Science Magazine Puts Headless Trans Women On Its Cover

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.


Oumar R
Oumar R3 years ago

trying to bring awareness should help the situation

Vicky P.
Vicky P3 years ago


BMutiny TCorporationsEvil

"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."
If these SAME hijra, were told their photos would be USED TO ILLUSTRATE A SCIENCE MAGAZINE SPECIAL ISSUE ON AIDS -
I bet THEY WOULD NOT GIVE THEIR PERMISSION for their photos to be used that way..
*I* sure wouldn't, under the circumstances!!!

This is NOT an article about Transgender people, per se!
This is an article about AIDS as a Social Issue - and if the Magazine was to IGNORE Transgender Sex Workers as a "key population" that NEEDS ALL THE MEDICAL HELP IT CAN GET.... then THAT would be a reason for the Transgender People of the World to scream, because of being At Risk and being IGNORED!!!

It's just a FACT, that if your picture or my picture were to be USED TO ILLUSTRATE A "SPECIAL ISSUE" on AIDS - however "free from disease" you or I might be, there would be definitely an IMPLICATION that there was a REASON for our pictures being there - which might subject us in some countries, to sudden POLICE VISITS, or worse...
And, again, a magazine issue - an entire issue! - dealing with AIDS, it wouldn't make sense showing kittens and bunnies and unicorns...

BMutiny TCorporationsEvil

'COVER Transgender sex workers in Jakarta. This "key affected population" has high HIV prevalence but is largely ignored by government efforts. Australia, in contrast, has aggressively targeted its prevention interventions to high-risk groups. See page 152.'
Photo: Romeo Gacad/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

I don't see "headless" people on this very striking cover - I see nothing but long, long legs in high heels, with their shadows, making an interesting dark-and-light Vertical pattern on the page.
I don't see anything "sexy" - but then I'm not a man!
I should think the people photographed, would STRONGLY object to their faces being shown - not because they're Transgender, or even because they're Sex Workers - but because it is STRONGLY IMPLIED THAT THEY HAVE AND SPREAD HIV/AIDS - whether they actually have that disease or not. This would DEFINITELY subject them to more violence than they already face! and be SLANDEROUS as well! and invade their PRIVACY they're entitled to!
They ARE the epitome of "high-risk groups" - that's just a FACT - and I think the point was, to CONTRAST how two different places, Jakarta {Indonesia} and Australia, are handling the problem: one "ignoring" and one "aggressively targeting" these same "key" groups.
I personally would not criticize; but then I'm not transgendered. I think the "headless" makes perfect sense. A REALLY offensive cover, would show a MURDERED sex worker of any gender - or one in a hospital bed, wasting away with AIDS

Anteater Ants
Anteater Ants3 years ago

Leave this planet? David, do you mean religios leaders should commit suicide? (That would be an interesting idea, though.)

Anteater Ants
Anteater Ants3 years ago

Maybe Marie is right: it's meant to protect their identity.

Rose Becke3 years ago


Jennifer M.
Jennifer M3 years ago

I agree with Tammy and Francesca on this one. Also, I think the word "headless" itself implies a different meaning. I was expecting to be reading a much different article actually and was relieved in a way. Disease vectors...? Wow.

Tammy D.
Tammy D3 years ago

I don't get it. I looked at the cover and thought it was okay. It's not a great cover, and there is no text that explains the photo. I don't really understand why it would be offensive, and as others have said, I just got the impression that their identities were being obscured. Of course, it is unfortunate that this might have offended others. I do not believe that was the magazine's goal, and I think that the path for trying to talk its way out of it is full of land mines. People are not good at talking about transgender people. I don't think that means they should be attacked every time they make a mistake or misspeak.

Francesca A-S
Past Member 3 years ago

Thanks for sharing, if it's meant as dehumanisation then that's of course totally wrong but if it's about protecting their identities... It seems there are different ways to view this article.