A Texan teenage boy with cropped hair and big brown eyes fawns over his girlfriend and helps her care for her horses. Back at his house, he sweats bullets as he pushes himself through remarkably rigorous physical tests of endurance, and then shows off literal piles of first place medals and trophies to the camera. It seems certain that audience members’ emotional reactions vary from mild confusion to outrage when they discover that each and every one of Mack’s awards are for first place wins in high school girl’s wrestling.
This year’s Damn these Heels festival kicked off with Michael Barnett’s trailblazing documentary Changing the Game, a film about transgender teenagers fighting for equality in the world of sports. At first glance it may seem like a complicated question: What gender should a transgender person play for and against in sports? Read that sentence again: The answer is in the question.
Each of the film’s three starring teens’ high schools has a different response to the matter. Our wrestling friend Mack’s school only allows its students to compete on the gendered team that matches the gender on their birth certificates.
The media, particularly the conservative media, has a feeding frenzy on Mack’s story and stir up Mack’s community. Fox News says that transgender teens should “take up the violin.” Meanwhile, local parents complain that it is “unfair” that a boy is playing girls. They slur Mack at every turn and erupt into a mix of raucous boos and cheers from the stands whenever he’s on the mat. When Mack wins the state championship for the second time in February 2018, there is so much rancor from the opposing part of the crowd, it becomes clear that it could quickly get out of control. The coaches rush Mack out of the arena to keep him safe. It is painful to watch Mack’s conflicted face when at one point in the film he says, “It feels like I’m winning, but it feels like I’m losing at the same time.” All he ever he wanted, he says, is to wrestle other boys.
By contrast, Andraya, a black transgender girl with beautiful, long braids and affable smile is allowed to run on the girl’s track team at her high school in Connecticut. Andraya has the support of her friends, coach and mother, who calls her a “quiet leader.” Andraya’s willingness to put herself out there inspires another transgender girl, Terry, to run track with her. They become fast friends and invaluable support for one another. In one intimate scene, Andraya says that, “If no one supported me, I don’t think I would do it.”
In this way, both Andraya and Terry are lucky. Still, whenever they take to the track, they are met with bigoted insults, insults that come almost exclusively from adults. One woman argues that it is unfair to “women” for a “male” to compete. In June 2019, three female track athletes filed a Title IV discrimination complaint with the federal government. Clearly these women (and an unfortunate number of others) don’t know the meaning of the word “intersectional.”
Changing the Game does a good job of subtly pointing out that there is something unsound in the juxtaposition between Mack and Andraya’s stories. If adults are going to cry “foul” whenever a transgender man or women participates in sports, whether it be on the team of his or her gender identity or the assigned gender on his or her birth certificate, something clearly isn’t right. Whether or not these “grown-ups” realize it, saying that a transgender person cannot participate on the team of their gender identity boils down to exclusion tactics and bullying. When this hypocritical inconsistency is pointed out, it becomes clear that the answer should not be about what’s “fair” (which is a subjective measure), but instead about what is right.
It is a disturbing fact that transgender teens and adults face more bigotry, obstacles and dangers in life than almost any other group in the U.S. The Human Rights Campaign reports that 15% of transgender people live in “severe poverty” (meaning they make less than $10,000 a year) due to lack of legal protections. 40% of transgender teens try or succeed in committing suicide. In 2013, 72% of LGBTQ hate crimes or HIV motivated violence were aimed at transgender women, even though transgender individuals account for only a small percentage of LGBTQ Americans. Just last year, 26 transgender men and women were murdered in the U.S., the majority of whom were black.
Transgender Americans like Andraya and Terry are likely to face an even higher rate of discrimination due to the color of their skin. 67% of those transgender women who were assaulted in 2013 were women of color. Changing the Game states that black transgender men and women are five times as likely to be murdered than any other person in the United States.
But of course Changing the Game presents these young people not as simple statistics, but as what they are: human beings. After Rose Wagner’s first showing of the film, Mack sat with the director for a Q&A. An audience member asked him if his story was told the way he wanted it to be told. In testament to Michael Barnett’s abilities as a director and storyteller, Mack said, “This dude opened me up,” and yes, the story was told “110% the way it should have been.”
Simply standing up and saying, “I am here,” is a massive act of resilience and courage for any transgender person, and for a transgender teen to put his or herself in the spotlight is an astonishingly act of bravery. It is hard not to fall for these openhearted, conscientious, tenacious teens and take up their cause when you see just how great a part of their lives and identities their participation in their respective sport are, how hard they continually train to excel at those sports, and what giving and loving people they have become despite the vitriol they face on a daily basis. Those unyielding young men and women will always be the real story. Changing the Game shows us first hand the immense amount of love and talent the transgender community is ready to give, if only we were ready to receive it.
Changing the Game was just one of many mind-broadening films at Damn These Heels, 2019. For They Know Not What They Do, a film about relationships between a set of religious, conservative parents and their LGBTQ teens didn’t leave a dry eye in the theater. No Box for Me was an eye-opening look at the little-covered topic of the intersex community. Keep your eyes peeled in the coming months for release of these films and more at Broadway and other local theaters.
Kaleigh Stock is a recent summa cum laude Weber State University Englisgh graduate. She plans to move to the Netherlands next summer for graduate school.