What I Learned From 'Gender Revolution'

"Gender is not as black and white, or pink and blue, as I once believed."
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Gender Revolution

“It’s hard to hate up close.” ― Dr. Oz

I have spent the last several months immersed in a documentary for National Geographic called “Gender Revolution.” The entire process was life-changing and mind-altering for me and hopefully for others who watch. The impetus for making the film was simple: I screwed up.

When I hosted a daytime talk show ("Katie” ― how original!) I did an interview with Carmen Carrera, a trans fashion model. And yes, I asked her a highly offensive question about her “private parts.” When the show was being edited to air on a later date, I asked the producers to keep the offensive question in so others could realize, with the help of another guest on that same show ― Laverne Cox ― how grossly insensitive it was. My efforts to provide a “teachable moment” for my audience failed miserably, and the backlash on social media was loud and harsh. Clearly, I had a lot to learn.

“I have come a long way since I asked Carmen that intrusive, 'cringeworthy' question.”

Some people might have thought I was crazy to go there again. But the more I saw gender issues becoming increasingly front and center in the news, the more I realized there was so much I didn’t understand. And I wanted to. One of the many reasons I chose to pursue a career in journalism is because I like to take complex topics and deconstruct them, in hopes that they can be better understood. It may seem like a no-brainer, but knowledge can be incredibly powerful and empowering. And in a media landscape that employs sound bites and tweets to inform us on a whole array of topics, I thought it was important to take a deep dive.

Needless to say, I learned a lot. That gender is not as black and white, or pink and blue, as I once believed. That scientists are just beginning to understand the biological factors that contribute to gender identity. That sexual orientation is a completely different ball of wax. That there’s a huge generational gap in the way millennials and baby-boomers view gender. That societal expectations vary from culture to culture, and full acceptance of those who live beyond the binary exists in places like Samoa. I learned why asking someone about their former self (dead-naming) can be so painful to those able to finally embrace their true selves. That “woodworking” wasn’t something done in my brother Johnny’s shop class, but the only way a trans person like Renee Richards could survive when she underwent gender confirmation surgery in the 1970s.

I didn’t get everything right. When I saw Gavin Grimm, whose case is scheduled to go before the Supreme Court on March 28th, he told me he liked the film, but added, “I wish you hadn’t said I was born a girl.” The person I was before making this film might have said, “Don’t be ridiculous!” The person I have become understands how hurtful such a description can be.

I used to feel that the LGBTQ community could do more to help the rest of us understand. I often wondered, why can’t they be more patient as we grapple with this new normal? (Whatever normal means.) I even asked Gavin about this when I visited him at his home in Gloucester, Virginia. Preternaturally mature for 17, he told me in essence, it wasn’t his job to teach the world why he is the way he is. It made me realize what a burden it would be for me to have to explain myself to everyone I meet. No, thank you.

I have come a long way since I asked Carmen that intrusive, “cringeworthy” question. In fact, after the DC screening of the film, I told Sarah McBride of the Human Rights Campaign and the first trans speaker to address a national political convention, that I was at times embarrassed by my naiveté and cluelessness during the film. She assured me that witnessing someone’s evolution is very helpful in promoting social change.

I’m still learning. But I’m grateful to everyone I met along the way. They were brave and generous, and greeted my curiosity ― and at times, ignorance ― with kindness and yes, patience. Up close, they were just people who I’m now proud to call friends. No other qualifier necessary.


“Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric” is currently available for free on YouTube, Facebook and National Geographic through February 21.

Educators and organizations can also sign up for a free DVD and discussion guide here.

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