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Image credit: Changing the Game

Honest storytelling: A conversation with GLAAD Award nominee Katie Barnes on trans inclusion in sports

July 29, 2019

There are so many benefits to participating in sports, but many transgender athletes are denied this opportunity. Katie Barnes is advocating for transgender athletes as a writer for ESPN and as the author of “They are the Champions,” for which they were nominated for a 2019 GLAAD Media Award in the ‘Outstanding Magazine Article’ category.

Mack, a wrestler, and Andraya, a track runner, have been thrown into the national spotlight for being transgender athletes and, specifically, for succeeding in their respective sports. Although there are thousands of trans high school athletes participating in sports, it is only when they are winning that the media covers them, and when they do, their stories are often exploited to comment on bathrooms and locker rooms. Barnes’ article takes the time to fully understand Mack, Andraya, their families, and their stories. There is currently no national policy on inclusion of transgender athletes in sports, so Barnes explores how differing policies in Texas and Connecticut, where Mack and Andraya live, impact their ability to participate in sports with others of the same gender. By demonstrating how local policies affect these two high schoolers, “They are the Champions” investigates how different states and athletic associations restrict transgender students’ inclusion in sports.

Katie Barnes' article represents a fair approach to this type of storytelling—one that is honest but also empathetic. I met Katie, who is an alum of my college, St. Olaf, at The National LGBTQ Task Force Creating Change conference for LGBTQ equality. I called Katie a few weeks later to learn more about their experience writing this story:

How does your identity impact your journalism and this story?

I bring all of who I am to work everyday. I think, because I am a queer person, I care very deeply about telling impactful stories for and about the queer community in a way that goes beyond the coming out narratives that have been very present in LGBTQ sports storytelling. Being part of the same community as Mack and Andraya helped since I could say “hey I know the words that you’re using. I’m not going to mess up the basics. You don’t have to educate me about what it means to be trans.” I think that went a long way in establishing trust. I think it goes a long way in having that conversation be authentic.

What was your experience of writing this article?

What I wanted to do and what I talked to the families about was really telling their stories and spending a lot of time with them and, of course, being on the record. It would be rigorous reporting and fact checked. I wasn’t just going to write a hot take about what I thought about their situations—I really wanted to hear from them and hear from them over time and the families were interested in that.  

As a journalist and a writer, my job is to connect with people. I feel connected to these two athletes in a way. They told me things and I told them things and there’s a sharing that goes on there. Especially for me as an older non-binary person, it was interesting talking with the families about resources that are available because some folks might not be connected to that. It was a challenge too because, as someone who identifies similarly, I care very much and I just wanted to tell the best story I could and do right by the people that were sharing such big parts of themselves with me. Personally, because I cared so much about the story, it was very meaningful for me when it was published and it continues to be very meaningful for me.

What does storytelling mean to you?

I think that honest storytelling and pursuing truth as much as we possibly can will always be a beacon of light, no matter what the conversations or circumstances are. For me, I was lucky enough to work with two families that were interested in being honest about who they are and letting me in to see some of that.

What would you like to see in the future for LGBTQ youth in sports?

I’m hopeful that the story I wrote will ask people to consider what happens when we center the humanity of these kids rather than act on our own biases. If we believe as a country and as a society that every kid should be able to play sports, then we need to really think about what that means and how we want to address that. That’s what I hope for.

Mack and Andraya are also featured in the new documentary Changing the Game, a must-see film by Emmy award-winning director Michael Barnett which explores the lives of three transgender high school athletes over the course of a year. The film shines a light on the power of media in influencing—for better and for worse—the narrative around transgender people and their participation in athletics.

Zipi Diamond is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and junior at St. Olaf's College studying Sociology/Anthropology & Women's and Gender Studies. Zipi has worked with GLSEN Maryland and the GLBT Community Center of Baltimore to create safer school environments for LGBTQ students.

the voice and vision of a new generation