There’s a common experience among people from marginalized communities where we’re forced to grow up quickly as youth. Circumstances like low socio-economic statuses, racism, sexism, or some other form of discrimination often rob us of the chance to just be young and dumb like our more privileged counterparts. In watching the documentary Changing the Game, about the experiences of a group of trans high school athletes, I’m reminded of this, of the shit we have to go through to yes, realize our power, but to also just make it to tomorrow.
Directed by Michael Barnett (The Mars Generation), Changing the Game introduces us to three student athletes and the communities around them that support, and don’t support them competing on the teams that match their gender identities. First up is Mack Beggs, a boy in Texas who is the state champ of female high school wrestling. While Mack would love to compete against other men, state law restricts it. In his corner are a supportive coach (whose hands are tied by the state) and his grandparents who’re raising him. Though they still struggle with his pronouns, they pursue every means possible to help Mack’s goal of wrestling other men come to fruition.
Then in New Hampshire, a young vlogger and skier named Sarah Rose lobbies her state representatives to pass an anti-discrimination bill. She’s supported by her conservative parents who are still grappling with how their personal politics impact their necessary role of protecting their child.
And then there’s Andraya, the top female track star in Connecticut, a state that “allows” her to compete on the team with which she identifies despite growing anti-trans sentiment among the parents of her slower competitors. Through her story we’re introduced to a fourth teen, Terry, who was inspired by Andraya’s bravery and visibility to also come out and compete as a trans girl in track. Together, they’re the top two runners, which prompted national headlines earlier this year.
On its face, Changing the Game appears as if it's going to be a staid and slightly exploitative documentary, one that uses the experiences of these trans teens solely for the purpose of teaching cis people that they shouldn’t be assholes. I assumed this would be the case, especially with Barnett, a cis man, at the helm. But what we actually have on our hands, as evidenced by the film winning the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature from Outfest recently, is a moving and impassioned chronicling that treats these trans teens as subjects and not objects, allowing them to step into their own powers as accidental advocates for change.
Just when you think the filmmakers are going to fall into tired tropes often employed when telling trans stories — the camera’s gross preoccupation with their bodies, the hyper focus on hormones, the need to show “both sides” of the debate, etc. — the doc forges its own creative and artistic paths. In ways subtle and nuanced — and perhaps only recognized by people who’ve constantly seen their stories told without their input — Changing the Game radically asserts the humanity of Mack, Sarah Rose, Andraya, and Terry, and the rest of us whose lives are under assault by the current political establishment. The credit for this must go in some part to executive producer Alex Schmider, a trans man himself who also happens to be the associate director of transgender representation at GLAAD. I am certain this film would not have been what it is without his input.
To put it plainly, Changing the Game is protest art, a powerful and necessary reflection of the lives of some of the most vulnerable in our communities who need our support now more than ever. It’s a call to action, to everyone whose life circumstances afford them the privilege to not have to worry about being further maligned and erased. What will you do with it?
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