Any kid would be lucky to have a mom like Vanessa Ford. For Ford’s five-year-old daughter Ellie, it’s very literally a life-changer.
Warm and outgoing, with a wide smile and infectious laugh, Vanessa — a Washington D.C. science teacher and mom of two — sits across from me in a Pasadena hotel suite. On her right is Ron Ford Jr., Ellie’s dad and Vanessa’s equally engaging husband, who goes by JR. On her left is longtime TV journalist Katie Couric. And we’re gathered to talk about Ellie and the more than 1.4 million Americans like her who are opening the nation’s eyes to new ideas about gender — ideas Couric will explore with the help of the Ford family and others in National Geographic Channel’s deeply human documentary, Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric, which premieres Monday.
In spring of 2016, Couric attended the series premiere of the network’s The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, where she met Nat Geo CEO Courtney Monroe. The pair struck up a wide-ranging conversation that ultimately sowed the seeds for Gender Revolution, a partnership of Katie Couric Media, National Geographic Studios and World of Wonder Productions.
The two-hour deep-dive explores the complexities of gender in everyday life — across generations, social strata, the nation and the planet. To better understand this complex social and scientific issue, Couric crisscrossed the country, talking with scientists, psychologists, activists, authors — and, in the program’s most moving segments, families likes the Fords — to learn more about the role of genetics, brain chemistry and modern culture on gender fluidity.
Displaying her signature warmth, curiosity and wholehearted investment in her topic and interviewees, Couric is a familiar and reassuring tour guide into a world many Americans find confusing and, in our worst moments, threatening — as she describes it, “a conduit to say these stories are actually about people and ideas.”
“One thing I asked is that people who are living this life need to help those of us who haven’t really been exposed to these issues or these experiences and sometimes be a little tolerant and patient of us,” Couric says when the discussion turns to the increasingly complex vocabulary of gender identification and how easy it is for even the most supportive individuals to make a misstep. “Because I think if you come from a genuine place of really wanting to learn and understand, without making every gender non-conforming person have to serve as the teacher, we are all in this together and everybody has to try to help each other.”
Couric says her own interest in gender issues was piqued when she sat in on a medical school lecture about gender affirmation surgery decades ago. “How I ended up there in my first year at UVA, I don’t really know,” Couric laughs, “but I wandered in, and I thought it was really fascinating.”
Breaking the proverbial glass ceiling as the first solo female evening news anchor fueled the fire. “I’ve always believed that it is important for people to understand that we shouldn’t have boundaries when it comes to gender roles,” Couric says. “Then gender identity became front and center for me as I watched these kinds of stories really dominate the news in multiple ways, whether it was transgender in the military, whether it was more visibility for transgender people like Caitlyn Jenner. I realized that every day you are reading something about gender.”
Then Couric’s daughter Carrie told her mom that her Stanford University discussion groups begin with each participant sharing his, her or their name and the pronoun they preferred. “They didn’t do that back at UVA in the seventies, and I thought ‘Wow! Things have really changed. Something’s happening here,’” Couric smiles. “ I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to take a step backwards and look at the bigger picture, rather than simply paying attention to the daily dose of news and information. Trying to connect the dots for people: Why is this happening? What is going on here? What’s behind it? What is the science telling us? What are we learning about this issue? That’s what motivated me to want to dive into the topic and want to do this documentary.”
No matter what your personal take, there’s no arguing that the statistics are alarming. Just 19 states have laws protecting citizens from employment and housing discrimination based on gender identity. Almost half of people who identify as transgender have attempted suicide — 8 times higher than the general populace. Unemployment rates are more than twice the national average; four times the national average for transgender people of color. Trans women of color are seven times more likely to be living in poverty. And the list goes on.
“You know, we see these headlines, and we sometimes see stories that are truncated and often sensationalized on the news,” Couric says. “I wanted to meet real people who are dealing with these issues and really share the struggles that they were having, share the joys that they were experiencing, really step into their shoes — because empathy is so critically important when it comes to understanding an issue. If you don’t have proximity to people who are affected by it, if you don’t understand their own particular experiences, it’s very hard to feel. You need to be moved and affected, and you need to care.”
Among the people Couric meets on her journey:
- Gavin Grimm, a self-composed, thoughtful trans teen whose lawsuit seeking equal bathroom access in the Gloucester, Va., school system will be heard by the Supreme Court.
- Michaela Mendelsohn, a proud and stunning trans woman who owns six El Pollo Loco franchises in Southern California. Mendelsohn has dedicated herself to hiring — and promoting — trans workers at her restaurants and getting other businesses to do the same.
- Pro tennis player Renee Richards, who transitioned in 1975 at age 40, sits down for an eye-opening joint interview with 24-year-old model and Transparent star Hari Nef. Richards steadfastly embraces the idea of two genders, male and female — “there are XX and XY chromosomes and that is that,” Richards says — while Nef embraces gender fluidity and the thought that chromosomes are merely a fact of biology, not gender.
- Dr. Marci Bowers, who transitioned in 1998. Called “the Georgia O’Keefe of genitalia,” Bowers has performed nearly 150 gender affirmation surgeries and currently has a three-year waiting list. She celebrates that more insurance plans are covering such surgeries, allowing people to live — and, for seniors who have long repressed their true identity, die — as the person they were meant to be.
- Married couple Kate and Linda Rohr. Kate Rohr is a renowned surgeon who, at age 70, transitioned from male to female. Married more than four decades, the couple met just as gender dysphoria was being recognized in the medical community, and Kate says the toughest part of transitioning is the guilt she feels at having hidden the truth about how she really felt from Linda for 45 years. She agreed not to undertake the process until Linda had the chance to grieve “Bill” and adjust to the new reality of their marriage. “The fact that I’m with the person I’ve loved for 48 years does not change my sexual orientation,” she says.
And, of course, there are the Fords.
Vanessa says her happy-go-lucky child started wearing dresses at age 3 — commonplace (and generally fleeting) behavior for male children at that age. But not for Ellie. At her fourth birthday celebration — a Frozen-themed bash the Fords combined with a housewarming — Vanessa says, she told her youngest, “‘You are my favorite princess boy.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I’m a girl in my heart and brain.’”
Three months later, Ellie began living exclusively as a girl and the Fords set about easing the transition in their family, Ellie’s school and beyond. JR says the couple began with the local medical community, “just to start to understand, what are we getting ourselves into? We are 100 percent supportive of her — we just needed to do our research to figure out what are the next steps for us to put resources and supports in place for her. But the first step for us was to listen to her.”
Ellie and her family are also part of Prof. Kristina Olson’s groundbreaking TransYouth Project, a longitudinal study that follows trans kids ages 3-12 over a 20-year period that is featured in Gender Revolution. And, JR reiterates, “we don’t just talk to anybody. There was a lot to be said about National Geographic and Katie coming to the table for this so that we could trust that the work would be done to insure that this was accurate, that the science was there. That our daughter and our family would be respected. That our story wouldn’t be sensationalized. It’s also coming from an unbiased perspective — what’s the biology? What’s the story behind it? That’s what we feel has been the outcome. It really is beautiful.”
“I think — I hope! — that JR and Vanessa and some of the other folks I interviewed also welcomed an opportunity to address some of the things that are said about them,” Couric adds. “We live in a society where people so easily judge other people, often without having really any knowledge of the situation, so I tried to channel people watching it with very little understanding of these issues. Because a lot of people are going to say, ‘Gee, I don’t let my child go out without a sweater. I don’t let my child eat ice cream for dinner. Why should I let my child say what gender he or she is?’”
The Fords have a ready — and inarguable — response.
“If you do not support and affirm your trans child, 40 percent of those trans teenagers will attempt suicide,” Vanessa says. “If you do affirm the identity of your trans child, that is reduced by 94 percent. That statistic, while it is just a data point, is the data point for saving your child’s life. And it might be what a conservative person who has never agreed with this needs to say — ‘I need to listen to my kid.’”
Couric chimes in that people in her own inner circle also wonder why they are suddenly hearing so much about gender identification and transgender kids. “I asked a lot of people that question,” she says. “But the fact of the matter is that it is just much more talked about, gender non-conforming people are much more visible … and I think we as a society have really given people permission to have agency over their identity.”
If not what public restroom they use. In America, transgender phobia has manifested itself in the most private of rooms — inspiring public furor and a flurry of legislation.
After former President Obama declared that trans people could use bathroom of their chosen gender in response to North Carolina’s HB2 law — which stated that people must use the bathroom that correlates with the gender on their birth certificate — 11 states sued the federal government. And folks who’ve ever ducked into “the opposing team’s” lavatory to avoid catastrophe when the lines for our own were too lengthy at a pro sports stadium or crowded nightclub were maybe left wondering just what gives us the right.
“That’s pretty much all that our community is discussing,” JR laments, “because like Katie said before, it is coming from a place of fear and ignorance because it is something that they are uncomfortable with. It strays from outside of what they consider ‘normal.’ I think that there’s a direct physical threat to trans kids and adults who aren’t able to use the proper bathroom that they are associating with.”
“We wrote a whole op-ed in the Washington Post about why bathrooms matter,” Vanessa adds. “Our children are at school longer than they are with us, and they need to go to the bathroom. Because our society is so gendered, there are currently only girls and boys bathrooms in many of these spaces. So what you are asking elementary students to do is get a special escort to a separate bathroom. Asking them to not go with their class when they go to the bathroom. You are essentially telling them that they are not who they say they are, and that they are dangerous. That they are somehow making it less safe for the other students in the area. For that to be a piece of legislation, it’s scary, we are not talking government buildings. It is all focused on schools.”
Ultimately, Couric says, Gender Revolution “is not the final word on gender, but hopefully people can have a more informed conversation about it, because the science is evolving, the psychology is evolving, the sociology is evolving. The policy surrounding it is evolving. I hope that people have an open mind and an open heart and understand that these are just people. We don’t have to be so preoccupied by the packaging.”
Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric premieres Monday, February 6 at 9/8CT on National Geographic Channel. National Geographic has also made available for download a comprehensive discussion guide for schools and young adult groups to help guide conversation around the themes and topics covered in the documentary.