Science Magazine stirred up controversy this month when they used a January 2013 photo of two transgender sex workers as the cover image for their July 11 issue. The image, which features the women’s heads cropped out, was criticized by many for being sexist and objectifying. Adding her voice to the mix is Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who last week sent a letter to Alan I. Leshner, the magazine’s executive publisher.
“The July 11 issue of Science Magazine featured a lurid cover photograph of transgender women in tight dresses and high heels with their heads cropped out of the frame,” the California Democrat's letter reads. “The use of headless, sexualized women of color on the cover of the most prestigious science publication in the United States sends the message that women and minorities still do not fully belong in the ‘boy’s club’ of science.”
Rep. Speier goes on to criticize the magazine’s career editor Jim Austin for comments he made on Twitter.
“The choice of cover was made even worse by Science editor Jim Austin’s comments suggesting that if men were drawn in by the exposed legs and tight dresses, it would be ‘interesting’ to see how they felt once they discovered the women were transgender,” Rep. Speier continues. “The prevalence of the ‘trans panic’ defense, in which perpetrators of violent crimes justify their actions by claiming shock at the identity of a trans person, make this an abysmal motivation for Science’s choice of cover are, particularly since transgender people are disproportionately subject to hate crimes. I appreciate the apology from Science’s editor-in-chief, but question how such a sexist, racist, and transphobic cover was selected in the first place.”
The Congresswoman concludes her letter with examples of sexism in science-related fields, illustrating a systemic problem.
On July 16th, Science editor in chief Marcia McNutt issued a statement, defending the cover choice.
“The cover showing transgender sex workers in Jakarta 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,” McNutt wrote. “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.”
McNutt concluded with a brief apology, writing, “I am truly sorry for any discomfort 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.”
The photo itself has been used in other publications to illustrate different issues. The first known use of this particular photo came in February 2013 when Aquila Style, a Muslim lifestyle website, used the photo in their article, “A Home for Transgender Elderly in Indonesia.” As in Science, the Aquila Style photo features the women’s heads cropped out of the shot.