LONDON – Eric Juhola came to the Raindance Film Festival with “Growing Up Coy,”one of the more timely documentaries in the selection, covering the increasingly explored issue of gender identity (known medically as “gender dysphoria”) from the lesser seen perspective of the civil rights angle. The subject is Coy Mathis, a six-year-old from Colorado Springs who, at the age of four, decided that she wasn’t happy with her birth gender. Initially, Coy’s penchant for female clothing and rejection of stereotypically “male” toys was seen as a phase, but Coy proved so stubborn that her parents were forced to accept that there was much more to it.
Juhola’s film covers this backstory in the run-up to the decision by Kathryn and Jeremy Mathis – who have three other children – to go public with the story after Coy was forbidden to use the girls’ bathroom at school. Which brings us to the timeliness of the documentary – there are currently 12 states in the United States that are suing the U.S. government, after the Obama administration came out in support of trans students’ rights. Though the film is currently playing the festival circuit, Juhola has strategic plans for the film once those bookings have ended.
“We’re not moving onto another project right away,” Juhola says. “We really want to take our time into the world in the right way and give [this film] all our attention and energy. So for the rest of the fall we’ll continue to do festivals around the world, but we also want to do a little bit more fund-raising for a community screening tour. We really want to get the film seen in those 12 states, and not only have screenings but also community conversations afterwards, so that we can really start a dialogue about these issues. I think if we get this film out there in the right way we might be able to change some hearts and minds and affect some laws and policy. That would be best-case scenario.”
How did first get involved with the Mathis family?
I had been in touch with the family’s attorney, who is based in New York, and I had been wanting to make a film about transgender rights for while. This attorney only does civil rights litigation for transgender clients, so we had been talking for years about potential cases that we could make a film about. So when he told me about the Mathis family, they had only just contacted his office about what happened with Coy at school, so that allowed us to get there about six weeks before they went public with the case.
So it was perfect timing?
Yes. And it was actually really good that we started filming before the Mathis family went public, because as soon as they did, they were being contacted by reality television shows, by other documentarians…. Every media from all over the world wanted to tell their story, but because we were there early we were able to have conversations about what our intentions were, what we wanted to do, and so we were able to build up that trust before things got really crazy.
How did you convince them?
It was really just about explaining to them what our intentions were with making a feature-length documentary and how we really wanted to tell their story in a way that was real and honest, with the common goal of educating people about transgender issues. Which, in the long run, hopefully will make the world a better place for people like Coy and their families. Which was different from the news media – they would come and talk to them for an hour on camera, then put together a news piece that night and bring their biases to the reporting.
How long was the process?
I guess we started filming with them in January 2013, and we just finished in May this year, so about three years from start to finish. I think we filmed with them for two and a half years, because for the last six months we were just in the edit room.
Did you ever have second thoughts, because, obviously, there’s a child involved?
I think there was something about [the subject] being a child that was very interesting to us, because it’s impossible when you meet Coy to confuse gender identity with sexuality, because she is so young. When you meet her and spend an hour and a half with her in the film, you can see that this is just a little kid who wants to be like any other little kid, who barely knows what the word “transgender” – or any of these adult labels – means. So that made it interesting for us. But of course we were concerned about the fact that she was six, so we took a lot of precautions while were filming.
What kinds of precautions?
For example, we never put a microphone on Coy. We never asked her questions directly about her gender identity that might make her feel different or singled out. We filmed with her siblings just as much as we filmed with her, even though we didn’t use a lot of that footage, just so the other kids wouldn’t become jealous or feel like it was all about Coy. And the truth is, we really did try to make it a film about the family and not just about Coy.
Were you surprised by the media storm?
It did surprise us. I didn’t know how big this story was going to get. I certainly didn’t think it would get worldwide media attention. And the truth is, the film, in essence, sort of became about the media and the intense scrutiny that it put the family under. In fact, it was the media and the criticism of the parents that really put pressure on their relationship. And it was very uncomfortable, when all that was happening, to film. Our approach was just kind of fly-on-the- wall, and we let events play out as they happened. It was hard to witness the family go through that, but we just had to [accept that] we were there to document the story and ask, “What does it mean when you stand up for your rights in a civil rights case?” And what the film shows is that there are sacrifices that come with that. It’s not all happy and inspirational. When you put yourself out there you become a sacrificial lamb and a poster child.
Did anything surprise you?
When I first flew out there to meet Coy and her family I really did not know what to expect – I had never met anyone at that age who was transgender. And as soon as I walked into the house and started speaking with the Mathis family, Coy came up to me and gave me a big hug. And it just melted away any preconceived notions, and it made me realise what’s was really at stake in this case. Because it’s just a little kid who doesn’t really understand all the fuss that these adults are making, in her life and on the news. In terms of what I learned, I guess I put myself in [Coy’s] shoes, and in her parents’ shoes – which is what I hope everyone else can do when they see the film.
Are you planning to revisit the story at a later date?
No, this is all I want to say for now. A lot of people have said that we should keep filming Coy until she goes through puberty, but my feeling is that there are already many documentaries and television shows about transgender kids going through puberty. To me this is a story about a six-year-old and this particular time in her and her family’s life. And if people want to see other stories about transgender kids getting older, then I think there are other resources out there for that. I feel that this is the story I wanted to tell.