Katie Barnes, an ESPN writer who conducted one of the first and only in-depth on-camera interviews with transgender University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, has finally answered the question people have asked them for years: What does a fair and trans-inclusive athlete policy look like?
Barnes, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, has covered transgender athletes for seven years and women’s sports for eight. During that time, they have never publicly shared their own opinions about policies governing trans athletes’ participation and what they believe would ensure fairness for everyone involved.
However, as they wrote articles about Thomas, who set off an international firestorm when she began winning women’s swimming events in December 2021, Barnes said something happened to them that had never happened before in their career: People began questioning their ability to report fairly and accurately on trans people, assuming they were biased simply because they are nonbinary.
“Most of it was being done in bad faith,” they said. “It really rubbed me the wrong way.”
At the same time, Barnes was “consistently being asked by people who I respect and people who I was meeting, what I thought as somebody who has been in the space for a long time.”
With transgender sports participation top-of-mind in many U.S. newsrooms, including their own — and as dozens of states were restricting transgender student athletes’ participation on school sports teams — Barnes came to the conclusion that being transparent about their views on the issue “actually enhanced credibility rather than undermined it.”
In their first book, “Fair Play: How Sports Shape the Gender Debates,” released this week, Barnes breaks down what policies they find problematic and which restrictions on trans athletes could be reasonable.
Barnes, 32, wrote that one of their earliest memories is of dribbling a pink rubber basketball in the driveway of their family’s rural Indiana home at 4 years old. They continued to play basketball as they grew up and coached the sport in college. Sports, and women’s sports in particular, have been integral in their life.
In their book, Barnes evaluates the impact of gender stereotypes on sports and how this impact influences athletes and fans. For example, there’s a chapter in the book called “No Bow Lesbo,” in which Barnes describes how hair ribbons have historically been used as a signal of femininity in softball.
They call upon their years of sports reporting and their experience building relationships with trans athletes who have made headlines in the last seven years — including Connecticut runners Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller; Texas wrestler Mack Beggs, who won two state championships in girls’ wrestling; and Thomas — to provide context about each of these athletes’ stories, something that was often overlooked or purposely omitted in past media coverage.
Yearwood and Miler, who are both trans women, for example, made headlines after they won a number of girls’ track and field races between 2017 and 2019. Their wins led four runners who are cisgender women, or not transgender, to sue over Connecticut’s trans-inclusive sports policy. Barnes interviewed another transgender girl running on Miller’s team at the same time who didn’t make headlines because she didn’t win. Barnes wrote that the difference in media coverage draws attention to how, over the years, people have started to protest trans-inclusive athlete policies when trans athletes, particularly trans women, win.
Historically, Barnes said the media have covered trans athletes, particularly the political fight over their participation on school sports teams, as a “partisan horse race.” As a result, many voices have been left out of that coverage, including those of advocates, scientists and the athletes themselves. Rather than cover the issue as only a political or scientific one, in their book, Barnes attempts to answer some of the “real sports questions” surrounding restrictions on trans athletes’ participation, including, “What is fair for everyone?”
“I feel like the ongoing coverage of the broad restrictions being placed on transgender youth in a number of facets of life has really been dehumanizing, and I really wanted folks to not be able to look away from the humanity of queer and trans people while they grappled with questions that they think are important,” Barnes said.
In “Fair Play,” Barnes goes through the various studies that people in favor and against restrictions on trans athletes’ participation have cited, and notes that, to this day, there has only been one published study on the performance of transgender athletes. The study, published in 2015 in the Journal of Sporting Cultures and Identities, evaluated the race times of eight trans women who have competed in distance running and found that they performed no better against cisgender female runners than they had, prior to their transition, against cisgender men.
Near the end of the book, Barnes answers the question they say people have always asked them: What do they think?
Without giving away a key part of the book, Barnes writes that there is no scientific or empirical evidence to support the categorical bans on trans student athlete participation that have become law in 23 states. But some restrictions, they say, are appropriate at higher levels of competition starting in college for certain sports where athletes compete individually. However, they note, there should always be a pathway to participation for all trans athletes.
Barnes said they decided to finally come out with their personal opinion on the divisive issue because they owed it to readers.
“Journalists have opinions, and it shows up in our work no matter what we do to pretend that it does not,” Barnes said. “If I’m asking the audience to read all of these pages that are written with perspective, because they are, then they have also earned the right to have me actually answer the question that I know that they wanted to ask.”
Ultimately, they said they hope people leave “Fair Play” with an openness to having a more complete conversation about transgender athletes. The book leans heavily on the importance of nuance, they said.
“We can have multiple thoughts at the same time — multiple things can be true at once,” they said. “I really hope that folks leave the book with an open mind around the kind of conversation we can have, as it pertains to gender and sports at all levels and what that may look like for our future.”
At the end of Barnes book, they acknowledge several reporters, including NBC News’ Jo Yurcaba, writing: “To the queer and trans journalists covering our community: Kate Sosin, Jo Yurcaba, O’rion Rummler, Julie Kliegman, Lauren McGaughy, Nico Lang, and others, I see you and I love you. This is so hard, but know that I’m in it with you.”