Michael Barnett’s documentary opens with Mack Beggs, a Texan trans boy who is unbeatable in girls’ wrestling championships even though all he wants to do is compete against other boys. But the gender-segregated sports rules in his state define who counts as ‘boy’ and who counts as ‘girl’ in ways that discriminate against trans youth.
Mack’s journey is juxtaposed against the lives of two other trans teens involved in sports: Andraya Yearwood, a runner from Connecticut whose state laws defend her right to compete in all female track competitions and Sarah Rose Huckman, a New Hampshire-based skier, vlogger and political activist.
While at the level of form this documentary brings nothing new, favoring chronologically ordered shots of sports scenes and intimate interviews, its content is rich and enriching, giving us a real glimpse into the systemic and informal struggles faced by youth trans athletes in the U.S. Most shocking are the ignorant and hateful comments spoken by grown adults against the youths.
Teenager years are notorious for their volatility, a time when differentiation from parents begins and when identity is explored and formed. One would think adults would be supportive of this difficult and important right of passage into adulthood and yet, over and over, the bullies in the documentary are other parents and news commentators whose transphobic speech frankly outrages me. One hears these kinds of ignorant slurs on the news and on social media—and that’s upsetting enough. To associate the hurtful comments to a teen you’ve started to care about thanks to the documentary takes on a level of intensity that I hadn’t anticipated. The grownups’ hate speech was grounded and affecting the lives of real adolescents who are simply trying to be great athletes, to be themselves.
Barnett’s documentary succeeds in creating a sense of immediate care for these teens.
In one of the scenes, we see Mack reading hateful comments posted on social media and it is very difficult not to want to shield him from other people’s lack of sensitivity, humanity and kindness. Barnett’s documentary succeeds in creating a sense of immediate care for these teens. One wants to celebrate and champion them, to root for them. This documentary is a must-see for any parent or family member raising a trans kid or adolescent, and everyone else because the social and political sickness that oppresses these youth (as well as all 2SLGBTQ+ youth and adults) is one that we all must labour to heal.
One of my favorite things about this documentary is its atmosphere of celebration, strength and resilience amid the hate and struggle; it is foregrounded in the youth themselves, their friends, their girlfriend (in the case of Mack) and, importantly, in their loving caregivers. It struck me that all three teens had loving parents or grandparents who created a safe space for them at home. Often, we see narratives of trans and queer youth being rejected and the devastating effects this has on their lives. As Andraya’s mother said, 40% of transgender athletes battle suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide—and she would make sure that her daughter wasn’t one of them. That’s precisely the kind of positive parenting we need modelled on television and practiced in real life.
Changing the Game plays at the Inside Out Film Festival Sunday, October 27, 2019 at 4:15 p.m. at the National Gallery of Canada.
The Inside Out festival takes place October 24-27 with events around town. Check their website for a full event schedule.