Michael Barnett’s compelling documentary about transgender teen athletes Changing the Game had its world premiere at Tribeca earlier this year and has proved a hit with LGBTQ+ festivals across the US, winning audience awards at both Frameline and Outfest. The film will receive its European premiere at the Iris Prize Festival in Cardiff, Wales on the 9th October 2019.
Changing the Game follows three high schoolers as they navigate administrative restrictions and negative attitudes to excel in their chosen fields of sport. Their inspiring stories of courage and resilience in three separate US States are effectively interwoven throughout the film, highlighting the recurring themes in their journeys which unite their experiences.
Policies for trans students vary from state to state in the US and the gender segregated world of sport brings into sharp focus how far attitudes, rules and regulations have evolved in some places, and how far there is to go elsewhere. Currently nine states determine a student athlete’s gender by what’s on their birth certificate rather than gender identity. As we get to know the film’s subjects intimately, Changing the Game shows the profound impact these policies can have on an individual’s life.
Firstly we meet Texan double state champion wrestler Mack Beggs, who has been forced to compete in female events while at high school. Mack who has a lot of media attention on him, adding further to the pressure of competing, says: “it feels like I’m winning, but I’m also losing at the same time”.
Adopted by his conservative grandparents, who might at first glance appear unlikely trans rights spokespeople, they are nevertheless highly supportive of Mack. Grandmother Nancy, a Dallas deputy police sherif, is a self-described “hardcore Republican” but she says that she doesn’t “mind stepping on some toes when it comes to transgender kids”. “Southern Baptist to the core”, she confides that “it took a tremendous amount of soul searching and Bible study to come to terms with” having a trans grandson.
With the film revealing some heartbreaking statistics such as “over 40% of transgender youth” attempting suicide, there’s a deeply moving scene where Mack’s grandmother says that she thinks without her understanding and acceptance Mack wouldn’t be alive today. His high school coach is similarly supportive of him, admitting that he “didn’t know what trans was” until he met Mack, but says “he would never turn his back on an athlete.”
Meanwhile in New Hampshire we meet skier Sarah Rose Huckman who we see doing makeup tutorial blogs and talking inspiringly to her social media following hoping to use her story to help others in the LGBTQ+ community. Sarah Rose also has an extremely supportive family, with her parents backing her successful campaign to amend the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA) regulations, which resulted in a statewide change enabling her to compete in female skiing events. At one point Sarah Rose admits to holding herself back to some extent in competing in order to preemptively avoid complaints that she has an unfair advantage.
In Connecticut, where high school students are able to participate in sports based on their gender identity, we meet track star Andraya Yearwood. Her coach is matter of fact about the situation: “she’s out there competing with all the other girls and that’s the way it should be”, but there is vocal disagreement from some parents to Andraya taking part in track events. One impassioned woman says inscrutably, seemingly within earshot of Andrya, that her competing is an affront to “gender equality”. Andraya is not the only trans athlete in her school, with her visibility encouraging fellow student Terry Miller to join her on the track. There are some touching scenes of the peers training together and praising one another’s foritude.
As with Mack and Sarah Rose, Andraya has the support of her family, with Andraya’s mother talking movingly about guarding her child physically and emotionally. We’re told a tragic and sobering statistic that “an African American transgender female student is five times more likely to be murdered than her peers”.
Andraya is not alone in hearing negative voices around her. At one point we see Mack win a wrestling match to be greeted with cheers along with loud boos and angry calls from the crowd. Some of television news show pundits discussing him are not merely in disagreement with Mack competing with female wrestlers, but spewing hatred towards the teenager, we even hear one commentator make a sick joke about suicide. No wonder Mack says “I’ve been bullied by more adults than kids”. Meanwhile as LGBTQ+ rights are under attack at the highest level, we see the film’s subjects observe the actions against equality taken by the current incumbent of the White House and his administration.
Throughout the film, Barnett takes his time to fully explore Mack, Sarah Rose and Andraya’s stories, allowing the teens to speak for themselves and for us as an audience to get to know them intimately as individuals, rather than as brief sketches or talking heads. Changing the Game succeeds in being an important, impactful and emotionally potent documentary that balances the harsh realities of being trans in the USA today with a strong sense of optimism and a celebration of the bravery of its subjects.
By James Kleinmann
To stay up to date with news and screening information follow @ChangingGameDoc on twitter. Read our exclusive interview with Mack Beggs who is also the subject of the 30 for 30 short film Mack Wrestles which airs on Sunday 22nd September at 2pm ET on ESPN and 4:30pm ET on ABC.