Until very recently, transwomen and transmen were virtually invisible in society. Concerned and even afraid of their neighbors’ potential reactions, many transgender individuals preferred to remain “hidden” and keep their gender identities a secret. However, the past several years have seen a major upswing in the visibility of transgender persons in the media. Openly transgender celebrities like Chaz Bono, Caitlyn Jenner, and Laverne Cox have graced the covers of national magazines and increased awareness of transgender issues in the United States. While there is still work to do, we’ve definitely come a long way.
And this month, a landmark moment for transgender youth: the first transgender child to be featured on the cover of a national magazine. Avery Jackson, a 9-year-old girl from Kansas City, was chosen by National Geographic to be the face of their special January issue on gender issues. Dressed head to toe in pink with a shock of matching pink hair, Avery appears strong and brave beneath a headline declaring “Gender Revolution”. According to the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Susan Goldberg, Avery perfectly sums up this concept, capturing the complexity of today’s conversation around gender. “The best part of being a girl”, Avery says, “is now I don’t have to pretend to be a boy”.
Although Avery’s biological sex at birth was male, she has lived as a girl since the age of five. According to her mother, Debi Jackson, Avery identified as a girl from an even younger age. She went from being a happy and outgoing two-year-old to becoming angry and depressed around the age of three or four. She hated going to preschool. According to experts at Johns Hopkins, this is actually the age that gender identity begins to solidify in children. When allowed to dress as a girl, however, Avery’s depression would lift.
Goldberg says that National Geographic chose to focus their January issue on gender due to the current emphasis on these issues in the United States. As a society, the beliefs and viewpoints we have about gender are shifting radically. For transgender youth, this is an immensely positive thing. Like Avery, more and more transgender individuals are discovering their gender identity at a younger age. With the support of their families and friends, transgender kids who are allowed to express their gender identity can thrive and avoid the feelings of isolation and depression often faced by their peers. And according to experts, transgender children like Avery provide further evidence of a biological basis for the transgender experience.
One common misconception about transgender children is that they are receiving hormones or other medications to treat their condition. According to doctors who work with transgender patients, treatment in young children is primarily supportive, and may include therapy to help in coping with gender dysphoria and the challenges that come with being transgender. However, no medications are indicated until the child enters adolescence. At this stage, transgender youth can begin taking puberty-suppressing medications to prevent the development of secondary-sex characteristics that are incongruent with their experienced gender. Therapy typically continues, and the patient may begin hormonal treatment once they are more intellectually and emotionally mature.
Our very own Caroline Gibbs, who heads the holistic therapy division at ICTC, has worked with Avery and her family over the years. When she served as the director of the Transgender Institute in Missouri, Caroline had an interesting conversation with Avery that was profiled in the Washington Post. Even at the age of six, Avery was confident and resolute in her identity as a girl. “Can you tell me something about yourself? Are you a boy or a girl?”, Caroline asked. “I’m a girl”, Avery responded. “I just am”.
For her part, Avery says that she never intended to be a symbol of gender diversity. “I just wanted to be myself”, she says. “I’m just a girl”. Still, the editors of National Geographic commended Avery for her bravery, pride, and confidence in her choices. In a YouTube video filmed when she was seven, Avery proclaimed “You can be who you want to be. I am proud of who I am because I’m transgender—and I’m a girl”. It’s likely that Avery will prove to be an inspiration to many children (and adults) around the world, both transgender and cisgender.