Science Magazine Puts Transgender Women on Cover, Without Their Heads

Science magazine
Science

Science, the academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, put an image of transgender women sex workers on their cover this week, to accompany an extensive special section about HIV/AIDS prevention approaches. However, on the cover, the women's heads were cut out of the frame, leaving only their bodies.

Prosanta Chakrabarty, an evolutionary biologist at Louisiana University, pointed out the problem.

When we said we wanted more women in Science this is not what we meant. @AAASmember pic.twitter.com/RDD9zXfh6j

— Prosanta Chakrabarty (@PREAUX_FISH) July 16, 2014

This prompted many on Twitter, including Scientific American blogger Janet Stemwedel, to note that depicting women in tight clothing without their heads is dehumanizing and objectifying.

Tip for photo-editors: cropping people's heads out of shots of their bodies is kind of dehumanizing. Try a different image.

— Janet D. Stemwedel 🏳️‍🌈, 1/3 of a monkeypaw ☠️ (@docfreeride) July 16, 2014

However, Jim Austin, the Careers editor at Science, didn't see the problem. He suggested that the fact that the women pictured were transgender "colors things" differently.

Jacquelyn Gill, an Ice Age ecologist and assistant professor at the University of Maine, reminded Austin that transgender women are in fact still women, so it does not. The male gaze, she writes, is still objectifying the women in the photo.

@SciCareerEditor It’s not clear from the cover image. I don’t think it’s ok to sexually objectify transwomen, either. @LSU_FISH @AAASmember

— Dr. Jacquelyn Gill (@JacquelynGill) July 16, 2014

@SciCareerEditor I’m not sure how you get that, at all. To me it’s just another dehumanizing male gazey image. @LSU_FISH @AAASmember

— Dr. Jacquelyn Gill (@JacquelynGill) July 16, 2014

Austin responded that it was "interesting" to consider how those same men would feel when they "found out" the women were transgender.

By this time, several members of the scientific community had chimed in, including astrophysicist Katherine Mack and science historian Alice Dreger.

@tehpet @JacquelynGill @SciCareerEditor @LSU_FISH @AAASmember 1)Headless women's bodies on cover: not OK. 2)"Hey but they're trans!": not OK

— Katie Mack (@AstroKatie) July 16, 2014

That Science cover: It's one of those rare micoraggressions you can actually literally show people. But only those who get it will get it.

— Alice Dreger (@AliceDreger) July 17, 2014

Science's Editor in Chief Marcia McNutt quickly apologized for the cover on Twitter and posted a longer apology about the cover choice on her blog, reprinted below.

From us at Science, we apologize to those offended by recent cover. Intent was to highlight solutions to HIV, and it badly missed the mark.

— Marcia McNutt (@Marcia4Science) July 17, 2014

The cover showing transgender sex workers in Jarkarta was selected after much discussion by a large group and was not intended to offend anyone, but rather to highlight the fact that there are solutions for the AIDS crisis for this forgotten but at-risk group. A few have indicated to me that the cover did exactly that, but more have indicated the opposite reaction: that the cover was offensive because they did not have the context of the story prior to viewing it, an important piece of information that was available to those choosing the cover.

I am truly sorry for any discomfort that this cover may have caused anyone, and promise that we will strive to do much better in the future to be sensitive to all groups and not assume that context and intent will speak for themselves.

Jim Austin, however, still doesn't see the problem.