We chat with Eric Juhola about his documentary 'Growing Up Coy'. Eric gives an insight into the making of a three year on-and-off feature and the difficulties he faced when attempting to document such a difficult topic with a young family.
What drew you to transgender issues to start with?
Well, in the United States anyway there’s been a lot of progress with gay and lesbian rights, in terms of when gay marriage was legalised. But it felt like the transgender community was sort of left out from the progress that was happening legally for protecting the rights of LGBT people. So, I knew a couple of years before we even started filming that I wanted to do something about transgender rights and so I made contact with the lawyer – who you’ll see is in the film – Michael Silverman. He’s based in New York which is where I’m from, and he only represents transgender clients for civil rights cases and test litigation cases. So we had sort of been talking – I don’t know probably 2010/2011 – and then one day at the end of 2012 he told me about the Mathis family, who the film is about, and Coy Mathis who’s six years old. It just sounded like this was the case that was going to be a big deal at the time, and so within a week or two we were on a plane to Colorado to meet the family and started filming with them shortly after that. So, that’s how that happened.
Did you ever worry about the impact the film would have on Coy as well, because obviously a lot of media was involved in her life anyway.
Yeah definitely, so we started filming with the family about six weeks before they actually went public with their case. And we spent a lot of time off-camera with the family, as well as filming. So we kind of had a lot of discussions about what it would mean to be in a documentary and how we were different from the media – it’s not like we came in and filmed for an hour and then left. We filmed with them over the course of three years which is much more different. And we talked about our role of educating people about the issue and I think that because we were coming at the project from wanting to make the world a better place for people like Coy – that was in line with what they wanted to do as well. And so that’s how we basically agreed to move forward with filming, and then be filming with them for I think three years on and off.
So a long time!
Did you ever have any doubts or low moments during?
When the whole media, when they went public with the case, and the media started scrutinising them and they became in the public eye – it wasn’t just US media, it was all over the world, there was press on them in the UK too. That was… it got to be a little scary because it felt like a runaway train a little bit, and it wasn’t something that could be controlled. You know, it’s like the media has bias just like regular people and so you never know how the media, or what angle, they’re going to put on the story. So there were some reports where they used the wrong pronoun. There were reports that were just critical of the family, saying that they were child abusers and Coy should be taken away. And so the stress of that was really difficult – because we were filming at the same time and so while there were TV cameras parked outside the house. Yes, that was definitely a low moment for the family and also for us just witnessing what they were going through. If that’s what you meant?
Because there are different kinds of low moments.
“we were coming at the project from wanting to make the world a better place for people like Coy”
To have such a sort of young face to this, do you think that helped the movement – because she was six when you started filming – so do you think that helped to have such a young child involved? More for the media image of it rather than for her herself?
It’s definitely… the fact that she was six was actually really controversial. And a lot of the reporting about the case was focused on her age and ‘how young is too young?’ and the parents should maybe wait until she’s older, so that she could make a decision. And when I first met them I honestly did not know what to expect, I didn’t know what was right and what was wrong and I just tried to go in with no judgement and just to see and observe this family. The thing that was really clear when I met them for the first time was that Coy – she was just simply a little girl. This was not a boy wearing girls clothes. This was just a little girl, who didn’t even – at the time – know what the word transgender meant, all she knew was that she was a kid who just wanted to play like any other kids. She didn’t want to focus on why she was different, or that she was trans, she just wanted to be a kid. So I think when you are dealing with someone that young, it kind of takes sex and sexuality out of the picture because they’re too young to even start worrying about that and it’s was just clearly a little girl. On the flip side of that, for people who haven’t met the family and who haven’t spent time with Coy it’s really easy to put a judgement on what the parents are doing and if they’re doing something wrong. And that became clear as we were filming, yeah for sure.
What has the response been to the film so far? Has it been mainly positive?
It has. It’s been mainly positive. The thing that’s been really great about the film is that it doesn’t preach to the choir, because Coy’s parents are two typical parents. They’re a straight couple, and their community is a conservative community, and so I’m hoping… and this is what’s been, just spending time with the family and asking questions and not assigning judgement to them. I think is really key to helping change people’s minds about the issue. You may have felt one way before but then to be able to spend ninety minutes with the family and to really care about them and the struggle that they went through is something that really kind of can open people’s eyes. Like even gay and lesbian people, like before they saw the film – like friends of mine – would question ‘six is too young, how do they know?’. But then after you see the film, you just, I think – you’ll have to be the judge of that when you see it tonight – but I think you just sort of get it in a way that you maybe wouldn’t get it before you saw the film. Because I think there’s a statistic like – something like 80 – I don’t know what it is in the UK but in the US – like 86 per cent of people have never met a transgender person or knowingly met a transgender person so most people, what they know about transgender people is what they see in the news, in the media. And that is really powerful for me, because it means that potentially this film can help shape what people think about the issue and transgender people and that just like anybody else they just want to use the bathroom, like anybody else. And not all of this other nonsense that they talk about in the US like do you have the bathroom issues in the UK?
Yeah we’re going through that at the moment. I think it’s not quite such a large debate, but it’s certainly one which is flying around. Especially at universities I think.
I think university is the point, I think in this country, where it’s more acknowledged and accepted and spoken about anything to do with transgender issues or rights whereas, in particular, something like Coy’s story isn’t something that (at least to my knowledge) is anything we’ve really heard about much in the UK. It’s generally 20s onwards that it normally gets spoken about.
But that’s another reason why I think that it was really… like this is the first time in history that I think parents are allowing their young kids to express their gender identity the way they feel. I never saw that growing up, I don’t know if you’ve seen that before. It’s like here I think we hear about people like Coy, and people just start coming out of the woodwork and that’s been another response after we’ve shown the film is that people in the audience, parents are coming up to us and they’re either like ‘I have a kid who is like maybe not totally a boy, or totally a girl, I’m not sure what to do’. Or they talk about friends that they have or classmates that their kids have at school and it’s like, all of sudden I’ve realised that through making this that this isn’t just one kid, there’s like thousands of kids like Coy and they’re just out there, they’re just not in the media like Coy was. So, it’s been interesting,
Have you had any comments from really conservative people who you’ve changed the minds of?
Not that I know of yet. But I’m hopeful. But there have been liberal people who have been questioning the issue, who when see the film say that they’ve realised that it’s something different. You know certainly, my parents are pretty conservative and they’ve seen the film and they’ve totally… I think they get it in a way that they didn’t get it before. But really this is only the fourth festival that we’ve screened at, so it’s not like it’s been out there yet. So I think that the impact that the film might have is sort of yet to happen. So my experience so far is just audience members that have come up after screenings, but it’s not widely out there yet. So hopefully!
With regards to the upcoming US election – I’m not sure Hillary’s position on it – but I guess it’s between Trump and Hillary, surely that’s not going to be a great choice for transgender people in America, are you worried?
I’m worried for a lot of reasons! (laughter) Certainly, Hillary Clinton has spoken out in support of transgender people, and all LGBT people, and I think that she’s spent time with transgender groups to understand the issue. I don’t know if Trump has done that…. (laughter) I imagine not. So, yeah I think that it is a political issue and that’s a really unfortunate thing the people’s – just who they are – has become a political issue and their sense of belonging in the world is being decided by laws that are being created. I mean that’s just terrible. It’s an awful thought.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
Just putting this film out there is a priority right now. It took three years to make and I really just want to spend all of my time putting it out there and trying to make a difference with it. So I’m not even thinking about the next project. Probably go on a long vacation first! Before the next thing, for sure.
“their sense of belonging in the world is being decided by laws that are being created. I mean that’s just terrible. It’s an awful thought.”
With this project did you have something in mind always that this was the story you wanted to tell and you were looking for somebody with who could explore the issues of the story, or was it all born from learning of Coy’s story?
Through their attorney we were really looking for, definitely someone who was involved in a civil rights case, who were fighting for their rights. But you can’t just make a film about anyone. So there were many cases that came up over the years where we were like, um – maybe but that’s not – it’s like when you make a ninety minute film about the character you have to think about the fact that there needs to be a story if you’re going to hold people’s interest and it has to be a movie that people are going to want to watch and have some interesting components to it. So, the thing about Coy and her parents are just that they’re this typical all-American family, they’re from the Midwest in the United States. It wasn’t like a preaching to the choir situation where a lot of, there are a lot of actually films about transgender subjects out there right now, but not as young as six but older. And a lot of them, it’s very pro-transgender issues and rights and explaining why its right, but when you have someone who’s six, and parents who are kind of learning along with the rest of us about what to do – what’s the right thing to do – that’s the thing that’s like a light bulb moment. That’s what makes it accessible to everybody else who may not be so in tune to what the issue is, because they’re learning, plus we are and it’s coming from an outside perspective versus from the inside – if that makes sense?
On the technicality of such a task of a three year project, and then piecing it together in the editing room – how was it to approach that glut of information and piecing it together as a story?
It was really difficult, it was probably the most challenging thing. And part of what was challenging was just like trying to figure out when to stop filming. Because there were so many people who were advising us – who were like, you really need to keep filming until she goes through puberty and becomes an adult and I was like, well I can’t keep going for like ten years, some people maybe they can but it’s like the idea of going on for ten years is like: I can’t do that! So really we had to… the time we realised we had to stop filming was when the family actually kind of learned something, they’re in a different place in the end of the film than they are at the beginning and that’s what we sort of had to kind of work through in the edit room. It’s really about making the people who are in the film rich characters who are just real people, but also who go on this journey and end up somewhere different from where they were. That was probably the most challenging part of it because there are so many like details in the case, and you don’t want to go too far into the technical stuff. Because really what makes it relatable is just the things that you can identify with as a parent or kid, and going through those life experiences. So it’s like trying to find a balance between all that stuff. It was challenging.
Image: Eric Juhola