The latest issue of Science Magazine includes an important special section on HIV and AIDS, exploring a huge variety of research topics in the field and discussing the work of Australian researchers attempting to address the needs of at-risk populations. It’s a thoughtful, useful and enriching read — one made all the more poignant by the recent loss of several prominent AIDS researchers and advocates on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Unfortunately, the magazine made a tragic, and terrible, decision when it came to choosing the cover art: a team of Science staffers chose to put headless transgender women on the cover. Not just transgender women, but transgender sex workers out on the street in Jakarta. The cover shows the women in minidresses and heels, breasts straining against their tops.
The implications of the cover are troubling, to say the least. Trans women have a long history of being dehumanized, and depicting people without their heads is the ultimate dehumanization. Transgender women, especially sex workers, are at a very high risk of violence, and their work is dangerous and isolating. The situation is particularly bad for transgender women of color, who are victimized at even higher rates. That does make them an at-risk population, but the way to address this isn’t through dehumanization: Rather, community outreach is necessary. As is an understanding of the community — the hijra depicted above, for example, hail from the transgender community in India (hijra do not necessarily identify as trans women, depending on their own gender identity) and represent an important population to research and understand. They’re also human beings with lives and emotions, which is why they’re depicted with their heads intact.
The cover implies that transgender women aren’t human beings, and treats sex workers as mere disease vectors. Worse yet, one Science editor, Jim Austin, took to Twitter in ardent defense of the cover, and dug himself a deeper and deeper hole, at one time bringing up the notorious “deception” argument, suggesting that “male gazey” viewers of the cover would be discomfited when they “find out” that the women featured on the cover are transgender, as though they aren’t actually women. He has since deleted that Tweet, along with several others, but screencaps never die. His disdain for critics of the cover was clear, however, with a comment about finding “moral indignation really boring” in response to the criticisms of the cover.
Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt issued a prompt apology for the cover in response to the criticism, but her apology fell short of the mark in many ways. She mentions, for example, that a large group was involved in the cover photo decision: one wonders if a single transgender researcher or scientist was involved, or if anyone in editorial is transgender, or if anyone thought to consult a transgender woman to ask her opinion about the cover. She also says that readers were offended because they didn’t know the context of the story when they saw the cover. In fact, for many of those upset, knowing the context wasn’t relevant. If anything, the context made the cover more upsetting, because the decision to use headless trans women to be the face (so to speak) of a story about HIV/AIDS and at-risk populations was a stark comment on transgender women.
The sciences face significant gender issues; women researchers and scientists are discouraged from a young age when it comes to seeking STEM careers, they face discrimination and sexual harassment at work and their male colleagues are treated more seriously than they are. Trans women in the sciences have an even more difficult time. Science as a whole also has a tendency to be inward-focused, rather than thinking about outward communications — thus, a publication like Science doesn’t consider the fact that its audience isn’t just researchers, but also members of the public, and the very populations being written about.
In light of that, cultural sensitivity and common decency are key. This cover should never have run, and while Science promises to do better in the future, what kind of action plan does it have in place to prevent similar incidents?
Photo credit: Shiv.