The cheers erupted as soon as the referee’s whistle rang out. But so did the boos.
Mack Beggs, then 17 years old and boasting a thick head of bleached blond hair, circled the mat, then sank to his knees and soaked up the roar from the crowd. Beggs had just become the first trans athlete to win a Class 6A girls’ state championship in high school wrestling—and he’d done so despite a lawsuit, a fight in the Texas state Legislature, and a national debate over his right to compete.
“It was definitely bittersweet,” Beggs recalled in a recent interview with VICE News. It felt unreal until, he said, his coach looked him in the eyes and told him the truth: “You earned this.”
At 22, Beggs is now in college, taking online classes, and retired from the sport that turned him into a nationwide lightning rod. Instead, he’s focusing on mixed martial arts, in the hopes of becoming the first trans man to enter the UFC.
Although he’s on the sidelines, Beggs is still watching as the next generation of trans athletes grapple with forces similar to the ones that tried to keep him out of the sport he loved. So far this year, lawmakers in at least 31 states have introduced bills that would block trans athletes from participating in sports that match their gender identity.
“What is this, if you’re a trans individual, you’re going to be ‘checked’?” Beggs said. “I wouldn’t want somebody ‘checking’ my daughter or son, figuring out whether or not they’re ‘woman enough’ or ‘man enough.’”
Three states—Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi—have already turned this legislation into law. While North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed his state’s bill targeting trans athletes Wednesday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey is now weighing whether to sign a similar measure in her state. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem vetoed her state’s anti-trans athletes bill, but she did sign a pair of executive orders on the issue.
Beggs’ home state is also considering legislation that targets trans athletes. Currently, the University Interscholastic League of Texas, which oversees high school athletics, requires that athletes play on the sports team that matches the gender listed on their birth certificate. That’s why, if Beggs wanted to compete at all, he had to compete with girls.
However, if trans students amend their birth certificate to match their correct gender, the league will accept those amended birth certificates. But under a new proposal under consideration in the Texas state Legislature, that would no longer work. The league would only accept students’ original birth certificates. (On Wednesday, a state lawmaker declared that the bill would likely die in committee, but its demise is still far from assured.)
This historic wave of anti-trans bills has also chased Beggs to his new home of Alabama: That state’s Legislature has sent a bill barring trans athletes to Gov. Ivey, a Republican. Its state Senate has also overwhelmingly passed a bill to make it a felony to provide gender-affirming health care to trans youth. Lawmakers in at least 19 other states have introduced similar bills, with varying degrees of consequences for providers and parents.
The Texas version of this legislation aims to make providing gender-affirming health care to trans kids tantamount to child abuse.
“It’s crazy how it’s even a debatable situation,” Beggs said. “We’re taking away time from other topics and situations that Texas needs to worry about.”
Wrestling first intrigued Beggs around 2013, when he was in eighth grade in Euless, Texas, a town nestled between Dallas and Fort Worth. A lifelong athlete, Beggs had always wanted to do mixed martial arts; like that sport, wrestling combined combat with competition.
But wrestling quickly became more than just a way to “toss around people,” as Beggs put it. He loved the training and order that it required, as well as the camaraderie among his teammates. Beggs was already self-assured—he’d been publicly out as trans on social media since 2011, posing confidently in photos loaded up with hashtags like “pioneer” and “inspiration”—but that supportive network strengthened Beggs’ faith in himself.
Trinity junior Mack Beggs is named the winner of the 6A Girls 110 Weight Class championship match in the Texas Wrestling State Tournament on February 25, 2017, at Berry Center in Cypress, Texas. (Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
“It just kind of made me a better person,” Beggs recalled. “It made me feel safe—the life lessons, and the teachings that I would get, and the discipline. It’s just not wrestling. This is sports in general. Sports [are] a safe place for kids.”
But even in eighth grade, Beggs knew that his wrestling could prove controversial. He thought to himself, “If it blows up, it blows up.”
“If it blows up, it blows up.”
“Someone has to do it, and honestly, why not me? A person who doesn’t really give a crap about what anybody thinks about what I do,” he said. With a laugh, Beggs added, “I have a strong head and a hard head on my shoulders.”
It did blow up: In February 2017, just days ahead of the state championships, the father of another wrestler filed a lawsuit asking the University Interscholastic League to block Beggs from competing. The lawsuit claimed Beggs, who was taking testosterone, had an unfair advantage.
Beggs’ coach and grandma were the ones who told him about the lawsuit.
“It was just heart-shattering,” Beggs said.
Under Texas law and league rules, students are allowed to take steroids—like testosterone—if they’re given by a “medical practitioner for a valid medical purpose.” But then a Republican state senator introduced a bill to expand the University Interscholastic League’s ability to regulate students’ use of steroids. Opponents of the bill believed it was a thinly veiled attempt to undermine, and even prohibit, trans athletes.
Variations of this fight are now playing out in statehouses across the country. Bearing names like “Save Women’s Sports Act” and “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” these anti-trans bills and the debates around them tend to focus on trans women and girls, with trans male athletes like Beggs largely left out of the conversation. The bills are framed as a bulwark protecting cis girls and women from an apparent onslaught of trans athletes.
The real numbers
Based on statistics alone, that onslaught is a fantasy. Less than 2 percent of all high school students identify as trans, according to a 2019 CDC survey. And if trans athletes were so wildly successful, there would likely be more at the professional level—instead, there are vanishingly few. Although the Olympics published guidelines to let trans athletes participate openly back in 2003, for example, none have yet done so. (Three trans athletes could take part in the postponed Tokyo Olympics.)
Scientists have also insisted, over and over, that the current wave of bills targeting young trans athletes are not based in science. “Currently, there is no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals (or male individuals) have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition (e.g., cross-sex hormones, gender-confirming surgery),” a 2017 analysis of research on trans athletes concluded. (Current medical guidelines in the U.S. do not recommend that trans minors undergo surgery, despite Republican rhetoric suggesting otherwise.) “Therefore, competitive sport policies that place restrictions on transgender people need to be considered and potentially revised.”
The standards set by elite sports organizations, scientists say, also shouldn’t necessarily be applied downwards to children with still-developing bodies. In one legal filing in a lawsuit over an Idaho law blocking trans girls and women from school sports, a New York endocrinologist dismantled the oft-repeated argument that “women and girls who are transgender have ‘an absolute advantage’ over non-transgender girls.” The endocrinologist, who runs a health center for trans people and was testifying on behalf of the ACLU, pointed out that the impact of testosterone is blunted until later on in puberty, among other arguments.
In any case, Beggs says he stayed on a minimal dose of testosterone throughout his time in high school competitions. In late 2017, he was below the target dose for transgender men, ESPN reported. It wasn’t easy, especially when Beggs would see trans guys on social media who were able to take the appropriate amount of testosterone.
“They were developing into the person that I wanted to be, and I didn’t necessarily have that luxury because I was still competing,” Beggs said. He did think about giving up. It would just be so much easier if he didn’t have to fight all the time, if he could be fully himself.
But whenever he contemplated hanging up his wrestling shoes, Beggs would remember how much he despised losing.
“I hate people who are bigots and people who are discriminatory and people who do not understand what they’re talking about. To know that they would win in an argument would make me so mad,” he said. This was his chance to make history, Beggs decided, and he wasn’t about to let anybody take it away from him.
“Fuck everybody,” he recalled deciding. “I’m gonna do what I want to do.”
In April 2017, weeks after Beggs’ victory at the state championships, a judge tossed out the lawsuit over him, on the grounds that the University Interscholastic League had the discretion to deal with Beggs. The bill that would’ve handed the league more power over students’ steroid use ended up languishing in a committee.
The following year, during his senior year of high school, Beggs went on to win the state championship again. By 2019, he’d undergone top surgery, changed his birth certificate to match his gender, and started wrestling against men at Life University in Georgia.
Shifting to collegiate wrestling wasn’t easy. Beggs said he struggled to make first string. “The first two years, it was me really catching up, like trying to catch up with my hormonal levels,” he said. “This is me competing with men—very different from a high school perspective.”
Still, Beggs keeps his medals. Every now and then, he said, “I’ll pop out the box and I’ll just look through my medals and be like, ‘You know, I did this.’ It makes me feel good about myself.”
He’s currently focused on trying to bring attention to the bills targeting young trans athletes. Beggs has spoken to a few, as well as collaborated with a few LGBTQ+ rights groups to, as he put it, “change the narrative” around trans athletes.
But Beggs himself isn’t insulated from the legislative attacks on trans people. Even though he’s technically old enough to evade Alabama’s anti-trans health care bill, Beggs says that he and his girlfriend are still trying to get out of the state regardless of whether it becomes law. His doctor is already based in Georgia; getting gender-affirming care has just proved too complicated in Alabama. Eventually, Beggs wants to return to Texas and work as a therapist for kids who are looking for gender-affirming care.
“This bigotry and this discrimination isn’t going to last forever,” Beggs said. “You gotta look at the light at the end of the tunnel, because if not, you’re just going to get sucked in by the dark of the tunnel. You just gotta keep running until you’re engulfed in that light.”
Mack Beggs with his dog, courtesy of Beggs