Trans girl, 9, makes history on National Geographic cover

In 1985, an Afghan girl with piercing green eyes stared into the world’s soul from the cover of National Geographic in an iconic and mesmerizing photo.

Thirty-one years later, another young girl peers out from the magazine’s glossy front in an equally compelling portrait. A girl with tangles of pink-streaked hair, comfy pink leggings and a resolute gaze — a girl who until 2012 lived as a boy.

Meet Avery Jackson, 9, the first transgender individual to grace the cover of the 128-year-old magazine, which is rolling out to subscribers this week in a special edition devoted solely to gender issues around the globe.

Avery never intended to be a trailblazer for gender identity, a topic that is front and center in a rapid-fire evolution of how people define themselves.

Growing up, "I really just wanted to be myself," Avery told USA TODAY. "I'm just a girl."

But the Kansas City fourth-grader knows the significance of the magazine's cover. "By putting myself more out there, people will be able to know that I am transgender and proud and learn more about transgender issues."

From the Supreme Court to statehouses, fashion pages to Facebook, the question of “who we are” is complicated and fluid, and never more relevant.

That is why National Geographic decided to devote its January issue to the “gender revolution,” said Susan Goldberg, the magazine's editor in chief. "It seems that the discussion about gender is really at the center of our national conversation. It is playing out in our education system, legal system, the military. Everywhere you look there is this conversation."

What started out as a story about girl empowerment a year ago soon took flight in a deeper direction. "Editors said it's really complicated to be a boy, too," Goldberg said. The magazine decided to examine all facets of gender through culture, society and science and "humanize" the stories of everyday people, she said.

The choice of a petite pioneer for the cover seemed natural, Goldberg added. "We thought Avery was so strong, so proud ... and confident about her decisions that she was a good person to symbolize the new discussions about gender. She seems to sum up the complexity of the issue. "

AVERY’S STORY

Avery's mother, Debi Jackson, 42, said her child went from being a "happy, outgoing 2-year-old boy to becoming sullen and depressed" between the ages of 3 and 4. Avery became angry and withdrawn and hated going to preschool, Jackson said. "She started talking about death a lot."

When Avery dressed up in a princess dress, the darkness lifted, said Jackson, who also has a son Anson, 11, with husband Tom, 41. The couple thought their child was a gay boy and "it would be OK."

One day when they were walking through Target on a holiday shopping trip, Jackson said Avery turned to her and said: "You call me a boy, you think I’m a boy, but you know I’m a girl on the inside, right?"

What followed were pediatrician visits, sessions with a genetic therapist and the decision to let Avery dress as a girl on the weekends.

And then came another pivotal moment, Jackson said. Avery was going to a birthday party on a Sunday afternoon and her mom asked her to put on boy clothes for a few hours. "No," Avery said. "I don't want to pretend to be a boy." Avery dressed as a girl and none of her friends "batted an eye," Jackson said.

On Monday morning, she dressed for school "in pink head to toe," Jackson said. "And she was excited about going to school for the first time in months."

BEYOND TRANSGENDER

The January special edition, which includes a glossary of more than 20 terms redefining gender, is landing at a time when the political landscape is shifting and some fear a rollback in rights.

Jackson, who calls her home-schooled daughter "smart, fearless and a natural entertainer," was hit by the enormity of the magazine cover photo and how confident and secure Avery seemed.

Yet there already has been a backlash in conservative circles, she acknowledged. "We still have a chance to change hearts and minds,"  said Jackson, who has become an advocate for transgender rights. "We are just trying to put a face to a word that people don’t understand."

Georgiann Davis, 36,  also has powerful insight into gender identity, one delivered in a gut-kicking revelation. Davis, whose story is told in the magazine, was born with an intersex trait known as CAIS (complete androgyn insensitivity syndrome) that wasn’t identified until her adolescence. She was born with a vagina, internal and undescended testes and XY chromosomes.

At 13, she was blissfully playing outside when she felt abdominal pains. A trip to the doctor didn’t reveal anything wrong. Except that she had testes, not ovaries.

Her parents and doctors decided to keep Davis in the dark and concoct a cover story: “They told me I had early onset cancer of ovaries and would need surgery before I turned 18,” she said. The “cancer” surgery at 17 — which forced Davis into early menopause as a teen — really removed her testes.

It wasn’t until Davis was stepping into adulthood in her 20s and looking for a new physician that reality came crashing down in the form of her medical records.

“I expected to read about cancer. But I held them up to the light on a really bright day in Chicago and saw the words 'testicular feminization syndrome,'” Davis said. “I felt like a freak at that moment. I was just so confused. ... I was lied to.”

Davis, who initially threw her records out, said it took about seven more years for her to share her story and feel comfortable as someone who is intersex, a term used for those who have a combination of male and female sex traits.

“The experience of intersex individuals makes it so clear that gender identity is biological,” endocrinologist Josh Safer said. It is a “massive mistake that gender identity can be manipulated.”

GENDER AND THE FUTURE

The medical community is “evolving” on gender issues, said Safer, who is medical director of a transgender center at Boston Medical Center. But he still sees “a void in medical knowledge” about the transgender population.

If more trans children can be identified at an early age, the use of puberty blockers then hormone therapy can carve a comfortable and safe path as they develop, he said.

“Recognition there is a need to be respectful of people with all their differences is not sufficient,” Safer said. “You aren’t going to get medical doctors to start prescribing hormones because they know about what pronouns to use.”

Goldberg hopes people will look at the magazine issue in its entirety to see how gender is playing out across the world. "We have come a long way to talk about gender but have a long, long way to go on this topic," she said.

Davis, who is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis, sees hope in the emboldened words of the younger generation.

“When I was 25 I didn’t even talk about it. I was so ashamed of it,” she said. “Today’s youth are forcing society to change.”

One of those youths just might be Avery Jackson, a gutsy little girl who likes video games, Girl Scouts and parkour and hopes to one day code games or make music videos.

In a YouTube video she made at age 7, Avery says: “You can be who you want to be. I am proud of who I am because I am transgender — and I’m a girl.”

(An accompanying broadcast documentary, Gender Revolution, A Journey with Katie Couric,will air Feb. 6 on National Geographic.)

Follow Miller on Twitter @susmiller