You may have heard the news that a 9-year-old child who was born a boy but who identifies as a girl has been featured on the cover of National Geograhic:
Avery’s family only ever refer to her as ‘she’, and her mother said it would be ‘wrong’ for anybody else to do otherwise.
She has said Avery will take hormone blockers when she reaches puberty, and that if she wanted surgery in the future it would be something the family would consider.
National Geographic’s Gender Revolution issue, which is out on December 27, explores different aspects of gender identity through various stories – including Avery’s.
The magazine’s editor in chief Susan Goldberg tweeted: ‘So proud of our @NatGeo Jan issue. 100% devoted to exploring gender. We’re grateful to all who let us into their lives. #GenderRevolution.’
Here’s more on this particular child and the parents of the child, and why they made the decisions they made about the gender identification.
My views on the entire transgender question can be found here and here, and can be briefly summarized by saying I think it is a real and yet very poorly understand phenomenon (probably occurring somewhat less often than claimed), and that especially when dealing with children one must go very slowly and carefully because children are very suggestible and vulnerable.
But the purpose of this post today isn’t to discuss the transgender phenomenon. What I want to talk about is the cover of the magazine. To me, simply put, I don’t think it’s okay to use a child this way. Children cannot be properly thought of as giving informed consent to a photograph or a revelation about themselves that is ordinarily so private (I wrote about that question here). So it’s irrelevant whether Avery Jackson wants to be on the cover of National Geographic. It is my opinion that the adults involved here are exploiting the child or at least crossing some boundaries, whatever they may think they’re doing for her, for themselves, and for the world. And although I don’t think that such a form of exploitation involves doing anything illegal or technically abusive—it doesn’t—I still think it is inappropriate and a failure in judgment.
Gender reassignment is a very private thing, and parents who want to make it so very public for their underage children are somewhat out of line. Adult transgendered people are free to do whatever they want, of course, and to seek and win whatever publicity they desire. That’s a completely different thing.
And National Geographic is also at fault for publishing this cover. There are plenty of young adults able to give informed consent, and it might have featured any of them instead. So there was no need for this except sensationalism. And indeed they have gotten attention for it.
What’s more, the picture is strange for reasons having nothing to do with the transgender state of this child. Imagine, if you will, that this was a photo of a female child who had never been a male and is not transgender. There’s still something wrong with publishing it, in my opinion.
I realize that now I’m in iffy territory, but it is arguable that the choice of this photo may have an undercurrent of sexualization that is inappropriate. It’s the stare and the pose, particularly the right hand. And that would be true no matter what the history of this particular child is.
To give you a little background as to why I say that, the photo reminds me of the famous book jacket photo of the 23-year-old Truman Capote on the cover of Other Voices, Other Rooms. It caused a sensation when published in 1948 because of its suggestive, seductive nature, although Capote was an adult of 23 when it was taken and he was free to consent to put it on that book jacket.
To take it several steps further, it is also at least somewhat similar to a classic pose in art, used by Manet in his controversial painting “Olympia,” which caused a scandal in 1865 when it was first exhibited in Paris. The reaction was not because of the subject’s nudity, since nudity was commonplace in art. It was her bold and confrontational stare at the observer, and certain objects around the room that suggested she may have been a prostitute:
Of course, that’s a far cry from the National Geographic cover, which does not feature nudity. Nor am I saying that any suggestive nature of the National Geographic photo was purposeful on the part of the child or the parents. I actually don’t think it was. But I fault the photographer here, who probably took many photos of Avery and chose to select and publish this particular one, which probably had a more edgy quality than many of the others.
Of course, it’s no longer 1865 or even 1948, and times have changed. But I don’t think that has done away with the need to protect children from those who might exploit them in various ways, even if they get their cooperation in that exploitation.