‘Gender Revolution’ is all about trans people, but it’s made for a cis audience

‘Gender Revolution’ is all about trans people, but it’s made for a cis audience
There is not much new under the sun when it comes to television documentaries about transgender Americans. Trans journalist Gwen Smith and writer Brynn Tannehill frequently joke that these features are typically so full of tropes, that if one were to have a drinking game, downing a shot every time someone said “journey” or the like, you’d be plotzed before the end titles.

So it should come as no surprise that trans viewers of a new, comprehensive production, hosted and produced by award-winning journalist Katie Couric, are bitterly divided into two camps: those who are encouraged to see our stories told, and those who yawn, bash, nitpick and naysay.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think you can’t enjoy it and not be critical, nor that you can hate it and still admire its production value. What I’m going on about here is our tendency as a community to split into camps of adoration versus condemnation. Witness what happened with “I Am Cait:” some people loved it, and a lot of people outright hated it. HATED IT.

This program is titled, “Gender Revolution,” and I don’t think you will find a more detailed exploration of intersex, gender non-conforming/non-binary and, yes, trans Americans than in the 88 minute documentary produced by National Geographic in conjunction with Couric’s team and World of Wonder productions. You might say I am biased because I got to see this before most of you did.

The award-winning Mombian blogger, Dana Rudolph, and I were invited last month, along with activists from several LGBTQ and civil rights organizations, to ask questions of Couric and the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Susan Goldberg about this effort, which coincides with the magazine’s launch of an entire issue devoted to gender. For the first time, National Geographic put an openly transgender person on its cover: 9-year-old Avery Jackson, looking fierce with her trademark pink ‘do.

And although Jackson and her family are not interviewed by Couric, which she not only hosted but executive produced, both the report and the TV special introduce readers and viewers to a variety of folks from kids to seniors, and from the world famous to everyday kids on a college campus.

Couric explores the science, the social perspective, and the political troubles stirred up in the fight for trans rights and intersex identity. And unlike other projects I’ve seen, she also delves into labels related to gender, including pronouns. Among my most favorite scenes are her interactions, as a mom, with other cisgender moms and dads, raising their voices as their trans and intersex kids’ strongest allies.

I met several of the people featured in the special, including steadfast Virginia trans student Gavin Grimm, sultry and savvy L.A. entrepreneur Michaela Mendelsohn, hilarious and wicked smart intersex advocate Georgiann Davis and legendary transgender pioneer Renee Richards, to name but a few, at a screening of the documentary last week in New York City.

In attendance was noted attorney and executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education FundJillian Weiss, as well as supermodel Andreja Pejic among a who’s who of trans folks, NYC celebs, including Couric herself.

I invited along noted activist, journalist and frequent TV expert guest Hannah Simpson, who brought a different perspective to the film than I did. The segment that I loved most is what bothered her most; but as my grandfather was fond of saying, that’s why we have horse races, because of each of us has our own opinion. It helped me to have the point of view of a millennial to offset what a 50-something baby boomer like me witnessed.

My friend Hannah, 31, confessed on our way out that a contentious conversation Richards had with model Hari Nef left her uneasy, and that she felt producers made a poor choice; it was my favorite part, because it showed that identity is not just a gender issue but a generational issue, and I think some viewers will be surprised to find themselves agreeing with the woman who paved the way for Caitlyn Jenner, and by extension, like Hannah and me. And I’m grateful to my friend for opening my eyes to her younger perspective.

What I’m not grateful for are the negative Nellies, who expected “Gender Revolution” to be something it was not meant to be. It’s almost as predictable as those tropes we’re all familiar with, the trans woman waltzing through her walk-in closet of dresses, putting on makeup, the trans man tying his tie, admiring his facial hair growth in a mirror, this chorus of “why didn’t theys” that follows any production about our community, especially when its makers are not of our community.

So, yes, cisgender people are behind “Gender Revolution,” and here’s the newsflash: that’s who this is made for. It’s not meant to be a mirror to hold up to trans, intersex and GNC/NB folks; instead, it’s a telescope, bringing our world into focus. Couric so much as boasted she wanted to better understand us and help others do likewise, by asking the questions and being willing to admit she doesn’t always get it right.

Couric told me and other journalists how much she’s learned since her 2014 talk show with Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox, when she asked about their genitals.

“It was a really ignorant question, and an offensive question,” Couric admitted to me in an exclusive report for NewNowNext. But she said she learned from her mistake, bringing Cox back six months later to help viewers better understand the transgender experience.

“I feel as though I am on a lifelong journey of learning,” said the veteran newswoman. “And on that journey I sometimes trip and make mistakes. And I don’t think that should frighten people away from getting out of their comfort zones and talking about things that are embarrassing. I’m okay with that, and I’m okay being that person.”

And from what viewers told me on Facebook, Couric’s investment of time and effort yielded dividends.

“Even in a world with so much greater access to information,” wrote Kara Tucker of New York City. “I can totally see someone seeing this show and seeing themselves in one of the trans people in it or being able to use it to say to someone important in their lives — ‘That! That’s me!’ or ‘That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.'”

“I can’t agree more. I think we need to enjoy this breathe… truly. This is going to be a fond memory.. and it’s about time we face the cold front that’s at our doors,” said JR Bull.

Veronica Phillips of Southern California wrote: “At 70, after 30 years since I began my transition, I learned things I didn’t know about others like myself and those who identify differently than I.

“I laughed, cried, and thought back to the late 80’s. A lot has changed, thankfully. I look forward to more changes.”

The majority of people who reached out were positive, but Sheila Coats of Washington State spoke for many when she posted this comment:

“I watched the 2 hour program and it had the same BS as a similar program about 10 years ago. The only difference was it was longer and had different people. The people who need to see this, won’t watch it and the people who did see this, it is old news.”

Others complained the portrayals did them a disservice, that they wished it had shown more activists and more people of color who are the most marginalized among us, and that in some cases the program was not only “boring” but even “hurtful” because of how they fear some viewers will react and mistreat them. And to those who argue or complain that the producers did not recruit openly trans people to work on the editorial or production teams, there is this: one transgender woman has stepped forward to identify herself as a consulting producer on the show. Andrea James is a transgender pioneer who grew up in Indiana, transitioned 20 years ago, and has written, directed, produced and advised several Hollywood productions. She is also an activist and achieved fame with a controversial “how to” video guide to passing and living “deep stealth.” But with the exception of James, this production, unlike “Her Story” and “Transparent,” was most definitely not something made by us.

But it bears repeating: it’s also true that this film was not made for us.

While I can validate those bruised feelings, acknowledge these legit concerns about inclusion, and worry for those who gave voice to their fears, I feel it necessary to stress this again and again. “Gender Revolution” was made to shine a light, to lift the shadow and give the curious a window into our world. Its lofty intention reminded me of a well-worn saying, shared by author and scholar Jennifer Finney Boylan, which she credits to her sainted mother: “No one can hate you who knows your story.”

Imagine, Weiss opined on Facebook, if it could be seen by the very justices of the U.S. Supreme Court who will hear the case of The Gloucester School Board v. Gavin Grimm next month.

Of all the things I can say about what “Gender Revolution” means to me, nothing I could write will top what my BFF wrote on Facebook. Singer, photographer, journalist and YouTube personality Maia Monet, my transgender Jiminy Cricket, as I have called her these last six years of our friendship, started to watch the program on the 5th anniversary of her gender confirmation surgery. She is far more brave than anyone I know, and yes, that is the cue to take a drink.

“Finally watching the Gender Revolution Nat Geo doc. It’s amazing, informative, and painful for me. One thing I’ve realized is that it’s time to give up this guilt I’ve carried, despite how some people would rather I suffer it in perpetuity, as I was reminded of by a relative of my ex-wife’s today on my special day.

“Truth is there just wasn’t the information and resources available when I was a kid to help me. These things barely exist for trans kids today. Telling my parents I was ‘really a girl’ was beyond my ability to express or comprehend. By the time I was old enough to perhaps think it was a possibility, I was in full on suppression and denial. It was the coping mechanism I had developed to allow me to escape a tortured youth with my sanity relatively intact. I can’t keep blaming myself for doing something I had to do for my survival.

“All I can do is move forward and make sure the generations after me have more awareness and choices.”

Thank you Maia, for leading me on my way, and thank you, Katie Couric and friends for choosing to walk alongside us.

“Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric” will be shown again on the National Geographic channel Friday, February 10th at 9 p.m. 

Click here to view the full film online (you’ll need a cable provider to login), and you can also watch the trailer, below.

Editor’s note: this story was updated to reflect the contribution of consulting producer Andrea James, which was not revealed by the producers, but has been confirmed by LGBTQ Nation, and to reflect she grew up in Indiana but was not born there. We regret the oversight.

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