The transgender teen and activist speaks out about identity, her remarkable personal journey (so far), and narrating her new memoir.By Reid ArmbrusterNov 18, 2016 9:36 AM
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One of the youngest and most prominent voices in the national discussion about gender identity, Jazz Jennings, transitioned to life as a girl in 2006, at the age of five, with her parents’ full support. Her groundbreaking interview with Barbara Walters a year later has been followed by other high-profile interviews, a documentary, the launch of her YouTube channel, a picture book, a non-profit foundation, and her own reality TV series, I Am Jazz.
Note: Text has been edited for clarity and will not match audio exactly.
Audible: Before we dive in, congratulations on Being Jazz. We loved it here.
Jazz Jennings: Thank you. Thank you very much.
A: For someone of your age, your openness, your honesty in sharing your story is not only astonishing but I would say it’s incredibly courageous. When you decided to write this memoir, what did you hope to accomplish?
JJ: With this memoir, I really wanted to gear it towards transgender teens who might be struggling. I think reading this book may help them understand that they just have to be their authentic self and embrace their uniqueness. I think what’s great about the book is it’s not just for transgender teens. It could also be for anyone who might feel different, because it has that universal message of just loving yourself and being who you are.
A: You talk about being your true, authentic self. What does that mean to you?
“You have to love yourself no matter what. Once you can do that, you can … be true to who you are and have no fear of being judged.”
JJ: I think being your true, authentic self is about embracing who you are as an individual. It goes even beyond that. You have to love yourself no matter what. Once you can do that, you can really just be your authentic self, be true to who you are, and have no fear of being judged.
A: On that topic, it’s immediately clear that Being Jazz isn’t just about you, and I think you’ve just touched on that. What is the significance of November 20th?
JJ: November 20th is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s really this time when the transgender community can unite and we can mourn the souls who lost their lives. In most cases, it’s due to being brutally murdered.
The majority of these people are women of color. We need to end the cruelty and intolerance. We have this day so that we could remember those people and we could really unite and be motivated to continue fighting for equality.
A: According to some recent studies, 41 percent of transgender individuals try to take their own lives at least once — which is nearly ten times the number among the general public. In your opinion, Jazz, how do we start to reverse that devastating number?
JJ: I think it comes down to society. If we could really just accept and support one another, then there’s still going to be those people who face discrimination and intolerance. It’s not okay because people are dying. They’re killing themselves. We need to end the violence and cruelty.
A: Why do you think there are so many feelings of despair that lead to transgender people taking their own lives?
JJ: I think that that despair derives from the intolerance that transgender people face. A lot of individuals in society aren’t so accepting of who we are. When we know that we can’t live our lives authentically without fear of being judged by people throughout, it’s really difficult. We have this feeling of depression and of non-self worth. It causes those suicidal thoughts to emerge.
“A lot of kids say that not only have we been able to change their lives, but in some cases we’ve been able to save their lives.”
A: Why do you think there’s so much resistance and fear around the idea that people can be transgender — that this is real?
JJ: I think people are afraid of what they don’t know or understand. When people don’t go out and educate themselves, they could say cruel and awful things without fully understanding what they’re talking about. It could lead to so much fear and resistance from people in society that we just don’t want anymore. We want to be treated equally and respected for who we are.
A: You write that you’ve known you were a girl trapped in a boy’s body from the moment you could form coherent thoughts. Could you try, to the best of your ability, to describe what that feels like for people?
JJ: As soon as I could express myself, I just knew I was a girl. I always gravitated towards Barbies, dolls, dresses, everything feminine. It wasn’t that I just liked these girly things, but I insisted to my parents that I was a girl. I felt trapped in the wrong body, and I knew I was different. I was going to do whatever I could to express myself authentically until I could be just that — my true self.
A: In your own words, how would you define the term “gender dysphoria”?
JJ: I would say gender dysphoria is just being trapped in the wrong body. I think it’s identifying yourself with the opposite gender that you were assigned with at birth. It’s basically just as simple as that.
A: That’s a good explanation. Do you think it’s significant that it’s no longer really referred to as “gender identity disorder”?
JJ: Oh, I’m so glad that it’s not referred to as gender identity disorder because honestly, I don’t consider myself having a disorder. I don’t think being transgender is a problem. It’s what makes me different and it’s a part of me. I’m still a normal person. I deserve to be treated like just that, a normal person.
A: What is the TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation?
JJ: The TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation is an organization created by my family to help support transgender kids out there who might be struggling. We do a lot of work to just help everyone out there know, especially transgender kids, that it’s okay to be different and love who you are.
A lot of kids say that not only have we been able to change their lives, but in some cases we’ve been able to save their lives.
A: For sure.
JJ: That is just the most rewarding thing: to know that you’re making a difference for at least one person. It completely motivates me to continue sharing my story and doing what I’m doing.
“Without the love and support of my family, I definitely wouldn’t be the same person. I might not even be alive, for all I know.”
A: In Being Jazz, you do write about when your mom called you a girl for the first time. Could you just say a little bit about that? It just seemed like such a pivotal moment.
JJ: It definitely was a huge turning point. Basically, my mom was doing my hair and putting it in little pigtails. Then, she looked down at me, smiled, and said, “You’re such a beautiful little girl.” It was just so incredible to see her recognize my true identity. I think that was just a really huge moment in my life.
A: It must be impossible for you to imagine having a more caring and understanding family. What do you think life would have been like without their unconditional love and support?
JJ: Without the love and support of my family, I definitely wouldn’t be the same person. I might not even be alive, for all I know. They have influenced me and shaped who I am as an individual to become this confident and proud transgender girl.
Parents are so important when it comes to being transgender. I don’t think it’s just a transition for the child. It’s a transition for the entire family. If you’re not accepting of your own child, then it could lead to such a terrible outcome. They may not be the exact same person that you wanted them to be, but you still have to love them for who they are.
“I think being able to express my life through my voice is really important because it can better connect with me in my experiences.”
A: You’re on TV all the time, you’ve spoken in front of many large audiences, but this is the first time you’ve narrated an audiobook. What was the experience like?
JJ: It was really difficult, but I honestly had a blast. I thought it was an experience that I really cherish. I thought it was really just cool, being able to narrate my life. I think being able to express my life through my voice is really important because it can better connect with me in my experiences. I think it’s just really cool that I could add my personality to it and really make the words come to life.
A: Was it an emotional experience for you at times?
JJ: Oh, definitely. When I read some of the parts about my depression or some difficult moments in my life, I would honestly go back to that place where I was emotional. I would end up becoming a little bit sad because I was like, “Oh, that really happened. It was really hard.” It was kind of like a giant flashback.
Going back on my life and reading those parts, I finally understand that those difficult moments were meant to happen. They have shaped who I am as a person today. Without those experiences, who knows who I would be or what I would be doing. I have no regrets.
A: Could you tell us about “Read Proud Listen Proud”?
JJ:Read Proud Listen Proud is a collection of LGBTQ books that is put out there in order to help people who want to understand or just learn more. I think knowledge is the key to understanding and acceptance.
When you have these great works of literature that include transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual characters, it really can be very helpful for people to understand and better grasp the concept of what it means to be different and a member of the LGBTQ community.
A: Be honest. Does a small part of you wish you had ultimately settled on the name “Sparkles” instead of “Jazz”?
JJ: Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. When I was three years old, I came up with the name Sparkles for myself. I thought it was going to be a cool name, you know, being Sparkles, this little glitter fairy child. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll keep it as a middle name.
A: I think that’s a good plan.
JJ: Jazz Sparkles Jennings.
A: Sparkles definitely has some flair to it. You may want to think about that. What do you think is the biggest challenge currently faced by the transgender community?
“Gender [is] this spectrum of diversity. I just hope everyone can be who they are without fear of falling into a category.”
JJ: I think the biggest challenge faced by the transgender community is the fact that society isn’t fully accepting yet. There are still people who don’t understand what it means to be transgender.
Gender isn’t black and white — it’s this spectrum of diversity. I’m hoping that one day we won’t have to have designated bathrooms or designated this and that. I just hope everyone can be who they are without fear of falling into a category.
I think once we can fully accept and embrace one another no matter what, then the murders will stop, then the suicides will stop. Transgender people could live happy lives — happy ordinary lives where we are treated like any other person, because that’s what we are. We are people, too.
A: You’ve got this children’s book, you’ve got a TV show, you’ve got a wonderful memoir now, and you have a phenomenal foundation. Is there anything else that you can do? What’s next?
JJ: When it comes to the future, I honestly have no idea. I definitely know I want to continue getting my message out there because it is helping people. There’s no better way to create that change than doing it yourself with your community and the people around you.
I think it’s super important that we do what we can to make a difference in the lives of others. Once we’re able to do that, we could kind of just unite as a society and progress as a whole. I’m hoping that I can continue to have the opportunity to do that, to share my story and create change.