Trans­gen­der is­sue hits mat in Texas

High school wrestler iden­ti­fies as male, wins girls’ ti­tle

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY KENT BABB

cy­press, tex. — Booed and bloody, Mack Beggs dropped to his knees to cel­e­brate. He was, af­ter four wins and two days and all the rest, a state cham­pion.

In a 12-2 vic­tory against Chelsea Sanchez in the 110-pound clas­si­fi­ca­tion, Beggs ended a highly controversial and dra­matic week­end by be­com­ing the first trans­gen­der par­tic­i­pant to win a Class 6A girls’ state cham­pi­onship in Texas high school wrestling.

“I just wit­nessed my sport change,” a long­time Texas wrestling coach said mo­ments af­ter Beggs, a 17-year-old ju­nior at Trin­ity High in Eu­less whose tran­si­tion from girl to boy be­gan two years ago and now in­cludes testos­terone in­jec­tions, won a cham­pi­onship. The vic­tory was seen as equal parts un­avoid­able — quick and no­tice­ably strong, he en­tered the tour­na­ment un­beaten in 52 matches against girls — and con­tentious. The Uni­ver­sity In­ter­scholas­tic League, which over­sees sports in Texas pub­lic schools, or­dered Beggs to con­tinue com­pet­ing in the girls’ divi­sion de­spite heavy up­roar and a law­suit ear­lier this month in a Travis County district court.

So Saturday, those who had packed into Berry Cen­ter, a sprawl­ing mul­ti­pur­pose fa­cil­ity in sub­ur­ban Hous­ton, were di­vided — like the state and coun­try. It seemed an un­likely place to stage a rag­ing po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion, but the tour­na­ment ended a week in which Pres­i­dent Trump re­voked fed­eral guide­lines al­low­ing trans­gen­der stu­dents to use pub­lic re­strooms that match their gen­der iden­tity; it played out in a sprawl­ing and cul­tur­ally di­verse state di­vided over a controversial “bath­room bill” sim­i­lar to the one roil­ing North Carolina.

In this time and place, with Beggs cruis­ing to a state cham­pi­onship, the hun­dreds here had no choice but to con­front one of the na­tion’s most di­vi­sive and highly charged is­sues.

“She’s stand­ing there hold­ing her head high like she’s the win­ner,” said Patti Over­street, a mother of a wrestler in the boys’ divi­sion. “She’s not win­ning. She’s cheat­ing.”

Over­street, up­set Fri­day in the mo­ments af­ter Beggs’s open­inground vic­tory, went on.

“It’s not equal,” she said. “It’s never go­ing to be equal.”

Other par­ents tip­toed around the dis­cus­sion, won­der­ing what to say and how to say it. Kids con­fronted coaches about top­ics as com­pli­cated as gen­der iden­tity and as sim­ple as fair­ness, lead­ing some to squirm and oth­ers to at­tempt ex­pla­na­tions.

“Ev­ery­body has been talk­ing about it. It’s in the ether ev­ery­where,” said one long­time Texas high school wrestling coach, who re­quested anonymity be­cause his school district pro­hib­ited its em­ploy­ees from pub­licly dis­cussing Beggs’s sit­u­a­tion. “All this week I’m in school and kids are com­ing up and talk­ing about it. I’ve never seen any­thing like this.”

Be­yond the pol­i­tics are the young peo­ple who have been forced to par­tic­i­pate within a dis­cus­sion and scene that, by any mea­sure, is dif­fi­cult to make sense of. The coach said one of his girls quit the wrestling team rather than face Beggs, who has doc­u­mented and shared the results of his testos­terone use on so­cial me­dia. James Baud­huin, the at­tor­ney su­ing the UIL over Beggs’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the girls’ divi­sion, has a daugh­ter who had wres­tled against Beggs and, at least be­fore the suit, was among his friends.

The or­deal grew com­pli­cated, on and off the mat. Baud­huin him­self said he was so con­flicted that, though he’d filed a pe­ti­tion to keep Beggs off the mat, he would none­the­less be cheer­ing for Beggs to win the cham­pi­onship.

“The 16 girls who are in [Beggs’s] bracket have been put in a very, very un­fair sit­u­a­tion be­cause of the grown-ups,” Baud­huin said. “To me, this is a com­plete abject fail­ure of lead­er­ship and ac­count­abil­ity from the peo­ple who reg­u­late sports in Texas. They’re do­ing wrong by Mack, and not just these 15 girls but all the other girls she wres­tled all year.”

Then there is the ex­pe­ri­ence of Beggs him­self. Nearly two years ago, in a video diary ex­plain­ing his tran­si­tion, he dis­cussed the sport he loved, the peace he sought and the am­bi­tion he had.

“I want to be some­body,” he said long be­fore all this; be­fore the boos and the cam­eras; be­fore his coach whisked him on and off the arena floor to min­i­mize Beggs’s vis­i­bil­ity; and be­fore a tour­na­ment run that sparked an arena, a state and a na­tion to con­front a sub­ject that pre­vi­ously could have been avoided. “Some­body who does some­thing — not just a page in a book. I want to be a book.”

‘A no-win sit­u­a­tion’

Beggs spent most of the week­end in a stag­ing area, cor­doned off and out of view. When it was time for him to wres­tle, he jogged in from a tun­nel un­used by most other par­tic­i­pants and trailed by his wrestling coach and grand­mother.

“School put a safety net on us,” Nancy Beggs, Mack’s grand­mother and le­gal guardian, told The Wash­ing­ton Post in one of sev­eral text mes­sages. It kept other op­po­nents, on­look­ers and an un­usu­ally large group of as­sem­bled me­dia largely away. Beggs, his grand­mother and coach, Travis Clark, were among those Trin­ity en­cour­aged to de­cline in­ter­views.

Two years ago, Beggs pointed a cam­era at him­self and de­scribed a child­hood of struggle and con­fu­sion — be­fore, he said, dis­cov­er­ing a word that sim­pli­fied what he had ex­pe­ri­enced: trans­gen­der.

“I knew who I was,” he said in the video, “but I just couldn’t find words for it.”

He had come to loathe his full first name, Macken­zie, and be­gan en­cour­ag­ing friends and family to call him Mack be­cause his given name “re­minded me of who I was.”

He cut his hair and told his grand­mother that he wanted to be a boy. Nancy Beggs said Saturday that her grand­son felt re­lief af­ter iden­ti­fy­ing as trans­gen­der, like a long­time af­flic­tion had fi­nally been di­ag­nosed.

Two years ago, Mack Beggs be­gan tak­ing sup­ple­ments to be­gin his phys­i­cal tran­si­tion. In the video, he pre­dicted a com­pli­cated fu­ture re­gard­ing UIL rules but none­the­less de­clared that he wanted to go on par­tic­i­pat­ing in the sport he had fallen in love with. He be­gan tak­ing testos­terone in 2015.

“Ev­ery­thing is great,” Beggs said in the video. “The mes­sage I’m try­ing to send, the over­all univer­sal mes­sage I would say to y’all is don’t give up and don’t give up on your­self, be­cause you don’t know when you’ll find your­self.”

As time passed, at­tor­ney Baud­huin said, Beggs re­quested to wres­tle against boys, though be­cause UIL guide­lines de­ter­mine ath­letes’ gen­der based on their birth cer­tifi­cate, that re­quest was declined (cit­ing pri­vacy, the UIL would not dis­cuss that re­quest or Beggs’s spe­cific case); in a brief in­ter­view be­fore the cham­pi­onship fi­nal, Nancy Beggs would not com­ment on whether her grand­son hoped to even­tu­ally par­tic­i­pate in the boys’ divi­sion.

Last year, coaches in the Dal­lasFort Worth area be­gan hear­ing about changes in Beggs’s physique. He was strong and lean, and coaches no­ticed an un­mis­tak­able strength ad­van­tage that hadn’t been there even a year ear­lier.

A few coaches and par­ents be­came con­cerned their girls wouldn’t com­pete on equal ter­rain. Other coaches dis­agreed, more im­pressed by Beggs’s com­mit­ment to im­prove­ment and his men­tal prepa­ra­tion. Sides were es­tab­lished. Dis­cus­sions be­came in­creas­ingly tense. Ques­tions be­came more dif­fi­cult to an­swer.

Why, sev­eral girls asked the wrestling coach who had asked to re­main anony­mous, was it okay for Beggs to re­ceive hor­mones but not them? Why en­dure train­ing and risk in­jury if there was no dis­cernible path to vic­tory?

“It’s a dom­i­nant Amer­i­can value: fair­ness, the equal­ity of the pur­suit of some­thing,” the coach said. “. . . There’s no doubt that coaches are trou­bled by this; kids are trou­bled by it.”

In De­cem­ber, Baud­huin said, par­ents be­gan ask­ing him to do some­thing about this. They viewed so­cial me­dia posts doc­u­ment­ing the changes to Beggs’s body, and Beggs made quick work of ev­ery op­po­nent he faced. Dur­ing the state re­gional tour­na­ment, Beggs’s two op­po­nents for­feited rather than face him.

On be­half of the fa­ther of one op­po­nent, Baud­huin sent a cer­ti­fied let­ter in Jan­uary pe­ti­tion­ing the UIL to move Beggs to the boys’ divi­sion. This month he filed a law­suit that asked for Beggs to be al­lowed to wres­tle boys or re­moved from the cham­pi­onship tour­na­ment. For now, he said, the court has made no de­ci­sion. The UIL is­sued a state­ment Fri­day that said the birth-cer­tifi­cate rule could change in the fu­ture (its leg­isla­tive coun­cil meets in June), and Beggs’s school district de­ter­mined his testos­terone was “well be­low the al­lowed level.”

Beggs has one year of high school eligibility re­main­ing and could face ad­di­tional scru­tiny and po­ten­tial court­room bat­tles next sea­son.

“You’ve got a kid who’s ei­ther go­ing to quit the sport en­tirely or she has got to wres­tle against girls, which she doesn’t want to do,” said Baud­huin, who said he still refers to Beggs by the fe­male pro­noun be­cause he strug­gles to see his daugh­ter’s old friend as a boy. “She’s in a no-win sit­u­a­tion.”

Mixed mes­sages

Lisa Latham’s daugh­ter was sched­uled to face Beggs in the state tour­na­ment’s open­ing round, and through­out the pre­vi­ous week Latham tried to con­vince Tay­lor, a se­nior at nearby Clear Spring High, to for­feit as Beggs’s op­po­nents did the pre­vi­ous week­end.

Tay­lor, though, re­fused to con­sider a for­feit. This would be her fi­nal week­end of high school com­pe­ti­tion, an ap­pear­ance at the state cham­pi­onship along­side the state’s top 16 wrestlers. What­ever the out­come, she wouldn’t be giv­ing up.

Her mother prayed for Tay­lor’s safety and texted her in­spi­ra­tional songs. She called the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union the day be­fore the state tour­na­ment to ask for an emer­gency in­junc­tion to keep Beggs from com­pet­ing. Tay­lor’s aunt took a dif­fer­ent ap­proach: of­fer­ing $500 if Tay­lor beat Beggs on points, $1,000 for a pin.

“She’s go­ing for it. She’s not quitting,” Lisa Latham said. “I go from pray­ing and, ‘God, I trust you,’ to be­ing an­gry at my­self for teach­ing her not to quit.”

Tay­lor’s par­ents ar­rived at Berry Cen­ter shortly be­fore Fri­day’s open­ing round. Her fa­ther, James, was con­fi­dent; her mother was anx­ious, rock­ing back and forth with her hands clasped. Nei­ther blamed Beggs, ex­actly, for cre­at­ing this con­tro­versy; in­stead the Lathams were un­happy with the UIL.

“The sys­tem is set up to fail. It’s fail­ing Mack, and it’s fail­ing my daugh­ter,” Lisa said.

Beggs won on points to ad­vance to the af­ter­noon’s quar­ter­fi­nal. Lisa was re­lieved her daugh­ter hadn’t been in­jured, and James was proud that Tay­lor had faced Beggs de­spite the long odds. Both were re­lieved Tay­lor hadn’t been pinned.

They walked to­ward the con­course, a clus­ter of cam­eras wait­ing for a sound byte, and even­tu­ally Tay­lor cut through the crowd and found her par­ents. Her mother wrapped Tay­lor in a hug, and a mo­ment later she was off to re­join her team­mates. Lisa shook her head. “She didn’t have a chance,” she said of her daugh­ter. “It’s just not the way I saw her go­ing out.”

The boos grew louder as Beggs ad­vanced, the chat­ter through­out the arena in­ten­si­fy­ing.

“Here comes the guy,” one young wrestler said as Beggs stepped onto the mat for his first match Fri­day.

Wrestlers and rel­a­tives and fans de­bated the con­tro­versy in the con­courses through­out the week­end; coaches and ref­er­ees dis­cussed it on the floor be­tween matches. There were about 450 wrestlers here from roughly 240 schools, but no topic res­onated through the arena like the com­ings and go­ings of Mack Beggs.

“If you really want to be a boy, why don’t you wres­tle the boys?” a wrestling coach said dur­ing Beggs’s semi­fi­nal match.

“She’d get killed,” an­other coach said.

A few thought the at­ten­tion was a good way to pres­sure the UIL to re­ex­am­ine its pol­icy on gen­der; oth­ers be­lieved it cast an ugly shadow over the week­end and sent mixed mes­sages to ath­letes.

“If you want to play the games, you have to play it fair,” said Over­street, the wrestler’s mother. “I don’t care what sex you are. Don’t go on the mat with en­hance­ment if my kid can’t.”

Beggs walked onto the arena floor Saturday af­ter­noon in line with the other girls wrestlers. Nancy Beggs stood near a tun­nel and watched, pre­par­ing for her grand­son’s match — and what­ever waited next.

“It’s only get­ting started,” Nancy Beggs said dur­ing a brief in­ter­view. “Mack is ready for it.”

A few mo­ments later, she walked onto the floor and joined her grand­son as he warmed up.

Beggs handed Nancy his head­phones and clamped on his head­gear, and with Sanchez wait­ing on the mat, Beggs jogged onto the sur­face to greet her. Some mem­bers of the crowd booed. A few of them cheered. Then a boy shook hands with his fe­male op­po­nent, the two of them leaned in, and the ref­eree’s whis­tle blew.

MICHAEL STRAVATO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

PHO­TOS BY MICHAEL STRAVATO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Trans­gen­der wrestler Mack Beggs, at top, takes on Tay­lor Latham in the open­ing round of the Texas girls’ state tour­na­ment. ABOVE: Beggs, a ju­nior, won the Class 6A crown at 110 pounds.

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