the letters LGBTQIA+ written in rainbow colors on the back of the fingers while the person's fists are clutched

pic by Sharon McCutcheon

The inherent homophobia and transphobia in the chess community

(And what should be done about it)

In the 90s I was participating in a team blitz event in Finland. These annual events were and still are one of the chess highlights of the year in Finland bringing together junior and adult players alike playing in the same teams for blitz glory and I was always looking forward to them to show my skill and hang out with my friends. On the first day of the event I was having a break and enjoying my lunch when an adult man from my chess club sitting across from me asked me out of the blue "you're not gay, are you?". At the time I was 13 years old.

Like all sports which have historically been played mostly by white men, chess also has a long history of misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia. For long there has also been an aura of silence regarding all of these issues although lately some people have called out the persisting sexism in the chess scene. Lichess also showed support for the Black Lives Matter movement two years ago by making a blog post and organising a marathon event to raise awareness. While it's important to continue to tackle the deeply rooted misogyny and racism in chess, the extent of homophobia and transphobia in chess should also be discussed and not left solely to marginalised people themselves.

In 2018 an alternative logo for the World Chess Championship by Shuka Design made the headlines. The logo depicts what seems like two men playing chess while sitting intertwined in a kama sutra -like position. The logo which the creators said was meant to be taken with irony wasn't to everyone's liking and was met with a lot of criticism. Indeed the release of the controversial logo seemed to point out two things: 1. anything slightly resembling a gay relationship was not seen as appropriate in chess for some people and 2. no one was willing to have an honest discussion about issues with homophobia in chess. Since the release of the logo wasn't backed up by any actual talk about gay rights for example, it fell down to the trope of seeing gay relationships as something that is fundamentally funny or shocking. This was enforced by founders Erik Allebest's and Jay Severson's video where they recreated the scene from the logo while wearing what could be perceived as stereotypical gay clothing. They played a short chess game together sitting intertwined while joking how hot it was getting and how the other was "getting excited about their position". Recently Anish Giri has tweeted about a "bromance" between him and Magnus Carlsen and shared a video of making fun of a potential crush between Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura. This kind of college level "humor" can be seen and heard everywhere around the chess scene and it all comes down to the same harmful trope of seeing gay relationships as something to be laughed about. In 2019 a popular youtuber Suren Aghabek made a series of transphobic tweets regarding an interview of the Finnish chess player Alia Dannenberg during the European Team Championship. Aghabek called the interview disgusting and said that FIDE is promoting perversion.

These are just a few examples of the everyday homophobia and transphobia in the chess community and you would think that these kinds of incidents would have been covered in chess news media but they have been met with silence. In fact, if you take a look of how LGBT+ rights are cared for in the chess community including major platforms like FIDE, Chessbase, Lichess, and Chess24 there is literally nothing being done. I challenge you to find a single social media post where LGBT issues are addressed or even the general happy pride month greeting which you can find even on the most pink-washing companies' social media pages nowadays. When googling you'll likely find only some forum threads on made by marginalised users followed by endless series of unmoderated hateful replies. Ironically the discussion around the aforementioned founders' video is one of the only threads where moderators have deleted comments and closed the discussion. So when people in charge of face criticism the discussion is moderated and ultimately closed but when for example trans people face transphobia like in the I identify as a grandmaster thread nothing is being done. The most that I've seen chess platforms have done to take LGBT+ people into account in their many years of existence is the option to have a rainbow flag on your profile on Lichess and a rainbow "flair" on (and even that's only for paying members). Needless to say, this is not nearly enough.

The problem of disregarding LGBT+ matters altogether in various chess circles is not only the fact that they don't seem welcoming to LGBT+ people. It's usually also an indication that LGBT+ rights aren't enforced in community guidelines and they certainly aren't taken into account in day-to-day action. For chess platforms this means that forums aren't moderated and hate speech in chats aren't being addressed. For LGBT+ people this means an unsafe environment of bullying and harassment. If we take a look at's community guidelines there is a line stating that "We will not tolerate racism, sexism, bigotry, or violent threats". I guess this could be perceived as also including bigotry against LGBT+ people but in practice's forum's are filled with homophobic and transphobic threads which are unmoderated. Lichess's guidelines (which are almost unreadable due to the sheer amount of text) state regarding inappropriate communication that: "Some non-exhaustive examples are abuse, harassment, spam, public shaming, cheating accusations, extremism, trolling, racism, sexism, or bigotry". Again hate speech towards LGBT+ people is ambiguous since it isn't mentioned separately but my own experience is that some chat insults I have received regarding my identity have been disregarded by Lichess when I have reported them. Chess24's guidelines although almost unfindable even when trying to look for them actually mention that their users must not promote discrimination based on sex (should read gender) or sexual orientation. I do have my doubts, how this is enforced in the platform's actions however.

So what could be done to better the situation and make chess safer for LGBT+ people? I'll continue to use chess platforms as an example although these can be applied to other types of communities as well. A chess platform should state their values clearly that take LGBT+ rights into account and those values should dictate their action on every level. In practise this could look something like this:

  1. A statement of values that is easy to find. Community guidelines should include a statement of values where it's explicitly stated that any kind of discrimination based on gender and sexuality isn't tolerated. Guidelines shouldn't be an endless list of legal matters that mostly exist for the company's own sake rather they should be made for the users. The guidelines should be easily accessible so that you wouldn't have to go looking for them.
  2. Constant communication of values. It's not enough that the values are a static piece of information on the chess platform's website for example. Values need to be communicated regularly through every outlet including social media pages, streaming content and also internally to employees. This can and should include noticing special LGBT+ days like the Pride Month and Trans Awareness Week among others.
  3. Diverse employment. Diverse employment ensures that issues regarding all kinds of minorities is addressed properly. This should include a safe environment for the employees to share their thoughts where the aforementioned constant communication of values helps.
  4. Educating the staff. The staff should also be educated on LGBT+ matters and how to take them into account in their work as well as creating a safe environment for LGBT+ people to work in.
  5. Moderating the discussion. Discussion on forums, in-game chats, stream chats and YouTube comments should be moderated according to the values of the company. There should be zero tolerance for any kind of hate speech or harassment and an educated staff is more prepared to understand and deal with different kinds of hate speech and harassment.
  6. Organising events that are LGBT+ friendly. LGBT+ people deserve to be celebrated and organising special events for example during the Pride Month is a great way to communicate a platform's values in action.

These steps aren't unique to chess platforms and they can also be applied to chess clubs, federations, discord servers and other types of communities. These are also very easy steps to take if an instance is willing to support LGBT+ people. At the moment it seems that chess platforms are unwilling to do anything and are most likely fearful that by supporting LGBT+ people they would also reveal the inherent homophobia and transphobia in their communities. But it's time that the silence surrounding LGBT+ issues is broken in chess as well.

There are a few small communities like teams on Lichess or Discord servers which have been founded by LGBT+ people and for LGBT+ people to find small havens of safety and like-minded people. These are small beacons of light and glimmering spaces that are very valuable. There is a need to be seen and keep playing chess in a meaningful way. We deserve to be safe and seen.


EDIT (23th of April, 2022):
- removed the part about St. Louis Chess Center firing their employee because it has been disputed
- removed the part about titled norms system because it should be thought and analysed more in-depth
- some smaller edits