Jazz Jennings shares story of her triumphs, struggles as a transgender child in ‘I Am Jazz’
September 12, 2014 | Updated: September 12, 2014 6:00pm
A groundbreaking new picture book for children explains in clear, direct language what it means – and how it feels – to be transgender.
“I Am Jazz” is based on the true story of Jazz Jennings, who was born a boy but has always identified as a girl.
“I have a girl brain but a boy body,” Jazz says in the book. “This is called transgender. I was born this way!”
The story and illustrations document Jazz’s real-life journey, including the conversation with a doctor who confirmed what Jazz had always felt, the confusion among Jazz’s teachers, Jazz’s struggle to be allowed to use the girls’ restroom at school and the soccer league that let Jazz practice with the girls’ team but would not allow her to play in the games.
The real-life Jazz will be 14 next month. One of the most significant days of her life, she says, was her fifth birthday, when she was allowed to wear a shiny rainbow one-piece girl’s bathing suit to her party.
“It was the first time in public that I could be a girl,” says the eighth-grader, on the phone from her Florida home. “It was the first step in becoming the real me.”
Jazz knew she wanted to be a girl at age 2.
“Pretending I was a boy felt like telling a lie,” is how Jazz explains it in the book.
She started kindergarten as a girl and has never looked back.
Jessica Herthel, a family friend and director of the Stonewall National Education Project, wrote “I Am Jazz” with Jazz’s help.
“This is the first book for little kids that expressly uses the word transgender and tries to define it,” says Herthel, whose organization strives to integrate lesbian, gay, bi and transgender history into schools and culture at large. “Jazz is a kid who expressed a transgender identity from such a young age. She was consistent, persistent and insistent about it, and those are the three bells that need to ring. If you have a child that meets that criteria, you might say to yourself, ‘Maybe this is bigger than just a phase.’?”
Jazz’s mother hopes that the book will show children and parents there’s nothing to fear with trans kids.
“Trans kids are like other kids,” Jeanette Jennings says. “But a lot of times Jazz sits at lunch in school and people move away from her. She’s still a human being. I’m hoping kids will embrace that. Let’s get to them before they hear the negativity, and it won’t be a big deal. Nobody says it’s wrong to be autistic. It isn’t wrong to be transgender. Being unique is pretty cool.”
There are take-aways for parents, too, Herthel adds.
“If we can get the message out that it is possible for a child to identify as transgender from a very young age, that would be great,” she says. “Part of the pushback we get is parents saying these children are too young to make this decision. I’m here to say to all parents of children 2 to 4 years old, this is not an act of rebellion. There’s nothing political here. This is children looking in the mirror and telling parents who they see looking back.”
Jazz Jennings has become the public face of transgender children.
In 2007, Jazz and her family filmed a “20/20″ special with Barbara Walters called “My Secret Self.” Jazz was 6 at the time, the youngest transgender person ever to appear on television.
In 2009, the family shared their story with Australia on that nation’s version of “60 Minutes.” Jazz was also the subject of a documentary film, “I Am Jazz: A Family in Transition,” which aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
All the proceeds from the book will go to the TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation (transkidspurplerainbow.org), which Jazz’s mother and father, Greg, started in 2007 to support trans children and challenge discrimination against them.
The stars have aligned for “I Am Jazz,” Herthel says.
“The fact that Laverne Cox – the transgender actress from ‘Orange Is the New Black’ – is on the cover of Time magazine has really raised the visibility of the transgender community,” Herthel says. “And to get an Emmy nomination – she’s pulling the other end of the train. She’s the adult face of the transgender community.”
As director of the Stonewall National Education Project, Herthel chairs an annual conference that brings together the movers and shakers of the country’s biggest school districts. Her publisher, Dial Books for Young Readers (a division of Penguin), has given her copies of “I Am Jazz” to pass out to the districts.
She hopes schools will include “I Am Jazz” in their libraries.
Today, Jazz is a busy teenager. She plays soccer, shares her transgender story with groups and organizations worldwide, and crafts and sells rubber mermaid tails for her own company, Rainbow Tails. (Mermaids are popular with trans kids, says Jeanette Jennings, because mermaids have no genitalia.)
As Jazz has gotten older, she and her parents have struggled with big decisions about her body and her future.
“Jazz won’t go through male puberty,” her mother says. “She won’t grow a beard. She’ll never have to worry about that.”
There are no reliable statistics about the number of transgender boys and girls, in part because young children don’t have the language to express themselves.
Jazz knows that some of them are “stealth,” or living in secret.
By sharing her story, she hopes other children like her won’t feel so alone. She hears from kids regularly who tell her she has changed – or saved – their lives.
“I tell kids to be positive and stay true to themselves,” Jazz says. “If their parents aren’t supportive I tell them to find a friend or adult who will help them through their process. Sometimes I want to say to their parents, would you rather have a dead son or a living daughter?”
‘I Am Jazz’
By Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
Dial Books for Young Readers, 32 pp., $17.99