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'Growing Up Coy' Filmmakers Discuss Trans Rights, Visibility

The filmmakers behind"Growing Up Coy,” about one family's fight for their transgender child’s rights, discuss the documentary with NBC Out.
Coy Mathis
Coy MathisDanette Kalb

As legal protections for the transgender community gain more mainstream visibility, personal stories, such as the one captured in the documentary “Growing Up Coy,” grow even more vital.

In 2013, when transgender girl Coy Mathis, then 6, was banned from using the girls' restroom at her Colorado public school, her parents--with the help of lawyer Michael Silverman of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF)--filed a civil rights complaint. In June 2013, the Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled in the Mathis family's favor.

Since Coy is so young, director Eric Juhola and producer/editor Jeremy Stulberg tactfully protect her from the camera, instead framing the film around acute observations on parental support, the power of the media and legal processes. But the documentary never loses sight of addressing the conversation from a candidly personal standpoint.

Mathis family
Mathis familyDanette Kalb

“Growing Up Coy" made its World Premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City earlier this year and will be available on Netflix on January 6. NBC Out spoke with Juhola and Stulberg, who are married to each other and co-run the production company Still Point Pictures, about trans visibility, screening the film outside big cities and a filmmaker’s responsibility to their subject.

How did you find the story of Coy, or come about the groundbreaking case the Mathis family filed?

Eric: We had been wanting to make a film about a transgender person fighting for their rights for a while. Initially we made contact with Michael Silverman, who is the [Mathis] family’s attorney and is based in New York. His organization [TLDEF] only represents transgender people for a number of different reasons, and he seemed opened to working with us. And we had been talking for a couple years when the Mathis family called him and let them know about what was happening with their situation in Colorado. So Michael told us, and it was probably within a couple weeks that we decided to take a leap of faith and flew to Colorado to meet the family and start filming with them.

Jeremy: Michael has been working on this issue for years and years and years--before this was an issue that was in the mainstream and the public eye. He’s been at the forefront of dealing with trans issues and the legal ramifications of transitioning. He’s a really interesting guy, and we knew there had to be something he was doing that we wanted to know more about. And perhaps participate in making a film about.

Eric: And another part of the reason why we wanted to do it was at the time there was very low visibility for transgender issues. It was the beginning of 2013, and it was before "Transparent." It was before Laverne Cox became a superstar.

Jeremy: Before Caitlyn Jenner transitioned publicly.

Eric: Yeah, and we were just on the heels of same-sex marriage, and it seemed like the T was being left out of the fight for rights for the LGBT community, so that’s really why we started thinking about what we could do to spotlight the issue of trans rights.

Mathis family at the Colorado capitol in Denver in 2013
Mathis family at the Colorado capitol in Denver in 2013Eric Juhola

The case was heard in 2013. When did you have your first introduction and start filming in the context of the Mathis family going public?

Eric: We started filming at the start of 2013. It was about 6 weeks before the Mathis family went public with the case. It all happened very quickly at the beginning with the media exposure and the attention they were getting from around the world once they went public.

Jeremy: And we weren’t anticipating any of this. We had no idea it would be as massive and global as it wound up being.

Eric: Yeah, and then we saw the affects of the media on the family and how they came under the microscope and received criticism and hate mail on message boards. And then the film slowly became about that because that turned into the central conflict as they were waiting for the results and decision from the Colorado Civil Rights Division.

Without knowing what would happen via the media, did you make the decision early on to focus on the parents themselves? It seems important to have other parents who see the film to identify how they protect their own children.

Eric: That was definitely one reason why we focused on the parents. These are two young, cisgender parents--and it seemed like a way into the conversation that other parents could relate to, because they were dealing with questions about Coy for the first time. So you got to experience it through their eyes. But then the other reason was we had to think carefully about how we were going to tell this story about a 6-year-old--we’re talking about a 6-year-old child--we made the decision early on that we would not focus exclusively on Coy and ask her personal and basic questions. We took a more fly-on-the-wall approach and let things play out the way they did. We gave all of the siblings equal attention and ultimately decided to make it a film about a family and the parents’ decision and not exclusively about Coy. It seemed like a more sensitive approach. The first thing we thought was other parents are the ones we really want to speak to, and by focusing on Kathryn and Jeremy [Mathis], that would be a way in for other parents when they’re watching.

You’ve play at numerous film festivals through the world, including Brazil. Were there any particular responses you received that resonated the most?

Eric: One of the best experiences that we had was in Wichita, Kansas at the Tallgrass Film Festival. There were some transgender activists and parents of transgender or gender-nonconforming kids who came to the screening. And they had just started their own support groups in that area, and it was really eye-opening and emotional to hear their experiences in a state where they do not have a supportive community or government, and they’re up against so much discrimination and bias. And even laws against them. To be able to hear responses and struggles from people in the community that this directly affects, it made me realize how important it is for this film to be seen in states with anti-trans laws, legislation and policies. There are transgender people everywhere. Every state in the country, and every country in the world. It can be easier when you live in a big city like New York or Los Angeles that’s more accepting, but when you get into the middle of the country in a very conservative state, it’s just a different way of life, and you have to protect yourself in a way that you don’t have to in a city.

Do you also have any plans to bring this into schools?

Eric: Definitely. We’re working with an educational distributor called Outcast Films, who will specifically target schools--K-12 and colleges to have the film seen in those institutions. I think it’s very important for school administrators and policymakers, and of course lawmakers, who may not be familiar with what being transgender is, or have never met a trans person, and yet they’re creating these policies about bathroom use and access to other facilities. It could be really important to let people put themselves in the shoes of a family who’s actually going through this and to see exactly who they’re talking about when they’re making these policies. And the thing about the film is that we didn’t want it to really tell you what to think. It raises questions and allows an audience to come to their own conclusions, and I think that’s really important when you’re presenting a concept to someone who would never have considered the issue. So they can make their own decision, and hopefully after seeing Coy and her parents, and spending 90 minutes with them, they’ll realize that transgender people are just that--people. Coy is just a little girl who wants to be a kid like any other kid. It’s not some weird sexual fetish or whatever misconceptions people have about what being transgender is.

One of the more powerful scenes in the film is when you show other families with transgender children interacting with the Mathis family and each other. How did you find other families in Colorado?

Eric: It actually happened organically--they actually found the Mathis [family] through social media. And they decided to meet as a group in this park in Colorado Springs. And it was the first time some of them were actually meeting each other in person. And it was when we fully realized that this is not just about Coy. There are other kids who are not only Coy’s age, but younger, and will be coming up into the school system after Coy. It really raised the stakes about winning or losing this case. It was not just going to affect Coy--it was going to affect families across the state with gender nonconforming kids.

Jeremy: Incidentally, the ruling didn’t only affect kids. It was an affirmation of previously existing Colorado law which had been misinterpreted. But when they affirmed this, they affirmed this for all trans people--that they were all able to use any public accommodation. The ruling didn’t only affect children, but also transgender adults in the state.

(“Growing Up Coy” is currently available to rent on iTunes and will be available on Netflix starting January 6. In order to maximize impact, the filmmakers are also currently raising funds in order to embark on a community tour across the U.S. in 2017.)

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