Jazz Jennings on How to Talk to Kids About Gender Identity

We’re continuing our celebration of LGBTQ pride month this week with a conversation with Jazz Jennings, the teen activist and champion of transgender equality. I first met Jazz back in 2014 when I interviewed her as one of the emerging faces of transgender youth. Since then, Jazz has starred in the hit docu-series I am Jazz on TLC and just graduated high school as valedictorian! Read our conversation below to learn how she’s doing since completing her gender affirmation surgery and what advice she has for parents to help them talk with their kids about gender identity…

Katie Couric: When I interviewed you back in 2014, I asked you about what you’d say to those people who thought it’s impossible to determine your gender identity at such a young age. You said, “This is not a choice, this is just the way I was born, this is who I am.” That was five years ago… is your perspective still the same?
Jazz Jennings: Absolutely. Transgender people do not choose to be the way we are— we just are. The idea of gender identity being a choice is such a huge misconception; so many people believe there is a deliberateness in identifying beyond your biological sex, and that is simply not the case. Yes, while I would say there is definitely a greater deliberateness in choosing to move forward with medical aspects of one’s transition, the need to transition itself is not elective. People don’t wake up one day and decide they want to change genders. In being trans, there is an inner knowing of identifying with the gender and associated activities that don’t correspond with your biological nature. It’s as simple as that, and we need to understand that forming strict binary gender categories and forcing gender roles upon our children at an early age is going to cause outliers to emerge who don’t fit within the mold we’ve created. Consciousness and identity are spiritual (nonphysical) in nature and extend beyond physical anatomy. It’s important that we understand this concept: the core of who we are cannot be defined by our biology for our truth lies in our internal thoughts and feelings.

Katie: The fifth season of I am Jazz had a lot of ups and downs- you finally got your gender confirmation surgery, but there were some complications. How are you feeling now?
Jazz: It was definitely a difficult journey, but I am feeling incredible now. Getting the surgery was so transformative on not just a physical level, but an emotional and spiritual level too. For my entire life, my physical body hasn’t reflected my internal consciousness. What the surgery accomplished was creating a mind-body alignment that had never been present within me before. Also, during the recovery, I had a lot of downtime to be introspective and reflect on past experiences while discovering more about myself and who I am. These conditions allowed a complete transformation to occur, and I feel like I came out of the experience as a better person with a greater understanding of my identity.

Katie: You just graduated from high school…as the valedictorian! Congratulations! How did it feel to walk across that stage? How did your parents help get you there?
Jazz: It felt amazing! Being valedictorian was a goal I had set for myself as a way for me to extend beyond the label of being the ”transgender girl.” I wanted to create success for myself based on my own merit, not simply because I happen to identify as the gender opposite to my biological sex. I put a lot of independent time and effort into reaching that goal, and I am proud of myself for being able to succeed in my ambitions. It definitely wouldn’t have been possible without the unconditional love of my parents and family. Without them, there wouldn’t have been a foundation of freedom and love for me to flourish in my authentic identity and I wouldn’t have been equipped with the tools to achieve the goals I set my mind to. My story is a message to all about the power of family love and how supportive parents can help any child step into the power and strength of who they are.

Katie: I’ve heard from a number of parents who have kids in schools with classmates transitioning. They’re grappling with how they talk to their kids about gender identity. What would you recommend?
Jazz: I would encourage them to teach their children to be open-minded. Even if they themselves don’t completely understand the transition process or idea of being transgender, explain that people can have the freedom to express their identity in whatever way they choose, and you just have to accept and embrace all people regardless of their difference. At the end of the day, we are all different and uniquely distinct in our expressions of who we are. Not a single person in humanity is exempt from this as no two people are alike. It is imperative that we learn to embrace our collective diversity rather than hinder those who don’t abide by social norms. Everyone deserves to be free and everyone deserves to be happy. Just love and have empathy for every person on the planet, because we all share this human experience together. If they are curious or want to learn more, then do research: the internet is your friend. Don’t be afraid to have those conversations with your children because it is a necessary component of their learning and understanding of how to love and embrace all people.

Katie: The second season of “Pose” is now running on FX… have you been watching it? Are you excited for the new season? How does it feel to see such a strong representation of trans women in a popular TV show?
Jazz: Pose is LEGENDARY!!! I am so proud of everyone who has collaborated on creating that show, and I can’t wait to see what else is in store. I’m so stoked for the next season and every season that follows it. Every time I see an advertisement or poster for the show, I feel my eyes tear up a bit. The presence of a show that focuses solely on queer history and storytelling is so needed at this time and brings me and many others so much hope for positive change in the future. Pose is already playing a huge role in creating that change.

Katie: How will you be celebrating Pride this year? 
Jazz: This year, I will celebrate as I always do— just by existing. I feel like every single day of my life is a celebration of pride. It is extremely challenging to exist as a queer person in this society, but each and every individual who identifies under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella should be proud for coming this far. However, pride is more than just a celebration of our community. Since the Stonewall Riots and the emergence of the Gay Liberation Movement, pride has always been about demanding our equal rights and protections under the law. All people deserve to exist freely in this world, and yet so many LGBTQIA+ experience discrimination, abuse, and violence. It is frightening that we still live in a world where youth are kicked out of their homes and forced into homelessness simply for loving who they want to love or identifying a certain way. This needs to change, and Pride is all about taking action and standing up to all injustices.

Katie: Well said! Thanks so much, Jazz!

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