“Growing Up Coy”
A Landmark Civil Rights Case
Coy was born biologically a boy but began to identify as a girl when she was 18 months old by wearing dresses, having long hair, and loving the color pink. She was one of triplets and has two sisters. Her father, Jeremy Mathis is a former Marine, and her mother, Kathryn, is a freelance portrait photographer.
During kindergarten, the Mathis parents notified the school in the Fountain-Fort Carson School district that Coy had identified as a girl and should be treated as one. However, when she was in first grade, they received a letter stating that Coy could not use the girl’s bathroom and that the best solution would be to have her use staff bathrooms or a gender-neutral one in the school’s health office.
This outraged and upset Coy’s father and mother who took her out of school and began their own home schooling program. After thinking things through, they decided to have Michael D. Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, handle their fight for her rights. Silverman met them in Colorado and decided to use the case as a critical test of how state anti-discrimination laws are applied to transgender students.
This film, directed by Eric Juhola looks at the efforts of a six-year-old trans girl and her brave parents to defend her rights. Silverman shares that there are 17 states and the District of Columbia offering some form of legal safeguards for transgender people.
The film is a fascinating portrait of how parents, support their trans-gender male-born six-year-old within the family, then against public opinion when Coy goes to elementary school and they request Coy’s use of the girls’ bathroom. Today this is quite an important and hot issue but Juhola met the family in 2012 with his attorney friend Michael Silverman of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund as they prepared to file a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division against the school system. The news had just begun to shift back then.
Kathryn, because of her profession, has lots of pictures of their large blonde brood: older sister eight-year-old Dakota, younger autistic sister three-year-old Auri, and the six-year-old triplets: Lily with cerebral palsy, their only male child, Max, and Coy. The photos show Coby as an unhappy little boy until by 18-months-old his parents give into his demands to wear his sisters’ clothing and wish for their anatomy. They consulted a psychologist specializing in nonconforming gender identity and send Coy off to kindergarten in the suburbs of Colorado Springs, an area known for evangelical mega-churches and for proselytizing at the nearby Air Force Academy. Anti-government and anti-Planned Parenthood billboards are all over the landscape in the foothills of the Rockies. The lawyer warns that their legal strategy has to include a media plan for educating the public.
The film is strongest at showing the personal stress from what follows but unlike reality TV stars who want to be famous, this became a media nightmare for the family. After their announcement in Denver, local, national, even international press surrounded their house and their phone never stopped ringing. TV news clips emphasize they were depicted in salacious promotion and headlines. The father is a media relations major at Colorado State, so maybe that helped at handling press conferences and balancing the media’s need for access to their child with Coy’s fatigue at rationalizing his choices as other children acted out their resentments. During all of this, the parents struggled to continue home schooling their kids until the school agreed to accept them on their terms. Their ten-year marriage also began to wear down in front of the camera.
Since the Mathis’s victory in 2013, it became a model for other states and the recent directive of the Federal Departments of Education and Justice establishing trans students access to bathrooms of their choosing, we could only hope that the family moves to a more fluidly accepting place where personal choices don’t have to be defined by a binary litigious system.