Katie Burns, a sports journalist covering LGBTQ+ issues, recounts her personal journey with basketball and its significance in her life. Growing up in rural Indiana, basketball was a bond between her and her father, shaping her identity as a player. Through basketball, Burns found refuge and a space to express her true self away from societal constraints. This love for the sport continued throughout high school, college, and even after she came out as non-binary. Reflecting on her own experience, Burns wonders what would have happened if she had realized her non-binary identity at a young age and if she would have still had the same relationship with basketball.
In her book, Fair Play: How Sports Shapes Gender Debate, Burns provides an essential examination of the ongoing debate surrounding transgender and intersex athletes. As a sports journalist, Burns brings a nuanced and in-depth analysis to complex issues that have often been oversimplified or misunderstood. She combines historical context with interviews to shed light on how trans athletes became targets of the culture wars. With 23 states passing laws banning transgender students from participating in sports aligned with their gender identity, Burns’ book serves as a valuable guide for understanding the context and reasons behind this contentious topic.
Biological sex, as explained by a pediatric endocrinologist, is far more complex than a single characteristic. It involves a reciprocal relationship between chromosomes, hormones, reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics. Historically, sports organizations used different methods, such as chromosomes or genitals, to determine gender. Currently, testosterone levels are the primary factor used. However, the consistent targeting and exclusion of successful female athletes remain a prominent issue. Burns delves into sex hormone research, explores the scientific data on testosterone, and highlights the lack of research on transgender athletes, particularly teenagers and children.
Within the broader history of women’s sports, Burns situates the current debate about trans athletes. Title IX initiated discussions on inclusivity and equity, with athletics becoming the chosen arena for combating exclusion and discrimination. Feminists had varying views on integration, and sports remained divided by gender. Burns acknowledges that although women’s sports face real threats such as pay inequality and sexism, there are those who take issue specifically with trans athletes. She explores the divisions among women’s sports advocates regarding transgender and intersex inclusion and the subsequent politicization of these debates.
Burns addresses the role of right-wing organizations, particularly the Alliance Defending Freedom, in promoting legislation aimed at youth sports. These efforts initially surprised LGBTQ+ equality groups. By examining the stories of athletes like Andraya Yearwood, Terry Miller, and Leah Thomas, Burns reveals a more complex reality than the false narrative perpetuated by conservative politicians. The book also highlights the experiences of young athletes caught in the middle of divisive politics, emphasizing how the relentless focus on biology dehumanizes transgender youth and presents additional obstacles to their participation.
Fair Play concludes with thoughtful policy recommendations, including suggestions for creating a more gender-inclusive sports culture and path to inclusion for transgender athletes. Burns emphasizes the importance of rethinking the purpose of sports and promoting equity and inclusivity. While the readiness for this conversation remains uncertain, failing to make the effort not only hampers the opportunity to reshape sports but also lets down young individuals who simply want to play.