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‘Growing Up Coy’ Review: Transgender Rights Documentary Humanizes the Bathroom Debate

An honest portrait of an ordinary family's extraordinary fight for their child's rights.

The Mathis family with their lawyer, Michael Silverman, announcing their discrimination complaint.

Netflix/Eric Juhola

It’s easy to miss the most telling moment in “Growing Up Coy,” when six-year-old Coy Mathis catches a gentle reporter off-guard with a hug. The question that evoked such affection? “So you want to be able to use the girls’ restroom, like the other little girls?”

The documentary, directed by Eric Juhola (producer of “Broken Heart Land” and “Off The Grid: Life on the Mesa”) and coming to Netflix on January 6th, follows Coy and her family as they challenged a school district in Colorado for Coy’s right to use the girls’ bathroom as a transgender girl. The case made headlines in 2013 when the Colorado Rights Division ruled that Coy had the right to use the girls’ bathroom under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. The language in the ruling went above and beyond, setting a critical early precedent for transgender student rights in a battle that continues today.

READ MORE: ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ Protests: Why We Should Listen to Trans Activists Criticizing The Milestone Film — Editorial

At the center of it all is Coy, a cherubic-faced child who loves pink, and her hard-working parents who just want the best for their children. Kathryn and Jeremy Mathis, aged 27 and 31 at the time of filming, reside in the small town of Fountain, Colorado with their five children. They live modestly while Jeremy is in school and Kathryn works as a photographer. They don’t have any help around the house, and Jeremy spends long days at school, leaving Kathryn at home with the children, two of whom have special needs. Kathryn, who was raised Christian Scientist, and Jeremy, a former marine, are not exactly the types one would expect to lead the charge for transgender rights.

“It just was what it was,” explains Jeremy, after admitting some initial reservations upon learning the child he thought was his son was actually his daughter. Juhola sets the scene with establishing shots of a Focus On The Family outpost, and a sign proclaiming “Always Love Your Country, Never Trust Your Government.” Recounting her painful Christian Scientist upbringing, Kathryn imagines that life for her children: “Lily, technically by the book, would have just died. Coy, regardless of how she feels, would be forced to be a boy.”

READ MORE: ‘Looking’ in Memphis: Joe Swanberg Collaborator Morgan Jon Fox Honors Southern Gay Life in ‘Feral’

This offers a clue to the strength Kathryn summons when Coy’s school stops allowing her to use the girls’ bathroom, reversing an earlier position. The Mathises enlist the services of Michael Silverman from the Transgender Legal Defense Fund, who flies in from New York to prepare them for the ensuing media maelstrom. When Coy takes Silverman’s hand to say goodbye, she does so with the earnest gratitude of someone well beyond her years.

Growing up Coy

Coy Mathis, the subject of “Growing Up Coy”

Netflix/Eric Juhola

Coy and her family endure six months of on-camera interviews, press conferences, and pestering emails, all while Kathryn is home-schooling the children since taking Coy out of school. Before the first press conference, Coy announces: “We’re going to put on a show.” But as a barrage of reporters cycle in and out of the small Mathis living room, the once camera-ready Coy is no longer so thrilled. Feeling ignored, her brother begins acting out. In a moving display of his loyalty towards Coy, only by adopting a robot persona and speaking in the third person does he bashfully admit his conflicted feelings about her gender identity. Then, Kathryn and Jeremy decide to separate.

READ MORE: ‘Growing Up Coy’ Trailer: Netflix to Stream Documentary About Transgender Six-Year-Old Who Launched a National Debate

While “Growing Up Coy” doesn’t break any stylistic molds, its story does the heavy lifting. Juhola (who co-produced with his husband, Jeremy Stulberg) ekes out as much narrative possible from subjects who are justifiably exhausted by cameras. He avoids holding them in such high regard as to hide the disquieting truths of their situation, such as Kathryn’s exhaustion and frustration with Jeremy’s long absences. What could have been a by-the-numbers “issue doc” becomes an honest snapshot of an ordinary family in extraordinary circumstances.

By exploring the price the family pays in their quest for equality, Juhola emphasizes the human cost of discrimination. The unassuming Mathises didn’t go looking for this fight — it came to their doorstep and they answered the call. Thanks to their hard work and the work of countless gender warriors before, Coy will grow up in a world that is much more accepting of people like herself. Here’s hoping their story is the first in a long line of victories.

Grade: B

“Growing Up Coy” is available to stream on Netflix on January 6th. 

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