Perhaps you will recall last year’s headlines about Mack Beggs, a then-18-year-old high school athlete from around Dallas. In case you need to refresh your memory: Mack is a practically undefeated transgender wrestler who won the girls’ title in the state of Texas even though he wanted to contest in the boys division as per the gender he identifies with. He is the first subject we meet in “Changing the Game,” Michael Barnett’s compassionate documentary that follows three teenage transgender athletes as they brave numerous societal biases to practice their chosen field of sports with the respect they deserve.
Unadventurous in its design — Barnett goes for a conventional mélange of clips and talking heads to structure the story — “Changing the Game” admittedly benefits from a traditional approach that slowly familiarizes the audience both with the subjects and the layers of an ongoing discriminatory debate around fairness. Most arguments against allowing students to compete under their gender identity (some, viciously made by angry parents in the film) target transgender females and insist on their supposed leg up on cisgender girls. And it gets ugly among adults when they perceive a disadvantage for their kids, with their future scholarships and monetary winnings at stake. Between demeaning social media posts from fellow students (one commenter suggests a transgender female should “pick up the violin instead”) and unsympathetic grownups who ignorantly bring menstrual cycles into the debate, Barnett gives the viewer a clear overview of just how tough transgender athletes have it in gender-segregated sports.
And the stats are heart-wrenchingly dire, showing that 40% of transgender athletes battle suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide. Confessing his depression and past breakdowns, Mack sadly belongs in this group despite his repeated victories in wrestling and committed relationship with a loving girlfriend. Though policies vary from state to state and the other two teens we get to meet seem to be more fortunate with the ecosystem of support and acceptance that surrounded them. One of them is Andraya Yearwood, a sprinter from Connecticut who benefits from fair state laws that recognize and celebrate her gender identity on competitive tracks. There is also Sarah Rose Huckman, a New Hampshire-based skier and activist who teeters on a relatively more tentative faith. While she competes against the gender she identifies with, Sarah fears losing that basic right — New Hampshire requires her to have a gender reassignment surgery, a severe law she passionately fights against.
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Soon enough, we learn about the positive outcomes of Sarah’s activism, which had a direct impact on the rules the Interscholastic Athletic Assn. of New Hampshire applies on transgender students. We also follow Sarah’s home life with her adoptive parents who are unambiguously on her side, both when she plays her chosen field of sports and films her charming makeup tutorials on YouTube. Andraya also enjoys the care of a doting parent — knowing that an African-American transgender female is five times more likely to be murdered, her single mother Ngozi safeguards Andraya, endearingly calling her daughter “a girly girl.” Mack’s situation seems a bit trickier. While his Republican, gun-toting grandparents vocally support him and the transgender community, they continually have trouble using the right pronouns when referring to their grandson. Barnett still resolves their journey on an inspiring note, when the duo, in accordance with Mack’s wishes, honors Mack’s gender identity by putting away his photos taken prior to his transition.
“Changing the Game” is unfortunately short-supplied when it comes to policy makers and those holding positions of power — a sports coach here and a school administrator there doesn’t quite fulfill the informative breadth needed to enrich the film’s context. Still, Barnett operates well within his narrative’s intimate limits, positioning himself squarely on the side of trans teens’ right to play sports on their own terms. We hear them declare their identity with confident statements like “I am a man” and “I am a normal human being.” This makes his film a must-see, especially for any uninformed parent raising a transgender athlete. Really, they are just kids growing into their voice, asking for the dignified adolescence they are worthy of.