The Czech Edition of National Geographic’s Gender Revolution Issue Is Blatantly Transphobic
An open letter to Susan Goldberg, the Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Magazine, from a group of Czech trans* activists
Dear Ms. Goldberg,
We are the members and supporters of Trans*parent, a non-profit organization striving for the advancement of trans* rights in the Czech Republic. Our activities center around offering support to non-cisgender people, raising public awareness about the systemic adversities they’re facing and educating media professionals in order to help them cover this topic in a more informed manner. As you can imagine, we were thrilled to learn that your publication had decided to dedicate an entire issue to the subject of gender and include numerous stories of non-cisgender children.
Part of our excitement came from the fact that stories like these still only rarely appear in the Czech media. Even when they do, they lean towards sensationalism, stressing the physical aspects of transition and details from the sexual lives of those concerned. A special gender issue of National Geographic in Czech would have not only been an invaluable tool for people who are trying to explain their gender to their family or friends, it would also have allowed us to provide journalists with an amazing positive example when they come to us for advice.
Regrettably, we will not be able to do that.
The Czech edition of your January issue has some original content which can be, without any exaggeration, characterized as transphobic. We assume you are familiar with the cover that was chosen for this issue in our country, and while we do think the image of bathroom signs oversimplifies the topic and neglects its deeply personal substance, it really is only the beginning. To give you an overall idea of the new framing your work has received, we’ll divide our notes into three parts.
Written by Tomáš Tureček, the editorial bears the title “What You Should (Not) Know About People’s Sex” and opens with the following light-hearted quip: “No, we haven’t gone mad while welcoming the new year, even though you might be thinking that’s the case. What you’re holding in your hands is a special issue dedicated to the topic of sex identity.” (In both instances, Mr. Tureček is using the Czech word “pohlaví” which more or less corresponds with the English “sex”, describing the biological sex of a species.) As becomes clear later on, this is not just a well-intentioned failure to find the right tone. Tureček then explains that the English word “gender” has “a rather broader definition in this context, but it can’t be accurately translated into Czech”. While that might be true to an extent, this does not justify the use of the word “sex” in its place. “Gender” actually exists in Czech literature as a loanword, but in the mind of the public it’s generally associated with feminism, which might be part of the reason why the author considers it “not a nice sounding word”. There’s also the Czech term “rod” which can be in many cases used as its equivalent.
Nonetheless Mr. Tureček goes on, talking about a “wave” that might eventually reach our country and letting us decide for ourselves whether its initiators are trying to do good, “or whether this gender revolution has different — much darker — motives”. Offering a helpful little hint, he reminds us that “the blurring of the most intimate lines between individuals is happening at a time when the West is dealing with the process of disintegration of traditional family, nation, religion and race”. This is not the first time Mr. Tureček has expressed a similar concern in his editorials. In January 2016 when talking about the refugee crisis, he posed this question: “Are we willing to watch as the rules we’ve adopted in the name of cooperation and good neighborly relations are being trampled on with an increasing frequency?” A month later in the February issue, he confidently stated that “most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the fact that the weaker sex is perceived differently in Muslim countries”.
The Expert Interview
The second (and also the last) significant Czech contribution to this issue comes in the form of an expert interview on pages 20, 22 and 24. Conducted by Dana Emingerová and entitled “We’re Setting Ourselves Up for Our Own Downfall”, it presents the opinions of Jaroslav Zvěřina, a psychiatrist, sexologist and former politician who has achieved a modest celebrity status by readily sounding off on any topic related to human sexuality and relationships. As such, he has become a favored media pundit and in the past used this fact to further his political career.
To call this choice of an expert unfortunate would be a severe understatement. Not only does Dr. Zvěřina routinely conflate the term “sexual orientation” with “gender identity” and rejects the word “gender” almost completely, he is actually quite open about his conservative worldview, which often crosses the line of homophobia and transphobia. To borrow Mr. Tureček’s words, we’ll let you be the judge. Here are a few direct quotes:
“This invention of different sexes in the LGBTI […] communities gets so arts-and-crafty these days that we’re often surprised by many of their neologisms. But time and again these terms betray their inventors’ own inability to define or describe their sexual feelings. Sometimes it’s really just pure exhibitionism, because the more exotic-sounding hogwash term you come up with, the more interesting you are to these minorities.”
“There are those who call for special bathrooms for ‘transpeople’. But my professional experience tells me that even the most intersexual beings out there either feel like a man, or a woman. So the question is, who will want to declare themselves as something in between.”
“The topic of sexual minorities is so attractive to our mainstream media that it feels as if every other person was gay, lesbian, or at least a transsexual. The sad thing is that the real problems the majority faces — the declining popularity of marriage, the issue of single-parent families, fights for custody of children after divorce, and our catastrophically low natality — receive much less attention.”
“Today’s postmodern society, with its relativization of everyone and everything, is inviting its own gradual downfall by prioritizing the diversity within minorities and suppressing marital and familial values. It is, without a doubt, a decadent phenomenon. A society which respects neither itself, nor its own values, is a defenseless one. Not to mention the demographic impact.”
Dr. Zvěřina’s answers couldn’t possibly have come as a surprise to the interviewer, assuming she had done even the most basic research. One only needs to visit his official website to find posts with headlines like “Why We Should Honor Traditional Sexual Roles”, “Women with Hysteria — Fantastic Lovers and Horrific Wives” and “A Person Is Either a Man, or a Woman. Nothing Else” (content in Czech). He praises people who gave up their wish to transition and denied their identity for the sake of upholding the traditional family model. We know from some of his former transgender clients that he was encouraging them to do the same.
In his articles, Zvěřina also constantly engages in dubious claims, for instance that “most gays” aren’t interested in long-term relationships because it’s not part of “their lifestyle”. His terminology is largely outdated, his definitions often erroneous and misinformed. Still, Ms. Emingerová doesn’t seem to be taken aback by his views; in fact her questions point to a very similar mindset.
The Translated Content
We understand that the Czech edition of your magazine does not usually contain all the articles from the US one, but given the circumstances, the question of what specifically has been omitted from this issue becomes significant. Especially the piece entitled “Helping Families Talk about Gender” would have been of great value. Presumably, the editors didn’t care to look up any local Czech resources outside of the clinical setting.
Some of the stories that have been included are unfortunately still marred with inaccurate translations stemming from carelessness about the topic. For example in the glossary of relevant terms, the word “agender” has been replaced with “asexuál” (“an asexual”) and is said to describe a person who usually lacks both a clear binary gender and the interest in sexual activity. “Intersex” has been translated as “intersexuál”, while “queer” and “genderqueer” are mentioned as interchangeable terms. In the description which goes with the photo of a diverse group of young people on the previous page, “queer” is explained to mean “faggot”, “nonbinary” somehow becomes “pansexual” and “straight female” is translated as “normální žena” (“normal woman”). The words “transgender” (as a noun) and “transgenderový” (“transgendered”) are used throughout the magazine. Variations on the phrase “transgender issues” are also repeatedly changed to “transsexualita” (“transsexuality”).
All of this is not a mistake born out of ignorance alone. What was supposed to be a significant step forward in finally recognizing an age-old reality as valid and not pathological, has instead become a pamphlet against it.
Tomáš Tureček addresses an audience that is, by implication, cisgender. His non-cis readership is left to identify with the mysterious “originators” of the wave that is apparently about to hit our homeland, one that is bringing our society’s decline, if not its demise. Rather than taking an honest stand against what he considers wrong by refusing to participate in it, he prefers to undermine the core message of the US edition and likely assumes that no-one of significance will notice or mind. This corresponds with the generally dismissive way in which both he and Dr. Zvěřina speak about trans* people, repeatedly emphasizing just how negligible this minority is in our country.
We, however, believe that National Geographic does care about its readers outside of the United States.
We believe National Geographic realizes how vital it is — particularly in the current political climate — to respect and protect the basic human dignity of those who are so frequently marginalized.
We believe that National Geographic will not stand for the dehumanizing and disparaging way in which its non-cisgender readers have been portrayed in the Czech edition of the January 2017 issue.
Thank you for taking the time to read our letter.
Viktor Heumann, Jamie Emma Rose, Marie Feryna, Damian Machaj, Anna Vanclová, Věra Kučerová, Filip Loski, Helena Zikmundová, Tereza Zvolska, Dorian Klimáček, Maty Dio, Miriam Lišková, Jáchym Friedrich, Veronika Chroustová, Julie Koubová, Iva Vávrová, Fronéma Virglerová, Tereza Tomcová, Gilbert Vaněčků, Richard Dubas, Monika Kuncová, Lucián Otáhal, Iva Vyčichlová, Kateřina Turečková, Karel Veselý, Tereza Hendl, Kateřina Saparová, Dana Bubakova, Jan Morkes, Aleš Rumpel, Adam Šimko, Sylva Ficová, Wanda Dvorská, Jan Škrob, Jana Valdrová, Jolana Novotná, Kamila Fröhlichová, Ondřej Plešmíd, Hana Logan, Veronika Klusáková, Jana Jedličková, Kristýna R. Brveníková, Jolana Navrátilová, Hana Porkertová, Zuzana Janková, Dagmar Wiesnerová, Ivana Recmanová, Štěpán Bukáček, Pepa Lubojacki, Petra Kutálková, Jana Čížkovská, Fipah, Jitka Tůmová, Aneta Horáková, Aneta No, Katarína Hegyesy, Đinh Huy Nhật Minh, Anita Vykydalová, Šimon Holý, Kristýna Hněvsová, Vladimír Novák, Karolína Maťová, Petra Hanzlíková, Irena Prosecká, Jitka Novotná, Daniel Tůma, Lukáš Novák, Lucia Zachariášová, Petra Jelínková, Alena Koutková, Rad Bandit, Zuzana Petráchová, Tomáš Slaný, Jana Hyklová, Romana Bičíková, Hana Bělíková, Alex Vimrů, Kateřina Kňapová, Jany Trnka, Petr Prokopík, Martina Kourouma, Marie Barvínková, Taťána Rubášová, Lucia Plaváková, Alena Olivová, Michaela Berkovič, Kateřina Elefantová, Miroslav Šubrt, Jan Pospíchal, Barbora Šedinová, Ondřej Krystyník, Pavla Hovorková, Lucie Arendacká, Kateřina Miháliková, Anne Johnson, Marie Davidová, Martin Lyko, Vít Prokopius, Ondřej J. Kosnar, Barbara Havelková, Katarína Sido, Klára Uherova, Michala Codlová, Martina Vacková, Petra Hermanová, Fátima Castiglione Maldonado, Sabina Prvomájová, Anna Jakubcová, Eris Raven, Michala Codlová, Lucie Fremlová, Anna Švecová, Jana Patočková, Jakub Turčan, Michaela Miovská, Richard Hunter, Wiktor Dynarski, Martin Macko, Anna Kymlová, Timea Crofony, Kristýna Fendrychová, Dana Zubatá, Kamila Pěchoučková, Monika Maroušová, Martin Šachar Elis, Diana Gregorová, Gail Whitmore, Laura Henderson, Christine Pohl, Katarína Bartovičová, Pavla Machová, Nikol Misaki Vavrlová, Anežka Šintáková, Barbara Dufková, Paula Jojart, Dan Fayette, Ondřej Galuška, Agnes Lovecka, Lucia Benková, Vojtěch Hála, Monika Ryšavá, Míša Kopecká, Joanna van Schaik, Pavlína Antošová, Zachary Meyer, Marek Veteška, Soňa Březinová
This letter is also officially endorsed by:
Mezipatra Queer Film Festival
Feministická společnost/Feminist Society
Ozvi se!/HollaBack! Czech
Česká ženská lobby
Společnost pro queer paměť
(On 1/17/17, we sent a statement to National Geographic Czech Republic via email and posted it to their Facebook page. As of the date of publication of this letter, we have not received a reply.)
UPDATE: Since more and more people have been expressing their support, we’re still adding new names and organizations to the list. If you want to endorse our letter, either let us know here in the comments, message Trans*parent on Facebook, or send an email to email@example.com. Please don’t forget to share and recommend this story. Another way you can spread the word is by tweeting it to @susanbgoldberg, @NatGeo and @NatGeoMag. Thank you, your help means a lot to us and it’s very much appreciated!