Exclusive Interview: wrestler Mack Beggs “trans athletes have always been here, just like trans individuals”

The ESPN 30 for 30 documentary short film directed by Taylor Hess and Erin Sanger, Mack Wrestles, which premieres on ESPN this Sunday 22nd September takes a behind the scenes look at Mack Beggs, a gifted athlete from Euless, Texas, facing the stigmatization of transgender athletes.

Mack, who is also one of the subjects of the feature length documentary currently impressing LGBTQ film festival audiences, Changing the Game, was Texas state champion twice while at high school, where he was forced to play in the female tournaments. Now at university he is finally able to compete with other men.

Mack Wrestles. Credit: ESPN Films.

Ahead of Mack Wrestles being broadcast this Sunday on ESPN, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Mack Beggs.

James Kleinmann: How did you first got into wrestling, what appealed to you about it?

Mack Beggs: “Well, I wanted to do MMA, that’s my ultimate goal to be honest. MMA it’s a combination of boxing, wrestling, jujitsu and all these types of fundamentals. So if you look at MMA their champions generally consist of past wrestlers, like Brock Lesnar and Khabib Nurmagomedov, so that’s one of the reasons I got into it. I just enjoy wrestling, I enjoyed it when I first started it and I didn’t want to stop.”

And how did you first hear about it at high school?

“There was a girl at my high school going to state championships and the school was praising her achievement and wishing her good luck. I thought, ‘oh, so you get to travel’ because she was going to Houston, so I thought ‘well, that sounds pretty cool! Hmm, I want to be a champion!’ So that’s how I first got into it.”

What do you get out of wrestling? 

“When I get out of practice I just feel better. In wrestling practice you want to expend all of your energy, you want to put everything you can into that practice. If you break yourself every day you break those mental barriers, it makes you stronger, not just physically but also mentally as well. When I get out of practice I feel like I can just breathe and that I did everything I could. There’s a sense of self satisfaction to it, where you put yourself through the most gruelling thing ever, both your body and your mind. You go through it, but you can say afterwards, ‘oh my God that was intense!’ Then you can relax.”

Mack Wrestles. Credit: ESPN Films.

One fact that comes up in the ESPN short documentary Mack Wrestles is that Texas is one of nine states in the US where a birth certificate determines a high school student athlete’s gender. Obviously it’s different for you now that you’re at university because you get to wrestle in the mens’ team, but at high school that’s the way it is was and still is. Having experienced that for yourself, what’s your view on that rule and why do you think it’s important that it should change? 

“It’s important just in general because if you identify as male or female that’s how you should compete. I mean, I think people are just scared about someone taking advantage of that if they were to put the policy in place. But there haven’t been any instances where that policy has been taken advantage of in other states where inclusion policies exist like Connecticut and New Hampshire for instance. You know what baffles me, did you hear about the new tobacco law that they passed in Texas? It baffles me how Texas, and all the states, focus on changing things like tobacco laws but all these other policies that have a big impact on people’s lives like inclusion they don’t want to budge on.”

Have you got involved in politics at all?

“No, I haven’t. Getting into politics isn’t something that I want to pursue, it’s not one of my goals, but I do like talking about it and I can talk about it intelligently.”

One of the things I really liked about both Mack Wrestles and Changing the Game is that we get to hear your story in your own words – it’s not just people talking about you – which you’ve experienced a lot of on news show panels and on social media.

“Definitely, with Changing the Game and Mack Wrestles… and it’s not  just my story that’s being talked about though, it’s a real world issue that we have to address. The major reason why I wanted to do these two films was because we need to talk about this, it needs to be addressed.”

What do you think about Mack Wrestles being on ESPN because it’s going to reach a major mainstream sports audience in the US isn’t it?

“Yes, when they came to me they were like it’ll be on ESPN. We want to do this story and you know we’ll take it day by day and figure out how we want to portray the story in a way that everyone can receive it well. When I saw Mack Wrestles I thought it pieced together really nicely.”

Mack Wrestles. Credit: ESPN Films.

Why did you want to participate in both Mack Wrestles and Changing the Game?

Mack Wrestles focuses on broader topics and answers people’s most basic questions and after the film people were like ‘well, what happened next?’ And have more questions. Whereas the longer film Changing the Game doesn’t just include me, but also Sarah Rose and Andraya and their families and the different dynamics. Sarah’s family and my family are conservative, Andraya’s family is liberal. The two films definitely complement each other.”

Nancy your grandmother – she’s a police sheriff, Southern Baptist and a Republican and she’s been tremendously supportive of you. She’s an unlikely trans rights spokesperson in Mack Wrestles isn’t she?

“Yes! All the irony that you could get into the film, everything you think wouldn’t happen is there! To see her being accepting because of the social status quo of people who aren’t receptive and OK with the trans community or with talking about the situation even, it’s kind of a relatable thing. They might relate to her and think ‘well, maybe I’m not so different in understanding this’ or ‘maybe I’m not quite understanding this’.”

It seems like your grandparents been very supportive of you?

“Yes, my grandparents have been super supportive. With my grandfather it’s taken him a bit little longer, he knows but he’s known me his whole entire life and has obviously called me by she/her pronouns and when it came to me transitioning for some people it takes them longer to get used to using the new pronouns, but I really don’t get mad if people slip up on it.”

Mack Wrestles. Credit: ESPN Films.

I felt inspired by your strength and resilience and I’m sure a lot of young trans people watching Mack Wrestles will be inspired. What would you like them to take away from seeing this? Young people who might be struggling. 

“You’ve got to have confidence in yourself. Confidence comes first and when you love yourself first everything else around you seems to become easier. When you’ve got love and acceptance for yourself you can start talking to people about your situation and about how you feel. And opening up, even though it might seem scary, you might get different reactions than you thought you would and it might end up being the result that you were looking for.”

And what about people coming across your story on ESPN who might not have thought about trans people in sport, what do you hope that they might get out of watching it? 

“Well, I mean trans athletes have always been here, just like trans individuals. I think that for some people it’s easier to go the easier route rather than the difficult one. Besides this one kid from Harvard who’s also trans, he’s a swimmer Skylar Kergil, that’s really the only person I’ve heard of who’s come through college openly as trans. I think it’s just going to take people time to feel comfortable with knowing people and saying ‘hey this is who I am, I just have to follow my dreams’.”

You’re still wrestling at life university. How’s that going? 

“It’s going good. I used my medical register this year because I had top surgery in August. I tried pushing myself for the first couple of months. I started walking and driving two weeks out of surgery, that was a big no no…I was supposed to wait a month!”

Mack Wrestles. Credit: ESPN Films.

But I guess that’s just your drive, your personality, it’s what drives you to be a good wrestler.

“Yes, it’s my nature! I can’t sit still in one place for too long, I can’t not do anything, I always have to be doing something. It drove me nuts so I just had to get back on my feet as soon as I could, get back to what I was doing and what I’m good at. So right now I’m training, I’m practising, basically I’m focusing on getting bigger this year. The lowest weight class they have is 125 and so right now, well my lowest weight was 110 pounds in high school, so I’ve got 15 or 20 pounds to work on, so that’s going to take a little bit of time.”

We see in Mack Wrestles the media spotlight is on you. How have you learnt to cope  with hearing that negative noise of online comments or ignorant commentators on news shows coming out with stupid things?

“People are going to say what they’re going to say, but I say don’t just sit there and be mad about it, sit there and change something about it! I really don’t care what people think.”

Mack Wrestles. Credit: ESPN Films.

Do you have a wrestling hero or someone in the MMA world you look up to?  

“The Brands brothers, they’re twins and they were both in the 125 pound weight class throughout college. Then on the Olympic level Cael Sanderson, he’s coach for Penn State which has won eight national championships in a row now. He’s phenomenal, especially back in the day. Dan Gable’s super super talented, he was a really good wrestler.”

What about within the trans community, do you have a role model at all or someone who you particularly admire as a spokesperson?

“Laverne Cox. I love her, she’s doing phenomenal great things in the trans community, not only that but she’s just such a strong individual in general. She’s just fricking awesome! Aydian Dowling, he’s become a huge activist in the trans community and has just had a baby, so I like him on the family aspect. I’m a big family person, so to know that you can be trans and have a good family dynamic and have your own family is really good. I finally met Chris Mosier recently through him promoting Changing the Game, which was awesome, he’s a super great dude.”

Mack Wrestles. Credit: ESPN Films.

Mack Wrestles airs this Sunday 22nd September on ESPN at 2pm ET and on ABC at 4:30pm ET.

Mack Beggs is also one of the subjects of the feature length documentary Changing the Game, read our ★★★★★ review here.

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