At first glance, six-year-old Coy Mathis seems to be just like other little girls her age. She’s madly in love with Justin Bieber, and has his posters plastered over the walls in her room. Her favorite color is pink, and the overwhelming color scheme of her bedroom attests to that fact.
However, when one gets closer to her and the rest of her family – her parents and four siblings, two of whom are her twins – a very different picture emerges. Coy was born biologically male, but since she was 18 months old, she has identified as a girl. After initially thinking it was a phase, her parents, Kathryn and Jeremy, soon understood that this was much more serious, and from then on affirmed their child’s gender identity, and as loving parents, did all they could to help her be comfortable and fully live the way she was.
What happens after this, and how Coy and her family became the subject of controversy and a media firestorm is the subject of Eric Juhola’s documentary Growing Up Coy, which will have its world premiere at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. There’s no fancy stylistic trickery or artsy approach to be found here. Juhola tells the story straight, and puts us in intimate proximity to the family as they face an often hostile and misunderstanding society, but are also helped along the way by forceful advocates and other supporters. This turns out to be an effective approach, as the Mathis’ story gains its power by simply letting it unfold before our eyes mostly unadorned. Also in its favor is the inherent burning topicality of its subject, as a number of state lawmakers attempt to pass harsh and discriminatory laws targeting transgender people.
The controversy that Coy gets caught up in revolves, as it does in an overwhelming number of cases, around restroom use. As Coy identifies as a girl, quite naturally she wishes to use the girls’ restroom. Up until the middle of her first year of grade school, Coy’s transition – she began kindergarten officially registered as a boy – was supported by her teachers and classmates, and Coy was able to use the girls’ restroom without incident.
However, during the first grade, the school administration abruptly reversed its affirmation of Coy’s gender identity, and decreed that she must either use the boys’ bathroom or the one in the nurse’s office. Not wanting their daughter to be ostracized, stigmatized, or worse, Coy’s parents began to fight the school’s decision. The school refused to respect Kathryn and Jeremy’s wishes in regards to Coy, and in documents refused to acknowledge Coy’s identity, referring to Coy as “a boy,” “he,” and “him.” Making things worse was the community they lived in, the very conservative town of Fountain, Colorado, where Coy and her parents couldn’t count on much support and understanding from their neighbors.
Eventually Kathryn and Jeremy were forced to pull Coy out of school and begin home schooling her along with her siblings. However, they continued to pursue legal action against the school, recognizing that if they could win their case, this would set a precedent that would benefit other parents and children in their situation. To this end, they retained New York civil rights attorney Michael Silverman, of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, to help them strategize their next move.
The thematic meat of the documentary occurs after this, when Coy’s parents and their lawyer make the difficult decision of making their case public, with the idea that inviting media attention, though risky, would on the whole benefit their case.
After Silverman and Coy’s family hold a press conference on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol, they all find themselves in the midst of a media firestorm, with the case immediately making national, and even international news. Though this exposure to the media shines a necessary light on the struggles of transgender people of any age to live lives according to their identities, the negative aspects of this attention soon rears their ugly heads. TV pundits engage in pseudo-psychology and rank scare-mongering, for example raising the spectre of girls seeing a penis while using the bathroom. Internet comments cast aspersions on Coy’s parents, accusing them of using their child to gain fame, and the negativity even includes death threats. How Coy’s parents must deal with the mass media’s tendency to sensationalize, dumb down, and exploit all they touch occasion some of the most interesting and revealing scenes of the film.
Although this was a very high-profile case, and some readers will be aware of how the case turned out, for those not familiar, I won’t give away the conclusion, since much of the interest of this film lies in watching everything unfold, and how all the media scrutiny and the attendant loss of privacy affects Coy, her parents, and her siblings.
Growing Up Coy is recommended viewing for anyone interested in these issues, and especially those interested in witnessing first hand the often harsh and non-comprehending atmosphere that transgender people must face on a daily basis, even those as young as Coy. It’s also a necessary reminder that despite the rapid gains LGBT communities have made in acceptance and understanding in the larger society, there’s still a very long way to go, as the recent mass-killing tragedy in Orlando has sadly confirmed.
Growing Up Coy screens on June 16, 7pm at IFC Center and June 17, 6:30pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Panel discussions with director Eric Juhola, attorney Michael Silverman, and other guests will follow both screenings. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Human Rights Watch Film Festival’s website.