Mina Brewer was going to work on a summer day in New York City when something caught his eye in a Manhattan subway station. His photo was on the cover of The Atlantic magazine.
The month prior, Brewer and a friend answered an open call for trans subjects distributed in a group email from PFLAG, an organization for LGBTQ people, their parents and families, and allies. The call was for a shoot with photographer Maciek Jasik, who has had photographs featured in numerous magazines, including New York Magazine, GQ and The New Yorker. All that Brewer knew about the shoot was it was for an “article about gender dysphoria and debates different views on teens wanting to transition,” according to emails reviewed by Poynter.
Brewer signed a standard release form that day granting The Atlantic rights to the photos “for all purposes,” including editorial and advertising, and waiving the right to inspect or approve them.
Shortly after the photo shoot, an art director at The Atlantic reached out to Brewer after it became clear that photos from the shoot were being weighed for use in the print magazine. When describing the aim for the use of photos, the art director said in an email they would be used as “a general, abstract, artistic representation of gender dysphoria in children.” He described how the article would cover “a variety of subjects who have experienced gender dysphoria,” and said they were “aware of sensitivities around these issues” and wanted to make sure Brewer understood the article’s subject.
The art director did not specify where or how the photos would be placed or, at that time, provide any additional documentation specifying their use for a magazine cover.
Normally, a cover photo would be considered a phenomenal achievement, especially for an amateur model answering a casting call online. But accompanying Brewer’s photo was a headline that read, “Your Child Says She’s Trans. She Wants Hormones and Surgery. She’s 13.”
Brewer was 22 at the time, used they/them pronouns (but goes by he/him pronouns now), and had no idea he was even being considered for the cover.
Though it may have been unintentional, the headline was tied to Brewer’s photo in print, misgendering him and creating a false narrative about his life. At the time the cover came out, Brewer was still exploring his gender identity and was not ready to come out to more than a close circle of friends. Not expecting the photo to feature so prominently, Brewer said he hadn’t considered the possibility that it would lead to needing to explain his identity to his family. To his surprise, his grandfather actually had a subscription to The Atlantic, leading Brewer’s family to see him for who he was much earlier than he had planned.
“My family is pretty supportive. I didn’t really face any hard transphobia or backlash from them,” Brewer said. “It pretty much outed me and it was such a weird time. I was really trying to understand my identity for myself and wasn’t really comfortable talking about my gender to all these people who weren’t that close to me.”
Strangers throughout New York City recognized Brewer in the immediate aftermath, which he said only added to an increasingly stressful “public statement” attached to his transition, even if it was never his intention.
Misgendering a transgender or gender-nonconforming person removes the agency they have in their own lives, and ascribes a different identity to them. According to style guidelines from the Trans Journalists Association, “journalists should make a habit of asking sources for their pronouns, so they don’t misgender someone in their coverage. This guidance applies to all coverage and beats, as trans people exist throughout different communities and industries.”
Acts of misgendering can trigger bouts of gender dysphoria in trans and gender non-conforming people, as well as have other adverse effects on mental health and well-being.
Raquel Willis, a former executive editor of Out Magazine, said that when featuring a marginalized group such as trans people on the cover of a major magazine, it is important that the final design speaks “to the integrity of their actual experience” and is conscious of how it could open up a marginalized group to harassment or discrimination.
It is not typical for high-ranking editors to consult with subjects about what photos would be used for a magazine cover, Willis said, but it is standard for subjects to at least be aware that they are shooting photos for a magazine cover to begin with.
“I think particularly in covering people from a community that’s on the margins it is important to know what the potential fallout from their inclusion and something that’s going to be disseminated through media is,” Willis said. “There is an ethical piece particularly around only viewing people as subjects and not actually considering their humanity, I think it is a very privileged, white, cis assumption that as a writer or journalist you have the power to just tell any story.”
Brewer reached back out to The Atlantic about the cover, expressing concern with how the headline became linked to his photograph. The art director told Brewer that he worked to relay Brewer’s concern up the chain to quickly change the headline of the article on The Atlantic’s website, but there was nothing that could be done about the magazine cover. After Brewer brought up the compensation models traditionally get for cover shots, the Atlantic paid him an additional sum.
A spokesperson for the Atlantic said in a statement that the magazine “did not intend for the cover line to correspond to the experience of any one person in the story or to the lived experience of the model featured on the cover,” but said “in retrospect, we would have made a different decision about the cover line.” (The Atlantic’s full statement can be found at the end of this piece.)
“While Mina Brewer, the model who was photographed for this cover story, was not the subject of the piece, we saw in retrospect that a reader could conflate Brewer’s own identity and lived experience with the pronouns used in the headline,” said Anna Bross, vice president of communications at The Atlantic, in the statement. “As written, the line was too easily misconstrued, as evidenced by the responses it elicited from readers and from Brewer.”
The piece itself has been the subject of intense back-and-forth online. Some lauded its subject matter but there was also robust criticism of the sources and studies featured in the article from the transgender community and the LGBTQ community at large. Some medical professionals have said that the piece overweighed the frequency in which young people detransition later in life, and needlessly questioned standard practices which are widely accepted by the medical community. The reporting from the story was cited in a federal lawsuit seeking to roll back the rights of transgender individuals.
With politicians’ focus on transgender rights and the Trump administration’s moves to roll back federal protections for trans people, the 2018 cover story is continually referenced in subsequent media commentary. The article was once again brought to the forefront after the publication of a letter in Harper’s magazine, which the author of The Atlantic article signed.
Ethically, the use of the photo on the cover raised concerns with editors and reporters outside of The Atlantic.
“I can’t remember a single time that we surprised someone by putting them on the cover, and I was a specialist of (working with) ordinary people and putting them on the cover of a magazine,” said Steve Liss, a veteran photographer for Time magazine.
Liss shot more than 40 covers for the magazine in a decades-long career in a newsroom where cover stories would emerge at an instant and throw well-meaning plans out the window. He said that even in that environment, he never encountered a situation where potential cover photo subjects would not be aware of their prospects. He said Time used different release forms for cover photos, as a cover serves as both an editorial piece as well as an advertisement to buy the magazine.
The only time that advertising and editorial worked together in the newsroom was on magazine covers, Liss said, and not alerting Brewer to his potential inclusion on a cover is “indefensible”.
Legally, The Atlantic was well within its rights to use the photo on the cover due to the broad terms of its release, but Akili Ramsess, executive director of the National Press Photographers Association, said the magazine should have treated its model better given the sensitivity of the story the model was being used for.
Since Brewer was not interviewed or part of the story his photo was commissioned for, the magazine could have done a better job informing him of all possibilities for the photos in order to minimize harm, Ramsess said. A more experienced model may have worked to negotiate the original release to get more control over how the photo was used to prevent the situation that played out with this particular cover.
“Ethically the issues it does raise, it does damage the relationship of trust between the readers and the groups (the article) is representing,” Ramsess said. “I don’t know if it was inadvertent, but with a subject like this, the art director, editors and photographers should have been involved in the process of how they were going to conceive this story.”
The Atlantic’s statement said that the organization “missed a step,” by not notifying Brewer specifically about being on the cover for the story, but said that the magazine was “in touch with each model to ensure that every person photographed understood both the sensitive subject matter of the cover story and that each model continued to consent to their image being used.”
“I think everyone involved in this story — from the decisions around art, to the editor who accepted the pitch or solicited the story, to the reporter who worked on the story — failed both the audience of The Atlantic and trans people,” said Oliver-Ash Kleine, an audio journalist and founding member of the Trans Journalists Association.
By not informing Brewer of his potential placement on the cover, and using the language that it did on the cover, The Atlantic showed there was “no consideration or thoughtfulness at the situation,” Kleine said.
The Trans Journalists Association’s style guide — which includes guidance for improving trans coverage and a glossary of terms — does not have a section dedicated to the type of situation that arose with The Atlantic’s July/August 2018 cover because such an ethical misstep was never considered by its writers, Kleine said. Trans people who were briefed on the backstory of the cover said it was clear that the final product would have been set up vastly differently had a trans person been involved in its creation.
It is unclear if The Atlantic had any such trans voices in the room. However, the art director defended the magazine’s choice in an email to Brewer. He said the headline “was intended to create that separation and make readers reflectively think about their own children or future children” and that the photo choice was not intended to reflect Brewer himself, but the abstract idea of parents navigating their children’s transition.
After the cover came out, Brewer posted a picture of the shot on Instagram, distancing himself from the article, and saying “the article (the picture is) for is transphobic,” while also praising the photographer and the work that he did.
“I had the picture up in my room for a little bit, but then I didn’t really want to talk about it with people when they came by because I would get upset or bitter about it,” Brewer said. “I wish that I could have been on the cover of a magazine with a great article about trans people because that would have been so good.”
Here is the full statement from The Atlantic:
At the time, we viewed the cover as illustrating the central question posed by the article: What is the best way to treat children who experience gender dysphoria? We intended for the cover line to speak to a hypothetical parent. We did not intend for the cover line to correspond to the experience of any one person in the story or to the lived experience of the model featured on the cover. (Several of the young people whose experiences were described in the article appeared in photographs that accompanied the article.)
While Mina Brewer, the model who was photographed for this cover story, was not the subject of the piece, we saw in retrospect that a reader could conflate Brewer’s own identity and lived experience with the pronouns used in the headline. When Brewer raised this concern to our art director, we quickly changed the online version of the headline to use they rather than she. The magazine has also generally moved away from using identifiable models to depict our reporting in the two years since this story was released, as you can see from more recent work in print and online.
In terms of our communication with the models photographed for this article: Our art directors were in touch with each model to ensure that every person photographed understood both the sensitive subject matter of the cover story and that each model continued to consent to their image being used. This was a critical piece of the process. Nevertheless, we feel now that we as an organization missed a step in not notifying Brewer about our final decision of the photo on the cover.
In retrospect, we would have made a different decision about the cover line. As written, the line was too easily misconstrued, as evidenced by the responses it elicited from readers and from Brewer.
Sydney Bauer is a transgender journalist based in Atlanta, Georgia. She covers sports, politics, and major events through the lens of identity and gender. You can reach her on Twitter @Femme_thoughts, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was originally published on Sept. 3, 2020. It has been updated to remove the name of a low-level Atlantic staffer, and to state more clearly that Brewer used they/them pronouns at the time of the photo shoot but uses he/him pronouns now.