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New documentary explores the civil rights battle of transgender child Coy Mathis

Coy's comeback


The family comes out to support Coy. - COURTESY ERIC JUHOLA
  • Courtesy Eric Juhola
  • The family comes out to support Coy.

You don't have to be local to remember the Mathis family. Once news broke in 2013 of 6-year-old Coy and her family's lawsuit against Eagleside Elementary in Fountain, her face was all over the news, from this publication to international television.

Now, almost four years later, Coy is back in the public eye with Growing Up Coy, a film by Eric Juhola and Still Point Pictures, which premiered in June at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York. This weekend brings its local debut at the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival.

The documentary follows the Mathis family throughout the process of their historic lawsuit, from a support group for parents of transgender youth in Colorado Springs (filmed in our very own America the Beautiful Park) to the steps of the state Capitol where they announced the news of their landmark victory.

When Coy came out, parents Jeremy and Kathryn Mathis were young (31 and 27, respectively) with six children, one diagnosed with autism and another with cerebral palsy. As Coy began exhibiting signs of gender dysphoria, the couple knew more challenges lay ahead but supported their daughter all the same.

For a while, Coy ran into few troubles with her identity. Her parents allowed her to dress the way she wanted, play with the toys she wanted and decorate her room the way she wanted (in pink, her favorite color). But shortly after she turned 6, her school informed Kathryn and Jeremy that Coy could no longer use the girls' restroom.

"I am certain you can appreciate," the school said in a letter, "that as Coy grows older and his male genitals develop along with the rest of his body, at least some parents and students are likely to become uncomfortable with his continued use of the girls' restroom."

The school not only misgendered Coy by referring to her with the incorrect pronouns, but also failed to consider that singling Coy out, forcing her to use the boys' restroom or staff facilities could irrevocably affect her.

"When we see that transgender students are dropping out of school at higher rates than non-transgender students," Michael Silverman, the Mathis' attorney, says in the film, "we know that part of the reason for that is because they can't access facilities."

Though Coy's 2013 case represented a huge step forward in the fight for transgender rights, the bathroom debate has only become more contentious. After the Obama administration released a directive earlier this year stating that transgender students must be allowed to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity, 11 states filed lawsuits to challenge it.

Furthermore, according to a report by Gallup released this spring, three separate polls regarding transgender bathroom use yielded inconclusive results. "The American public has not formed firm opinions on the new issue of policies or laws surrounding transgender individuals' use of bathroom facilities," the report reads.

Juhola hopes his documentary will influence that opinion.

When he set out to film Growing Up Coy, many Americans were unfamiliar with the term 'transgender.' Visibility for transgender individuals in the media was practically nonexistent, and most attention within the LGBTQ community centered on the fight for marriage equality.

"It just felt like the T was being left out of LGBT," Juhola says, "so I [wanted] to make a documentary about a transgender person fighting for their rights."

Director Eric Juhola - COURTESY ERIC JUHOLA
  • Courtesy Eric Juhola
  • Director Eric Juhola

Juhola formed a connection with Silverman, who headed the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund at the time. The two occasionally discussed cases as potential film subjects, but none of them worked out until the Mathis family contacted Silverman about their daughter.

"Kathryn and Jeremy are two straight parents, just like any other parents out there," Juhola says, "who happen to have a gender-nonconforming child. So to see the issue through their eyes — I felt it could be a good way to introduce the topic of transgender kids to everyone."

Within a week of learning about Coy, Juhola and his team flew from New York to Colorado to meet the Mathis family. Immediately, Juhola felt a connection. Coy must have too, because she hugged him the moment he walked through the door.

"It made me realize what was at stake with this story and with this family, and how important it was to get across [that] feeling — that Coy is a little kid who wants to be like any other child."

Growing Up Coy contributes a unique perspective to the conversation of transgender rights because it focuses not just on Coy, her gender identity or which bathroom she uses, but also on the family that loves her enough to put themselves through the media frenzy that followed their lawsuit, which included accusations of abuse and other negative attention.

"In order for civil rights to advance, somebody has to stand up for them," Juhola says, "and that means somebody has to put themselves in the public eye and be the face of it. When that happens, there's a sacrifice. There's a loss of privacy, there's criticism and scrutiny."

Juhola's approach involved minimizing that scrutiny. Rather than asking Coy any direct questions about her gender, or singling her out in any other way, he and his team played the "fly on the wall."

Kathryn Mathis says Coy is now comfortable in her skin. - COURTESY JASON OLDAK
  • Courtesy Jason Oldak
  • Kathryn Mathis says Coy is now comfortable in her skin.

A sense of intimacy results from that tactic. Rarely in high-profile cases like this will viewers see the subject unguarded. A massive amount of study and preparation goes into most media appearances, but the family seldom seems to perform for Juhola's cameras.

Scenes show the children playing together, like any other family, and Coy looks and acts like your average 6-year-old. She's sweet, she gets cranky, she drives her siblings crazy and shows them ample affection. She loves Justin Bieber and wearing tiaras.

She's just a little girl, and Juhola wants the world to see that. "I think films, TV, documentaries ... what's put out there is so important in terms of educating people," he says.

So far the response to Growing Up Coy has been "incredible," according to Juhola. He says people have contacted him who have never considered the issue before, or who have a new outlook after seeing Coy's story.

"Those kinds of comments are, for me, what it's really about," he says, "being able to step into someone else's shoes and see it from their point of view, and maybe to change your own perception or what you thought the transgender experience was like."

The effect on other parents of transgender children has been noticeable as well. He hoped to give parents "permission to allow their kids to identify as they feel" and to help them in that endeavor. Due to the immediate and intensive response, the Growing Up Coy website ( now hosts a list of resources for those parents.

The Mathis family sacrificed a great deal to put a human face on a divisive issue, and though they're out of the spotlight now, Growing Up Coy offers another chance for Coy's story to educate and inspire people, one viewer at a time.

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