A group of Yale students was featured in the Feb. 6 premiere of “Gender Revolution,” a two-hour documentary on the National Geographic Channel that explores the complexities of gender identity.
According to a press release, the documentary follows Katie Couric as she explores the lives of intersex, gender nonconforming and transgender people from the womb through childhood, puberty, adolescence and adulthood. A group of Yale students, as well as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler ’87, were interviewed for the documentary.
“We talked about how gender is on a spectrum, how it can change, how privilege factors into the transgender community, how Yale has been great and how it has not been great about transgender policy,” said Isaac Amend ’17, a staff columnist for the News and one of the students interviewed by Couric for the film. “We talked about how being transgender is not a new phenomenon and how it’s always existed in history.”
In the documentary, Gendler noted the numerous changes Yale has instituted to support gender identity, including the designation of all-gender restrooms and the transition last spring to use graduating seniors’ affirmed names, as opposed to birth names, on diplomas.
“My generation accepts that gender is fluid and that it’s more of a spectrum,” said Yannis Messaoui ’19, another student who spoke in the documentary.
Following the release of the documentary, the critical reception was generally positive.
SGH Gavis-Hughson ’19, a student featured in the documentary, noted that while they wish the documentary had gone further into nonbinary and genderqueer identities, they said that the film was made for and targeted at cisgender individuals who have the greatest benefit from learning about gender identity.
According to Maria Trumpler, the director of the office of LGBTQ resources at Yale, Couric’s production team reached out to her this past summer expressing interest in interviewing students for the documentary. However, Trumpler said that she and the students were frustrated that only 15 minutes of their four-hour interview with Couric was aired. She added that the portion of the documentary featuring the students only included them defining gender-related terminology.
“I and most of the other people were disappointed that our other perspectives in in-depth discussions weren’t used in the documentary,” Amend said. “We were presented as these smart Yale College students who could tell Katie these definitions.”
According to Gavis-Hughson, they and other students had been concerned with a trailer of the documentary they had seen before its release.
Gavis-Hughson and the students said they were worried that the film portrayed a strong medical narrative. They pointing out that medical professionals interviewed in the film described making decisions regarding which children are “trans enough” to receive health care. Gavis-Hughson said that, in their opinion, if someone says that they are trans, they are trans.
Amend said he saw two main flaws with the documentary.
“First, it presented gender nonconforming people as knowing that their gender identity was weird at first and that almost every trans person knew they were different since they were five. This is not true,” Amend said. “Second, the film made it seem like in order to be trans, you have to have this trans-wired brain. It was science-heavy, which bothered me. If you say you’re trans and you feel that, then there’s nothing else to that.”
While the medical emphasis raised a concern for students, Trumpler added that it makes gender identity issues more accessible to the general public.
She said that not a lot of scientific research about the biological bases of gender identity takes place at Yale. She added, however, that for a mainstream audience, focus on science represented a “way in,” comparing this to the early movement for gay rights, which also used scientific discourse.
Trumpler said that initially, she was worried about whether there were enough students who would be willing to speak on national television about their gender identities.
While she found a group of students, she noted that if the film were to be made ten years ago, she doesn’t think there would have been this many people open about genderqueer identities.
“Even though there exist criticisms of the movie, the fact that it’s made and in the mainstream is amazing,” said Trumpler. “I’ve gotten so much feedback from people who maybe might not think about these issues as much. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two hours of television before that portrays trans people in every aspect of their lives surrounded by people who support them. This is a stunning piece of television.”
The Office of LGBTQ Resources is located in Baker Hall.