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‘I Think I Made a Mistake’: Katie Couric On Her Transgender Evolution

Katie Couric says she was an ‘insensitive buffoon’ for asking about a trans model’s ‘private parts.’ Now she’s made a documentary about trans and intersex issues.

ABC

Katie Couric is not afraid to admit she got it wrong.

On a January 2014 episode of her ABC daytime talk show Katie, the veteran TV journalist famously came under fire for asking transgender model Carmen Carrera awkward questions like “Was the whole process painful, physically, for you?” and “Your private parts are different now, aren’t they?”

Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox defended Carrera in the next segment, informing Couric that the “preoccupation” with surgery “objectifies trans people” and that it obscures the often harsh reality of their daily lives.

The headlines the next day were harsh: BuzzFeed called the exchange “cringeworthy,” Salon labeled Couric’s questions “invasive,” and Slate slammed the interview as “really offensive.

“When some people were very critical, of course it hurt me,” Couric told me over the phone in a conversation about Gender Revolution, her forthcoming National Geographic documentary on transgender and intersex issues. “I felt terrible.”

What critics didn't realize about the controversy at the time is that Couric, since 2014 global news anchor for Yahoo, had ample opportunity to avoid it altogether. The interview had been pre-taped weeks in advance and the producers, Couric told me, offered to remove the offending portion before the episode aired.

Couric knew that she had misstepped—but she refused.

“I discussed it with Laverne [Cox] and I wanted, maybe foolishly, to use myself as an example to really have a teachable moment on the show,” she said. “That was my intent and I guess I did it at the expense of making myself seem like an insensitive buffoon—which I guess I was.”

The producers didn’t want to have Cox back on Katie after that incident, Couric told me, perhaps to “protect [her] from more criticism.” But the former Today Show co-host and first female CBS Evening news anchor didn’t want that interview to be her last word on transgender issues.

“I think that I made a mistake,” she told The Daily Beast. “And I wanted to make sure that people knew that I recognized I made a mistake.”

So at Couric’s request, Cox came back to Katie in June 2014. The resulting conversation was a master class in talking across difference: Couric was apologetic and Cox said she was appreciative of her friend’s “willingness to learn out in public.”

Two women—one cisgender, one transgender—worked past an uncomfortable moment together instead of leaving it in the history books as an epic internet callout.

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Cox reassured Couric, “It’s only a mistake if you make it twice.”

And the next year, when Cox won Maybelline’s “Make it Happen” prize at the Fashion Media Awards, she specifically requested that Couric be her presenter, telling the audience that their on-air talks had “changed the conversation about who transgender people are and how we tell their stories.”

Today, Couric is still learning about transgender people and telling their stories. And as Gender Revolution proves, she hasn’t made many mistakes more than once.

The two-hour National Geographic documentary—premiering Monday night—is a compassionate, incisive, and informed introduction to the exploding conversation around gender and identity. It covers everything from the nascent science behind gender dysphoria to the treatment of transgender children to the continuing impact of North Carolina’s “bathroom bill.”

Along the way, Couric interviews several key figures in or adjacent to the transgender community, including model and actress Hari Nef; hormone specialist Joshua Safer; and teenager Gavin Grimm, who is heading to the Supreme Court later this year over his school board’s refusal to allow him to use the boys’ bathroom.

Couric’s curiosity is evident throughout the program, but so is her care. At one point, instead of asking a young transgender woman named Allison what she was called before transition, she asks if she can ask that question. When Allison says she’d “prefer not,” Couric uses it as an opportunity for an impromptu conversation about previous names, and how they can function as a distressing reminder of pre-transition life.

It’s an example of the way in which Couric has learned to create educational opportunities out of potentially challenging moments.

“I think if we can all have these conversations and try to give each other a little room to sometimes make mistakes—and to learn from those mistakes—then we’ll be able to encourage a lot more conversation,” Couric told me.

Even now, six months after she started filming, Couric is acutely aware of little slip-ups she spots in Gender Revolution. She told me that she felt self-conscious showing the documentary to a largely LGBTQ audience—which included transgender Human Rights Campaign spokeswoman Sarah McBride—in Washington, D.C.

“Oh gosh, they must think I’m an idiot!” Couric recalled feeling at the time.

But McBride, Couric said, told her that “it’s very helpful for social movements when people witness someone evolve in their views.” And if Couric had let a fear of making mistakes stop her back in 2014, she never would have embarked on her own journey with Gender Revolution—which, frankly, would have been a shame.

At times, the experience of being transgender can seem untranslatable. How can people who are comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth ever understand what it’s like to not feel that way, deeply and persistently? But by talking to so many different transgender people in their own spaces, Couric comes as close as possible to bridging that gap over the course of Gender Revolution.

She doesn’t just speak with experts and celebrities; she talks to ordinary people like Kate and Linda Rohr, who were married for 45 years before Kate came out as transgender; and Vanessa and J.R. Ford, who are raising a transgender girl named Ellie. In the process, something beautiful happens: Little moments of human connection—hugs, jokes, and high fives—transform Couric’s subjects from spectacles into peers.

“The best tool is to actually spend time with people,” Couric told me. “And they taught me so much. They were compassionate and patient and willing to help me and to give me—and by extension hopefully everyone watching the documentary—a chance to learn without judgment.”

As for Couric, Gender Revolution won’t mark the end of her attention to transgender issues. In fact, the Boy Scouts of America just began allowing registration based on gender identity so she’s interviewing a transgender boy scout next week.

And while working at Yahoo, Couric says she’ll continue to do deeper dives on other subjects that “I find really important and compelling and needed.” Despite the buzz generated by her recent return stint on the Today show, Couric said, “I don’t have any plans in the immediate future to do that [return to daytime].

“I’m interested in showing the very human side of any misunderstood or marginalized segment of the population,” Couric said. “I have tried my entire career to inform people or enlighten people or to give people a voice who don’t have a voice.”

Gender Revolution premieres Monday, February 6th at 9 PM / 8 PM Central on the National Geographic channel. Following the premiere, at 11 PM ET, Couric will be hosting a Facebook Live aftershow on National Geographic’s Facebook page.