A group of runners on a red and blue background

Research/Study Research/Study

Fox News has aired more segments on trans athletes so far in 2021 than it did in the last two years combined

Fox has aired 126 discussions about trans athletes but referenced only nine trans women athletes -- none of whom dominate their sport

  • Fox News aired at least 126 discussions about transgender athletes from January 2019 through March 2021, including 72 discussions that aired in the first three months of this year alone -- more than twice as many as in 2019 and 2020 combined. Throughout all of those discussions, Fox hosts and guests could point to only nine trans women athletes, one of whom was not even allowed to compete and none of whom were dominating their sport -- as states around the country consider banning them from competing. 

    Fox anchors, hosts, and guests also cited trans athletes in at least 58 passing mentions during this time, often listing them among examples of supposedly “extreme” Democratic policies.

    Fox’s obsession with trans athletes is a key component of the right’s vitriolic campaign to make them into a political and cultural wedge issue while putting trans kids and families in danger in the process. During this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, former President Donald Trump notably mentioned trans athletes, who he has rarely commented on, after right-wing groups and figures had campaigned in the previous two years for Trump to embrace anti-trans issues. 

    So far this year, at least 31 states have considered bills to ban trans athletes from participating in sports, and five states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and West Virginia -- have already signed such measures into law. (Idaho passed a similar law last year, but the law was blocked by a district court and is currently being considered by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.) Additionally, in South Dakota, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem vetoed a bill barring trans athletes from competing before banning them through executive action. These policies have been called “a ‘solution’ to a problem that doesn’t exist.”

  • Fox has aired more discussions of trans athletes in the first three months of 2021 than in 2019 and 2020 combined

  • Number of Fox News segments featuring discussions about trans athletes since 2019, showing that discussions spiked in Dec. 2020
  • From January 1, 2019, to March 31, 2021, Fox News aired at least 126 original segments that discussed trans athletes:

    • Across those segments, Fox only cited nine trans women athletes, one of whom was not even allowed to compete and none of whom were dominating their field. There were 41 segments that referenced two trans former high school athletes in Connecticut whom extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has targeted. National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Shannon Minter has noted that those few athletes are the right’s “Exhibit A, and there’s no Exhibit B — absolutely none.”

    • Fox aired 72 such discussions in the first quarter of 2021 (January 1-March 31). The network has discussed trans athletes more frequently in that time than it did in all of 2019 and 2020 combined. 
    • Fox aired a total of 15 discussions about trans athletes in 2020. Five of these aired in June, coinciding with the Supreme Court’s historic ruling that LGBTQ employees are protected from discrimination on the basis of sex, and four in February. No other month that year included more than two discussions. 
    • Fox aired 39 such discussions in 2019. Notably, ADF announced on the network in June that it had filed a complaint to the Department of Education against the two trans athletes competing in Connecticut.
    • Fox featured ADF staff or clients as guests or in video footage in 34 discussions, or 27% all discussions during the time period studied.
    • Tucker Carlson Tonight aired the most discussions at 27; Fox News @ Night -- part of the network’s purported “news” side -- aired 23; Fox & Friends, including its weekend editions, aired 22 discussions (Fox & Friends First aired an additional seven); and The Ingraham Angle aired 15.
    • In addition to the 126 discussions, Fox anchors, hosts, and guests also cited trans athletes in at least 58 passing mentions.
  • Fox could cite only nine trans women athletes competing, indicative of the right’s “solution in search of a problem”

  • Across all 126 discussions, Fox hosts and guests named just nine examples of trans women athletes competing in sports; 41 segments mentioned or alluded to ADF's 2019 case targeting two trans athletes in Connecticut, and 24 segments referenced other trans women athletes -- of which only seven were specified. (There was some crossover between those segments, in which several mentioned the ADF case and at least one other athlete.)

    ADF is representing cisgender athletes who sued after losing several competitions between 2017 and 2019 to two Black trans athletes, Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller. Yearwood and Miller have since graduated from high school and no longer compete in track. Yet so far this year, Fox has mentioned them in 18 discussions, and the network has either hosted ADF and its clients as guests or aired video clips of them 22 times in 2021. On April 25, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit because after Yearwood and Miller left school, “the plaintiffs could no longer identify any other transgender female athletes, [and] there was no further dispute to resolve.”

    The other trans athletes cited on Fox since 2019 included powerlifter Mary Gregory, cyclist Veronica Ivy (who used to go by another name), NCAA track runners June Eastwood and CeCé Telfer, weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, runner Megan Youngren, and powerlifter JayCee Cooper -- who wasn’t even allowed to compete. 

    What you wouldn’t gather from Fox’s coverage of these athletes is that they don’t always win at their chosen sports, undermining right-wing media narratives that trans competitors will dominate and “destroy girls’ sports.” In 2020, one of ADF’s clients placed ahead of Miller after filing the lawsuit, and Ivy has noted, “I lose most of my races. I won five out of 22 events in 2019.” Telfer, who right-wing media targeted after she won a 2019 NCAA Division II national hurdling championship, also has a mixed record of wins and loses; according to Outsports, in a 2019 championship, Telfer “didn’t even crack the top five in any of her events.” Additionally, Eastwood has described how her athletic abilities have shifted after a year of gender-affirming medical treatment: “I went from being a competitive male athlete toward that top quarter to being about the same on the women’s side. ... I’m not the best on my team right now, so it’s sort of interesting because I was before.” In February 2020, Fox anchor Shannon Bream reported that “a 28-year-old is becoming the first transgender athlete to compete at the U.S. Olympic marathon trials,” alluding to athlete Megan Youngren. What Bream did not report on, however, was that Youngren did not qualify for the Olympics and in fact placed 230th in that race.

    Additionally, despite state anti-trans bills specifically targeting trans student athletes, only four of the trans women athletes named on Fox News were students.

    In one case in January 2019, Fox’s Trace Gallagher misleadingly alluded to Mack Beggs, a now 21-year-old trans wrestler who “was forced to compete against cisgender girls by state regulations.” Gallagher said, “In Texas, a transgender high school wrestler was booed after beating a female competitor and advancing to the state finals.” However, Beggs is a trans man who was victim to the very policies that Fox has championed and was forced to compete against girls despite identifying as a boy and wanting to compete against boys. 

    Earlier this year, The Associated Press’ David Crary and Lindsay Whitehurst found that the very lawmakers attempting to ban trans athletes from competing also struggle to justify such measures:

  • Legislators in more than 20 states have introduced bills this year that would ban transgender girls from competing on girls’ sports teams in public high schools. Yet in almost every case, sponsors cannot cite a single instance in their own state or region where such participation has caused problems.

    The Associated Press reached out to two dozen state lawmakers sponsoring such measures around the country as well as the conservative groups supporting them and found only a few times it’s been an issue among the hundreds of thousands of American teenagers who play high school sports.

  • The report pointed to Miller and Yearwood’s wins between 2017 and 2019, acknowledging that “supporters of transgender rights say the Connecticut case gets so much attention from conservatives because it’s the only example of its kind.”

  • Fox’s coverage is a key component of the right-wing apparatus that builds support for harmful, anti-LGBTQ policies

  • Fox's obsessive coverage of trans athletes illustrates how anti-LGBTQ ideologies are spread through a predictable pipeline, in which anti-LGBTQ groups can push an agenda that is picked up by right-wing media and finally proposed as harmful policies by conservative lawmakers. Specifically, groups like ADF can create controversy through lawsuits and gain traction through appearances in a friendly right-wing media ecosystem, which then dedicates a disproportionate amount of coverage to the topic. This gives political decision-makers an opportunity to push for policy change and an engaged base to support them on it. 

    Trans journalist Katelyn Burns has explained how right-wing media leverages the occasional success of a handful of trans athletes in order to fuel harmful anti-trans policies: 

  • The crusade against trans athletes has been the most successful effort to introduce transphobic discrimination into state law, after numerous states failed to pass larger-scale bathroom bills and puberty blocker bans in recent years. Trans athleticism is a seemingly complicated issue that has found success largely due to a mishmash of cultural attitudes and generally incorrect assumptions, particularly about trans girls’ bodies.

    Anti-trans doomsayers often claim that simply allowing trans women and girls to compete at sports would “destroy women’s sports.” “If the A.C.L.U. gets its way, women’s sports will no longer exist,” Roger Brooks, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, told the New York Times. “There’ll be men’s sports and there’ll be semi-coed sports, and women and girls in Connecticut will be losers.”

    But that narrative largely fails to hold up to real-world evidence — trans athletes have been allowed in girls’ high school and women's college sports for years and no school has had to make “co-ed teams,” a dig that misgenders trans girls and women. Meanwhile, science has found that trans girls who hormonally transition at younger ages do not necessarily have a “biological advantage” athletically. And none of it justifies banning middle school trans girls from the local girls’ soccer team.

  • In addition to Fox's obsessive coverage, this crusade has been aided by right-wing media online. A 2020 Media Matters study of online content about trans issues earning more than 100,000 Facebook interactions (reactions, comments, shares) found that right-leaning sources earned a total of over 43.3 million interactions, nearly two times the engagement of all other sources combined. Content about trans athletes from right-leaning sources made up 23.6% of the 225 examples that were reviewed, earning 21.2 million interactions in total. Of those stories, 19 discussed ADF’s Connecticut athlete clients, and a post from ADF earned the highest engagement of any example at over 2.7 million interactions. Anti-trans groups have also used paid political ads on Facebook to spread misleading rhetoric about trans athletes, potentially reaching millions of users. 

    Another anti-trans policy measure followed this same pattern: nationwide efforts to ban and even criminalize lifesaving best practice medical care for trans youth. In 2019, the Heritage Foundation hosted anti-trans advocates and policy-makers for a series of events targeting such care. After attending one of them, a South Dakota state legislator introduced a bill in 2020 to ban necessary care for trans kids. At the same time, right-wing media inundated audiences with misinformation about the topic. 

    While South Dakota’s bill ultimately failed, dozens of similar bills have been introduced following it. Earlier this month, Arkansas became the first state in the country to sign one into law -- backed by even more anti-trans misinformation from Fox News.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq database for all original programming on Fox News Channel for any of the terms or any variations of the terms “transgender,” “trans,” “transphobe,” “transphobic,” “transphobia,” “sex,” “gender identity,” “biological male,” “biological man,” “biological men,” or “biological boy” within close proximity of any of the terms or any variations of the terms “sport,” “athlete,” “athletic,” “competition,” “scholarship,” “unfair,” “advantage,” “dominate,” or “game” or any of the terms “women’s sports,” “girls’ sports,” “Selina Soule,” “Alanna Smith,” “Chelsea Mitchell,” “Mary Gregory,” “Rachel McKinnon,” “female sports,” “identify as a girl," “sports team for women," “sports teams for girls," “identify as women," “identify as a woman," “identify as girl,” or “identify as girls” from January 1, 2019, through March 31, 2021. 

    We conducted a similar search of transcripts in the Nexis database for Fox News Channel for all of the above terms during the same time period; however, this search was limited to 5 p.m. to midnight each day, as transcripts for Fox’s daytime programming are not available in Nexis.

    We also searched transcripts in the SnapStream database for all original programming on Fox News Channel for any of the terms or any variations of the terms from January 1 through March 31, 2021.

    We defined segments as instances when trans issues were the stated topic of discussion or when there was significant discussion of trans issues. We defined “significant discussion” as any back-and-forth exchange between two or more people. We included passing mentions that mentioned trans issues as a separate measure in the analysis. We did not include previews or teasers of upcoming segments.