By Richard Ades
Mack Beggs has a problem. The Texas teen is an accomplished wrestler, but the state forces him to wrestle girls. That’s because Mack was born a female, and though he’s begun transitioning to male, Texas law requires young athletes to compete in the gender they were assigned at birth.
Mack is one of three teenagers portrayed in Changing the Game, a documentary directed by Mark Barnett that examines the controversial issue of trans athletes in a way that’s compassionate, thoughtful and evenhanded. It’s also comprehensive, as each of the youths lives in a different state, and each state has a different way of dealing with the issue. Also featured are:
• Sarah Rose Huckman, a competitive skier who lives in New Hampshire, which allows trans athletes to compete in their chosen gender, but only if they’ve undergone reassignment surgery.
• Andraya Yearwood, a track athlete who lives in Connecticut, which allows all athletes to compete in their preferred gender regardless of where they are in the reassignment process.
On the surface, Andraya is the most fortunate of the three since her state takes the most liberal attitude. However, the film reveals that law and public opinion don’t always jibe. When the tall and muscular Andraya wins a track victory, her success is marred by critics who feel she has an unfair advantage over her competitors. (In fact, backers of recent Ohio efforts to ban trans female athletes from competing have cited as evidence the success of Andraya and another trans Connecticut track star who also appears in the film.)
Like the states they live in, the three featured athletes are a study in contrast. Mack is shy and soft-spoken, while Sarah is an outgoing blogger who challenges her state’s trans rules. Finally, Andraya is a fierce competitor on the track but is uncomfortable over the criticism she receives, especially since she has a double-minority status as someone who’s both trans and African American.
Just as fascinating as the athletes themselves are the glimpses we’re given of the family members and friends who surround them. Many of them upend stereotypical expectations.
A case in point: Texas wrestler Mack is being raised by Southern Baptist grandparents who claim they’re as conservative as they come. In fact, grandmother Nancy is a deputy sheriff who owns several guns—and is prepared to use them to defend her grandson against anyone upset by his success on the mat. Meanwhile, grandfather Roy struggles to remember which pronouns to use with his grandson, but he apparently has a firm grasp of why Mack is who he is. “You gotta feel good about yourself,” Roy says.
The lesson seems to be that when someone has a personal connection to a trans person, political dogma and prejudice can’t help giving way to love and acceptance.
Just as impressive as the documentary’s portrayal of the athletes and their families is its depiction of their critics. While some deal in hateful stereotypes, others are more measured and logic-minded.
Those who think Mack shouldn’t be wrestling girls—something with which Mack himself agrees, of course—say his use of testosterone supplements makes it unfair. And people who argue that Andraya shouldn’t be competing with cisgender girls say it makes a mockery of Title IX rules that were designed to level the playing field for female athletes.
Such criticisms can’t be dismissed as groundless, showing that the issue is far from black and white. Then again, no one who believes in equality can dismiss these trans athletes’ right to be true to who they are and to pursue their dreams just like their cisgender counterparts.
Far from being a clinical study of a hot-button sports issue, Changing the Game is illuminating, heartwarming and inspiring. It deserves a gold medal.
Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)
Changing the Game is available on Hulu beginning June 1.