This past February National Geographic broadcasted a documentary on transgender identities entitled Gender Revolution with Katie Couric acting as a kind of guide. Intended for a wider audience the documentary covers the basics of sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexuality. Nonbinary and intersex issues also receive some air time, but the main focus remains on binary transgender people, theories on why they exist, and how “this whole transgender thing” is having a moment. While any positive transgender representation on television is certainly welcome, the documentary does oversimplify and essentialize gender. As a result the documentary falls short in its representations of the intersex community.
First the documentary could do a better of making the distinction between intersex and transgender. While there is some overlap between the intersex and transgender communities (of which I am an example), the majority of intersex people do not identity as trans and the majority of trans people are not intersex. Also the two communities face different, albeit interconnected, issues. For example, transgender people are seeking their rights to bodily autonomy by means of access to often necessary hormonal and surgical treatments while intersex people are seeking their rights to bodily autonomy by means of ending nonconsensual, medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex infants and children. It is important these differences be acknowledged when intersex and trans issues are covered together. Gender Revolution does not adequately present these distinctions. This is mainly due to the fact that their main focus is on transgender and not on intersex issues.
Second are the interviews covering intersex narratives. These include interviews with the parents of a toddler who was diagnosed with androgenic hyperplasia at birth and an interview with an intersex trans man on his traumatic experience with early surgeries. For the most part these stories are handled well. The accompanying statistics and discussion of the failed “John/Joan case” help to further enlighten the audience on the issues intersex people face on a wider scale. Yet the coverage takes a problematic turn with the inclusion of a doctor who justifies his recommendation for medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children, saying he would opt for surgery if the child was his and the number of people who have issues after such gender assignments are small anyway. Such statements go completely against the lived experiences of intersex people. Regardless of gender identity most intersex people who undergo nonconsensual, medically unnecessary surgeries in childhood suffer trauma as a result and have to deal with the life long physical consequences often in the forms of decreased sexual function, increased injections, and sterilization. In fact entire civil rights movements have been organized against the practice and are continuing to do so to this day. Seriously including a doctor who justifies nonconsensual surgeries on intersex infants and children in a documentary covering these issues is problematic at best even it can serve as an example of how many medical professionals have continued these contested practices into the present.
Now there are some things Gender Revolution does well. It manages to make the basics of trans issues from generation gaps within trans communities to transgender health care accessible for those who otherwise would never have learned about them. In this way the documentary does well as an educational tool, especially for the cis majority. Even with it’s problems I would still recommend it to those who are in the early stages of learning about what it means to be transgender means as it manages to impart the basics in a gentle and accessible manner through the familiar styles of Katie Couric. However it should be viewed critically and with caution, especially when it comes to the segments on intersexuality.