Months ago, Debi Jackson watched as a photographer from National Geographic met with her young daughter Avery, taking pictures of her lounging on the chair in her family’s living room. Debi smiled as Avery posed for the camera, laughing and showing off some of her toys with the reporter. “The best thing about being a girl is, now I don’t have to pretend to be a boy,” Debi heard Avery say.
By the end of the year, Debi, Avery, and Debi’s husband received a phone call from the National Geographic team. Although the family knew Avery was being considered for a feature on nine-year-old children around the globe and the ways that gender has shaped their lives, they were surprised to learn that Avery’s face would soon be staring back at them from the magazine’s cover. The magazine had chosen her photo for the cover of their special issue on gender.
In an instant, once the magazine was published, Avery Jackson became part of LGBT history – the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of one of the nation’s most revered publications. And what’s more – at nine years old, she has already helped challenge so many people’s limited, narrow notion of what it means to be transgender. Her story, illustrated in an image and a quotation, will undoubtedly leave an indelible mark on the world.
The cover of National Geographic may be the highest-profile experience Avery Jackson and her mom have undertaken so far, but the family is not new to speaking out about what it means to be transgender and why our laws must protect transgender people from discrimination.
Debi has spoken about her experience raising a transgender child to many parents’ groups, has written about her own journey, has seen several speeches of hers go massively viral. Avery has appeared in newspaper articles and been on the radio. This winter, Avery published a children’s picture book called It’s Okay to Sparkle.
But despite her familiarity with this vital education work now, if you had told Debi Jackson just a few years ago that she would spend significant time helping to educate the public about transgender people, she wouldn’t have believed you. No, she was never aggressively opposed to equality for transgender people – but she hadn’t really considered the question at all, having so rarely encountered it.
You see, a woman who grew up in Alabama, was born and raised in a die-hard Republican military family, and went on to become a lifelong conservative isn’t exactly what immediately comes to mind when you imagine an advocate for transgender equality.
“From the get-go, Ronald Reagan was the president who was idealized in my house,” Debi said, recalling her childhood, raised by a West Point graduate father in the South. “My dad’s best friend had grown up in Arkansas around Bill Clinton, and so I had always heard stories that equated Bill Clinton as a liberal, crazy, horrible person. That’s just the world I grew up in.”
For years, Debi listened to Rush Limbaugh’s radio program for three hours a day. Her co-workers came to understand that if they didn’t want to listen, they’d have to avoid Debi’s office for three hours. Her TV news source of choice was Fox News.
“My whole background has been voting straight-ticket Republican – for my entire life,” Debi said. “And then, we had our child tell us that she was a girl, and that didn’t mesh with anything that I was familiar with in my life.”
It was a surprise – an adjustment that didn’t come naturally. “I mean, we had gay friends – but the idea of a transgender person was totally foreign to us,” she explained. “The only thing I knew about trans people were Jerry Springer-type stories. And you certainly don’t hear positive stories on a show like that.”
“My whole background has been voting straight-ticket Republican – for my entire life. And then, we had our child tell us that she was a girl, and that didn’t mesh with anything that I was familiar with in my life.” – Debi Jackson
But despite the challenge in understanding, the next step for Debi and her husband was never a question. “I recognized quickly that we either support our child or we’re going to have a very hard time,” she said.
That was five years ago – and in the time that’s followed, she has watched as the Republican party has shifted dramatically, often veering into hard-line stances on social issues and driving away families like Debi’s.
“I’m an Army brat – I will always have that perspective. I want our veterans taken care of,” she said. “I have core conservative principles: Getting out of everyone’s way, letting people take care of themselves, regulating less, and letting the market work itself out. These are parts of my very conservative political worldview – but I can’t vote for those parts. Right now, I have to be focused on making sure that my daughter has her rights as an American – that she is 100% equal to everyone else. That’s where my focus is. I have to vote for my daughter first.”
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Debi knows the value of sharing her story with decision-makers and with other conservative Americans. She’s attended lobbying days in both their home state of Missouri and Kansas, where Avery was born, meeting with as many Republican lawmakers as she can. She’s spoken about her journey with an approachable humility, aware that each person listening is coming from a different place.
“I pull out a photo, and I say to them, ‘This is my family. Can I tell you about my family? I want to tell you why this matters.'”
Debi has not given up on the party in which she was raised – although this year, for the first time, she felt she had to vote for a Democrat for president. “I have always been passionately conservative – passionately Republican,” she said. “But right now I have to be a one-issue voter. I have to make sure my daughter is protected and doesn’t face discrimination.”
She remains within conservative circles. “I loved the Republican Party,” she said. “I want to have the Republican Party that I used to know. And just completely aligning myself in Democratic circles is not going to get me the support for my family. A trans child can be born into any family. I want to help people learn.”
As a Christian, she is especially troubled by the increase in legislation nationwide that purports to protect religious freedom but is actually a thinly disguised permission for people to cite their religious beliefs as an excuse for discrimination.
“I want religious liberty and religious freedom for all people,” she said. “But which religion? Where do you draw the line? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? That’s why it’s imperative that we don’t use religion as a basis for rights or freedoms, or anything of that sort. I don’t believe in using religious ideology of any kind to determine who gets rights and who doesn’t.”
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Legislation seeking to restrict restroom access for transgender people like her daughter also troubles Debi, striking her again as both deeply at odds with conservative principles – and also nonsensical.
“I point to my daughter,” Debi said. “She’s nine now. She socially transitioned when she was 4. How is a 4-year-old a danger in a bathroom? How is a 9-year-old? She goes in, she closes the door, she locks the stall, she uses the restroom, she washes her hands, then she leaves.” Debi acknowledges Avery’s privilege here – the reality that some adult trans people may not “pass” as their gender as well because they were not permitted to transition earlier in life.”
“A trans woman has always perceived herself to be a woman,” Debi said. “For many people though, they weren’t born early enough to have a chance at accessing medical assistance, halting puberty, and developing a body they were more comfortable with.”
She addresses the often-repeated fear that transgender women using the women’s restroom will make it easier for men to enter the women’s restroom. “Trans women tend to be more protective of women and girls because they’ve fought really hard to get into those spaces and be affirmed,” Debi said. “They are often super feminist – they are not going to let some man hurt another girl.”
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Debi often considers the future ahead for her family – her hopes and dreams for Avery as she grows up, beyond the 9-year-old girl who gazes back from the now-iconic cover of National Geographic.
“In 5 years, my daughter will be about to get her driver’s permit and license. In 10 years, she’ll be getting ready to go to college. In 5 years, I hope it’s easy for her to get an identification for who she is so that she’s not outed every time she needs to show her ID. In 10 years, when she’s in college, I hope that there are more colleges that allow her to live in a dorm room with other girls without questioning whether she’s going to be a ‘safety issue’ – that she would have her pick of schools and not feel limited because she is transgender.”
“I have always been passionately conservative – passionately Republican. But right now I have to be a one-issue voter. I have to make sure my daughter is protected and doesn’t face discrimination.” – Debi Jackson
Even in the short term, there is much to consider. “In about a year, she’ll need puberty blockers. But here in Kansas City, they aren’t widely available and I can’t find an insurance plan that covers them, so that’s thousands of dollars I’ll need to find a way to come up with. Medically, I want her to have access to anything she needs for her transition. This medical care is not a choice. It is not cosmetic. It’s life-changing. It’s life-solving.”
And, of course, there’s the question of simply establishing transgender-inclusive non-discrimination protections. In 32 states, including Missouri, transgender people can be legally fired, denied housing, or kicked out of a business or restaurant simply because they are transgender. Without comprehensive non-discrimination laws on the books protecting people from discrimination based on gender identity in states or at the federal level, transgender people like Avery are vulnerable to discrimination, with no legal recourse.
“Trans people have existed forever,” Debi said. “These problems have existed forever. They are not new. This is simple – it’s about helping people who need help. That’s what we’re supposed to do in this country – we help people. We don’t judge people for their differences.”