National Geographic has a new documentary called Gender Revolution that is airing this month, following the National Geographic January 2017 magazine special issue on gender. In the film, Katie Couric leads herself and the viewer on a journey to understand the concept of gender addressing from many angles how gender identity differs from anatomical sex and what that means in contemporary society.
Gender Revolution airs Monday night, February 6, on the National Geographic channel at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. There are several trailers available to watch on the Gender Revolution website. To learn more, visit www.natgeo.com/genderrevolution
I was very excited to be invited to attend the film’s DC premiere at National Geographic headquarters on Monday, January 30. I had already read much of the magazine issue, which I found very informative and well done. Even though I have a background in women’s studies, feminist activism and being a straight ally in schools, there was a lot for me to learn in this issue. It contains medical, sociological, historical, and anthropological research that will enrich anyone’s understanding of gender.
The issue is decidedly not directed toward children, but if you have a tween keenly interested in these issues like I do, there are aspects of the issue that can help sophisticated young readers make sense of gender identity. The issue was notable for many reasons, including its decision to put the first trans kid on the cover that was sent to subscribers. Avery Jackson of Kansas City, Missouri is one of the children profiled in the section of the magazine titled “I Am Nine Years Old: Children Across the World Tell Us How Gender Affects Their Lives.”
Each child in this section is identified by their hometown city, state and country and has a short but illuminating quote. Avery’s quote is: “The best thing about being a girl is, now I don’t have to pretend to be a boy.”
Posters of other children profiled in “I Am Nine” were displayed around the room where hundreds of people gathered for a pre-screening reception at the film’s DC premiere January 30.
Within the issue, a group photo with these and seven other individuals appears. On the following page is a numbered and labeled drawing that provides the name and preferred gender descriptor of each person. The variety of labels is instructive, especially for those unfamiliar with the terms or with a non-binary view of gender. There is about as much variety in self-identification as there are people! The film sought to share this point as well.
A rainbow #GenderRevolution backdrop welcomed invitees to the film premiere pre-reception.
Introducing the film was Courteney Monroe, CEO of National Geographic Global Networks. Monroe explained how the project came to be, and she let us know that several of the people featured in the film were with us in the audience and would participate in the Q&A after the screening.
Early in the film, Katie Couric begins talking about the difference between anatomy and gender identity, flubbing to refer to the Genderbread Person as the “Genderbread Man.” It’s endearing to see Couric’s vulnerability throughout the film. She’s clearly more interested in learning and growing than in giving the appearance of having it all “right” at the outset. This, I would imagine, will probably make even reluctant viewers at ease.
Couric talks with several doctors about several topics. One is the issue of intersex individuals – what that means, what causes intersex conditions, how intersex conditions have been dealt with in the past and how they are commonly dealt with today. She also talks to Brian Douglas, who learned at age 30 that he’d had surgery performed on him as a baby to make him present as a girl, an identify that never felt right to him. Couric also visits with a family and talks with parents who opted against surgery for their intersex child, now age four.
Another family covered in the film hails from NW DC. The Fords have two children who were called male at birth, but their younger child declared on her 4th birthday that she was a girl. Mom Vanessa Ford shared the story of her journey to parent her transgender child at the 2016 DC Listen to Your Mother show. Listen to that here. In the post-film discussion, the Fords referenced working with the Gender & Sexuality Development Program at Children’s National Medical Center here in DC.
The film touched on many other topics of local and national significance, including trans student Gavin Grimm’s fight to be able to use the boys’ bathroom in his Virginia public school, an issue that is now going to the Supreme Court. Also interviewed in the film are a couple in which one of the partners transitioned to female when their children were grown, a trans tween and her mother as well as the researcher tracking the girl and other children who are and are not taking puberty blockers for a 20-year longitudinal study, and a group of students at Yale University who identify in multiple different ways.
The film also talks with participants at a summer camp for transitioning teens and includes discussion of the idea of gender in countries outside the U.S.
Toward the end of the film, Couric moderates an intergenerational conversation between trans model and actress Hari Nef and Renee Richards, a professional tennis player who had sex reassignment surgery in 1975 at age 40. There are no nice and neat conclusions in this nuanced conversation, except to agree that the issue of gender and our individual selves are complicated.
- Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality
- Sarah McBride, National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign
- JR and Vanessa Ford, DC-based parents of a transgender child and activists
- Joshua D. Safer, MD, FACP of Boston Medical Center, Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery Medical Director, and Program Director of Endocrinology Fellowship Training
- Brian Douglas, Maryland-based Intersex individual
- Katie Couric, journalist
Gender Revolution screens Monday, February 6 at 9 p.m. EST on the National Geographic channel. It will air in 171 countries around the globe and in 45 languages. There will be special encores on February 10 and 13. The film will then be widely available on Video On Demand/TV Everywhere and Hulu. It’s produced by Katie Couric Media, World of Wonder Productions and National Geographic Studios for National Geographic.
I recommend that parents with children under age 15 watch the entire documentary before viewing segments or watching several of the available trailers with children. If your children are used to conversations about diversity and inclusion, there is nothing objectionable in the film.
However, children may be disturbed by references to bullying, violence, suicide and depression.
The trans workers at California’s Pollo Loco chain describe how empowering it is to be employed in an establishment that values them as full human beings. The chain’s owner, Micaela Mendelsohn, is a trans woman who has made it a point to hire trans workers. The conversation with the workers is uplifting as they contrast their time at Pollo Loco to the more difficult experiences they’ve had.
Mental health challenges come up with youth in talking about their lives before transition, and concerns are raised about the historically fraught mental health of intersex children whose parents and doctors hid their truth from them. Couric challenges a medical professional about the concerns regarding surgeries performed on intersex babies without their consent – which the doctor estimated is still performed in some 70+% of intersex cases in the U.S. despite a 1 in 10 chance that the gender “choice” the parents and surgeons make will turn out to be wrong for that individual.
Couric noted in the post-film discussion that perhaps this doctor and perhaps others will think more deeply about their practices now. The hope is that the film will push the medical community to think more deeply about its practices and push many people to think more deeply about their beliefs and actions. Since children get many of their ideas about acceptance from their parents, it’s important that parents become educated about gender identity issues for the safety and wellness of all children.
In the panel discussion, Keisling stated, “This film will save lives.” I believe and hope she is right. When it comes to tolerance, compassion and understanding, more can only help. If fewer children go through life believing there is something wrong with them and instead feeling supported, everyone wins.
To that end, Journeys in Film has prepared a Discussion Guide that is available for download and use by parents, teachers, school counselors and anyone who works around these issues or wants to know more.
Additionally, National Geographic is partnering with Picture Motion on the Gender Revolution Tour. High schools, colleges, universities and nonprofit organizations can sign up to host a free screening and discussion. More than 100 institutions and groups have already applied to host screenings. To apply to host a screening, go to bit.ly/NatGeoGenderRevolution.
Chris Albert, executive vice president of global communications for National Geographic, said the hope is that the tour will “encourage constructive conversations that will allow people to connect with each other over material that is science based, investigative and in some cases deeply personal.”
The film had many collaborating partners, those represented on the panel and others, including Gender Rights Maryland, Out & Equal, the National Education Association, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, Casa Ruby, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, and the Center for American Progress. Here in DC, parents seeking support can reach out to the Children’s National Medical Center Gender & Sexuality Development Program and can find support through various groups of PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, another collaborator in the film. The website for Metro DC PFLAG is pflagdc.org and includes Virginia and Maryland.
Another website that might be of interest for parents exploring gender identity is Gender Spectrum, which is referenced in the National Geographic print issue. The site includes a family-friendly Gender Spectrum Storytime blog post featuring Brook Pessin-Whedbee, author of the children’s book Who Are You? The Kids Guide to Gender Identity.
I’m grateful to all the people who produced the magazine and the film. Despite concerns about a political climate that seems less interested in inclusion, the magazine and the film give me hope that our society really is on the road toward compassion and understanding.
I received no compensation for this post but was given access to free issues of the magazine at the end of the film premiere. All opinions are my own. The DC Moms is a National Geographic Insider blog.
Jessica Claire Haney is a Northern Virginia parent of two who works on wellness issues in schools. In her former life as a public school teacher, she sponsored her school’s student Gay-Straight Alliance and worked with GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network. As her children grow older, she’s grateful that experience is helping her create a safe space to talk about issues of identity. Jessica founded and publishes the website Mindful Healthy Life of Metro DC, which connects natural-minded parents to local resources and opportunities. Her personal blog is Crunchy-Chewy Mama. Jessica is working on her first novel. For more on her writing and other work, see JessicaClaireHaney.com.