“Changing the Game” Review: With Anti-Trans Bills Rising, Listen to the Many Realities of Trans Athletes

I can’t help it. Whenever I watch a documentary about trans people, no matter how many trans people were involved in making it, there’s one question on my mind while I’m watching: Who is this movie for?

When it comes to Changing the Game, which came to Hulu after a couple of years showing it at festivals, Alex Schmider, a producer of the documentary and the Directory of Transgender Representation at GLAAD, told Variety they made it “for everyone”: “We made it for those of us who are part of the trans community, and those of us who are less familiar with the trans community, and anyone who believes that love can win and does win regardless of what that looks like.”

That message, along with Changing the Game, arrives at a time when around 150 anti-trans bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year, with around half focusing on trans athletes specifically. Some mandate that trans athletes must compete as the gender assigned to them at birth, while others outright criminalize trans girls and women for participating in girls’ and women’s sports. One signed by Florida governor Ron DeSantis on the very first day of Pride Month bans trans girls and women from competing in sports according to their gender identity. The aim in all is the same: to ban trans people, usually trans women and girls, from playing organized sports with cis people because it’s “unfair.”

Changing the Game centers wrestler Mack Beggs, skier Sarah Rose Huckman and runner Andraya Yearwood, all in high school at the time of filming, as they compete in their respective school-sponsored sports. We hear from their supportive (a reality not offered to many) family members and coaches and friends, but mostly we hear from them. It’s a pleasure to watch a film that doesn’t take two minutes offering a psychiatric definition of gender dysphoria, for example, and simply lets those experiencing it talk about it.

That said, this movie is especially difficult to watch at times. Name a prominent anti-trans voice, and chances are, they’ll make an appearance at some point. Soundbites from anti-trans media personalities, close-ups of angry fans at Beggs’ and Yearwood’s events and even interviews with a few of them are peppered throughout. It sometimes feels like a free platform for hateful people to have their words heard by the exact audience they want to hear them: trans people.

Despite the inclusion of those negative voices, though, it’s not a “both sides” story at all. A few bigots get their opinions spotlighted for a moment, sure, but at the end of the day, that’s the reality of being an out trans kid in sports. Not reflecting that reality and presenting this only as a “trans people are people too!” feel-good rainbow rigamarole would do all of them a major disservice.

“Our goal was always to return these young people’s stories to them,” Schmider said. “So really, what we wanted to do was give them their stories back and allow people to be able to see them as the kids that they are.”

For one thing, Beggs spends most of the film competing against girls instead of boys, as Texas law says that students must compete in sports based on the gender on their birth certificate. When Beggs says he thinks people hate him before beginning his second state title run, it’s not out of place. It’s a reflection of his life, a life whose ups and downs are as varied as anyone’s, but uniquely his.

Meanwhile, Huckman balances her inspiring advocacy to get an anti-discrimination bill passed with her fear of being fired from her job for being trans, not to mention her conscious reluctance to give an all-out effort when she skis. If she wins a race, she says, people might think she has a physical advantage, so she tries to avoid it. Yearwood, while having terrible words thrown at her during her meets (especially when she wins), befriends another trans runner, Terry Miller, who says she came out because she was inspired by Yearwood’s openness.

There’s all-out bigotry, and there’s all-out triumph. Changing the Game does well to offer both in a way that hits all the right notes. Like I said, it’s not all good or all bad. The agenda here isn’t to say that trans people are all inspiring at all times, nor is it to say that trans people are miserable, and cis people should feel bad for us at all times. Everyone’s lives come with ups and downs. These are just the ones specific to these trans kids, the most striking (and the most relevant to this story) of which has to do with them being trans. In a pretty radical way, Changing the Game is for everyone, but it’s especially for trans people seeking validation for their life experiences.

I’m over a decade out of high school, where I competed in girls’ sports. While this film didn’t spotlight anyone exactly like me (also keeping in mind that nonbinary athletes face their own unique challenges), I still felt it all. In the film, each athlete describes how they deal with gender dysphoria, and that’s something I deal with, too. The idea of returning to sports, even recreationally, terrifies me. It’s less that I fear being intentionally excluded by others and more that the potential for being misgendered, especially in a sex-segregated league, means there’s not quite a place for me. Playing in a women’s league, for example, means existing under the label of “women’s,” and being referred to as the collective “ladies” on the field, even though it’s an identity I’m trying to leave behind. It’s the “it’s not you, it’s me” of trans sports participation. Huckman echoes this feeling near the end of the movie, as she says that trans kids largely aren’t playing sports. The weight of a binary, gender essentialist, genitals-obsessed society is often too heavy to test.

At the end of April, a federal judge threw out a case against Yearwood and Miller that tested Connecticut’s policy to allow students to compete as the gender with which they identify. The plaintiffs, who were mainly white and all cisgender, alleged that Yearwood and Miller, who are Black, had an unfair advantage when they competed against them. (Spoiler: They didn’t. Two of the plaintiffs even went on to run track in college, while Yearwood and Miller did not.) It’s far from the only legal action of its kind, with several dozen states introducing bills in 2021 that would effectively ban trans kids from competing in sports; it’s also not the first action to be thrown out or die during the legislative process.

While these bills run rampant, Changing the Game makes it abundantly clear that trans athletes aren’t going anywhere either. “The main thing I want in my life is to be accepted as just me,” Huckman says. “I deserve equal rights and to be a part of everyone else’s normal lives.”

As the nondiscrimination bill that she helped form passed in the New Hampshire state legislature, that message couldn’t have been stronger.

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Christine is a writer and library worker in Wisconsin.

Christine has written 1 article for us.

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