2021 will go down as one of the worst years for LGBTQ rights across the U.S. in recent history. Over the past six months alone, over 250 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced into state legislatures and at least 17 have become law. Much of the legislation has focused on transgender youth—particularly transgender women and girls—and their ability to play on sports team consistent with their gender identity.
There’s little hard data on how many trans athletes are playing sports today. Trans rights advocates argue the bills are designed to foster a moral panic over trans people, and further stigmatize a community which already faces systemic discrimination. Advocates also note that banning trans athletes from competing under their gender identity is discriminatory and sends an exclusionary message that could have dangerous mental health consequences for an already vulnerable population. (A national study by the nonprofit The Trevor Project in 2020 found that over half of transgender and nonbinary youth have considered suicide.)
The rights of trans athletes is the focus of the new Hulu documentary Changing The Game, which follows three trans high school athletes as they navigate athletic competition while also having to advocate for their right to be there: Sarah Rose Huckman, a skier in New Hampshire, Mack Beggs, a wrestler—who, despite being a trans man, is forced to forced to compete against girls due to Texas policy—and Andraya Yearwood, a runner in Connecticut.
Yearwood and a fellow trans runner, Terry Miller, became embroiled in a media storm in 2018 after winning numerous state championship titles. In 2020, both were named in a lawsuit filed by the conservative advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, on behalf of four cisgender female runners, alleging Connecticut’s trans-inclusive school sports policy was unfair. The suit asked that Yearwood and Miller be banned from playing girls sports in the state. (It was dismissed by a federal judge on April 25.)
“Their story boomed into a national news story because they were winning a few races. They did not win every race, but their bodies as Black trans girls were under the scrutiny of everyone,” says Alex Schmider, the associate director of trans representation at GLAAD and a producer of the film. “When we’re talking about that fairness argument, we don’t talk about the fact that someone like Michael Phelps, who produces less lactic acid in his body, has a physiological advantage. I think there’s a broader and more underlying issue of whose bodies we celebrate, whose bodies we regulate, whose bodies are considered powerful or not… when we really get to the root of it, it has to do with a lot of sexism and racism.”
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TIME spoke with Yearwood, now a 19-year-old college student, about her high school track career, the wave of legislative attacks on trans rights and what people should know about being a trans athlete.
TIME: What first led you to competitive sports and athletics?
Yearwood: Ever since I was a little kid, my family has always encouraged [my siblings and I] to play sports. It doesn’t really matter what sport, we just had to be doing something. [I started running] in the seventh grade, and got into it seriously in high school.
What do you enjoy most about running track in particular?
How free it makes me feel. As I’m running, I’m so focused. That’s the only thing in my mind. There’s just nothing else, no distractions. I like how individualized the sport is, but also how much of a team and family there is. How much [the team] meant to me during what I went through in high school, and how much they were there to support me.
Why was that support so important?
There was this one instance junior year where I didn’t want to run track anymore—because of what the media had said and all the negativity. I think I was just tired; I just kept having to defend my right to play a sport. I didn’t want to keep going through that. And while I tried to focus on the positives, that would get tiring as well. It got to a point where it was too much. [I thought that] I would rather save my own mental health and maybe do something else that didn’t involve all that negativity.
[My teammates] were always there to uplift me, and make me laugh—to pick me back up, to kind of remind me why I’m doing what I’m doing. At one practice, my friends were just like, ‘Andraya, This is a sport that you love. And you shouldn’t let other people decide if you continue to do it.’
One of my friends also brought up that this is a lot bigger than just me: This affects many other trans athletes who may be going through what I’m going through. I felt I couldn’t let them down either. I‘m very glad I stayed with it.
Mack, one of the other student athletes featured in Changing the Game, had to compete against cisgender girls because Texas state policy only allowed students to compete in the league of the sex they were assigned at birth. What should readers know about what it meant for you to run on the girls track team as a trans woman?
It meant everything. I was able to participate on a team where I knew I belonged. I know that if that wasn’t the case, and I had been put on the boys team, I wouldn’t be enjoying the sport.
The film depicts moments at track meets where adults would be yelling transphobic comments towards you, or that your participation “wasn’t fair.” What was it like to compete in that environment?
At first, it made me feel very apprehensive. But as I continued to run throughout my years, I learned to not really pay much attention to it. I mean, yes, people were going to say negative things. But giving them my attention is not going to do anything. It’s not going to have any positive outcome on me in my life. So as I got older, I tried to stop and kind of ignore it.
Is it fair to not let someone compete in the sport that they love, being themselves? It’s not fair to say you cannot run because of how you were born.
Read more: We Have a Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity to Protect LGBTQ People From Discrimination. Will the Senate Take It?
A federal judge in Connecticut recently tossed out a lawsuit that had been filed by four women who are cisgender challenging Connecticut’s transgender inclusion policy, which had named you. What was your reaction to that lawsuit?
I was a little taken aback. I didn’t think it was going to be taken that far. I mean, yes, there were petitions. And yes, people were saying things. But a lawsuit, that’s a pretty big deal. I tried to not let it get to me as much. But I remember the day of a meet, my trainer had just talked to me about it and how I felt. And she even told me, ‘just try to not let it get to you. You have a meet today. Just try to focus on running.’ I tried to, but I ended up false starting in my event.
Aa wave of anti-trans legislation is currently being introduced across the United States right now. What do you think, from your experience, the impact of these bills could be?
I think a lot of people maybe aren’t as educated on the topic, and they have this [idea] that trans athletes only play sports to win medals, to get first place, to bring that trophy home. I mean, that’s never the case. One misunderstood notion of trans individuals should not impact whether a kid can play soccer or not; athletes play sports because they love what they do. And I mean, attempting to take that away from kids—to take away their ability to participate in what they love to do, that’s just not right. And they shouldn’t have to go through that just because of who they are.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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