Hundreds of small dramas unfolded at the Texas state high school wrestling championship last month, in Houston. In small corridors, coaches hunched awkwardly over the crumpled figures of their sobbing, defeated wrestlers. Packs of teen boys and girls—sprawled out over the hallway floors—crammed around phone screens, co-writing one side of a torrid text conversation. With only seconds left in a match, when a lead looked insurmountable, mat-side coaches abandoned their wrestlers and moved to another mat.
But only one story made national news: the victory of a transgender wrestler named Mack Beggs, a 17-year-old boy from Euless Trinity High School, who because of Texas rules had to compete against girls. Prior to district and regional matches, one parent, who voiced concerns because Beggs has been taking testosterone during his transition, had tried to get an injunction that would have prevented Beggs from competing. But the University Interscholastic League, which oversees Texas high school athletics, allowed Beggs, a junior, to compete against girls. In Texas, high school wrestlers must compete as the gender listed on their birth certificate. And so on Saturday Feb. 25, Beggs defeated Chelsea Sanchez to win the girl's 110-pound weight class and improve to 56-0.
For 23-year-old Rayne Bray, a spectator that day, the scene was all too familiar. When he was in high school he wrestled all four years at the 11,000-seat capacity Berry Center. The high school he went to—Cypress Springs—hosts an invitational there; he and his teammates would arrive early to help set everything up and stay late to tear everything down.
"This particular situation hits home for me because this is where I wrestled," said Bray. "If there had been more support, I might have transitioned then. In 2011 gay or lesbian was still a taboo subject. There was no room to even think about being trans."
Bray is a transgender man—he identifies as male, but his birth certificate identifies him as female. He has been in transition for two years. He heard about Beggs just a few days before the tournament and came with a handful of trans friends to support him.
"Since the government is going to be voting on a lot of these bills, supporting other trans people in whatever they do is extremely important right now," said Bray.
It was the first time Bray had returned to the Berry Center since he had wrestled there. While in High School, Bray identified as a lesbian, and like Beggs, wrestled against girls. "Wrestling as a lesbian has its own problems, it's hard for its own reasons," said Bray. Still, the arena flooded him with positive memories—many of his best experiences in high school happened there.
Rayne Bray had not yet identified as trans when he was wrestling in high school. Photo courtesy Rayne Bray.
"I won one of my first matches here," Bray told me. It was a match Bray said her coach had written off. In the last round (high school wrestling matches have three three-minute rounds) Bray was down by 13 points; the score was 15-2. "I was one second away from being pinned and I did what me and my brother called code rainbow: you hug the person and turn them over on their head," Bray said. "When I saw my coach he was like 'Ok, so next time we're gonna...' and I was like, 'coach, I won'."
Unlike in high school, Bray now uses the men's bathroom at the Berry Center rather than the women's bathroom. Bray says that nothing will stop him from doing his business, but that he thinks a lot about timing. "Are there a lot of people in there? Should I wait until get home? Do I really need to go right now?" said Bray. "I ask myself questions like that."
Legislation on the Texas floor may force Bray to use the women's room again. Last week, the Committee on State Affairs voted to advance Senate Bill 6, a bill that closely resembles North Carolina's "bathroom bill," to the full chamber. If passed, people will be required to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate. Despite of a coalition of opposition ranging from trans advocates to business people concerned about money leaving the state, the committee voted for the bill 7-1.
On the day of the wrestling championship, that vote was still a week away. The week prior to that, President Trump had rolled back protections of transgender high school students. America's fraught relationship with its transgender citizens was collapsing like a black hole onto Mack Beggs—and Bray was there to witness it.
"Our community isn't as unified as it needs to be," said Bray. "But with certain things it's just important to be there. This is one of them."
Moments before the starting whistle of his final match on Friday, Beggs, in an effort to shake the dozens-strong press corps there to document his historic victory, ran onto the mat from an unexpected corner of the arena. Bray and his friends, who had scored great seats, snapped to attention. The match started and Beggs scored point after point, steadily building a commanding lead. Bray cheered as loud as he could, which, because of his transition process, isn't that loud. When the third round ended, Mack Beggs won on points, 12-2. The arena erupted.
"That was the most powerful moment for me," said Bray. "The majority of people were cheering, but then you heard the boos."
Judges before Beggs' match at the state championship. Photo: Asa Merritt.
As happened with every Beggs win, when the referee raised his arm in victory, all those watching assailed the mat with expressions of passion: Mack's ever-loyal family, clad in homemade red t-shirts that read "Mack Attack," roared in support. Bigots, under their breath, snarled "freak." Parents, coaches and wrestlers who think Mack's testosterone transition program gave him an unfair advantage, booed in the name of fairness. During qualification for the state tournament, two of Beggs' opponents forfeited matches in protest.
"I was upset, but most of all I was just shocked," said Bray. "This guy has been training all summer, all winter, all year. This is one of the hardest matches in his high school career, and all these people are booing?"
Beggs, for the record, doesn't want to be wrestling girls. He wants to be wrestling boys because he is one. And, as the press learned over the course of the tournament, he prefers wrestling than talking about what it means to be trans.
Bray, however, at this point in his life, is committed to advocacy. He recently spoke about his gender at a Christian high school and facilitates Trans Fabulous, a trans support group in Houston. "If I had gotten the kind of support Mack has, the journey would have been easier," said Bray. "I wish I had had that."
Late Saturday night, hours after officials had awarded the final medals and the Berry Center had emptied, Beggs, flanked by his coach and the rest of his Euless Trinity High School wrestling team, finally spoke to journalists waiting for him: "This isn't even about me. It's about my teammates," said Beggs. "That's who deserves the attention." After mustering a few more sentences about teamwork, Beggs walked out the door, exhausted.
Bray, too, was long gone.
"We have other interests besides getting people to perceive us as we are," he had said earlier in the day.
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