Over the last six months, Republican-led state legislatures nationwide have passed a slate of laws restricting the rights of transgender Americans. Nine states now ban trans girls from playing on female sports teams.
Filmmaker Michael Barnett started following the issue years ago, and his documentary ‘Changing the Game’ follows three trans high school athletes dealing with the issue firsthand. The film is now available to watch on Hulu.
At the center of the story are students who just want to live their truest lives, Barnett tells KCRW.
“We are living in such a polarized country right now. A polarized world. We keep forgetting at the center of this debate or argument or issue or whatever people want to call it, there's just kids [who] try and struggle to be kids, right, who are teens going through that very complicated chapter in their life as it is and then add on the complexities of everything else?”
Each of the film’s subjects struggle with being accepted for their gender identity. Mack Beggs is a young trans man in Texas who is forced to compete on a women’s team. That’s due to a statewide policy that mandates athletes are only allowed to compete in the sport that’s representative of the gender on their birth certificate.
“Mack is a dominant wrestler, given any gender. He is an elite athlete. As we see in the film, he should not have been wrestling women. He should have been wrestling men. And even when he does wrestle men, he does really, really well and ends up wrestling men in college,” Barnett says.
He adds that the policy only hurts students in the long run. However Barnett points out that Beggs is not without the support of his grandmother. Throughout the film, she undergoes a personal transformation from an unabashed religious, Trump-voting Republican who can’t get his pronouns right to becoming one of his biggest allies.
“She is there for him 100% of the way with nothing but love and support. She does not politicize him being trans in any way, shape, or form,” Barnett says. “She has continued to fight law and legislation and policy in Texas. Her love and support enables Mack to have that safe space to be as courageous as he is to live as authentically in his own truth.”
At the time, Beggs was being harassed online by not only strangers but well known media personalities. It got to a point where he took sleeping pills in an effort to end his life.
“They bully him so hard that that moment in the film is so tough for me to endure. It's just a real reminder [that] Mack is the embodiment of resiliency and courage. And this is a kid who still tried to end his own life,” Barnett says. “He's still part of that statistic of suicide attempts for trans youth. It hits me to my core. it is a powerful reminder of the love and support that trans youth do need to navigate this world.”
Another subject of the documentary is Andraya from Connecticut who runs track and field. Unlike in Texas, she is able to compete on sports teams that are consistent with her gender identity. But not everyone is on board with the idea of a trans athlete playing on the team. That’s because of the perceived advantages trans athletes are thought to have.
Barnett argues that at the center of sports should not be the idea of what’s fair or who wins or loses, but the community a sports team can provide.
“We talk [like] every single trans athlete is going to steal every scholarship from every single kid. Most youth that are trans don't want to play sports because they're terrified right? The courage that's required to just play a sport to be out to have to endure that much ridicule and hatred. That feels unfair to me.”