In "Changing the Game," young trans athletes become "a beacon for their own community."

Filmmaker Michael Barnett appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss the remarkable youths creating their space in sports

By Alli Joseph
Published June 18, 2021 5:16PM (EDT)
Track star Andraya Yearwood, wrestler Mack Beggs, and Nordic skier Sarah Rose Huckman in "Changing the Game" (Hulu)
Track star Andraya Yearwood, wrestler Mack Beggs, and Nordic skier Sarah Rose Huckman in "Changing the Game" (Hulu)

Hulu's powerful new documentary "Changing the Game" raises issues facing not only transgender athletes themselves, but the rules of play and how they're often guided by misconceptions. Directed by Michael Barnett, the film features the stories of three transgender teen athletes – track star Andraya Yearwood, wrestler Mack Beggs and nordic skier Sarah Rose Huckman – who have struggled to find acceptance in their sports, while becoming powerful activists for quite literally, changing the rules of the game, state by state. 

Barnett is a chronicler of difference in society – from his film about people who dress up and act as real-life "Superheroes" to his documentary "Becoming Bulletproof," about disabled actors putting up a western. Here, we first see Mack, a wrestler who made headlines when he became the state champion of women's wrestling in Texas because state rules only allowed him to wrestle for that category. Mack's story, along with how his conservative Republican grandparents view their grandson, is what drew Barnett in.

In the face of rallying cries around Title IX and angry arguments against transgender inclusion in sports, "Changing the Game" presents a clear point of view in favor of supporting acceptance, not just "tolerance." Barnett appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss his experience making the film, the flexibility of ingrained belief systems when love and family are involved, and how these young people are taking the brunt of America's divisiveness as they seek their authentic voice and to carve out their own space.

You can watch the "Salon Talks" interview with Barnett here or read a transcript of it below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The film is so powerful. And it raises understandably complex issues facing not only transgender athletes themselves, but also the overarching rules of play. What was it that made you interested in making this film?

Well, I came to the film sort of by accident. In a very personal way, someone in my life very near and dear to me began their transition. And I very, very quickly realized that I didn't have the knowledge and tools to advocate or be an ally in any meaningful way. And I'm a filmmaker. That's what I've been doing forever. And I just kind of started to go to work and do what I do, to just kind of get up to speed, to be there, to support with unconditional love. For a lot of the cis community, we don't have a lot of experience with trans people in the trans community. And as I was just going through and doing my due diligence to really be there for this family and this human, I came across Mack's story. And once again, I didn't initially think about it as a film. I just thought, "Well, this is a really interesting way to educate, to get up to speed, to think about things in a new light." And the more I learned about Mack, the more I just thought it would make a very compelling film. And I also didn't know if I was the filmmaker to make it, but I thought maybe I could advocate for another filmmaker.

And that's when I reached out to Alex Schmider, who's a producer on the film who works at GLAAD. He's the associate director of trans media representation. And I just started asking tough questions like, "Should this film exist?" And his answer was, "Yes, the community needs it." And the other question was, "Should it be me?" And he was like, "Well, if we build the right team, 'we' being the key word there, the answer is, yeah, you should make it as long as you have the right perspectives on the film." And that perspective was really including people from the community to deeply inform the process, and the filmmaking and the storytelling. And so that's what I did. And I did so with much trepidation, but I am really, really glad that I went on the journey.

Mack is a transgender wrestler who made headlines over the past few years. And he in the film says, "I train as a man. I compete as a man." And none of it's verbatim, but "I am the state championship of female high school wrestling" at the time the film was made. What was your first impression of Mack knowing his backstory?

Well, Mack is a super special individual. To have that courage and that resiliency at such a young age to just be, to just living your truth, it's a powerful testament to who he is. And we spent, my team, a year, I think we flew to Texas three or four times during his junior year without a camera to just get to know him, establish some trust. There was a lot of media chasing him, there was a lot of interest in his story. And we wanted him to know that when the smoke cleared, if the smoke cleared, we'd still be standing there to tell the story as objectively as he was willing to share.

And it was a unique time for us because rarely when you're making a film, do you have that kind of lead in. And it was really necessary. In this particular film, letting that family and us connect before we ever started rolling, I think that relationship really shines in the film. You can sense that we're not some sort of cold outside journalists who are just kind of fly on the wall peeping. It's not what the film was. It was a really personal journey for all of us.

What would you say you could suggest in your observations that we could be doing to help kids understand where these athletes have, not only a place, but a sense of understanding where everybody can meet? When a lot of people are saying this isn't fair.

Sure. The kids are the least of my worries, I have to say, because they are all coming up right now in a time of, I don't like the word "tolerance" because that means we have to tolerate somebody. That's not accepting. That's like baseline, "I'll allow you to be in my space." So I think tolerating the trans community from their peers is a bit of a dated notion. I think kids are just accepting. We just spent the last couple of years all over America. We shot with more kids that are in the film as well. And by and large, that intolerance, that discrimination, and that hatred come from adults. Very rarely, if ever, did we see it from their peers. Especially in sports because Mack and Sarah and Andraya, they're beacons to their peers. They're adored in their high schools and people like them and they have a lot of friends. And that's not to diminish how tough their journeys are. When you're 17-years-old and just trying to run or wrestle, and media pundits are showering hatred all over you nightly, that's pretty complex.

So I think, honestly, the conversation amongst peers and amongst youth is, "How do we just let everyone live in their truth?" As long as that truth is authentic and it's not hurting anybody, which, yeah. I think some of these conversations start with the wrong question. Not that you are. But I'm saying, you know, if we're talking about fair, everyone wants to jump to "fair" because it's a sort of a – if you're ready to go here right now – everyone wants to have this "fair" conversation. And the conversation about fair is a little bit of the wrong conversation, especially when you're talking about trans youth because you're talking about a community that particularly in this moment, what, 80 something pieces of legislation being drawn up right now to legislate them out of existence. Because it's not fair?

We're talking about a community that has an over 40% suicide, trans youth. And we're talking about a community that needs love and support through a very complex time in their life. And we're talking about a community that get so discriminated out of what we take as rites of passage, basic inclusion: sports. What do you get from sports? You get community, you get discipline, you get confidence, you get mental health, physical health. You get to learn how to be the best version of yourself and challenge yourself. And these are the things we're not talking about when we're talking about trans in sports who deserve to benefit from the extraordinary benefits of sports.

So what we're saying is, if we take all of this away from these kids, we exacerbate their suicide rates, we create a less safe space for them in the interest of giving the trophy to someone else. Because that's what we're talking about, right? When you're like eight, nine, 10, 12, 15, we're talking about a trophy or a human life. So if we're putting them on a scale and weighing them, I don't know. They feel like wildly different weights to me.

I think you have to look at both the high rates of suicide and the challenges that being excluded presents. And also, how do you address it in legislation? What are you seeing in those 80 pieces of legislation and where is there a balance? Is there a balance?

Well, I think what we're talking about when we're talking about legislating kids out of existence, you're stripping them of rights. That doesn't sound American. That doesn't sound like who we are and what we're made of and why this country was built. It sounds like the opposite to me. So I think we need to look at kids and treat them in a way that provides a safe space that's full of respect, dignity, equality, inclusion. Says it in our Constitution. I think we should march towards that in all regards.

How are young athletes like your subjects finding their place? 

We have a bunch of kids in our film. Andraya's a pretty shy human. She's pretty soft-spoken. But I have to say she's as strong and powerful as any human I've ever met. And a big part of that is because of the journey that she's been on. But she's not competing at the NCAA level. What harm has she done by running to any other human? It's very strange to me. And also the interesting thing is we start to talk about these policies. These policies tend to create a solution for a problem that doesn't exist. And every time I hear some pundit with an opinion on this who brings on one of the kids, it's one of the kids from our film, which we filmed in 2018 and 2019 because kids are terrified to play sports right now if they're in the community. As they should be. Look what's happening. We're basically saying "We dare you to play so we can attack you."

So, yeah, I think when it comes to the positive benefits from the kids that I certainly know and love, what they have received from sports, from playing, is extraordinary. It's extraordinary to watch them transition from being kids to young adults. Because now I've known them for enough years. Documentary films, they're a journey as well. They take years to make. And it's extraordinary to watch them all. And it's not perfect. I think some of our kids, particularly some of the kids that aren't in the film have struggled with mental health issues and struggled with some of the pressure of being who they are. I think it's also extraordinary to watch these kids become a beacon for their own community.

Sarah Rose, your Nordic skier subject, says in the film, "Being transgender is not a choice." So in your travels making the film, did you observe, and I hope you did, that this message is being heard more in communities across America?

It's really interesting, and I will brazenly say this, the administrations that we had to deal with to try and get access were by and large wildly discriminatory about highlighting these students' stories on school grounds, on school campus, until we had some pretty serious advocates with the ACLU and GLAAD. Some pretty heavy hitter advocates and activists simply say, "If this was a star athlete who wasn't trans, you would roll out the red carpet for ESPN. What's the difference?" And I think a lot of these administrations didn't even realize they were being biased. I think they were sort of like, "Well, we're trying to protect our student body." From what? From highlighting an extraordinary kid? It's really fascinating. And this isn't everyone. Obviously Sarah Rose's principal, the administration in New Hampshire, which is reckoning with its own past that very recently changed because of Sarah Rose, were really supportive of highlighting her story, allowing us access. And all the kids there were amazing.

Now, for those who say that the presence of trans athletes is wrecking sports, in how many places do you think this is an actual consistent issue versus something that happens once in a while and then it creates a media ruckus? 

Yeah, sure. I mean, look, particularly right now, there's a moment of hyper-visibility around all of this, which is interesting to me. We started this film in 2018. We filmed in 2018, 2019. And filmmaking is a journey. But for whatever reason, the universe says, "This is when the film needed to come out." And for whatever reason, it happens to be a moment, particularly in regards to not just the media. I mean, the media is covering what is happening. But there's this crescendo of anti-trans legislation, policy, representation in media. And it's a little perplexing, like why all of a sudden now? And it's obviously scary and frustrating, particularly for a community that needs love and support that's already marginalized and vulnerable.

"Changing the Game" is now streaming on Hulu.


Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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