May 5, 2019
by Carla Hay
“Changing the Game”
Directed by Michael Barnett
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26, 2019.
There’s an ongoing debate on how transgender people should be treated in situations where people are segregated by gender. Sports will continue to be one of the hot-button areas where transgender people are fighting for their rights. Unlike using a public restroom, categorizing a person’s gender in sports can affect their future, especially when money is involved (and it usually is). “Changing the Game” is a documentary that explores these issues, as the movie follows three American teenage transgender athletes who are navigating their way through a system where they are often mistreated and misunderstood.
At the time this documentary was filmed, all three of the athletes were in high school. Mack Beggs, who gets the most screen time, is a transgender male wrestler in Texas who’s forced to compete against girls. Beggs, who has been a state champion, also stars in the short film “Mack Wrestles,” which is making the rounds at film festivals, including Tribeca. Sarah Huckman is a transgender female Nordic skier in New Hampshire. Sarah (who is Asian) is adopted, and her parents, Jen and Tom Huckman, are completely supportive of her. Andraya Yearwood is an African American transgender female track runner in Connecticut, one of the states that allows public schools to categorize students according to whatever gender the student identifies as. Laws vary from state to state in this issue.
Mack’s situation is complicated because he is taking male hormones yet competing against girls. The documentary includes commentary from parents who think Mack has an unfair advantage against the girls he competes against. Mack essentially agrees, because he wants to compete against other males. Meanwhile, Mack’s coach doesn’t seem to care about Mack’s gender, as long as he’s winning. The coach says, “I would never turn my back on an athlete,” but all the controversy over Mack makes you wonder if the coach would stand by Mack so strongly if Mack was losing most of his matches.
Mack is living with his grandparents Nancy and Roy, who have adopted him. His grandmother says, “I’m a hardcore Republican, but I don’t have a problem stepping on any toes for transgender kids.” Mack has a girlfriend who’s also very supportive of him, but he admits that he has bouts of depression and a past suicide attempt by taking sleeping pills. The documentary mentions that 40 percent of transgender athletes attempt suicide. Mack is also under a lot of pressure because he needs an athletic scholarship to get into the college of his choice, but he knows that the odds are stacked against him because he’s a transgender athlete.
Meanwhile, the documentary shows how Sarah has become a political activist for transgender athletes. Her advocacy had an effect on the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association’s policies for transgender students, according to Guy Donnelly, principal of Kingswood Regional High School, where Sarah was a student. Advocates for transgender athletes believe that transgender people should be accepted as transgender in all aspects of their lives—in other words, sports should not be an exception.
For track runner Andraya, the biggest supporter in her family is her single mother, Ngozi Nnaji, who says she’s so protective of her daughter that she almost feels like a bodyguard. Of all three trans athletes profiled in the movie, Andraya endures the most heckling from angry parents at the games. The documentary mentions a sobering statistic that African American transgender female students are five times more likely to be murdered than their peers.
Mack gets quite a bit of heckling too. He mentions that most of the verbal abuse and bullying he gets are from adults, not from other kids. It’s taken a toll on his mental health, and his girlfriend says that Mack has had a couple of emotional breakdowns, but he doesn’t like to talk about how much pressure he’s under. Mack says, “My relationship with testosterone is complicated. I wish I didn’t have to inject it.”
The most common argument that people have against trans athletes is that trans athletes have an “unfair advantage.” This argument seems to be used the most when parents think someone with a masculine physique is competing against females. When prize money and scholarships are at stake, it’s no wonder that the conflicts over this issue can get heated. Sarah admits that she often holds herself back in competitions and deliberately does not perform at her best because she doesn’t want to be a target for this type of “unfair advantage” accusation.
Andraya says she wouldn’t be on her track team if she didn’t have the support from the other people on the team. She gets some more encouragement when another African American transgender female named Terry Miller joins the team. In one of the movie’s most touching moments, Terry says that she was inspired to join the team because of Andraya. They naturally become very close friends.
Still, they have to endure angry outbursts from parents who don’t want them on the team, even if Andraya and Terry can help the team win in group competitions. During a track meet, a furious mother tells the camera that athletes like Andraya and Terry don’t have to deal with menstruation, so they have an unfair advantage. The menstruation argument is actually an insult to all females, because it wrongly assumes that females who are menstruating are physically less capable of winning an athletic competition against females who aren’t menstruating.
“Changing the Game” is a straightforward documentary that doesn’t use gimmicks or fancy camera techniques. The film is unapologetically rooting for these transgender athletes, but the filmmakers could have done a little bit more well-rounded reporting by interviewing more people involved in the schools’ athletic systems, such as more coaches, referees, recruiters and leaders of athletic departments.
Another area where the movie definitely need improving was in expanding its reporting on what is being done on both sides to address the legal issues in the key states where transgender laws are the most hotly debated. Showing Sarah Huckman’s activism in New Hampshire (a liberal state) doesn’t seem like enough to cover the lawmaking issues that should be addressed in this documentary. In addition, although high school athletes are the focus of this film, most of these athletes have plans to continue in the sport after high school, and they will probably be facing the same issues in college or wherever they plan to continue participating in the sport. Only Mack’s post-high-school plans were given enough screen time in this film.
Despite some of these flaws in the documentary, “Changing the Game” does a good job of humanizing an issue that many people want to dismiss as not relevant to their lives. The rights that transgender people are fighting for are civil rights that speak to us as human beings and how we treat each other. The rights aren’t asking for special treatment but to be treated with the same respect, dignity and legal access that cisgender people get for gender identity.