National Geographic started off the 2017 year with a provocative issue exploring gender issues.
Themed “Gender Revolution,” the magazine tackled a variety of subjects from biological, sociological, and personal perspectives.
It’s a historic, landmark move for such a renowned and mainstream magazine to bring transgender themes into the spotlight.
And yet there has been a public outcry and backlash over the magazine. Critics aren’t just the bathroom bullies of the extreme right. Doctors and other health professionals and some trans people themselves have been upset by the edition.
This is because the cover girl is a nine-year-old transgender child named Avery Jackson. Many people found it exploitive or political to feature a child; and others felt it irresponsible or even unethical to promote childhood transgenderism as “settled” when we are still learning.
I was chatting with my trans girlfriend Amy about the story. My view was that National Geographic made a bold, courageous move that would help invisible people like trans children find voices and allies. The girl’s statement really touched me.
“The best thing about being a girl is now I don’t have to pretend to be a boy.”
Amy’s view was unexpected. She said I was being manipulated by the media, and so was Avery. “People applaud Avery as brave. But she’s a victim of her attention-whoring activist family, being puppeteered by folks who want to be special and take my experiences away from me and force them on their kids. She’s a Jon Benet.”
I was surprised and asked if she thinks Avery is not really transgender.
Amy replied, “Maybe, maybe not. There’s no way to tell until she’s an adult and makes that decision for herself at that time.”
Now I thought Amy has “always” known she was a woman and had never felt like a boy. But she reminded me that for a while growing up, I had thought I wanted to be a boy and am not a boy today.
She said she also thought she was a princess, a dragon, a talking car, and a monkey. “Kids need a safe space to explore identity through imagination. Their make believe shouldn’t be paraded around, even if it turns out to be real. The burden is too heavy. If Avery feels she is really a boy after all, the pressure that she is letting down trans girls will scar for life.”
I have to admit, when I was nine, I thought if I ate cat food I would become a cat.
Still, I’m more inclined to agree with Deborah, an older trans friend who has been living as a woman for over thirty years, than I am with Amy.
“Calling out a mother’s decision to let her child speak out as an automatically negative one is misogyny too. Whether she is misguided or right on target, the fact is that now people can openly discuss transgender issues, even with children who may relate or identify and not have had a way to speak before. If their families are talking, they have an opportunity to share their experience now.”
Unlike Amy, Deborah didn’t know until after puberty that she was really a woman. She was a tomboy through and through, she says. But when teen hormones began kicking in, she began to soften physically and wasn’t developing facial hair or a sex drive toward girls. She found herself reading teenage girl magazines and wanting to wear makeup.
“My experience doesn’t remotely match what Avery is experiencing. But that’s the whole point of sharing her voice— we are all different.”