The making of Layshia Clarendon's ESPN Cover Story

Katie Barnes opens up about profiling the WNBA's first openly nonbinary and transgender player.

Hi, friends! Welcome BACK to Power Plays. (And when I say “back,” I really mean it this time! I promise! More info soon.)

We’re at the end of Pride month, and it’s been a significant one in the sports space. Among many monumental moments, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib (he/him) became the first active NFL player to come out as gay, Washington Spirit player Kumi Yokoyama (they/them) came out as transgender, and New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard (she/her) became the first openly transgender person to qualify for the Olympics. There is a lot to celebrate, despite the continued onslaught of bigoted bills and the disingenuous capitalist takeover of Pride celebrations.

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But today’s newsletter is all about the recent ESPN Cover Story, “The Power of Layshia Clarendon,” written by the inimitable Katie Barnes (they/them/their). If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to stop what you’re doing now and go read it right now. If you’ve already read it, as I know many of you have, I think you will really enjoy the lengthy Q&A I did with Barnes below.

Layshia Clarendon (she/he/they) — a Minnesota Lynx point guard, WNBA Players Association vice president, 2017 WNBA All-Star, and a member of Team USA’s 2018 world championship team — is the first openly nonbinary and transgender player in the WNBA. Layshia had top surgery during the offseason and opened up about his journey on Instagram in January.

Barnes’s piece on Layshia is an intimate and comprehensive look at what it means to be fighting for your personal truth, your family, your faith, the future of the WNBA, justice for all marginalized communities, and your basketball career all at the same time.

I loved so many things about this profile: The tender opening scene that features Layshia alone with their newborn baby in the hospital, washing their child’s hair for the first time; Layshia’s expansive and inclusive form of Christianity, which he says is about “disrupting and fighting for the most marginalized people;” the insight into how as a WNBA newcomer, Layshia pushed then-WNBPA president Tamika Catchings to get the WNBPA to fully embrace Pride month; the candor with which his wife, Jessica Clarendon (she/her), talks about Layshia’s transition; Layshia’s unfiltered reaction to being abruptly cut by the New York Liberty earlier this year; and the closing scene, when Layshia says, "I feel very woman, and I feel very man. I feel both, and I feel neither, and I feel like all the gender expansiveness that exists in the world is in me.”

But the part that will stick with me for a long time — forever, I hope — is Layshia’s reaction to her top surgery:

When she unwrapped the bandages to see her chest without breasts for the first time, a smile spread across her face. "I knew you were in there this whole time," Layshia said.

Jessica felt similarly when she saw her spouse's chest, and it was a familiar sensation. When they were both at Cal, and Layshia cut his hair into that mohawk, not everyone approved. "There were some rumblings in the office about it, and people had different opinions," Jessica says. "Mine was like, 'Oh my gosh, you look so much like yourself.'"

Seeing Layshia's smile as the bandages came off brought those feelings to the surface. "You look like you," she said. "You look more like you than when I dropped you off."

Layshia is, as Barnes asserts in their piece, one of the most important athletes in sports today. And I’d argue that Barnes is one of the most important sportswriters in the business today. Remember the great Azzi Fudd cover story? The Maya Moore deep dive? The story of the Jalen Suggs/Paige Bueckers friendship that became one of the main March Madness storylines? All Katie Barnes. And as a Black, queer, nonbinary reporter at ESPN, Barnes is uniquely suited not only to push to get stories like Layshia’s told, but to make sure they’re told with the care and craft they deserve — moves that will have ripple effects across the industry in terms of telling stories of trans athletes.

[Ed. note: Barnes is a friend, so you might think I’m biased, but in this case I’m not, these are facts.]

So, it was an honor to speak with Barnes about “The Power of Layshia Clarendon.” In the interview below, we discuss the pitch process at ESPN, how they connected with Layshia, how editorial decisions about pronouns were made, why they chose the opening scene, what stories were left on the cutting-room floor, and what this story would have meant to 13-year-old Katie.

The interview below has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

‘There's no sanding of the edges here’: A Q&A with Katie Barnes

Power Plays: First of all, congratulations on the piece! How did this story come about? What was the process like of getting this pitched and greenlit as an ESPN cover story?

Katie Barnes: So, after Layshia shared that he had top surgery publicly, there was a lot of discussion happening among editors about, “This person's very interesting, should we do a story them?” Then, of course, there's the question of who should do that story. I was brought in pretty early in the process and asked if I had any thoughts or feelings about Layshia, like, what would I do if I was going to do a story? Through that process it kind-of got added to my plate, and I just started reporting in terms of just saying, “Hey, we're gonna do a feature. Are you down to do it?” Meaning talking to Layshia to get them on board. Everyone was really excited about it.

At first it was just a larger-scale feature. We were going to do original photography, but it wasn't slated to be a cover story right off the bat. But then we had an opening for the summer, specifically for June. And at that time, from my initial reporting, I felt that Layshia had a really strong story, and that it would be a very compelling story to do. And it's June, so it's Pride, so there's some energy around that. I was asked to write an updated pitch, and myself and my editor worked on it, and it was really, really strong. They loved it. From there it became a cover story, which was a bit of a different ask to Layshia and her family, but it ended up working out really well I think.

PP: What's the difference between a feature and a cover story?  What are the extra asks that you're going to Layshia with for something like that?

KB: I would say the big difference is the level of time and invasiveness. When we do a cover story, it means we're going to do a big photoshoot, we need  TV interviews, and also we need feature interviews. I did hours of interviews with Layshia on the phone, in addition to a television interview that lasts an hour and a half or two hours. So that's just a completely different level of commitment to the story. It raises the stakes. It just raises the level of openness that's being asked, and it's just, it's a lot.

All of a sudden there's a lot of people that need your time, with the cover shoot, plus the video, and we had to shoot B-roll. And all of this was happening at a very challenging time for Layshia and Jessica, in terms of Layshia being cut from the Liberty and then signing with the Lynx, and it was all very simultaneous in that regard. To open your temporary home to cameras while that's going on is a lot to ask. 

PP: How do you go about establishing that trust with a subject, specifically for this story, because I know it's a personal topic for you? How do you approach that ask?

KB: I'm very transparent with all of my subjects about what it is that I'm asking from them. At the beginning, when I was talking to Layshia about a feature story, I had to pitch Layshia on it. I'd been trying to get ahold of them, and when we connected, I was just pacing the aisles of a Costco, pitching Layshia on doing the story with me and why I wanted to do it and what it would look like, and some of the topics and ideas that I wanted to get into. In that sense, it did help that Layshia and I had a preexisting relationship. We were not necessarily close, but from the story, and in terms of like how Layshia identifies and also the places that Layshia has been, it's right there with some of my own history.

You know, I'm from Indiana, and so when Layshia was playing for [the Indiana Fever], I was volunteering for the Freedom Indiana campaign. When I was talking with Myranda Warden, one of Layshia’s really good friends, we marveled at how we somehow didn't cross paths before, because we know a lot of the same people. And so there's that familiarity in addition to an identity — confusion is not really the right word, but I guess, relationship — that I think was really helpful in terms of being able to build that trust and that rapport right off the bat. Layshia and I have been around a lot of the same people. We were friends with a lot of the same people, even though we were not necessarily friends ourselves, and also I've moderated two Pride panels that Layshia had been on in as many seasons. So Layshia already knew sort-of how I approached the work and the types of questions that I would ask, and how I thought about a lot of these things, and that went a really long way.

Plus, having already started the process of reporting that by the time we made the Cover Story ask, we weren't starting from scratch.

PP: You've had some tweets lately indicating that you were writing something very personal to you, and I'm assuming now that this was it. You're one of the most prominent nonbinary reporters, at least in sports media, if not across media. You've been so open about your journey. Did you feel an extra bit of pressure writing the story, knowing how important it is to get it right?

KB: Yeah, absolutely. I felt pressure on a number of levels. One is that any time I am invested so personally in a story, that just raises the stakes for me. I've never had, certainly, a professional conversation with someone who identifies so similarly to the way that I do; I can count with one hand the number of times it's happened in my personal life. So having that relationship and that connection, it was very special to me. I think that was part of what drove some of my emotion.

I also knew as I was reporting this exactly how generous with his time that Layshia had been and that Jess had been, and how open about their lives they both have been, and I wanted to really honor that trust. You know, there were so many things that were being entrusted to me, and I wanted to do my best to do that part of the story justice, because they went really deep with me. There were very few things that were off limits, and I think that really comes through in the piece. There's a lot of pretty new information there. This is a very comprehensive look at who Layshia is as a person and activist in a way that we haven't seen before.

Then also, frankly, knowing that Layshia had been written about before by a number of folks, and sometimes quite prominently. And so to know that I have this piece that is different, that will not be first, and that is deeply personal to me, near the end of Pride Month, there was a lot to sort-of hold onto. I just really hoped that one, Layshia and Jess would not regret trusting me, and two, that folks would resonate with the piece, and not feel like it was redundant.

PP: Obviously ESPN is a big corporation, and you've had experience navigating it in the past. But let's be honest, there haven't been many athletes, or many people in the public arena period, who go by multiple rotating pronouns, and are open about that. There are things in this piece that editorially make it a little bit different than your standard athlete profile. How did you go about navigating the pronoun usage in particular, and making sure that it was respected across the board?

KB: Well, that's one thing that I have really loved  about my time at ESPN, is that often times when it comes to conversations like this, about what we need to do editorially, frankly, my expertise is honored. And so we had these conversations early. I think it was also very helpful in that Sports Illustrated had already published and already done multiple pronouns, so then it became very clear that we would, too. It just was off the table, it was never really a question about whether or not we would use multiple pronouns, it was always a question of how. At different points in the editing process, we would get some feedback, and sometimes it was, “I'm confused by pronoun usage here.” The stuff would be read to me, and I was like, “Oh, you're confused because I'm not clear in terms of who I'm referring to. It has nothing to do with pronouns. The writing isn't clear.”

And so then when I was going through and adding my, I guess for lack of a better phrase, pronoun announcements for certain folks in the piece beyond Layshia, I was like, why am I just doing this for them?  I should be doing it for everyone. So I'm just going to. And nobody said I couldn't do that. They were just like, “Oh, this is interesting. Yeah, it makes sense. Hmm, it's not disruptive at all. Sure, we can do this.” That wasn't really an issue.

In terms of just the editorial direction for the story, I think we were all very committed to honoring Layshia's identities in totality, and that required a certain level of pronoun fluidity. And I continue to be impressed by how, easily isn't really the right word, but how successfully my colleagues employed pronoun fluidity, just in general, when it came to speaking about Layshia and writing about Layshia.

I think that there are a lot of assumptions about folks not understanding, or not wanting to, or pushing back, or how it must happen at a big company like ESPN, but my experience was quite the contrary. Folks were able to and have been able to use Layshia's pronouns correctly and interchangeably. And they're always on board with how to best reflect the usage of multiple pronouns in our copy and within the various elements of the story itself.

PP: As you mentioned, there were some really, really, really vulnerable moments in this piece. One thing that struck me was Jessica opening up about not being fully supportive in her first conversation with Layshia about his gender identity. Why was that important for you to include?

KB: It was interesting because in my interview with Jess, that part of the conversation actually came at the end in the interview. And throughout the interview she had said, “I am not perfect, I have messed up.” And Layshia had hinted at that in their interview as well. And so, I just asked, “You said you weren't perfect, what is an example of a time where you weren't perfect?”  That was the example that she gave me, and I thought it was very powerful. So, I had that already, and so then when I asked Layshia about it from [their] perspective, they were fine to open up about it,  because I wasn't fishing. It was something that had already been entrusted to me from his wife.

I think what was important to me about including it was showing the tension that can exist in a relationship, and also then resolving that tension. You know, folks make mistakes and aren't perfect and that should be shown too. We shouldn't necessarily put folks up on a pedestal when it comes to how they interact with like their transgender loved ones. My experience as somebody who reports on these topics and as somebody who has loved ones in my life as a trans and nonbinary person, is that it's often very messy. So I wanted to show that too, and I was lucky enough to be entrusted with some information that allowed me to do that.

Then, of course, it was also really important to me to close the loop on it. I didn't want Jess to look like a villain, because she wasn't. One of the most beautiful things about the piece is that ultimately, I think it's quite a love story, both in terms of Layshia's love for themselves, love for God, and also Jess and Layshia's love for one another. And so in that sense, I thought that it was important to show the many ways in which that love revealed itself, both in tension and resolution. 

PP: You opened with Layshia, the parent, holding their baby. That decision to me felt very purposeful, because that's not often how we see trans and nonbinary people represented. Why was that your opening?

KB: Well, it wasn't always, which I think is very interesting. In the first draft the lede was actually Layshia getting drafted. It's one of my favorite scenes, but it's not in the piece as it is published. At that point we thought we should establish Layshia as a basketball player first. And so a lot of the personal stuff that we had, some more vulnerable scenes and anecdotes from Layshia and Jess ended up near the bottom of the piece. It was situated quite chronologically.

And then the feeling was that we shouldn't do that (laughs), because we buried some of our really best and compelling stuff. So the thought was, “Can we try wash day as the lede?” So first I needed to do some additional reporting, and I went back to Layshia to get some additional details, and then we crafted that really beautiful scene from those details. I think for me, what I really love about it is, yes, it establishes Layshia as a parent, right off the bat, personally in a way that I've always thought of myself as a parent, what I thought that would be in terms of being a non-birthing parent. And so I thought that was really beautiful, something that we don't often see in print from that person's perspective. It was just a really beautiful and touching moment, and I think it set the emotional tone for the piece in a way that sort of allows the readers to, you know, unfold the layers of who Layshia is, to begin it with this place that is anchored in family and faith.

PP: We talked about that emotions that you've had and the pressure that you felt. What would it have meant to you growing up to read a story like this?

KB: Hmmm, that's a really good question. I think it would have meant a considerable amount. You know, representation matters, as they say. You get to sort-of hear Layshia talk about things and feel things in the way that I know I was thinking about and feeling as an adolescent. I think I certainly would have felt less alone, and would have been very moved to have the opportunity to connect with someone who played a sport that I love. And I think judging by my own general levels of obsession with some of the older WNBA stars when I was a kid, I would have been absolutely obsessed with Layshia, they would have been my favorite. So in that sense, it is very meaningful to 13 or 14-year-old me, and I hope that it's meaningful to a number of young trans folks to sort-of see themselves reflected in totality in the story.

There's no sanding of the edges here, and a lot of that is facilitated by the fact that Layshia is so vulnerable, and really lets us in, and I was given the space and the opportunity to encapsulate who they are through so many of those layers in a way that I think we just don't get to see very often — not just in sports writing, but in profiles in general.

The thing about profiles is, I think a lot of times their successes are granted to the writer, and I don't actually think that's true. Profiles that are meaningful and are moving in the way that this one is, really has much, much more to do with the fact that Layshia and Jess made a decision to share these details with me. They could have not done that, and I think the piece would have looked very, very different. There's a lot on the cutting room floor, and almost all of it is basketball related. So this would have been a much stronger basketball piece, I think, than the piece that we have, but a lot of that — really all of it — is because of the decisions that Layshia and Jess made when they decided to do this piece and they decided the level of vulnerability they would bring to it. And that makes all the difference in the storytelling itself, and I know that they did that because they wanted young, nonbinary, queer trans people to be able to look at Layshia and see who he is in all of her glory, and not feel like they didn't share really important things about themselves.

PP: What has the reaction been, and has there been anything that surprised you about the reaction?

KB: The reaction's been really positive. I think with stories like this, it's always really overwhelming. It's hard to know, are a lot of people reading it? Is it doing well? I care about those things, and not from a vanity perspective but just to prove that there's interest in stories like this. I always get worried about those things on release day, but it seems like it's, you know, folks are really really enjoying the piece. And in that sense, I'm very happy, and I hope that it continues to resonate.

Thanks so much for reading Power Plays, friends. Hope you had a good Pride month. I promise that we will keep celebrating year round over here.

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