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National Geographic makes history with cover of 9-year-old transgender girl

The magazine’s next issue will feature a young transgender girl as part of its coverage of the 'Gender Revolution.'

Avery Jackson, age 8, of Topeka, Kan., stands in front of the Planting Peace Equality House across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church.
Courtesy of Debi Jackson
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 A 9-year-old girl is making history as National Geographic’s first transgender cover model.

The move comes years after major news outlets have begun reporting on transgender issues, some in ways that have evoked praise for sensitivity and finesse, and others in ways that have been labeled as offensive. Transgender-rights advocates and others under the LGBT umbrella have hailed the announcement about the National Geographic cover as progress after decades of marginalization and discrimination.

Reporting on transgender people has lagged behind coverage of other LGBT issues for years, creating what some say is a stereotypical, shallow image of a diverse community that is growing and gaining influence rapidly. From confusion over proper pronouns to a failure to pursue new narratives, some advocates have complained that poor reporting has served to further pathologize the community, telling sensational stories that leave readers with marginal impressions of the vast group.

National Geographic unveiled its January issue featuring the young girl from Kansas City late last week. Wearing hot pink cheetah-print pants and a matching T-shirt, Avery Jackson looks poised, strong, and confident with pink-dyed stripes streaking through her shoulder-length hair.

“She has lived as an openly transgender girl since age 5, and she captured the complexity of the conversation around gender,” Susan Goldberg, the magazine’s editor, wrote in a letter announcing the issue. “Today, we're not only talking about gender roles for boys and girls – we're talking about our evolving understanding of people on the gender spectrum.”

While the issue focuses on gender around the world, following 80 9-year-olds in eight different countries, the editors chose to place Avery on the cover, knowing that the choice could spark controversy among readers. Still, they say they hope the issue, which hits shelves Dec. 27, will showcase some of the ways gender roles are evolving and playing out around the world, for better or worse.

“The portraits of all the children are beautiful,” Ms. Goldberg wrote. “We especially loved the portrait of Avery – strong and proud. We thought that, in a glance, she summed up the concept of ‘Gender Revolution.’”

Beneath her picture is a single quote from the young girl: “The best thing about being a girl is, now I don’t have to pretend to be a boy.”

Much like coverage of the gay community a few decades ago, transgender reporting has followed a “coming out” narrative, centering on an individual's personal journey, including hardships, discrimination, revelations, and the eventual transition process. While illuminating those aspects of a person’s life can serve to convey some understanding to the 65 percent of Americans who say they don’t know a transgender person, it also creates a repetitive story and fails to show transgender people living and thriving in society in various walks of life.

Not all readers were happy with National Geographic's attempt to bolster new dialogue, and some have said they plan to cancel their subscriptions, Goldberg wrote. Others took to social media, criticizing the publication many have deemed a neutral source of global news.

“I used to love National Geographic,” one person wrote on Twitter. “Unfortunately it has become nothing but a cesspool of Left-wing insanity.”

But most feedback regarding the decision has been positive, with readers and activists commenting on social media hailing the decision as a step in the right direction .

As transgender actors and celebrities have become more prominent in mainstream culture, perceptions are starting to shift through both fictional and real storylines stemming from the community. Still, experts and advocates say, more work needs to be done to make the media inclusive and informative.  

“I would just like to see stories about what trans people are doing with their lives and in many ways not focusing on their transgender-ness unless it’s relevant somehow,” Susan Stryker, an associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona and director of the school’s Institute for LGBT Studies, told Nieman Reports earlier this year. “I think we’re just getting to that point.”

But in the past few years, several high-profile pieces have failed the transgender community, including a Katie Couric segment in which she asked “Orange is the New Black” actress Laverne Cox about surgical procedures and a Grantland piece that outed a transgender woman and may have played a role in her suicide.

After receiving harsh criticism from readers, viewers, and transgender rights activists, both outlets issued apologies, with Ms. Couric inviting Ms. Cox back onto the show to explain where the segment’s questioning had gone awry and Grantland publishing an editorial that criticized the piece as well as a letter from its editor regarding the negative feedback.  

“So for anyone asking the question ‘How could you guys run that?,’ please know that we zoomed through the same cycle of emotions that so many of our readers did,” Grantland’s editor Bill Simmons wrote in a letter. “We just didn’t see the other side. We weren’t sophisticated enough.”

In newsrooms where the LGBT community remains underrepresented, reporters can still struggle to nail down the nuances needed to effectively cover gender and sexuality in a changing age. Whether or not National Geographic’s issue will prove the kind of delicate and accurate portrayals that the LGBT community hopes for has yet to be seen, but many are hopeful it will represent a stride in the right direction.

“Yes, youngsters worldwide, irrespective of gender, face challenges that have only grown in the digital age,” Goldberg wrote. “We hope these stories about gender will spark thoughtful conversations about how far we have come on this topic – and how far we have left to go.”

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