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Our Gender Issue Prompted Many Comments. Here We Respond

   

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We published two covers, one for subscribers (left) and the other for newsstands.

We recently published our special issue on what we’re calling the “Gender Revolution.” Humanity’s understandings of gender—both scientific and social—are shifting, and we wanted to explore and explain them.

We knew people would have thoughts and questions about how we chose to cover a concept so in flux. We have received thousands of emails, letters, and comments on social media that span the range of excited, horrified, concerned, and grateful. We've responded to the most common ones here—and in some cases, we've explained clarifications or corrections we've made to our digital editions. We'll continue to update this page as the discussion continues.

Why did you do this issue?

We realized several years ago that beliefs about gender were shifting rapidly and radically. For almost 130 years, National Geographic has explored the world through science, exploration, and storytelling. Gender permeates every part of what it means to be human, and reporting on the changing understandings of a biological and social concept is, put simply, what we do. Our coverage doesn’t come with a political or partisan agenda. We created the gender issue—as we do every issue—with the intent to research, understand, and explain.

Susan Goldberg, National Geographic's editor-in-chief, explains more on this question here and here.

Why are there two different covers?

Our subscribers received a cover with Avery Jackson, a transgender nine-year-old girl. Those who find the issue on the newsstand will see a cover with a studio portrait of seven different people representing various gender labels.

Our subscriber and newsstand editions differ occasionally as our editors try to find the photo and cover language most likely to engage our audience in different settings. In this case, Avery Jackson's portrait is a nuanced and thoughtful image to find in your mailbox. On the newsstand cover, we wanted to show a wider range of people and how they describe themselves on the gender spectrum. For U.S. readers, the inside of both editions is the same.

On the group photo cover, why is there no cisgender female?

Although there is not a cisgender female, roughly two-thirds of the content in the issue focuses on females, including two full-length features stories—one on the challenges of growing up female in America and the other on the dangerous lives of girls in the developing world. In addition, there is a great deal of data about the status of women and girls, as well as interviews with Gloria Steinem and Sheryl Sandberg, and an essay by Anne Marie Slaughter.

Why did you call intersex a disorder?

We consulted numerous experts to be both sensitive and accurate on this point. Many readers think we still got it wrong. "This definition is opposed by intersex advocates across the globe for the simple reason that it pathologizes us, thereby promoting the erroneous, stigmatizing view that intersex people require ‘fixing,’” wrote Hida Viloria, executive director of the Intersex Campaign for Equality. Kimberly Zieselman, executive director of InterACT, an intersex youth advocacy organization, wrote that our definition is "highly offensive to many in our community...and will actually be harmful if printed."

In recognition of these concerns, we have removed references to a “disorder” from our online editions and have amended the definition of intersex to be, “An umbrella term that describes a person with a genetic, genital, reproductive, or hormonal configuration that does not fit typical binary notions of a male or female body.” For the sake of familiarity, we also noted that an alternate term for intersex, “hermaphrodite,” is considered outdated and offensive.

Is being transgender a mental illness?

No. According to the numerous experts we consulted for our coverage, transgender is a gender identity. Some transgender people may experience mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, or other issues. One recent study found that "it is actually the social rejection and violence that transgender people commonly experience that appears to be the primary source of mental distress, as opposed to the distress being solely the result of being transgender."

In the United States, Gender Dysphoria is a diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM 5), used by psychologists and physicians to indicate that a person meets the diagnostic criteria to engage in medical transition. In other words, this is the medical diagnosis for being transgender. The inclusion of Gender Dysphoria as a diagnosis in the DSM 5 is controversial within transgender communities.

Internationally, the designation of transgender identity as a mental illness varies from country to country, but the World Professional Association for Transgender Health and the World Health Organization offer resources for transgender people and health professionals regarding health care. WHO has indicated that it will likely remove its decades-old classification of transgender identity from the mental health disorders section in the scheduled 2018 revision of its International Classification of Diseases code book.

Two researchers and educators who contributed to our issue—Luca Maurer of Ithaca College and Eli Green of Widener University—have written a book that delves further into this question, called The Teaching Transgender Toolkit.

What are hormone blockers and what are the long-term effects of using them?

One of the feature stories from our issue helps answer this question. From the story:

Biology has a habit of declaring itself. Sometimes, though, biology can be put on hold for a while with puberty-blocking drugs that can buy time for gender-questioning children. If the child reaches age 16 and decides he or she is not transgender after all, the effects of puberty suppression are thought to be reversible: The child stops taking the blockers and matures in the birth sex. But for children who do want to transition at 16, having been on blockers might make it easier. They can start taking cross-sex hormones and go through puberty in the preferred gender—without having developed the secondary sex characteristics, such as breasts, body hair, or deep voices, that can be difficult to undo.

The Endocrine Society recommends blockers for adolescents diagnosed with gender dysphoria. Nonetheless, the blockers' long-term impact on psychological development, brain growth, and bone mineral density are unknown—leading to some lively disagreement about using them on physically healthy teens.

Read more about this and other ways science is helping researchers understand gender in our January issue.

Why did you focus on children—and put one on the cover?

We talked to 80 children in eight countries from the Americas to the Middle East, Africa to China, about how gender plays out in their lives. We talked to kids because, at age nine, they are keen and articulate observers who are candid in reflecting our world back at us. “The worst thing about being a girl is that you just can’t do things that boys can do,” Tomee War Bonnett, a nine-year-old living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, told us. This sentiment was expressed by girls worldwide—using different words and in different languages, but bound by the same constraints. We put Avery on the cover because she symbolized a lot of the complex and current conversation occurring around gender.

When did you start working on this issue?

We began brainstorming this topic two years ago. The vast majority of our coverage was conceived, written, and photographed in 2015 and through the summer of 2016. We sent the issue to be printed in October.

Email us with questions, comments, or tips: editor@natgeo.com



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