Until very recently, sports were mostly on the periphery of my life for me. I grew up playing softball, soccer, and basketball, but I can’t say my heart was ever really in any of them for the love of playing the game. I was mostly forced by my family to participate in team sports and, being as extroverted as I was, I folded myself easily into the mechanics of competition-fueled camaraderie quickly and easily. As I grew older and my body changed, it became harder and harder to feel fully comfortable on a team, so I stopped playing. Then, I stopped watching, too, and I got as far removed from it as I possibly could in the sports-obsessed culture we live in. It’s only now in my adulthood that I’m trying to reclaim my place in sports, albeit one of the most niche and non-team competitive sports in the world (powerlifting). But even as far as I’ve been all this time, it’s been impossible to turn away from the conversation about trans participation in sports entirely — not just because I’m a trans person, but also because it feels as if everyone has something to say about it regardless of their relationship or lack thereof with sports more generally. And now, it seems like almost every other week, we’re hearing of another state, another sports organization, another collegiate athletics league, or school district passing laws and guidelines limiting who can play what sports and how.
In a time where there is so much legal anti-trans violence and oppression happening all at once, it seems as if it’s difficult for people to separate where and when conversations about trans peoples’ participation in sports are happening in good faith and for the benefit of all stakeholders and where people are just trying to be transphobic as hell. So, instead, we’ve gotten barely anywhere on the issue — save for a few courageous individuals and organizations who are constantly working to support trans people — and there are still tons of questions left unanswered that very few of us (even those of us who are trans athletes) are equipped to contend with, let alone actually answer.
Katie Barnes’s new book, Fair Play: How Sports Shape the Gender Debate, comes at the perfect time to give those of us with a stake in figuring out how to move forward the power we need to help push those conversations in a more productive direction. Through the stories of athletes who have been most acutely impacted by our failure to treat them equitably, interviews with medical professionals, and meticulous research on the history of competitive sports in the U.S., Barnes crafts a compassionate study of how conversations on sex and gender are handled in sports are structured by and contribute to the way our society at large understands and considers both.
Growing up in Indiana, Barnes became a lover of sports, basketball in particular, early in their life because of the freedom it gave them to be as close to their “authentic” self as they possibly could be: “Basketball became my refuge. While adolescence brought pressures to be more feminine, basketball didn’t require that of me.” They went on to play varsity basketball in high school, then began coaching it when they went to college. But even though they stopped playing, the game was never too far away from them. They write: “Sports have remained close to my heart, especially women’s sports.” Barnes turned this passion into an award-winning sports journalism career where they not only cover women’s sports, but have also spent the last several years covering the conversations and debates swirling around the inclusion of trans people in competitive sports on everything from the municipal level to elite collegiate sports programs to the Olympics. I expected Fair Play to be something close to a collection or even a kind of culmination of this coverage, but actually, Barnes manages to do so much more than that here. They don’t just review the popular talking points and the responses to those talking points. Barnes also expands the scope of how we should be viewing this issue and goes into painstaking detail about the ways in which the “gender debates” in modern organized sports have helped create more surveillance and suspicion around gender expectations in our broader culture than most of us realize.
It seems like a lofty task to take on in less than 300 page text, but Barnes manages to do this with expert precision. The first part of the book is focused on the history of women’s inclusion in sports and the complex and often misunderstood science of sex. As Barnes explains in the text, the 1972 passage of Title IX — the Federal civil rights laws that prohibits discrimination based on sex in education and the subsequent activities connected to education — did not immediately lead to the creation of sex-segregated sports. In fact, the idea of sex-segregated sports was hotly contested, with many feminist activists pushing for full integration. Because sex-segregation eventually became the norm, our ability to imagine sports as being organized in any other way quickly left cultural consciousness to the point where the idea of integration or another organizational process seem preposterous to most people. They explain:
“The consequence of [the Office of Civil Rights] writing sex segregation into the recommendations was that much of the debate happening among and between feminist groups about how to organize women’s sports faded away over time. To those of us who grew up in the post-Title IX era, separating sports by sex feels like the only way to organize athletics, because that’s how it’s always been.”
Barnes points out that on the other end of this are the false assumptions about sex and gender that have created our binary understanding of both and fueled the myths we hold about the athletic prowess of people born male and people born female. They speak to an endocrinologist, who points out biological sex is not determined by any one thing but is instead “the interplay and collective of your sex chromosomes, sex hormones, your internal reproductive structures, and what gonads you have, and your external genitalia.” Some people — like the famous South African Olympic middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, who is also profiled in the book — have variations of one or more of these things, causing their biological sex to not exactly match our preconceived expectations and definitions of it. In sex-segregated sports, this presents a big issue: How do you “govern” who can participate and who can’t?
According to Barnes, the answer to that question has largely been to create a culture of surveillance around women’s sports in particular, where international sports organizations like the Olympics have utilized everything from genital screenings to chromosome testing to ensure “fair play.” A thing I think we can all agree is…weird as hell. Then, of course, there is the question of testosterone, the way we believe it enhances athletic performance, and how those beliefs have helped contribute to the myth that, no matter what, the athletic performances of men will always outshine the performances of women. Barnes points out that while it might feel like sound science to say the possible benefits of testosterone (larger muscle mass, increased endurance, greater bone density) guarantee a better athletic performance, there have been no definitive studies done in each individual sport to prove that is true. And on top of that, no one, anywhere, has done a longitudinal study on the athletic performance of young trans people in their preferred sports. This means, really, we don’t even have complete scientific data to have a science-based conversation about this, a thing people usually insist on. (I do powerlifting, so trust me, I’ve heard the “it’s just science” argument more times than I can count.)
From there, Barnes shows how it is the complex confluence of the history of women’s sports and our misgivings about sex and testosterone that are fueling the current debates around the inclusion of trans people in sports. They write: “It’s important to acknowledge that the conversation about transgender girls and women participating in sports in accordance with their gender identity has opened the door to a vast amount of transphobia that extends far beyond a sincere question about the ways in which testosterone-driven puberty affects physiological and metabolic advantages in sports.” To help illuminate what they mean by this, they include the stories of trans people whose lives and abilities to compete in their sports of choice have been impacted by policymakers and activists on both the right and the left.
Although the first part of the book had me shocked as Barnes revealed one piece of research after another, it is these chapters that form the powerful, emotional core of the text. The diversity of their stories was perfectly organized by Barnes, who didn’t just focus on one particular sport or on the names we’ve heard repeatedly on the news like Semenya or Lia Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania swimmer whose inclusion on the women’s swim team sparked widespread media coverage in 2021. They also tell the story of Mack Beggs, a high school wrestler from Texas who was barred from wrestling with other boys because of a state law prohibiting it, and Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood, two high school tracks stars in Connecticut who along with Thomas were “held up in state Houses as examples of the threat transgender girls pose to women’s sports.” Each of them, as Barnes illustrates, turned into activists in their own ways simply because they wanted to be who they are on their distinct playing “fields.”
Throughout the text, Barnes reminds us over and over again: “What began as a good-faith discussion about policy and physiological differences between sexes has given way to a level of intolerance and discrimination that is simply unconscionable.” That is the real issue here. We’re not working toward creating meaningful change for any athletes because many people who are working for change want full-on exclusion due to deeply held anti-trans (and I’d argue white supremacist) beliefs, and the representatives in government who are trying to work to counteract these anti-trans regulations still don’t know how to discuss these issues in the ways Barnes’s book points towards.
So, what do we do? At the end of the book, Barnes has a few thoughtful policy recommendations as well as some truly compelling suggestions for how we change our engagement and expectations of sports and competition overall. And while this might not be as definitive as some readers would like, I find this the perfect way to conclude a book exploring some of the thorniest and most intricate conversations of our time.
Barnes’s approach to thoroughly explaining all of the factors that have both contributed to the creation of these issues and continue to problematize the question of trans people’s inclusion in athletics helps form a more complete understanding for people who are on the insides and outsides of communities grappling with the effects of anti-trans sports legislation and regulation. And they know it’s going to take a lot more than just their work for us to figure it out. As I got to the end of the book, I was reminded of a statement I read from Stanford University swimmer Brooke Forde when she was asked about competing against Thomas. She said, “I believe that treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be, which is why I will not have a problem racing against Lia at NCAAs this year.” Ultimately, isn’t that what sports should be about? Showing your respect and dignity for your fellow competitors? I believe that. And I know Barnes believes that, too. At the end of Fair Play, it’s easy to see that Barnes uses the tumultuous journey of how we got here to help make us believe we’re capable of getting somewhere better.
Fair Play: How Sports Shape the Gender Debate by Katie Barnes is out now.