ESPN's primetime newsmagazine show E:60 will Thursday night bring America the story of "Life as Matt," and in doing so give sports fans and athletes an intimate glimpse into the life of a transgender high school athlete just trying to be himself.
Until he graduated this year, Matt Dawkins was a sprinter at Cherokee High School in New Jersey struggling with his gender identity. First competing as a girl, Matt's decision to transition genders during high school eventually put him on the boys track & field team where he found friends, acceptance and success.
ESPN's piece is well-suited for both LGBT viewers and a mainstream audience, people who often have no clue on earth what transgender means, let alone the struggles that trans youth and adults suffer through. It adeptly explains and demonstrates the internal and external issues trans people face. I can already hear the GLAAD Media Award acceptance speech.
One of the aspects that is so well-explored is the pressure sports put on Matt to not transition. That isn't to say that the people in track & field weren't supportive. Rather, the dilemma about the timing of his transition was all financial. Matt, competing against other girls in the body of a girl, was a running phenom, setting high school records as a freshman. A freshman! The lure of Division I scholarships kept him from transitioning early on in high school.
Eventually the emotional life-or-death situation he found himself in, a boy feeling trapped in a girl's body, left him with an existential crisis faced at some point by every single transgender person. Matt chose to turn away from the impending college scholarships and transition genders. As a boy racing against boys, no scholarship offers ever came.
Matt's father was one who pushed his son to postpone his transition until after college, in part to take advantage of the scholarships. Yet the choice to support his son's decision was ultimately a clear choice.
"You cannot judge your child for being who they are," Matt's father said. "You might not like it, but you need to provide that safe space. Without that safe space, you're leaving your child out there to the wolves. And what kind of parent are you?"
Thankfully, trans student-athletes in New Jersey have low hurdles to cross to participate in sports as the gender with which they identify. Last year Matt ran with the boys at his high school, and he was good enough to win several races.
"I hate when people say, 'you're too young, it's just a phase. What if you want to go back?'" Matt said. "I'm like, I'll never want to go back to wearing a dress and shaving my legs. Never. It's not a possibility."
My one criticism of the piece is how liberally ESPN has used Matt's former name in promoting the piece, and partly in the piece itself (though avoiding it entirely in the piece was truly an impossible task). The constant presence of his former name creates a bigger hurdle to his complete emotional transition. I understand that Matt's family used his former name, and even Matt used it, giving ESPN the OK to mention it. But as I said in regards to Sports Illustrated's recent piece on Caitlyn Jenner, it could have been used much less, and that would have been welcome. Using his former name in anything other than the video, and possibly direct quotes in a written piece, should have been avoided.
I do very much appreciate that the producers did work with trans people -- in and outside of ESPN -- to make sure the piece was honest and respectful.
Regardless of that one nitpick, the piece is fantastic. On Thursday, Aug. 4, at 10pm on ESPN, E:60'S Lisa Salters shares the incredible journey of Matt Dawkins and provides an in-depth look at what it means to be transgender. You can see a trailer for the piece on Facebook here. Get your DVR ready. The show will re-air on ESPN a number of times:
Saturday 8/6 6pmET
Monday 8/8 10pmET
Tuesday 8/9 9pm pacificPT
Thursday 8/11 9pm pacificPT
Saturday 8/13 11pmET
Thursday 8/18 11pmET
Saturday 8/25 9amET