Eric Juhola’s documentary begins in 2013, six weeks before the Mathis Family from Fountain, a conservative town in Colorado, filed a lawsuit against Eagleside Elementary when the school refused their six year old, transgendered daughter the right to use the girls’ bathroom. Having been seemingly supportive of Coy’s wish to be treated as female throughout kindergarten, Principal Jason Crow informed her parents that on entering first grade, Coy would no longer be permitted to use the female facilities. Neither Juhola nor the Mathises could have known, when they went public with their local news story in the hope of protecting one child’s rights, that it would snowball into a matter of national and global importance, and lead to the Obama administration issuing a directive stating that transgender students should be allowed to use the restrooms of their choice.
The snapshots that open the film establish the Mathises as an extraordinary family by anyone’s standards. Coy is one of five children, along with her triplet siblings Max and Lily, the latter left with cerebral palsy after contracting viral meningitis, older sister, Dakota, who is autistic, and younger sister, Auri. Any one of these factors alone might be enough to floor most young parents, but from their brightly coloured hair to their wide smiles, it’s clear from the off that the Mathis children are cherished by parents Kathryn, the keen portrait photographer, and Jeremy, a former marine.
While Coy belongs to the first generation of young children allowed to express their gender in the way they choose, any notion that this is a case of overly liberal parents indulging a childhood whim is soon quashed when Kathryn starts to explain how three-year-old Coy tearfully asked when she would be taken to the doctor to get fixed up with girl parts, and how she refused to leave the house dressed as a boy for several years. Kathryn and Jeremy’s gradual realisation that this was no mere phase was confirmed by a child psychiatrist, who appears on film here, and Coy was finally granted her wish to be known as a girl at kindergarten as well as at home. Jeremy’s conservative upbringing and military background, and Kathryn’s disclosure that she was brought up within a religious doctrine which would have seen Lily perish without medical intervention and Coy forced to live as the boy her birth certificate insisted she was, perhaps make their unwavering acceptance and support all the more remarkable.
Coy herself, with her cheeky smile, fervour for Justin Bieber, and warm hugs for lawyers, journalists, and film-makers alike, immediately allays any doubts at all that this is a little girl we’re watching. There are moments when she seems overwhelmed or tired by questions about her gender, but this might be down to childish inability or unwillingness to articulate rather than any uncertainty on Coy’s part. Certainly she seems perplexed as to why some people still consider her male.
Juhola’s strength lies in his ability to stand back and just let this story unfold. Taking a fly-on-the-wall approach, Juhola enables us to get up close and personal with the Mathises as they grapple with each decision, torn between the desire to educate their community and the wider world about gender dysphoria in the interest of protecting other children like Coy, and defending their own privacy as the media intrusion takes its toll.
The family’s lawyer, Michael Silverman, comments at one point that Kathryn Mathis is a natural when it comes to facing the press, and while she is extremely eloquent and seemingly confident, establishing footage of her nervously cracking her neck before going on film, and seeing her watch her own TV appearances with a gaze that darts around the room, suggest she’s not altogether comfortable in the spotlight. Jeremy is slower to take to the media training, and as the family come under increasing pressure, cracks appear in their relationship. Coy’s siblings, especially triplet Max, start to feel marginalised, and Coy, a bright and outgoing child, loses some of her spark under the constant scrutiny.
But while many sought to sensationalise the case, Growing Up Coy is a rather quiet, even-handed film. It’s unflinching, but never feels exploitative. At one point, after going public with their story, the Mathises read comments about them left on social media which accuse them of child abuse and of encouraging and even fetishising Coy’s dysphoria. But if anything, Coy’s tender age serves to dispel the myth that gender issues are connected to sexuality in any way. Coy and the other children we encounter simply know inherently that their physical bodies don’t match their gender. One of the most poignant moments comes when a mother from a support group for trans kids and their families breaks down in tears while speaking about her child’s decision to change their name to reflect their new identity. She recalls how she took a long time picking a name for her baby, and her tears perfectly illustrate the agony for these parents whose determination to love and support their sons and daughters is mixed with fear, guilt, and grief for the child they are ‘losing’.
Watching Kathryn home-school the children, run the house, and deal with the media, whilst Jeremy studies full time leaves the audience heavily invested, and it’s a huge relief when the Colorado civil rights board rule in their favour. But it’s almost as much of a relief when we are told that the Mathises are giving their marriage another try. Because for all of publicity and the affect it had on a national level, this is also a very private, domestic film. In a time of political upheaval, when several states are seeking to reverse anti-discrimination legislation implemented by the Obama administration, Growing Up Coy feels like a hugely important piece of filmmaking. The Mathis family are the embodiment of the notion that love wins, and their warmth, strength, and tenacity must serve to demystify and destigmatise children like Coy who, as Kathryn so simply puts, “just wants to be”. Let’s hope that after blazing a trail, she and her family have earnt the right to do just that.
Read our interview with the filmmaker – Here!