With an unprecedented number of anti-trans bills signed into law during the first half of this year, the Human Rights Campaign didn’t need to wait until June to declare 2021 the worst year for LGBTQ rights in recent history. Of the 17 new laws and dozens of bills making their way through state legislatures, the vast majority concern prohibiting transgender youth from competing in sports consistent with their gender identity. As the latest lightning rod issue for bigots to rally around, transgender athletes have been making national news for the last couple of years.
What too often gets lost in the incendiary headlines are the very real people — ahem, children — whose young lives are affected by these discriminatory policies. The moving new Hulu documentary “Changing the Game” presents a fuller portrait of three such athletes, a wrestler, runner, and a skier who are wise beyond their years. By following their passion while living their truth, they are quite literally changing the game. The film cuts a wide cross-section of the country, taking place in small towns in Texas, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, to explore different policies and the myriad challenges young trans athletes must face.
“Changing the Game” opens with Texas wrestler Mack Beggs, a trans boy who is reigning state champion — in girls’ wrestling. Though Mack and his competitors would both like to see him compete against other boys, Texas state policy prohibits this. Some flashy editing cuts two local ranch bulls locking horns against the frenetic yet graceful movements of a high school wrestling tournament. With his swooping blonde hair matted against his forehead, Mack trains assiduously with his jacked trainer.
Most of the people in Mack’s life — his grandparents, coach, and adoring sweetheart — are incredibly supportive of his gender identity and desire to compete as a boy. His gun-toting grandmother emerges as a real character. A local sheriff who enjoys showing off her multiple handguns, she identifies as a Republican, but says nobody better mess with her grandson. Mack emerges as the film’s main focal point, perhaps because his story is the most likely to sway closed minds who cry “fairness.” He handily defeats any and all of his opponents, though every victory is bittersweet as he often leaves competitors in tears and walks off the mat to angry boos.
Even when state policies are in place to protect trans athletes, the bystander blowback can be brutal. Every time Connecticut track star Andraya Yearwood zooms past her competition for another win, she must pass a gauntlet of angry white women yelling about Title 9 or the added challenge of running while menstruating. Like J.K. Rowling and other TERFs, they seem fixated on the gender essentialist category of woman/girl as an impediment to be surmounted, rather than an arbitrary assignment based on something as trivial as anatomy. Andreya’s coach, another well-meaning cis person doing their best by trans youth, offers a refreshingly holistic take on fairness, insisting that sports is about far more than wins and losses.
The least incendiary subject in “Changing the Game,” Sarah Huckman, is a nordic and alpine skier who lives in New Hampshire. Since she’s not constantly smoking the competition, her presence on the girls’ team hasn’t sparked the same controversy in her community. In addition to her impressive activist work (her section ends with her testifying at the state capital), she’s an important addition to the film for showing just how unremarkable her presence on the team is. Surrounded by cheerful friends, she’s just another girl on the ski team, filming her make-up tutorial vlogs in the bathroom. Though ability shouldn’t come into play, Sarah’s story proves that most trans athletes aren’t going to dramatically alter the competition in their sport of choice.
With a slew of anti-trans legislation coming down the pipeline, hopefully “Changing the Game” becomes a vital tool for educating the public about this hot button issue. It’s far too easy for someone who doesn’t know any trans people, much less trans kids, to get swept up in the punditry around fairness and so-called biological advantages. “Changing the Game” goes beyond those dehumanizing headlines to show the real people affected by harmful anti-trans policies or lack of any meaningful legal protection. Maybe next time they hear about a sports ban for trans youth, they’ll see the integrity, grit, and innocence on the faces of Mack, Andreya, and Sarah. That would truly be a game-changer.
“Changing the Game” is now streaming on Hulu.