For J. R. Ford, father of a 5-year-old transgender girl, appearing in the upcoming National Geographic documentary “Gender Revolution: A Journey” with Katie Couric was “more than an obligation.” He and his wife Vanessa let Couric into their Washington, D.C., home, hoping that, as Vanessa explained, their family would be “relatable” to those who know little about transgender people — and that other families with transgender children would “know they’re not alone.”
The Fords were speaking on a call about the film with LGBT advocates and journalists, along with Couric and National Geographic Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg. They are only two of the many people Couric interviewed for the film, who also included trans and intersex people from young children to seniors, their parents and spouses, scientists, doctors, psychologists, activists and authors.
Couric, an executive producer and host, skillfully blends stories about trans and intersex people’s everyday lives with an exploration of the scientific underpinnings of gender and the cultural shifts in our understanding of what gender means today — honoring what Goldberg calls National Geographic’s traditional lenses of history, culture and people and science.
It is the stories that are the heart of the film, however.
“I wanted to get to know the people behind the headlines,” Couric said on the call, and “to open a window into their lives so people could see them as being not so very different from the rest of us.”
Goldberg, too, affirmed, “What makes me the proudest are the voices of these families — not celebrities, regular folks.”
The work is a companion to the January 2017 National Geographic magazine, a single-topic issue on “The Gender Revolution.” The subscriber cover features 9-year-old Avery Jackson, the first known transgender person to front the magazine in its nearly 130-year history. The newsstand cover features a diverse group photo of transgender, cisgender, bi-gender, intersex and androgynous people. While the magazine looks broadly at gender identity, roles and expression, the documentary focuses more closely on transgender and intersex people.
Goldberg, the first woman to helm the magazine, said she decided to publish the issue after realizing that, instead of just doing pieces on the lives of girls and boys around the world, which they had wanted to do, they needed to look at the whole spectrum of identities in order to cover gender in a truly inclusive way.
Response so far has been “overwhelming,” Goldberg said. The issue has become one of their best-sellers, and social-media reactions have been 90-percent favorable or neutral, with only a “very small number of people” responding negatively.
Couric’s involvement with the associated film was part of a longer, personal learning process. On her talk show, in 2014, she asked trans actors Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera questions about surgery and their bodies. When Cox upbraided her for bringing up these personal topics that were inappropriate for discussion, Couric chose to let Cox’s criticism air, she explained, in order to show that people can be ignorant but learn. She later had Cox on her show again, where the actor told her, “I commend you on really being teachable, because not everybody is.”
That experience, coupled with a growing awareness of new ways that people are looking at gender, spurred her to learn even more. She connected with National Geographic as they were working on their gender print issue and developed the documentary “for people who wanted to be educated, like me,” including members of families both like and unlike those in the film. “I attempted to give people a framework for a more informed conversation,” she said.
Couric shared that Gavin Grimm, a trans teen whose lawsuit for the right to use the boys’ bathroom will soon be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, once told her that trans people don’t always want to have the obligation to teach everyone about trans issues. Through the film, Couric may have helped to lighten that burden.
And while the media often includes intersex people, if at all, as an afterthought to coverage of trans people, Couric puts them first in “Gender Revolution.”
“We thought that was a good jumping-off point” for showing viewers “how gender can’t be imposed by society,” she said.
Throughout the film, Couric models an admirable willingness to learn and evident respect for her interviewees. While she admitted she probably didn’t get everything right, she said, “I hope people will be tolerant of the genuine care we took in trying to make this understandable and accessible.”
“Gender Revolution” will premiere on the National Geographic channel at 9 p.m. Feb. 6. It will be broadcast on National Geographic in 171 countries and 45 languages. It will also be available through on-demand services and National Geographic television apps, with Hulu subscriptions a day after it airs, and will be for sale via Amazon Video, iTunes and Google Play.