Science Magazine used Transwomen as props on a cover that had nothing to do with the contents. All it did was stigmatize a marginalized group of people and probably reinforce bias among members of a privileged group, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The use of the cover by a large production of that group of privileged people proves the presence of anti-transgender feelings which, like other bigotries, can hide under color of science. I say this as one who has defended the validity of the work of various scientist in the face of activist and anti-scientific, backlashes. (here and here)
In those cases there was actual science in question. This cover is just a gratuitous and sensational use of imagery. (Which sadly I must include here for what I write on it to make any sense.)Indonesian transwomen are known as Waria, a combination of the local word for man and woman. They have many issues common to transwomen around the world. Such as trouble finding paying work that they can make a living on and having to resign themselves to sex work. Those of us who start transition before having an established a career too often have to do sex work, at least for a time, or when we fall on hard times. The support networks and safety nets most people rely on just don't exist for us. This can lead to a higher risk of contracting HIV. This can contribute to a real chance of death by violence, drug abuse, depression and suicide. The articles in the magazine don't address any of those issues. They did not speak to a transwoman from anyplace let alone Indonesia about HIV aids related issues among transwomen. That little tangent leads them to this cover.
To create a publication like Science Magazine, which is actually a peer reviewed journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which takes on the appearance of a more popular magazine, requires a small army of people. Someone had to either take the picture or gain the rights to use the image from whoever did. Someone had to select that image from a set of such images. Someone had to edit the picture. Then many people had to design every aspect of that cover. Then a number of editors had to sign off on the cover. Last but not least, the articles letters etc. in this issue had to go through both editorial review and peer review before publication. This whole process likely took 6 months or more from inception to publication. At no point did not having some words directly from or about trans women occur to anyone.The man who took the brunt of the criticism stuck his foot in his mouth on Twitter is Jim Austin Careers editor at Science Magazine. His foot in mouth syndrome is an important part of the story.
Mr Austin made ignorant insensitive remarks. You can see the best reporting on his tweets at Newsweek. ("Science Magazine Puts Transgender Women on Cover, Without Their Heads" Newsweek, Zoë Schlanger
). Mr Austin felt that the objectification and misogyny directed at these women was OK because they were born male*. He thought it would be a riot to see how "gazey males" would feel when they found out those women were trans. Which can be taken to say what he may really think about women on a deep level. This is what is termed trans-misogyny (a primer by Julia Serano
). While he made ignorant public comments and was taken to the woodshed for them he was not the only one involved in this editorial decision.
Much has been written about the symbolism of the images being headless and faceless. It is like a symbolic decapitation. Indonesia is a relatively moderate Muslim country, the most populous Muslim country, and has some violently conservative elements who are preoccupied with transgender women. Most of those transgender women are themselves Muslim (Just as in the rest of the world transwomen generally follow the prevailing religions if they are so inclined). Sharia could apply to them, or worse, what ignorant people think Sharia says could be applied to them. Nevermind rulings from various Shia and Sunni authorities which says that simply being trans isn't a sin, but what one does with being trans can be. It would be a good idea to not use those women's full body images for safety reasons. Let me be frank, they are walking those streets for sex work. The most dangerous kind of sex work even here in the United States of America. The kind of work one does not want advertised around the world. The kind of work where women are too often killed by supposed clients. In Indonesia it could make one a target. No the headlessness is not the most offensive aspect of this. The big problem is the audience of Science Magazine consist of people highly unlikely to really know a transgendered person who would have a background like those pictured. It is unlikely that outside of a few places scientist don't know transgender women much less those who have done sex work. Most of those put in the position to have to do sex work, and cute enough to do sex work, aren't getting MS's, PhD's, or professorships based on particular life experience. That does happen but it is very rare. People who in my experiences in the world of science think they are too smart, too liberal, and too intelligent to be bigots are who will see that cover. This cover proves they can be. Yet many of them will argue that this cover is not offensive, and was a logically correct choice. Science Mag posted a really weak non apology which exemplifies the attitude of which I write.
The cover showing transgender sex workers in Jakarta was selected after much discussion by a large group and was not intended to offend anyone, but rather to highlight the fact that there are solutions for the AIDS crisis for this forgotten but at-risk group. A few have indicated to me that the cover did exactly that, but more have indicated the opposite reaction: that the cover was offensive because they did not have the context of the story prior to viewing it, an important piece of information that was available to those choosing the cover.
I am truly sorry for any discomfort that this cover may have caused anyone, and promise that we will strive to do much better in the future to be sensitive to all groups and not assume that context and intent will speak for themselves. (emphasis mine)
-- Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief, the Science family of journals
For my part Ms McNutt defending this as you apologise shows that you don't get it. The cover was offensive even with the context. The cover had nothing of any substance to do with the contents (Don't take my word for this, here is the table of contents). It was not related by anything other than stereotype based on one statistic to the context. This apology makes it sound like those offended are all just fools. This apology shows whoever else signed off on this weren't nearly as smart as they think they are. What could they have done differently?They could have sent a productive message with this cover. Say they had contrasted HIV Aids in Africa which affects millions of people and cuts across all segments of society there, with HIV Aids in Australia. That would have been clever. That would have highlighted inequality in the world.
Suppose they had
elicited an essay from one of the many well known, easily Googled for,transwomen who are in STEM, a Julia Serrano or Lynn Conway. Better yet, they could have contacted one of a number of searchable Indonesian transgender activist. Their words might have made people with power and money who can change things uncomfortable for the right reasons. Instead they chose a cover that only demonstrates the inequalities in this world, and participates in the marginalization. They chose to present the cover in a way that would have a surprise for "gazey males" and make them
uncomfortable for the wrong reasons. They used a powerful vehicle for change to reinforce inequality. The unintentional nature of it, shows a real lack of any thought for the group of people
associated with that image.
Mr Austin did unapologetically, and Ms McNutt did in her non-apology, prove the depth of their cluelessness**. If they have experience with LGBT people then clearly they didn't really pay attention. The members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science will see this cover and think it is making a really factual and neutral statement, it isn't. Members who are bigoted will see that apology and feel vindicated in their bigotry. Those who aren't will feel pressured. Then when they encounter transgender people and their issues they will act without thinking deeply. They will read about HIV prevention and associate it with the image of transwomen as sex workers without having heard anything about the lives of transgender sex workers or transwomen in general. Other examples of this which, in comparison to this issue of Science Magazine don't look so bad, and why. Compare this issue of Science Mag with a couple of books largely about transgender women, at least some of whom were sex workers. "The Man who Would be Queen" by J. Michael Bailey and "Travesti" by Don Kulick were written by non-transgender people. Both white men, respectively straight and gay. The authors viewed the lives of transwomen through their own lenses. The writing reflects this. The publishers of both books used imagery
similar to Science Magazine. What's the difference?
While the cover of "The Man Who Would be Queen" was tasteless the contents at least addressed transgender women's issues. They did so from a perspective many find offensive but at least the cover related to the contents. The beginning of the book dealt with feminine boys the middle with gay men, and the end with transwomen. In it the author used language which was offensive, but those words are in the literature of his field. He also told the stories of the transwomen he wrote about. Travesti" dealt with the
marginalized sex workers of Brazil and wrote vividly of some of their troubles. Such as being arrested, beaten and raped by police. Both books had their problems, and both covers are somewhat objectifying. They both also served, at least, as an entree to real discussion about transgender women and their problems. This issue of Science Magazine does neither of those things. They don't say anything more than, just barely, tangentially related to transgender women by way of discussin HIV AIDS. They could not even conduct an email interview with a member of the Indonesian transgender community, someone who does HIV prevention outreach
among them. No. They were just objects and by extension so were the rest of us.
This issue of Science Magazine was orders of magnitude worse, more objectifying, and more prejudicial, than any book due to its complete silence on actual transgender issues while using transgender imagery. *Recent peer reviewed scientific evidence shows that many physiological conditions contribute to the development of a transgender identity. The sex chromosomes are made of many genes. In addition to conditions like XXY and X0 there are a number of subtle conditions see for example Androgen Receptor Repeat Length Polymorphism associated with male to female transsexualism.
**I had to soften the language a couple of times before I submitted this to get to cluelessness. This whole article is the softened version of what I had to say about this.