a much clearer domain where the biological considerations hold relevance.

Simple example: Some students can’t afford post-secondary education and almost everyone is in agreement that government support is appropriate. This is because education definitively the most important key to economic and social stability throughout life. However, those who oppose group-based equity programming argue that we shouldn’t focus on black

I participate in a lot of closed-group discussions on identity politics, and in one particular discussion an individual finally said what we all know contributes to the washroom conversation but few are willing to admit:

 “I’m just thinking of the times I gabbed with friends in the washroom. I see no reason why women should give that up”

Julia Malott

Julia Malott is a Canadian based transgender individual who advocates for bridging the gap between diverse viewpoints on gender identity and ideology. Julia is the host of Alotta Thoughts Podcast which features bi-weekly long form discussions exploring the complexity of sex and gender.

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Julia Malott

Julia Malott is a Canadian based transgender individual who advocates for bridging the gap between diverse viewpoints on gender identity and ideology. Julia is the host of Alotta Thoughts Podcast which features bi-weekly long form discussions exploring the complexity of sex and gender.