New Katie Couric documentary explains transgender identities in compelling detail

Katie Couric interviewing Supreme Court plaintiff Gavin Grimm. CREDIT: National Geographic/Gender Revolution

Back in 2014, Katie Couric got herself into a bit of trouble. Interviewing transgender model Carmen Carrera, Couric asked some very invasive questions about Carrera’s pre-transition identity and the current state of her genitals. Though Couric was widely scrutinized for the inappropriate interview, she thankfully did not give up on her commitment to bringing more visibility and understanding to transgender people.

On Monday night, the National Geographic Channel will premiere Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric. A companion piece to National Geographic Magazine’s recent “Gender Revolution” issue, which featured a transgender girl on the cover, the new documentary follow Couric across the states as she unpacks all the complexities of gender.

Playing a bit coy, Couric invites people to share their experiences to help the viewer understand how to conceptualize gender and how to understand what it means to be intersex and transgender. In this clip from the beginning of the film, she talks with author Sam Killerman about some basic terminology like “sexual orientation” and “gender identity”:

From there, Couric crisscrosses the country to explore intersex and transgender identities by talking to the people best equipped to talk about them: intersex and transgender people. She arguably leave no stone unturned.

After a basic explanation of intersex people, those born with ambiguous genitalia, she speaks with someone who was surgically altered as an infant and raised in what turned out to be the wrong gender. She also meets a family who chose not to surgically alter their intersex child, leaving her with the opportunity to make her own determinations about her gender as she ages.

From there, Couric segues into exploring transgender identities, and there is no shortage of conversations with trans people, including several kids. She visits the Ford family in Washington, D.C. to meet Ellie, a five-year-old transgender girl, and her very supportive parents. She also chats with a tween trans girl who was suicidal before she socially transitioned and who is also participating in a study conducted by Kristina Olson, one of the most prominent researchers of trans youth. Gavin Grimm, the Virginia teen who just wanted to be able to use the boys’ bathroom at school, discusses his case that’s headed to the Supreme Court. And it’s not just kids; Couric also meets some people who transitioned rather late in life.

Couric sometimes plays a little too dumb at parts. Perhaps because of editing, there are times in the film where she fails to implement some etiquette that she learned in a previous segment. For example, after a transgender woman about to undergo her gender confirmation surgery explains why she doesn’t want to discuss the name she had before she transitioned, Couric then interviews another trans woman and openly refers to her “dead name.” For those who have the most questions about these topics, these minor gaffs — imperfect as they are — will either go unnoticed or could even make the lessons of the film more accessible.

Gender Revolution is a remarkably comprehensive but approachable film. Not only does it explain various concepts of gender that viewers might not understand, it does so by featuring the trans and intersex people most impacted by stigma and discrimination. One poignant segment highlights a trans business owner who is trying to create job opportunities for transgender people. After the discrimination they’ve experienced, the trans women who have filled these positions tear up discussing how grateful they are to have something as simple as a fast food job, simply because they can make a living and feel safe in the workplace. These kinds of stories make the film both a compelling documentary and an educational tool that will surely be used for years to come.

The documentary premiered at a screening in Washington, D.C. last week to a very appreciative audience. Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, was not subtle about how powerful the film was. “This is going to save lives,” she said.

And Couric herself seemed humble and appreciative to have taken the journey. During the panel after the screening, she brought up the Carrera interview and acknowledged how she went wrong. As she explained to The Daily Beast this week, “I think that I made a mistake, and I wanted to make sure that people knew that I recognized I made a mistake.”

If this film is any indication, she’s gone above and beyond to correct that mistake in a way that trans and intersex people will surely benefit from for some time.

Gender Revolution premieres Monday night at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.