Threats, bullying hit family of KC transgender girl on cover of National Geographic

National Geographic features KC's Avery Jackson, a transgender girl

Avery Jackson, 9, of Kansas City says National Geographic shows that transgender people do exist, and the world can't ignore them.
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Avery Jackson, 9, of Kansas City says National Geographic shows that transgender people do exist, and the world can't ignore them.

It didn’t take long for two public reactions to erupt on the announcement this month that Avery Jackson, a 9-year-old girl from Kansas City, would be the first known transgender individual to be pictured on the cover of National Geographic.

The first and most overwhelming reaction to her appearance on one version of the magazine’s January cover continues to be an outpouring of support.

The second: hate — scorching and violent messages. One suggested that the only way Avery would be safe is if her mother were “exterminated.”

“It’s a bunch of internet trolls,” said Debi Jackson, 42, Avery’s mother. “And what they do for fun is find people to make fun of and start threads. This one particular group likes to target the trans community — a lot of them try to target people and harass them so much so that they’ll commit suicide.

“They’ve started a thread about me, (describing me) as a horrible and abusive parent who is using my child for fame and fortune, and obviously I have a twisted sexual deviancy issues to make my boy act like a girl…

“They found information (about our family) and put it out there. People later commented, ‘Yeah, she’s definitely one who needs to be cyberbullied until she commits suicide.’ 

To be sure, over the last three years, the Jacksons have come to realize that advocating for their transgender daughter invites harsh criticism.

It began not long after Avery and her family received what was mostly an outpouring of positive support as the focus of a story headlined “I am a girl” on transgender children that appeared in February 2014 in The Kansas City Star.

Avery’s name and the name of her parents were kept anonymous in that story out of concern for the effect any criticism might have on the girl, then 6. Avery began her transition from male to female when she was 4.

In the story, Avery was referred to as A.J. Parents Debi and Tom Jackson were referred to only as A.J.’s mother and father.

In the weeks and months that followed, Debi Jackson — who was raised Baptist with strong conservative Republican roots — gradually began to talk publicly about how she came to realize her child was transgender. She spoke both to dispel myths about what transgender meant and to express her support for her child.

On the heels of the newspaper story, Jackson wrote a blog post on being the parent of a transgender child. That post garnered her an invitation to speak at a conference at Unity Temple on the Plaza. Her Unity speech, before about 200 people, was recorded on video and months later, in July 2014, posted on YouTube. It quickly went viral.

“I had hundreds of messages, and they were pretty much from every continent except Antarctica,” Jackson said.

The video has amassed more than 625,000 views. The reaction was emboldening for the Jacksons.

“It had a really positive impact,” Jackson said. “It was both youth saying, ‘I want to show this to my parents, so they can understand,’ to parents saying, ‘Wow, thank you. I needed this. I felt alone, and now I know I’m not,’ to adults saying, ‘If your daughter can have the courage to be who she is at that age, I don’t know why I’m holding myself back. This is encouraging me to transition.’ And some of the people were up in their 80s.”

As Jackson’s public advocacy grew, so did criticism of the family — reaching a threatening pitch last week after the National Geographic announcement.

“It’s the amount of threats,” Jackson said. “It’s gone from, ‘You’re an abusive mom and people should call child protective services,’ to ‘You should be killed immediately — the only way your kids will be safe is if you are exterminated.’ 

Jackson also wonders whether the vitriol has intensified as transgender issues have begun to occupy a greater part of the social spotlight.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has been documenting violent acts against individuals who are transgender. In August, it released a piece detailing rising violence in the wake of “culture war” debates such as whether transgender individuals should be allowed or legally prevented from using bathrooms aligned with their gender identity.

On Wednesday, a supposed bipartisan deal in North Carolina to repeal House Bill 2 — a law that, among other provisions, required transgender people to use public bathrooms that align with their sex at birth — collapsed when Republicans and Democrats could not reach an accord.

On its Facebook page, the American Family Association posted about the National Geographic cover:

“BE WARNED PARENTS AND GRANDPARENTS!!! National Geographic shakes a fist at God and biblical authority on their radical mission to advocate gender confusion in upcoming issues.”

A conservative Christian organization, the nonprofit was originally known as the National Federation of Decency and says it has been on the “front lines of America’s culture wars” since its founding in 1977.

Avery, her long hair colored in streaks of pink and blue, said last week that she has never had any doubt about her gender identity.

“What would I say to people who would say I’m a boy and not a girl? I don’t care. It’s your opinion. I’m actually a girl,” Avery said as she sat in her room, dominated by a pink canopy bed but also decorated with scary posters, a nod to her love of the Goosebumps series.

She knows that some people are critical. She, too, has been trolled on Facebook, but she does not at all regret making her name and face public.

“That’s helping other people,” she said. “And it’s showing we exist. Transgender people do exist. And they’re there, and you can’t ignore them, because they’re there. It also shows that I’m proud to be transgender. I don’t care if I’m transgender. I’m just out there, a normal human being changing the world.”

Although Avery’s portrait is used for the cover of the National Geographic being delivered to homes (the newsstand issue has a different cover), the content of the “Gender Revolution” issue covers a variety of matters related to gender across the globe.

Avery appears in a piece titled “I Am Nine Years Old,” for which the magazine traveled to 80 homes on four continents to ask boys and girls how gender affects their lives. Other topics in the issue include “Making a Man,” about that changing rite of passage around the globe.

As for how Avery feels about being on a cover that invites greater notoriety:

“I don’t feel much,” she said, “’cause it’s just helping people. That’s the only thing I should feel — good to be there. I don’t care about fame or anything. I just care about being there to help other people.”

When Avery first appeared in print as A.J., the idea was to protect her privacy until Avery might one day feel comfortable enough to reveal her own story. Debi Jackson said that day came just prior to her daughter’s 8th birthday at a Girl Scout troop meeting.

Avery’s Girl Scout friends knew her as a girl. They did not know she was transgender, although the adult leaders did. At one meeting, another transgender girl whom Avery had met and befriended decided to visit the troop.

Jackson recalled that when it came time for the girls to introduce themselves and tell the group something about themselves, the visiting girl offered up her name and said, “And I’m transgender!”

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ ” Jackson said. “And Avery is looking at her. The other girls said, ‘What does that mean?’ She said, ‘Well, when I was born, they thought I was a boy, but I’m really a girl.’

“The other kids said, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ And then Avery said, ‘I’m transgender, too,’ because she had just seen another transgender girl acknowledged as OK by her friends.”

That moment was monumental, Jackson said.

“I couldn’t breathe. I was just sitting there. I was not prepared for that moment to happen,” she said. “They (the other girls) were so amazing. One girl said, ‘Well, if you were born a boy, shouldn’t you be in Boy Scouts?’

“And the troop leader stepped right in and said: ‘Well, no. They’re girls. So why would they do that?’ The girl was, like, ‘OK, yeah, I guess you’re right.’ 

The moment was so affirming that Avery began sharing with friends the fact that she was transgender.

“Not a single person batted an eye,” Jackson said. “She was completely accepted by all of them. When she had that confidence boost, it completely changed her.”

Her openness has brought much public notice. A video created by Avery and her mom, along with an essay by her dad, were featured in May 2015 on The New York Times’ website.

“At 4 years old,” Tom Jackson wrote, “my child revealed her true self by stating very clearly and articulately, ‘I am really a girl, I am a girl on the inside.’ This statement altered my life forever and is something I would not change for the world.”

Avery and her parents were invited by President Barack Obama and wife Michelle to take part in the Easter egg roll at the White house. Gay, bisexual and transgender parents first attended the event in 2006 during the George W. Bush administration.

But the Jacksons also say their openness has brought wounds.

One of Debi Jackson’s brothers, with the family’s conservative and religious background, has cut off contact with her family. Another brother, she said, is very much accepting, and her own parents are still coming to terms with their grandchild’s transition.

Tom Jackson, who runs his own business related to sports medicine and athletes, lost 40 percent of his clients.

But for all the trolls, difficulty and now threats, the Jacksons said they mostly focus on the vast encouragement they have received, such as a Facebook post from a neighbor:

“My neighbor’s beautiful trans kid is featured on the cover of Nat Geo,” the post read. “Love and respect for the Jackson family.”

The Jacksons love what the cover shows about their girl.

“We’re proud of her being on the cover, particularly because of how much confidence it shows she has,” Debi Jackson said.

A couple of years ago, Avery shied away from such attention, fearing her friends might reject her.

“Now she has the attitude, ‘This is who I am,’ ” Jackson said. “ ‘Take it or leave it.’ 

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler