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On the first day of Pride Month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law the so-called “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” a bill banning transgender women and girls from competing on sports teams aligned with their gender identity. But this one law is only the latest in a series of baseless, discriminatory attacks against trans youth in sports: In 2020, over two dozen states introduced legislation targeting trans athletes, and as of June 1, Florida is the seventh to pass such a law.
“These athlete bans are extensions of bathroom bills, trying to exclude trans youth and trans people from being able to fully participate in public life,” says Alex Schmider, the associate director of Transgender Representation at GLAAD and producer of the new Hulu documentary Changing the Game. “And what we know is that, in most of the states that this legislation is being introduced, local legislators can’t even cite examples of why they’re introducing this legislation. They’re just doing it because there’s a belief that they can stir up people’s fears about who trans athletes are.”
Already in 2021, there’s been a clear attack on trans rights in the U.S. Specifically, right-wing critics frequently accuse trans athletes — namely, trans girls — of having an unfair “advantage” over their cisgender counterparts. The claim is typically rooted in the belief that trans girls have higher levels of testosterone, leading to increased muscle mass. But this effectively ignores the fact cis women can have elevated testosterone levels as well — for example, due to conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which affects 10% of women. It also disregards the fact that many trans girls are on puberty blockers, which pause their body’s production of testosterone. And it overlooks the fact that endocrinology experts say there’s not even a clearly defined relationship between testosterone and athletic performance.
So, why is it that trans athletes have become the center of a right-wing movement to attack transgender Americans at-large?
According to Changing the Game, a recently released Hulu documentary, this isn’t just about the laws and lawsuits targeting trans athletes — it’s about the individuals who are being impacted by sweeping, baseless assumptions that could hurt generations of trans women going forward. In this film, the athletes themselves are on display — their achievements, their struggles, and their personalities, which have been overshadowed by and buried under incessant attacks and attempts to discredit their successes.
One of the film’s subjects, track star Andraya Yearwood, made history when she won two Connecticut state titles in 2017. In the press, however, her story became entangled with a suit filed by three Connecticut mothers, who argued trans inclusion in sports violates Title IX. Yearwood and another trans athlete, Terry Miller — whose story is also featured in Changing the Game — were mentioned in the lawsuit by name.
The plaintiffs hoped to ban Yearwood and Miller from competing, but as Yearwood tells Refinery29, track means something “more than just winning medals.” As Yearwood says early in the documentary: “The way I’m treated on the team and by my peers, family, coaches has helped a lot. On the girls’ team, I just feel amazing, just knowing that I get to be who I am.”
Athletics can have a life-saving impact on a teenager’s mental health, mood, and social life. According to a 2019 study published in JAMA Pediatrics, individuals who participate in team sports growing up are less likely to become diagnosed with depression and anxiety. This is especially relevant given that several other studies have shown that trans people, especially trans youth, are at risk of these same mental health diagnoses.
“I don’t care if any person thinks that Andraya has an advantage. It’s so much more than that for her,” Yearwood’s mother, Ngozi, says in the documentary. “We’re talking about life or death. It scares me, the stats, the numbers, what she’s up against. 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? For me, that’s being unfair.”
Which is why, ultimately, the fight waged against trans athletes isn’t really about entering competitions and winning awards. At a high school level, team sports are a unifier. Nearly 70% of teenagers participate in some form of team or individual sports, according to recent data from the Aspen Institute’s Project Play. “If we’re telling trans kids they can’t play with their friends, that they can’t do the things that they love, those send really harmful messages that they can’t be a part of society,” says Schmider.
He admits that, before getting to know Yearwood and the other athletes highlighted in Changing the Game, Schmider didn’t understand how meaningful just playing sports — separate from winning or losing — can be, especially to trans athletes. “Being part of a team, learning how to win and lose, dedicating yourself to something, being in pursuit of a common goal: all of these things make us better people. And if we take that away from kids, we are stripping them of so much,” he tells Refinery29. “And especially if you’re a trans youth or a trans person who is so often excluded and discriminated against, why would you take away something that is so powerful and affirming to who you are?”
Mack Beggs, one of the documentary’s other subjects, agrees. “My closest friends I still have today are the ones I met in sports. And I think that’s really important, not just between a teammate and you, it’s also you and your coach, you and your teachers,” Beggs says. “We’re just athletes trying to compete and just have fun and do the things that we want to do.”
In 2017 and 2018, Beggs made headlines when he won two back-to-back state titles in Texas — where, per state laws, he was forced to compete against girls. In 2018, Beggs was recruited to wrestle in college, and under rules set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and USA Wrestling, he was finally allowed to compete against other guys.
Today, neither Beggs nor Yearwood compete. Yearwood says she still loves sports, but doesn’t miss every part of running: Her career and accomplishments became intertwined with the media attention and lawsuit. “When I was running, there would be a camera in my face or interview here, interview there, and it was kind of a lot,” she says. “I didn’t know if I wanted to put myself through that all over again in a state that’s kind of more conservative, and go through that 10 times worse.”
And her wins were politicized. “Everything we did was always… It wasn’t, ‘Oh, Andraya won, congratulations.’ It was, ‘Oh, Andraya won and then beat another cisgender athlete. It’s always tied back to something else,” Yearwood tells Refinery29. “And it’s like, can I just win? Can that be it?”
Beggs, meanwhile, has gotten into martial arts: jiu jitsu, muay thai, kickboxing. But beyond sports, he also wants to be a gender therapist and help kids and teenagers. Today, he speaks at a lot of high schools, and he’s worked with numerous nonprofits and organizations. Making a difference in that way, he says, is more of an accomplishment than any medal.
“At one point, I’m going to hang up the gloves and I’m going to be like, my body can’t take it anymore, and what I really love doing is helping kids at the end of the day,” Beggs says. But, as Changing the Game proves, being an athlete isn’t just about competing. It’s about work, collaboration, and resilience. It can be about expression and community. As Beggs says, “Sports is amazing, and it’s never gonna go away for me. I’m still an athlete. That’s always gonna be a part of me — wrestling is always going to be a part of me.”
Changing the Game is now streaming on Hulu.
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