What Coy Mathis' Story Means For The Transgender Community Today

Courtesy of Danette Kalb
Coy Mathis made headlines throughout the country three years ago.

The family of the then-6-year-old was engulfed in a legal battle over her right to use the girls’ bathroom at her Colorado elementary school.

The reason there was a fight for what may seem like such a basic right? Coy is transgender.

The Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled in favor of Coy, making it the first ruling of its kind regarding the rights of transgender students. The decision became a milestone in the fight for transgender rights — and film director Eric Juhola was there to witness Mathis family's journey.

Growing Up Coy
,
his film chronicling the Mathis family life before, during, and after the lawsuit, premiered during the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City last week. The documentary's release comes amid a wave of new bills targeting rights for the transgender community, including HB2 in North Carolina.

Juhola talked with Refinery29 about the film, the current landscape of LGBTQ issues in the United States, and what Coy’s story means for the transgender community today.

The film starts six weeks before Coy’s parents decide to go public. How did you discover this story?
"I first heard about the Mathis family through their attorney in New York, Michael Silverman, who’s also in the film. We had been talking probably for about a year or longer before that about how his organization, Transgender Legal Defense (and Education Fund), was looking to have some videos made for their website. And I told him, 'What about the possibility of a long-format documentary?' So, we would meet occasionally to talk about the potential for that. And then he told me about the Mathis family, who were a young family with a young child in Colorado, and it just seemed like a good opportunity to document a really important LGBT rights case that was happening in the country. What was really exciting to me about the Mathis family is that they’re really the first generation of parents — they’re young, millennial-generation parents — who are allowing their children to express themselves as they are. I never saw that growing up, so it was really exciting to be on the forefront of documenting something like that.

"I guess on a whim, we went out and we met the Mathis family. We talked with them a lot off-camera before we started filming with them on-camera. It ended being I think about two years that we filmed with them altogether. And they were open to that, and I think the reason they were open to that is because they knew that putting positive images of transgender people out there into the world is going to help make the world a better place for people like Coy."
Courtesy of Eric Juhola
This story is focused on Coy, this little girl at the center of the legal fight. How was the experience of interacting with her and getting to know her?
"It was incredible. I had no idea what to expect when I first went to Colorado and met the Mathis family. But the thing about Coy is that she’s just like any other average little girl. We did not talk — no one in our documentary crew talked to Coy what it felt like to be transgender, we tried to protect her from that sort of discussion and just let her be herself and treat her like the little girl that she is. And the truth is, I think Kathryn says it best in the film when she says, 'You know, Coy doesn’t want to talk about how she’s different. She just wants to be, she just wants to do what any other little kid does.' I think that that’s something that you would find with any 6-year-old, they just want to play.

"They don’t want to talk about all of these adult issues or things they may not understand. I think that her age is what makes it so apparent that this isn’t anything else other than Coy feeling like the girl that she really is. You know, we talked with many gender therapists that really helped us to wrap our minds around it. What they told us and what made sense to us is that gender is not really what’s between your legs, gender is in your head. And it’s like if you ask any young kid, 'How did you know when you were a boy or a girl?' You didn’t know, you just were. And that’s exactly the same thing for Coy."

"Coy is really just a little girl who wants to be like all the other little girls and do everything else that any other little girl would want to do, including using the girls’ bathroom."

Eric Juhola, Director, "Growing Up Coy"
In the beginning of the film, you also include a support group the family goes to and you talk with one of the moms about her kid, who came out and said, "Mommy, I’m actually a girl.” We don't hear much about support groups for parents of transgender kids. As a filmmaker, how did you see these interactions and what this group represents in the bigger picture?
"Well, first of all, when we were filming that day, it was very moving to see these families come together and share common experiences between what was happening with their kids. It may be different in different parts of the country, but certainly in southern Colorado, there really was nothing for parents of young kids who were gender nonconforming. There are support groups that were in existence for older kids, like teenagers and above, post-puberty, but nothing for young kids. So, yeah, it was incredible and I was so happy that they were able to find each other and get together.

"That really was just the beginning of their support group. They literally just found each other and decided to meet in the park and have their kids play together and talk about their experiences. It really makes you realize that whatever happened in the case with Coy. It’s certainly going to affect not just Coy, but everybody coming up behind her. And if anything, that scene hopefully shows that Coy is not the only transgender child in southern Colorado or in the country. There are hundreds or thousands of families that are going through what the Mathis family is going through."
Courtesy of Eric Johula
The case generated lots of media attention. How did being in the middle of the action impact your work? You obviously understood how big this case was.
"I think we really realized very quickly, when the media attention began, that our approach to how we were filming the documentary needed to be very hands-off and observational and to just let things play out. We wanted to minimize our effect on the family as much as possible, given the fact that there were news crews coming in daily and filming with them and asking questions, sometimes invasive questions. So, we really chose to take an observational approach, fly on the wall, and just let things happen as they did.

"It was difficult to watch at points, because you know reporters and journalists are just really like everyone else in the country in terms of what they know about transgender issues. Some journalists would come in and ask questions...probably never having met a transgender person or knowing what that experience was like. And then, that night, talking up in the news with whatever bias or prejudice that they came into the story with. I think in the film, there’s one scene where one news channel put up a survey on their website, 'Should this boy be allowed to use the girls’ bathroom?'

"The truth is that most people in this country have never met a transgender person. And what that means is that most people in this country are learning about transgender people from what they see in the media and on the news and in documentaries. So, the media is a double-edged sword, because you need them to educate people, but you don’t necessarily have control over how they’re going to be messaging.

"I feel like we approached the family and the subject sensitively and we have knowledge of the issues and we can really control the messaging as we put it out there and try to help people understand what the transgender experience is like. When you see Coy and you spend 82 minutes with her and her family, hopefully [you] come away with the fact that this is actually just an ordinary family who loves their kids and want the best for their kids. And Coy is really just a little girl who wants to be like all the other little girls and do everything else that any other little girl would want to do, including using the girls’ bathroom."
Courtesy of the Mathis family
Coy’s case was a huge step forward for the transgender community. But it’s been three years. How do you feel about the current landscape relating to the transgender community and the LGBTQ community in general?
"You know, I think that the current landscape — 13 states suing the U.S. government because the government has said that transgender people should be able to use the bathroom for whatever gender they identify with — really just goes to show how much misinformation and stereotypes are out there. And I think it makes Coy’s case, everything that the family went through, and the film itself that much more relevant. Hopefully, the film can be seen in these states where these lawsuits are happening, so people can understand who they’re talking about in terms of restricting use to bathrooms or transgender people.

"I don’t understand how anyone could watch the documentary and then think that it would be okay to send Coy into a boys’ bathroom or any other bathroom aside from the girls’ bathroom. I think it’s really terrible what’s going on in the country right now and I think Coy’s case should be thought about and looked at in terms of helping stop the policies that are being discussed and debated today.

"There’s also been a lot of talk about creating gender-neutral bathrooms, so that transgender kids can have a bathroom they can go to other than the girls’ bathroom or the boys’ bathroom. I think gender-neutral bathrooms are great, but I also think that transgender kids should be able to use the bathroom for which they identify. Gender-neutral bathrooms, for me, are the equivalent of 'separate but equal,' which we’ve seen throughout history is something that is rarely 'equal.' People want to be treated just like anybody else."


Growing Up Coy premiered last week at the Human Rights Watch Festival in New York City and will be screened on June 25 at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco. For more information, follow Growing Up Coy on social media.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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