Palette Magazine

Growing Up Transgender: Jazz Jennings

By Steve Rothaus

srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Jazz Jennings, on the cusp of TV stardom, says “most other teenage girls out there would just love the attention,” but not her.

“I’m just more of a reserved person. I’m open and I’m out there, but I also enjoy being alone, relaxing. That’s something I’ve had to really sacrifice, but if it’s a sacrifice worth making, then I’m going to make it,” says Jazz, the South Florida girl who at age 6 came out publicly as transgender in a 2007 ABC News interview with Barbara Walters.

Eight years later, Jazz is entering high school, co-wrote a book about transgender children, crafts $1,500 “simple silicone mermaid tails” to support her TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation, endorsed Clean & Clear skincare products and in July is set to star in an 11-episode TLC network docuseries about her family.

According to Jazz’s mom, Jeanette, the teen films five days a week — with two of those days being on the weekend — and still manages to keep up with school, be on a soccer team and focus on her activist efforts.

But Jazz takes her nonstop role as trans-teen spokesperson quite matter-of-factly. “It’s overwhelming, but in the end it makes life more interesting,” she says. “It keeps me on my feet.”

Jeanette describes her child as “a happy, funny kid,” and feels that’s going to come through in the show.

“She has a lot of energy. She’s good at multitasking. She handles situations with grace and dignity and a lot of strength. She’s a very strong, courageous person,” Jeanette says. “She’s good at balancing her athletic life with her personal life, with her public life, with her advocacy work, without cracking — I want to make sure she’s always stable.”

Jeanette and husband Greg, an attorney, have three older children: daughter Arial, 19; and twin sons Sander and Griffen, 17.

Jazz came along when the twins were 2½. At first, she appeared like an ordinary baby boy. But soon, her behavior became stereotypically female.

“From the moment she could express herself, she acted like a girl,” says Jeanette, 49. “I didn’t think anything of it. I knew this was not normal, stereotypical boy behavior. But whatever she wanted to play with, whatever she wanted to do, I was fine with it. She was nothing like her twin brothers. She was more like my daughter.”

Jazz “was always playing with dolls,” Jeanette says. “She was going into the closet. These kids have these dress-up chests and she was putting on the dresses and the makeup. The glitter. She was just raiding Ari’s toys. She would be prancing around in diapers, with the plastic high heels from the Disney store. I have pictures of her in diapers dressed as a little girl. Because that’s what she went for. She was a baby and already telling me, ‘I’m a girl.’”

Jeanette says that at first, her husband figured it was just a phase. He didn’t think too much of it. But she was a little more concerned and decided to do some research on it.

“I actually diagnosed her with gender dysphoria,” she says. “I went to the doctor. The pediatrician said, ‘You know what, you need to get professional help.’”

A specialist in treating transgender children told the Jenningses that they needed to take time to monitor Jazz’s behavior before determining the child’s gender identity.

“After we got Jazz diagnosed, we didn’t say ‘OK, you can live life as a girl, so at age 3 we’re going to let you transition.’ You need to wait and see over time if she still persists. They call it ‘persistent, insistent, consistent.’ Those are the three markers. And over time, if she displays that, we’re going to allow her to transition.”

At home, Jazz could dress as a girl, but Greg initially was hesitant to let her wear frilly clothes outside the house.

“She wanted to go out in her dresses and he felt slightly uncomfortable doing that, but he was always very loving and embraced her and never tried to make her somebody she wasn’t,” Jeanette says. “He was just a little nervous about society being cruel and didn’t want her to be made fun of. Once she was like 4½-5, he threw in the towel, and he knew we were going to have to let her transition. This is not going away.”

Greg, 47, says at first he was “oblivious” to Jazz’s true gender identity.

“I was in denial,” he says. “As I became more educated, I began to understand things better. Jazz was diagnosed at that point. I realized we had to love and support her. I realized Jazz’s essence was truly a girl.”

The Jenningses say they went public with Jazz’s story knowing it would help other families with transgender children.

“My gut said, ‘You know what? This is a good thing to do,’” Jeanette says. “I don’t see kids like this in the media and there are so many kids out there suffering. I knew about the suicides. I knew about the depression. When you know that close to 50 percent of kids like Jazz will try to take their lives before they’re 20, you worry. You worry that other kids are going to go through this. Maybe if they saw Jazz’s story, if the parents saw Jazz’s story, it would help.”

Since 2007, the Jennings have guarded their privacy. They try to keep their true last name a secret and, until recently, have even hesitated to reveal that they live in Broward.

“Jennings is our pseudonym, to sort of make life easier. We try to hide our real last name as much as possible,” Jeanette says. “Our last name is a very Jewish, long last name. We found it easier at this point. She’s known as Jazz Jennings. With the TV show, they’re not going to tell anybody where we live. The TV show is not going to reference our true last name.”

The Jenningses are preparing for the possible onslaught of public recognition that television brings.

“I’m sure that when the show airs, it’s going to be different,” says Jeanette. “I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. It’s something I don’t like to think about, honestly, but I know there’s a possibility it can happen. I have to be optimistic at this point,” she says. “We put ourselves out there. We’ve done it. We’ve taken the leap of faith. I feel it’s the right thing to do. I feel with all the suicides and the murders that there has to be a change out there. If exposing our lives to the public can save lives, then we’re all for it.”

Some people call Jeanette a stage mother, but she’s not one to be phased by people passing judgments. “I’ve never cared what people think of me. If the people I care about think highly of me, the people I love and have in my life, if they think I’m doing the right thing and they support me, that’s all that matters,” she says.

The Jenningses have much more pressing matters to worry about than whether people look kindly upon their decision to be on a TV show. Jazz’s medical costs are high. For about two years, she has received testosterone blockers that prevent her from developing as an adult male. The blocker implant costs about $18,000 and lasts anywhere from one to two years. The costs are covered by Greg’s group health insurance.

“Jeanette and I are in 100 percent agreement about how we raise Jazz, how we support Jazz and on all medical aspects of things,” Greg says.

Jazz is pragmatic about her healthcare regimen. “The medications I have to take are very easy and minimal.”

About to enter the ninth grade, Jazz says her peers are interested in dating, but at this point she’s not.

“I’m not crazy about dating a lot right now because there’s just so much going on, and I don’t have time for a boyfriend or a girlfriend or whatever,” she says. “All my friends are more focused on that sort of thing, like if you don’t have a boyfriend then it’s the end of the world. For me, I’m taking my time and I’m going to see what happens. Of course, I’m going to disclose the fact that I’m transgender. I’ll put it right out there. Hopefully, they’ll accept me, but if they don’t then that’s the end of that relationship.”

Then Jazz acknowledges her life is a bit more complicated than that of most other kids at her school.

“With the whole dating thing, for example, even if I was attracted to someone and I wanted a partner, I don’t think that would be available for me,” she says. “Because they’re not interested in me because I’m transgender.”

“A lot of people — boys — look at me differently,” she says. “They think that if they date me they are gay because they are dating another boy. In instances like this, I feel almost excluded, if that’s the right word. I feel like I’m being put on a different shelf.”

“It’s like they don’t want to try to understand. They don’t understand and they don’t want to understand,” she says.

Though it may be lonely at times, Jazz is certainly not alone. Her family has been a pillar for her in this journey of self-discovery and that foundation has given her the confidence to go forth and challenge established notions of what it means to be transgender. With a maturity beyond her years she has touched lives with her words, her very public actions and, in a very private way, with her friendship.

“The other day, this one boy — he didn’t ask me the question, but he asked one of my friends — he said, ‘You know, I don’t understand the situation with Jazz. Did she choose to be transgender? Or did her parents choose for her to be transgender?’

“I was so proud of my friends. They were like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. Of course Jazz didn’t choose. It’s not a choice at all. Her parents just embraced her for it.’ I was proud of my friends for speaking up and saying that.”•

CHECK OUT

“I Am Jazz,” an 11-episode docuseries featuring South Florida’s Jennings family (trans teen Jazz, her parents Greg and Jeanette, sister Arial and twin brothers Griffen and Sander) debuts at 10 p.m. on July 15 on TLC.

Clockwise from top left: Jazz in her room, where she studies and makes most of her YouTube videos; with her parents, Greg and Jeanette; with her sister Arial; and working on a silicone mermaid tail for the TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation.

Above: Twin brothers Griffen and Sander often goof off with their little sister, Jazz.

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