A Knack for Nurturing Community
It’s 5:00 a.m. in Hartford, Connecticut, and Katie Barnes is ready to write.
“I was known among my housemates to get up early when I was at Olaf to do my homework,” Barnes says. “I loved taking 9:00 a.m. classes because I could get up at 5:00 a.m. and get in, like, three and a half solid hours of work before class. And I’m still like that.”
Inside the charming storybook-style home Barnes recently purchased with their wife Elizabeth, an elementary school teacher, the cats and wife are snoozing and Barnes enjoys a diet Mtn Dew and a packet of club crackers. They open up Spotify and begin to play one song on repeat, all morning long, which sets the tone for whatever story they’re tackling in their work as a writer for ESPN.
“I’m a routine-oriented person,” Barnes says. “I think that’s really important for me when it comes to creativity, and to kind of tell my brain, ‘this is what we’re doing — we’re writing right now.’ Especially when I’m on deadline.”
Barnes never expected to become a writer. In 2015, they completed a master of science in student affairs in higher education at Miami University, with plans to support college-age LGBTQ students. Education felt like the right path, for a while. Especially since Barnes had been immersed in education for their whole life.
Barnes grew up in Culver, Indiana (population: 1,130), home of the private boarding school Culver Academies. They attended this elite institution, which also employed Barnes’s parents: Cory Barnes, chair of the modern classical languages department and French instructor, and Mitch Barnes, humanities instructor and head coach of the speech team. It was here that Barnes’s love of reading, discussion-based learning, and writing began. It’s also where they first witnessed inequality and felt the tug of discomfort in the world as it was. Barnes has been out as queer since their time at Culver — a place where the young men wore military uniforms, and the young women wore plaid skirts, polos, and knee-high socks.
Though Barnes was confident in their sexuality, there were other aspects of their identity that felt difficult to express at that time. Feelings of not being entirely feminine or masculine. Of being both Black and white. Of being middle class in a town that was extremely poor but with classmates who were extremely rich.
“At that stage of my life, what really freaked me out about feminine clothing was having to make choices,” Barnes says. “I didn’t really have to dress myself, and I just kind of went with it. And so my first couple of years in college I found really challenging, because I didn’t have a style and shopping for clothes really just made me feel bad about myself.”
Today, they use gender neutral pronouns and maintain a coiffure of “gay hair” (as their mother calls it), which helps Barnes feel more honest and comfortable in their self-expression. And they use their life experience and comfort with duality to tell honest and compelling stories.
“I’ve never identified as a writer,” Barnes says. “I never had any ambition to publish a novel or to be a long-form journalist, you know, none of that.”
Yet Barnes has been actively writing all their life. For many years, their primary outlet was through fan fiction, and not just any old fan fiction. Specifically, Barnes wrote Grey’s Anatomy fanfic, shared on an official ABC message board.
Their obsession with the show as a teenager led them to this online community in the early aughts, which was extremely active at that time. Throughout the run of the television show, which began in 2005 and continues today, Barnes would publish stories with others on the board. Barnes especially enjoyed fantasies about their one true pairing (OTP), which is Callie and Arizona (“Calzona” in the Grey’s fanfic space).
The message board was a fun reason to create and also a social obsession that yielded lifelong friendships and a first love. Barnes continued to write throughout college and says that others in their St. Olaf honor house would even stage dramatic readings of their Grey’s fanfic.
Though writing was a compulsion, and something Barnes loved to do, it just wasn’t their lifelong aspiration to turn this knack for storytelling into anything bigger. The writing was personal to Barnes, a way to explore their queer identity and to build a bigger world for the TV characters they enjoyed.
It took a thoughtful mentor, former NFL player and Vice President of Inclusion Strategy for Product at Netflix Wade Davis, to urge them toward something more. The two met while attending the LGBT Sports Summit during Barnes’s last year of graduate school. The same year, Barnes had created their own internship at the Queer Resource Center at Portland State University and raised money to help two students attend Camp Pride, a summer camp for LGBTQ youth and college-age students that focused on impactful leadership-building skills, and that had made a huge impact on Barnes’s life.
Davis was impressed by Barnes and flew them out to New York to meet with other Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) organizers in the world of sports. It was there that Barnes was introduced to the woman who would connect them with their first writing job as a sports and pop culture columnist for the blog Feministing.
From that experience, Barnes kept dogging opportunities that would enable them to keep a foot in the world of sports or writing. Maybe something at Nike. Or ESPN. Barnes was an avid sports fan, often the only person in the St. Olaf Queer Support and Outreach House (STOQSO) watching NFL games on Sunday. In addition, they were an experienced athlete who also coached youth basketball throughout college. The life they thought they were pursuing, to stay in education and work in LGBTQ student services, began to feel a little off-track. At best, a backup plan, if a career in sports and writing couldn’t be secured by pure mettle.
The summer after graduate school, Barnes embarked on a 50-state tour for a unique ad campaign that shared a message of equality through eating, which they also documented for HuffPost. It was then, at about state number 30, that some good news came. Barnes landed a role in the now-defunct ESPN digital media associate program. Following the program, they were able to permanently join the team and began to write compelling and heartfelt stories about the dizzyingly complex world of athletics — especially with an eye toward LGBTQ issues — that defined their career.
And the industry took note. In 2017, NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists named Barnes Journalist of the Year. They also were awarded the inaugural Mosaic Award from the Deadline Club, a New York chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, for excellence in elevating marginalized voices. And they are a two-time GLAAD Award nominee.
Like so many who thrive in the liberal arts, Barnes came to this success along an indirect path.
“I think a lot of people assume I don’t use my degrees — I use them all the time,” Barnes says. “I think about my American studies degree, which is probably the single most useful degree that I have. I wrote what I call my crowning achievement, an essay exploring the importance of Bring It On at 20 years, and I dense-facted Bring It On — which is exactly what we did in Am Con. It’s amazing. And I wouldn’t have written that in the same way had I not gone to St. Olaf.
“You know, I actually think what sets me apart is that I have [been exposed] to a whole bunch of ideas and writers and thinkers and history, and I have been trained to remember those things. I just synthesize them, and ask really important questions and try to seek the answers to those questions. To me, that’s just the fundamentals of the liberal arts. And I wish that there was more engagement with the idea that a liberal arts education is fundamentally flexible rather than, somehow, it’s limiting or useless. It’s my passion.”
Barnes attacks their work now as a writer for ESPN with a gentle understanding of athletes that is endlessly more than facts, stats, and game-winning predictions. Their work writhes with personality, displaying a whole figure with scars, conviction, and a whole lot of hope.
“I think my past has informed how I see the world,” Barnes says. “I think it really helped contribute to the empathy that I have in my job as a reporter. It gives me the ability to connect with people of all kinds of experiences and walks of life.”
There’s literally one publicly out, nonbinary person that’s a sportswriter in a national publication. And it’s me. Knowing that I am in a camp of one, it’s important for me to think about the privileges I have that have allowed me to be that person.
As a writer, Barnes frequently confronts assumptions about identity, race, and sexuality. Friction that feels personal. And something they also addressed head-on while attending St. Olaf in 2012 as a response to Minnesota’s proposed marriage amendment that would have prohibited same-sex marriage.
They worked at the forefront of this issue as a campus coordinator for St. Olaf Votes NO! and picked up efforts that were started by Brian Walpole ’13 to help organize the campus community, and college students throughout Minnesota, to block the restrictive marriage amendment.
“When I was a student, the LGBTQ student orgs and the sub-orgs were always politically active,” Barnes says. “The organization of LGBTQ students and also various allies around the proposed marriage amendment in fall 2012 was unlike anything I’ve ever seen at St. Olaf, certainly at the time, but I would argue probably even since then, in terms of what we were able to accomplish as a group.”
That year, Barnes was invited to speak at the Minnesota State Capitol as part of the large United for Our Future rally. In 2013, they received the Voice in Action National Leadership Award from Campus Pride, an organization that works to provide safe spaces for LGBTQ college students nationwide.
“What motivates me is that I’m a really community-oriented person,” Barnes says. “I feel a deep sense of responsibility to queer people, to queer people of color, to trans people, to nonbinary people — because of the privilege that I hold. There’s literally one publicly out, nonbinary person that’s a sportswriter in a national publication. And it’s me. Knowing that I am in a camp of one, it’s important for me to think about the privileges I have that have allowed me to be that person, more so than the ways in which the intersection that I sit at from an identity perspective hinders my ability to advance in my job, have my work seen, whatever. And so I think very much about the communities that I represent and what it means.”
Barnes may have diverted from one meaningful career to another, and even left the Midwest for the Northeast, but they still return to St. Olaf as often as they can.
“There are many times when I go back to the campus, I don’t really tell anyone I’m coming, and I get a pizza bagel at the Pause, and I, you know, chill and catch a game,” Barnes says. “I get my favorite shake from the Pause and maybe get a sugar cookie from the Cage and just peace out. Nobody even knows that I’ve been there. Because those things are special to me and for me.”
In 2019, they did make contact with the campus community while passing through for the good snacks and sports. Barnes, who majored in history, American studies, and Russian area studies, spoke to a St. Olaf history class about life after graduation. Following the talk, a flustered nonbinary student thanked Barnes for coming back. It meant so much to see representation from someone who, like them, used they/them/theirs pronouns, attended St. Olaf, and who had gone on to achieve so much.
“When I say I want St. Olaf to change in certain ways, it’s not because I hate the institution as it exists,” Barnes says. “It’s because, for me, it was a challenging place to be at times as a person of color who’s queer, and I don’t necessarily want other students to experience that pain. I think we should be better and we should be thinking about these things. And if we profess to care about diversity and inclusion, then that should mean queer students in particular. I think I’m really highly critical about St. Olaf in that way, but I am very heartened to see the changes since I was a student. And I try and support those changes in any way that I can.”
At a time when it feels like many of our institutions are failing us, Barnes self-identifies as a “hopeless institutionalist,” adding “if I as a person profess to love a place, how can I then walk away from it and not try and make it better?”