“I am a man,” says Mack Beggs, a Texas wrestler, to open Changing the Game. “And I am the state champ of female high school wrestling.” He gulps, and the film sits uncomfortably in that silence before the title appears on-screen. Director Michael Barnett, producers Alex Schmider and Clare Tucker, executive producer Chris Mosier (a trans duathlete on Team USA) and others had been at work on Changing the Game since 2017, slowly building up relationships with their athlete subjects. So they couldn’t have foreseen that in '21, as they prepare for the film’s wide streaming release, that transgender athletes would be mainstays of the U.S. news cycle.
Since last year, a handful of states (Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia) have enacted bans on trans athletes participating in athletics at public K–12 schools and colleges. (Idaho’s ban has been paused from taking effect due to a judge’s preliminary injunction.) Montana and Florida are close behind, and many more states are considering them. “They’re so barbaric and horrible,” says Sarah Rose Huckman, one of three athletes who star in the film. “We’re just human beings wanting to live our lives as ourselves and doing the sports that we love.”
Through Huckman, a 20-year-old who participated in Nordic skiing, cross-country and track in her New Hampshire high school; Beggs; and Connecticut sprinter Andraya Yearwood, Changing the Game, which will stream on Hulu beginning June 1, walks us through the daily life of transgender athletes. Schmider and Barnett have showed the film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival back in 2019, to legislators, activists and other difference-makers. “We have shown this film to people across the political, ideological spectrum, and everyone who sits through and watches and gets to know these young people leaves with a more profoundly empathetic view of who they are and what they have to endure to be themselves,” Schmider says.
About 20% of Americans say they’ve met a trans person; that’s about the same percentage as those who say they’ve seen a ghost, Schmider points out. In that sense, the documentary is a 1 ½-hour window into lives unknown. With no narrator, the voices of Huckman, Beggs and Yearwood together form the central focus. Barnett, a cisgender man, aptly highlights their athletic achievements and resilience in the face of anti-trans sentiment. (“The minute I met these kids, they were the definition of courage, right? Do they need to be this courageous just to live in their truth? That sounds unfair to me,” he says.) But he digs deeper, too, also zooming in on their distinctly teenage personalities. Huckman, for example, is fully fleshed out as a self-described “boy-crazy” budding YouTube star who enjoys filming makeup tutorials—just an ordinary kid.
“I mean, Mack’s all swagger,” Barnett says. “Sarah Rose is an imminent star and just has that love of all things pop culture and cameras and social media. And Andraya is this incredibly soft-spoken, stoic human being incredibly courageous through action.”
A running theme throughout the film is the toll on mental health that transgender athletes face. “I don’t think I would be here if I didn’t have sports in high school,” Huckman says. Beggs once took too many sleeping pills while on his patio. In one of the film’s more chilling moments, Yearwood’s mother, Ngozi Nnaji, says: “We’re talking about life or death. … What my child won’t be is suicidal. What my child won’t be is on drugs. If track gives these young kids an opportunity to be and to live in their truth, how dare we take that away from them?”
The unsettling voices of bigotry are woven into the story in passing but deliberately not amplified. Some of the most harrowing scenes present Beggs, forced to wrestle girls, surrounded by screaming adults, challenging his humanity. “I was so genuinely afraid for him in that moment [at the state championship] because the reaction from the crowd was—I mean, the anger. I mean, people were literally foaming at the mouth,” Barnett says.
Instead of lingering on the hatred, film shows athletes held up by pillars in the form of families, friends and coaches. The result is a celebration of what it means to be trans and playing sports. “The film is about love and support,” Barnett says. “It’s about living in your truth. It’s about giving these hijacked stories back to the owners of those stories.”