“Something is happening in our culture,” Katie Couric told a group of bloggers Friday afternoon. “It’s been forcing changes in our society, whether it be new rules or regulations, or the military, or in schools. I want to understand what is going on, and in the process of my learning, perhaps I can help educate other people.”
She’s talking about the “transgender moment” happening in America—as issues involving gender identity and expression are being brought to the mainstream like never before. In pop culture, politics—even court cases.
That led Couric to host and co-produce Gender Revolution, a new special airing on National Geographic February 6. “I wanted to get to know the people behind the headlines,” she tells NewNowNext. “I wanted to understand their struggle, their choices. I wanted to open a window to their lives so that people could see them as not very different from many of us.”
Couric and NatGeo editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg spoke with NewNowNext and several advocacy groups in advance of the documentary’s screening at the Television Critics Association event in Pasadena.
Beyond the political squabbles and religious objections that have been borne of the struggle for transgender rights and the quest for understanding and acceptance, Gender Revolution follows the hallmarks of National Geographic magazine, according to Goldberg—”the lenses of history, culture and people, and science.”
“It’s really important to note that this science is changing,” she adds. “There is new science being done, and that’s what we tried to present. “
Science, in fact, has been a contentious issue for critics of transgender identities: Dr. Joshua Safer of the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at Boston Medical Center, who appears in Gender Revolution, says his colleagues routinely debate topics, “but we’re not debating this information [that the transgender identity is a real phenomenon].”
Couric crisscrossed the U.S. to talk with scientists, psychologists, activists, authors, and families, to learn more about the role of genetics, brain chemistry, and modern culture on gender fluidity.
One of those families was in attendance at Friday’s screening—Vanessa and J.R. Ford, of Washington, D.C., parents of Ellie, a 5-year-old transgender girl. Vanessa said she was “thrilled” with how Gender Revolution turned out, and thanked Couric for approaching the topic with compassion and care.
“You sat in our kitchen. You cut a lot of cucumbers and a lot of tomatoes, and ate sandwiches with us,” she recalled. “Even between takes, you asked a lot of questions, and showed you wanted to respect our child—both of our children—and respect us. You said ‘what other questions should I be asking as I go out?’”
Couric admits she hasn’t always been stellar when reporting on transgender issues, like when she had Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera on her eponymous talk show in 2014, and quizzed them about anatomy and surgeries.
“It was a really ignorant question, and an offensive question,” Couric admits. But she learned from her mistake, bringing Cox back six months later to help viewers better understand the transgender experience.
“I feel as though I am on a lifelong journey of learning,” said the veteran newswoman. “And on that journey I sometimes trip and make mistakes. And I don’t think that should frighten people away from getting out of their comfort zones and talking about things that are embarrassing. I’m okay with that, and I’m okay being that person.”
She recalled that, in her conversation with Gavin Grimm, the young trans man whose fight to use the boy’s room will be heard by the Supreme Court, he told her “we don’t want to have to be the ones educating everybody.”
She gets that, she says, and she hopes Gender Revolution will help inform as well as educate.
“This is a learning tool for families going through this struggle, but also for families not going through this because it’s not in their frame of reference.”
Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric airs February 6 at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.