With ‘Gender Revolution,’ Katie Couric Explores a Fast-Changing Issue

By Mark Walsh — February 06, 2017 4 min read
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In December, I spoke at a conference for school administrators and lawyers in Oregon, and sat in on a breakout session that dealt with schools and transgender students. The room was packed as several experts discussed recent legal cases and practical issues.

What was striking was that when administrators asked questions, many had firsthand experience helping one or more transgender students in their schools, whether they came from a large or a small district. Without exception, the administrators showed respect for such students, and they earnestly wanted to know more about various aspects of the subject.

The speakers at that session of the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators did a good job handling the questions. But for the many other students, parents, teachers, and school administrators across the nation who are confronting transgender issues, there is a good starting point with a TV special that airs Monday night.

“Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric,” airs at 9 p.m. Eastern/8 p.m. Central on the National Geographic Channel. Couric and her producers invested a lot of time and money, no doubt, to travel the country and even overseas to explore gender-identity issues that go beyond the transgender discussion.

“Some people watching this might say, ‘What the heck is going on here?’” Couric says during the two-hour special as she sits down with several students at Yale University. “Why are we suddenly seeing huge changes in the way the public looks at this?”

Couric seems to have tapped into a genuine feeling, even if one of the Yale students, a transgender woman, pushes back a little on that, saying people have experienced gender identity issues for eons. And there’s some evidence of that, as Couric chats with a Jewish scholar about the five gender identities discussed in the Talmud.

The wide-ranging special has a number of segments dealing in particular with school issues. Couric travels to Gloucester County, Va., to meet Gavin Grimm, the transgender boy whose legal effort to use a school restroom corresponding to his gender identity will go before the U.S. Supreme Court next month. (Understandably, Couric does not get into the finer points of administrative law that surround Grimm’s case.)

Couric visits a Washington, D.C., family with a 4-year-old who was born a boy but realizes that “I’m a girl in my heart and in my brain.” How does such a young child understand a gender-identity conflict like that? Couric provides an answer.

And at Yale, she meets cisgender, transgender, and other students at a university that recently adopted a policy of allowing graduates to use their “gender-informed” names on their diplomas instead of the names on their birth certificates.

As her comments to the Yale students suggest, Couric brings a sense of curiosity and caution to the discussion. To the 59-year-old longtime TV host, this has all happened so fast. For the younger generation, including Couric’s own college-age daughter, it seems accepted that gender definition is a more fluid concept.

Couric delivers lots of information, including on the biology of intersex children (those born with sexual anatomy that doesn’t neatly fit male or female gender); gender-reassignment surgery, which one transgender surgeon calls gender-conforming surgery; the concept of “deadnaming,” which is about transgender people not even uttering their original names because they are a reminder of painful times; and the issue of gender pronouns, in which, for example, some transgender people prefer to be called “they” instead of “he” or “she.”

Couric drops in on some older transgender folks, too, including a gray-haired doctor who recently completed gender-conforming surgery from male to female yet still is in a relationship with her longtime wife. Couric also catches up with Dr. Renée Richards, 82, the transgender former tennis star who debates gender fluidity with 23-year-old transgender model and actor Hari Nef.

One enjoyable aspect of the special is that the always effervescent Couric doesn’t just sit down and interview her subjects one chair facing another. She helps cut vegetables for a salad at the home of the Washington family, she walks the large rural property where Gavin Grimm lives (and meets his pet pig, Esmeralda), and she takes to the golf course with Richards (who laments that golf does not come as easily to her as tennis did).

One glaring omission for a news documentary is that Couric doesn’t spend similar time with anyone who staunchly opposes transgender rights. Yes, we hear some sound bites from a few parents who express discomfort, and there is video from a school board meeting in Gloucester County when some parents expressed strong objections to the high school’s initial accommodation of Grimm.

But it would be nice to hear what’s on the mind of those, say, who have fears about transgender people showing up in their restrooms.

There’s good news, though, for educators who wish to use the documentary to help spark local conversations about gender-identity issues. National Geographic and the marketing firm Picture Motion are sponsoring the Gender Revolution Tour, which will let any school, college, or nonprofit group hold a screening. (The request form is here.)

That way, others like Katie Couric who think this all happened so fast can get more answers.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.