While debates rage across the country over laws prohibiting transgender athletes from participating in sports, Michael Barnett’s 2019 film, “Changing the Game,” streaming June 1 on Hulu, illustrates why it is so important for trans teens to play and/or compete on the team of their gender. This point is driven home in the film’s opening moments when Mack Beggs states, “I train as hard as a man. I fight as hard as a man. I am a man. But I’m the female state champion in wrestling.”

Beggs’ story, which is one of three case studies in this heartfelt documentary, shows the disadvantage of having a student, who was female at birth, compete on the girl’s wrestling team. Even though Beggs identifies as male, in Texas, where he lives, gender is determined by what is listed on one’s birth certificate. And then there is controversy regarding the testosterone that Beggs is taking. (He says in one candid moment that his relationship with testosterone is “complicated”.) Detractors say the drug is impacting his performance and a form of “cheating” that contributes to his undefeated record. Moreover, Texas’ policy is “failing” other girls because students like the cisgender Chelsea, who is hoping to get a girls’ wrestling scholarship for college, cannot beat Mack in a state championship match. 

Andraya Yearwood in “Changing the Game.”

“Changing the Game” explains that policies about transgender athletes vary from state to state. In Connecticut, where Andraya Yearwood goes to school, she is able to run on the girls track and field team. And while she is supported by coaches, peers, and family members — as well as the state that not just allows but welcomes her to participate in the team of her choice — several community members are angry that Andraya has an “unfair advantage” over cisgender female teen athletes. (One woman makes a specious comment that Andraya never has to run on her period.)

The film’s third storyline is Sarah Rose Huckman, a New Hampshire skier who is not as competitive as Mack and Andraya, but very active in campaigning for a bill to eliminate gender identity discrimination. 

Barnett toggles back and forth between his subjects, all of whom are engaging and likable. There is a brief discussion of each athlete’s struggle with gender dysphoria, and attention is paid to the sad fact that more than 40% of trans teens attempt or commit suicide. (One subject in the film admits to taking too many sleeping pills, while a mother at a protest Sarah attends recounts the untimely death of her trans teen). These personal moments are important for helping make the film’s case that sports provide a tremendous sense of self-worth and self-confidence for these youths. Moreover, it was precisely Andraya’s courage to race as a female that encouraged Terry Miller, another trans teen, to compete in track and field. 

The film’s activism is inspiring. As Mack and his grandmother fight to get him on a boy’s wrestling team, they must compile and file considerable paperwork and years of medical records and personal statements to do something that states like Connecticut allow. Likewise, when Sarah addresses her local congressperson for the bill she supports, she indicates that as a member of the transgender community, she could be fired for her work teaching kids to ski and be denied housing and other protections. When the bathroom bill controversy and other policies discriminating against the trans community arise, Sarah doubles down on her activism.

Barnett is squarely on the side of these athletes, and viewers will be rooting for them as well. It is gratifying to see Mack and Andraya’s coaches respectively shout “atta boy” from the sidelines and indicate how valuable it is for them to participate. (Andraya is poetry in motion on the field). And the parents and grandparents who are raising these teens are very proud of their children, who have opened their eyes and even changed attitudes.

“Changing the Game,” however, shows how even when these athletes are successful on the field, they can, as Mack says, “feel like they are losing” because of the hatred, bullying, and harassment they receive from various adults. Andraya has to endure a rant from an angry woman after one race, and Mack often leaves a gymnasium after a victory to avoid the remarks of angry parents. (A social media feed offers some particularly offensive remarks). The film showcases enough of these dispiriting voices that they demonstrate how the battles these athletes fight — which is to be who they are and do what they want — happen mostly outside the competitions.

As one interviewee in the film says, they want to be identified as student athletes, not as trans student athletes. “Changing the Game” is a winning documentary that emphasizes this critical need these teens feel to be included, not excluded.