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 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 (UIL), 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 on Saturday, those who had packed into the Berry Centre, 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 school toilets 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 on Friday in the moments after Beggs’s opening-round 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 in a discussion that, by any measure, is difficult to make sense of. The coach said one of his girls had 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 grownups,” 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 minimise 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.”
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, said in one of several text messages. It kept other opponents, onlookers and an unusually large group of assembled media largely away.
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 on 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 an athlete’s 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 Dallas-Fort 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 on 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.”
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 (£400) if Taylor beat Beggs on points, $1,000 for a pin.
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“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 the Berry Centre 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 bite, 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 on 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 mother of a wrestler in the boys’ division. “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 on Saturday afternoon in line with the other girl 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.
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