Catching Up With Jazz Jennings, Who Taught America What It Means to Be Transgender
In 2007, the American public was introduced to a transgender child for the first time when Barbara Walters interviewed Jazz Jennings, who was then six years old. That was nearly a decade ago, when the cultural awareness of trans people was dim at best. But the interview was a breakout success: By innocently and eloquently explaining who and what she was, Jazz forced us to realize that children can define themselves. Simply by being herself, she proved that breaking the supposedly serious, impassable blockade between male and female is kid's play.
Today Jazz has become a celebrity and activist. Last year saw the premiere of her own reality program on TLC, I Am Jazz, which followed her through kitchen table conversations, friendships, parties, and all manner of drama at school. America has watched kids grow up on TV before, but Jazz is the first to do it while trans, making her an increasingly important figure. This year she will be one of three grand marshals in New York City's gay pride march — and the youngest in its history.
I caught up with Jazz at the end of a long day in Los Angeles, where she was signing copies of her new memoir, Being Jazz. Just two days before, Omar Mateen had killed 49 people at the Orlando, Florida, gay bar Pulse, and Jazz and her family seemed shaken; there was extra security for the signing.
Though she's quick to remind me that she's just a teenager with teenage problems, it's also clear Jazz has a fixed public persona that she doesn't often lower — her political message has been smartly developed, condensed, and internalized. There's nothing inauthentic about it, however; a child of the new millennium, she is the rightful heir to the transgender liberation movement. "It's beyond myself," Jazz said. "It's not about me."
Jazz lives in Florida with her parents, twin brothers, and a sister. Her life is wholesome, simple, and relatable: She's growing up, but isn't fond of it. "I'm not cute anymore, so that's the downfall of everything," she said, sounding every bit the teenager that she is. Of course looks are important, because she's in high school, but they're also an important part of her brand.
Trans girls of decades past often trudged through their teen years as gay boys, and then fled suburbia to come of age in metropolitan tenderloins, integrated not into the normal world but the queer counterculture. Jazz's experience is entirely new: a normal girl in a middle-class, all-American family who isn't trying to erase the fact she is transgender. (Using puberty-blockers, Jazz's physician has prevented the development of secondary male sex characteristics, like facial hair.)
It took some doing to get to this place. In the 2007 interview with Walters, Jazz's parents explained that from the time she could talk, Jazz demanded to wear dresses. When they referred to her as a boy, she would firmly correct them. Her father, Greg, claimed he was "in a bit of denial," and it was years before her parents became comfortable with the thought of Jazz's transitioning.
But they did eventually accede to, and even celebrate, her choice. In an interview with Glamour, Jazz's mother, Jeanette, argued for the rights of trans children, suggesting that gender identity is personal and innate. "People don't give enough credit to two-year-olds," she said. "They know what they want."
Such acceptance has been integral to Jazz's development as an activist and role model. "I wouldn't be able to share my story so proudly without their love and support," she said. "We all deserve to be loved by our families. We all deserve to love ourselves."
Nine years ago, when Jazz appeared on ABC News, being trans was still officially categorized as a mental disorder. Since then the trans rights movement has gathered momentum, and by 2014, Laverne Cox, the trans star of Orange Is the New Black, had appeared on the cover of Time beside the headline "The Transgender Tipping Point." (Cox is also a fan of Jazz's and once tweeted at her: "You are special darling. Don't ever forget it.")
Still, Jazz is not perfectly insulated from transphobia; in some ways she is the target of even more revulsion because of her fame. People online have threatened to kill her. Others have called her house to say terrible things. She prefers not to engage with critics — it's painful to know that there are so many individuals and institutions in the United States that wish to silence and erase transgender people, and to think of how many trans people have been crippled by the decades of cultural darkness that have left a disproportionately large number of them homeless, addicted, and anguished. "I've seen the suicide rates," she said, referring to the 41 percent of transgender people who attempt to kill themselves. "I know the truth."
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Hearing her say this is disarming. When I was a teen, ten years ago, that statistic had not yet been measured. I'm trans, but unlike Jazz, I lived my teen years as a boy, bullied terribly, consumed by suicidal ideation, and dependent on alcohol. It wasn't all that long ago, but for the transgender movement, it was the dark ages.
And there are frequent reminders that change has yet to consolidate. When I met with Jazz at the book-signing, I had just come from a vigil in Jackson Heights memorializing those killed at Pulse. Both of us still felt scalded by the news. "It's really scary," she told me, her voice rising; Florida is her home.
When Jazz summarizes her life and work as "a positive story: a happy transgender child," she understands that's a radical narrative in itself; she knows that there are countless trans youths whose bodies are transforming in unwelcome ways, and who are facing discrimination without the support she has been given. But she also holds up her own experience as proof that transgender people aren't doomed to a life spent mending ruptured self-esteem or fighting a tireless uphill battle against depression and substance abuse. She does tell me that she deals with depression from time to time. But she is certain that the painful feelings she endures today pale beside the hell she would have suffered had she not been given the right to live as a girl. "I don't know if I would have had the courage to live," she said. She quickly brushed the thought away. "Maintaining my positive, optimistic viewpoint is really important," she said. "I don't want to get to that dark place again."
Jazz is still a teenager, and she doesn't know what life wants from her yet. Sometimes she does think about her future, wondering where she'll be ten years from now. "I think I might want to be a filmmaker, a director, a story writer," Jazz said. "I want to create films and books with really good messages that will help people to better understand themselves."
And of course the demands of the present intrude: Does she like-like anyone? "I honestly don't talk to boys at all," Jazz explained, though she mentioned that she does go on a date with a boy in the second season of her show. "I really don't know what they feel about me — and I don't really care if they feel intimidated or insecure."
For now, she has a purpose and happiness and dreams. "Being transgender is normal," she assured me, summing up her rights brilliantly: "It doesn't differentiate me from any other person. I am a person as well, and I want to be treated like a person." She does find time to wish for her own happiness, as well as that of others. "That's my birthday wish every year," she laughed. On the cusp of an uncharted adulthood, what could be more normal than that?
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