Home Sports Review: ‘Fair Play: How Sports Shape the Gender Debates’ by Katie Barnes

Review: ‘Fair Play: How Sports Shape the Gender Debates’ by Katie Barnes

Katie Barnes first learned to love basketball as a child in rural Indiana. As Barnes writes in “Fair Play: How Sports Shape the Gender Debates,” shooting hoops with “my dad created a bond between us and also solidified ‘basketball player’ as a core piece of my identity.” Sports provided a “refuge” where Barnes could express an “authentic self” outside of the constraints of femininity during adolescence.

That continued into high school and college, and it persisted after they came out as nonbinary. Now an adult, Barnes (who uses they/them pronouns) speculates about alternate histories. What if they had realized they were nonbinary when they were younger? Would they have had the same experiences in basketball that proved so central to their life and career? Or would they simply have been pushed out of the sport prematurely as many gender nonconforming athletes have been in recent years?

Barnes’s personal story runs throughout their excellent and much-needed examination of current debates about transgender and intersex athletes. As a sports journalist who covers LGBTQ+ issues, Barnes brings nuanced, in-depth analysis to complex issues that have been oversimplified, misunderstood and sometimes distorted. Weaving history with interviews, Barnes crafts a larger story that explains how trans athletes became a target in the culture wars. The result is an engaging read and informative guide for anyone who wants to understand how and why we got to the current moment, in which twenty-three states have passed laws banning transgender students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity.

Barnes grounds their book in the science of sex. Biological sex tends to be seen as “fixed and rigid,” but as a pediatric endocrinologist explains to the author, sex is the “interplay and the collective” of chromosomes, hormones, internal reproductive organs, genitalia and secondary sex characteristics. It is “biologically false,” explains the endocrinologist, to say that sex is “any one of those things.” Yet people do just that all the time, reducing their definitions of sex to a single trait. Historically, international sports organizations such as the Olympics used genitalia or chromosomes to determine sex; today, they use testosterone. The one consistent thread has been targeting female athletes who are too successful. Consider Caster Semenya, the intersex female South African runner whose case demonstrates “our own failings to fully grapple with and understand” the complexity of sex.

Barnes delves into the research on sex hormones, talking with scientists and looking closely at studies on testosterone. We know that this sex hormone affects the body; it is, after all, a banned substance in doping regulations. Those who are assigned male at birth and who go through testosterone-driven puberty experience both physiological and metabolic benefits resulting in larger muscle mass, greater bone density and the like. But we have very little definitive scientific data explaining how these benefits translate into athletic performance, including potential variations by sport. There are very few studies on transgender athletes, and no studies — precisely zero — that examine the athletic performance of trans teenagers and children.

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As a feminist who played sports in high school and college, I appreciate how Barnes contextualizes current debates about trans athletes in the longer history of women’s sports and the fight for equity. The 1972 education law Title IX provoked debates about how to end exclusion and discrimination, and the answer schools eventually settled on in athletics — sex-segregated teams — was hotly debated. Many feminists viewed integration as the goal. Half a century later, we have become so accustomed to dividing sports by sex that we rarely consider alternative approaches, even as our sex-segregated system reinforces gendered norms and binary understandings of sex. Today, Barnes points out, we have women’s sports but not equity: Consider recent fights for equal pay, the practice of media rights bundling that devalues women’s sports, and the persistent sexism and homophobia in many locker rooms. Despite the presence of these real threats to women’s sports, some view trans athletes, in particular trans women, as the problem. Barnes devotes a chapter to the heartbreaking split among women’s sports advocates over the issue of trans and intersex inclusion, and the ensuing politicization of these debates.

Barnes distinguishes difficult but reasonable discussions about equity from the virulent, anti-trans sentiment that has taken over statehouses across the U.S. “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,” Barnes writes. “Fair Play” deftly covers the role of the right wing (including the pivotal role of Alliance Defending Freedom) in spreading legislation focusing on youth sports across the country, an effort that initially surprised many LGBTQ+ equality organizations. The stories of athletes such as Connecticut high school track runners Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, as well as University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, were used by conservative politicians to garner support for their bills. A closer examination of these athletes’ stories reveals a more complicated reality. While each had incredible successes, none of them were unbeatable — all of them lost to cisgender female athletes. In Connecticut, a third trans female runner competed on the same high school team as Yearwood and Miller, but she wasn’t mentioned in the media; she never won. These details are obscured in both right-wing and mainstream accounts, contributing to the untrue narrative that trans female athletes always win.

Some of the most powerful moments in “Fair Play” emerge from the stories of young athletes caught in the middle of divisive politics. Several made the headlines, like Mack Beggs, who was forced to wrestle with girls because of a Texas law that required high school athletes to compete with the sex they were assigned at birth. Many others struggle to pursue their passion outside of the media spotlight. Barnes brings some of these stories to life: a nonbinary college diver who no longer feels safe on either the men’s or the women’s team because of homophobia and transphobia; an adolescent trans boy who stops playing softball because he no longer feels like he can be himself on his team. An “obsessive focus on biology,” particularly before high school, “strips transgender young people of their humanity,” writes Barnes. It is also “bad policy” that creates additional obstacles at a moment of declining youth participation in sports.

Barnes concludes their book with a list of thoughtful policy recommendations, including suggestions about the inclusion of nonbinary and gender-expansive youth in sports. Might creating more gender-inclusive sporting cultures at lower levels help transform binary thinking around gender and sex? “Transgender youth are offering us an opportunity to reconsider the entire business of how youth play sports and why,” writes Barnes. The high-stakes environment of elite sports comes with more challenges; but even there, Barnes argues in favor of pathways to participation for trans athletes, drawing upon the idea of “meaningful competition” developed by scientist Joanna Harper. These recommendations could prove a useful starting point for those who care about access to sports and who wish to take an evidence-based approach that balances equity with inclusion. Whether we’re collectively ready for that conversation is an open question. But if we don’t try, we lose more than an opportunity to rethink sports or revisit the question of how to achieve equity: We fail the kids who simply want to play.

Heather Hewett is an associate professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz, currently on leave and working at the American Council of Learned Societies.

How Sports Shape the Gender Debates

St. Martin’s. 292 pp. $29

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