The Jennings were just another normal, middle-class American family. Mom and Dad worked and supported their four children, putting them through school and cultivating their after-school interests. But one thing was different: Their youngest "son" wasn’t like their older twin boys. From the time she was three years old, Jazz Jennings has identified as a girl.
That was in 2003, years before transgender identity became widely discussed in pop culture or politics. The Jennings found a physician, who diagnosed Jazz with Gender Dysphoria, a medical condition that meant her gender identity did not correspond to her gender assigned at birth. Their child was transgender. Her parents, Jeanette and Greg, learned that Jazz’s identification as a girl was unlikely to go away, and if she weren’t allowed to live as her true self, she would likely suffer serious consequences to her mental health. “Jazz is very strong-willed,” Jeanette told me in a phone interview this March, speaking from her home in Florida with Jazz on the line as well. “When she insisted very early on that she was a girl, I thought it was a phase at first. But she was persistent, insistent, and consistent, which are three signs of a transgender child.”
Though they’d never been exposed to transgender issues before, Jeanette and Greg were committed to doing what was right for their daughter. Then, in 2007, their personal story became national news. When Jazz was in elementary school, Jeanette and her husband tried to work with her teachers to explain that she was trans and needed to live as a girl. “I tried to engage in a conversation, and they really weren't interested in meeting with me,” Jeanette said. “I think they were afraid. So I knew someone who suggested we went to the local paper to put pressure on the school.”
Jeanette says that her family told their story anonymously to their local newspaper. Even though they were unnamed, Jeanette told me it was clear to the school system who the family was, and the story pressured the school to take Jazz’s situation seriously. “It worked because they granted us the conversation and a meeting,” Jeanette recalled. “They allowed us to go in with our lawyer, our doctor—you name it, they were there. We came in, guns loaded, ready to battle, and we fought for her right to go to school as a girl."
From there, media attention only increased. “The story appeared in the [Miami] New Times, and it got picked up by The Village Voice," Jeanette said. Television producers started approaching the family for interviews, including someone from ABC’s 20/20. But the Jennings were cautious about letting cameras into their home and putting their lives on national TV.
After nearly a year of discussion, Jeanette told me, the family made a decision that changed their lives. “We finally said, ‘Okay, we'll do it. But only if Barbara Walters interviews us.’” Walters’ esteemed reputation offered legitimacy to their story, which Jeanette and Greg knew could easily be sensationalized in the wrong hands.
"Jazz is very strong-willed."
“We knew if Barbara gave her blessing and said, ‘This is a real thing,’ then maybe people would listen,” Jeanette said. “We really wanted to move the needle forward and make life easier for Jazz, and help other people and make the world understand that these children exist and need to be accepted and treated like other children." She added that when she called the school board, the person she spoke with on the phone did not even know the word "transgender."
Our school board didn't even know what the word ‘transgender’ was!” (Jeanette later clarified that she called the school board and the person with whom she spoke didn’t know the word transgender—not the entire school board.)
In the historic 2007 interview, America was introduced to a normal family, with one radical difference that shocked people unfamiliar with transgender health and identity. At six years old, Jazz might have seemed too young to know that she was born in the wrong body to some viewers, yet she was entirely confident as she asserted that she really is a girl. With heartfelt honesty, the Jennings told their story, and Jazz talked freely with Walters about being a girl who the world believed to be a boy. “I actually thought Barbara Walters was my friend,” Jazz laughs. Even at that age, though, she says that she understood that doing the interview could help other trans kids out there like her.
“We couldn't be the only ones with a kindergartner who is transgender,” Jeanette remembers thinking. “There has got to be more people out there. And sure enough, after we did the interview they all came out of the woodwork. Dozens and dozens of families.”
Looking back, the 20/20 special is remarkable in part because it occurred at a time when there was virtually no positive trans representation in the media. Public discourse around transgender youth was just beginning to foment in the US, as more children began accessing transition related care in the early 2000s. It was a big deal to have one of these children come out on a national platform to speak for themselves about their identity.
After publicly sharing their story, the Jennings have dealt with criticism of all kinds. Jazz has been confronted at public speaking engagements by transphobic audience members; a stranger called their home repeatedly, leaving threatening messages; and people online have flooded comment sections of news items with their critique. The most unsettling accusations claim that Jeanette and Greg have committed “child abuse” by allowing their daughter to live as a girl at such a young age, and that they’ve “ruined” Jazz's life.
Jeanette is adamant that her daughter's transition had the exact opposite effect. “Sometimes I just feel like saying, ‘Ruined her life? I've saved her life!’ She probably wouldn't be alive today if not for the [hormone] blockers,” she exclaimed. “These hormones are saving these children's lives.”
"Ruined her life? I've saved her life! She probably wouldn't be alive today if not for the [hormone] blockers."
Jeanette cited highly publicized research from the Williams Institute, which found that 41 percent of respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported attempting suicide in their lifetimes, compared to just 4.6 percent of the overall US population. More recent research suggests that this staggeringly high rate is the result of systemic discrimination and a refusal to accept trans kids for who they are — according to a 2016 study published in the medical journal Pediatrics, transgender children with supportive families are no more anxious or depressed than their cisgender peers. Another study found that mothers in particular can play a transformative, lifesaving role in their trans children’s lives. Jeanette may be a singular example of that.
In the 20/20 special, Jeanette explained that she had been on the “frontline” of social abuse, taking in all the hateful criticisms she had received in her community for raising Jazz as a girl. She tried her hardest to ensure that Jazz would not be exposed to it. “I’m putting out the fires before they burn her,” Jeanette told Walters. “I want to pave the way for a better life for her, and any trans kids.”
The Jennings family tried to return to their normal lives after the special aired. “Everybody from Oprah to Tyra all wanted Jazz to come on their show and sit on the sofa. There's no way I was putting a six-year-old on the sofa in front of a crowd of people who were gonna ask questions that would be oppositional to our views,” Jeanette told me. “Unless you wanted to come to our house like Barbara Walters and spend a few days with us and film and tell the whole story, we weren't interested in doing anything like that.” Eight years later, they took a another stride into the spotlight.
On July 15, 2015, a wholesome reality television series depicting the life of a trans teenager and her remarkably supportive family premiered on TLC. I Am Jazz documents America’s trans kid icon through the normal trials of adolescence, along with the specific issues she and her family face because of her gender identity. It isn’t clear if the series has been renewed for a fifth season, but according to International Business Times, it ranks among the top 50 original cable shows today.
Since its debut, I Am Jazz has fit an incredibly controversial, nuanced social issue into a palatable, time-tested package deliverable to an American audience. Through this family TV series, Jazz has stolen the hearts of countless people who, for the first time, have gotten to know a transgender girl. But one of the most touching—and often overlooked—aspects of Jazz’s public presence is her relationship with her mom, Jeanette.
“I'm honestly the luckiest kid in the world,” Jazz told me. “Without her, I wouldn't be able to be the proud, confident transgender woman that I am today. I embraced who I am entirely, and I attribute that to her and my dad and my entire family giving me the love and support that I need at that early age and allowing me to live my life as my authentic self.”
I first saw Jazz and Jeanette together three years ago, in Florida, at Southern Comfort, a popular conference for transgender people. They took the stage one evening beside Jazz’s dad and her twin brothers. A young, compassionate girl with impeccable media training, Jazz spoke easily to the crowd; her family sat silently by her side. One elder woman in the audience had newly transitioned, and she spoke directly to Jazz from the floor, thanking the teenager for being out and proud. Jazz had inspired her to finally accept her gender identity late in life, she said. Jazz kindly and humbly expressed her gratitude to the woman, seeming earnest and yet removed by her new celebrity. The next time I saw her was a year later, when we spoke during the 2016 New York City Pride. Jazz was being honored as a grand marshal.
Jeanette always seems to be there: sitting patiently by her daughter’s side while Jazz speaks with reporters on the phone, flying with her across the country as she talks about her life’s mission to help trans people, driving her to doctors’ appointments to get the trans-affirming healthcare that she needs to thrive.
Jazz is a powerful role model, but Jeanette has her own unique influence. One of her goals in documenting her family’s life for TV, she told me, was to show how “normal” their family is. Watching the show, that's exactly what you see: a family working through the ups and downs of life in a home full of teenagers who are in the process of growing up. The hormones that Jazz is prescribed are like the hormones surging through any adolescent. With two brothers and a sister in college, Jazz doesn’t stand out at all, except for the fact that she’s trans.
"Without her, I wouldn't be able to be the proud, confident transgender woman that I am today."
“We're doing everything in our power to show the nation and this world that trans people are just like everyone else,” Jeanette said. “That has been my calling. I never knew what I wanted to do with my life, and I always thought there was something else I was supposed to be doing. And this is it.”
More than a decade on, Jeanette’s mission remains the same. The anti-trans rhetoric hasn’t gone away, nor has the seemingly endless negativity and prejudice directed toward transgender children.
“To make them feel bad just for being themselves is terrible,” Jeanette told me, sounding exhausted. Her fierce maternal instinct is vivid during our conversation, and that desire to protect extends far beyond her own family; she has developed a sense of familiarity and care for all trans children. She is infuriated by families who do not accept their children, schools that can’t make room for trans kids, and lawmakers who ignorantly stereotype and malign the community. To the Jennings, it’s personal.
“It makes me want to shake somebody,” Jeanette said. “‘What are you thinking?! Have you met a transgender person? Have you met a transgender child? Why would you want to hurt these amazing, sweet people?’”
Jazz and Jeanette are just two women from one family with their own distinct history, but it is powerful to consider the way in which cisgender mothers and their transgender daughters share something as women in this world. Perhaps by highlighting the relationship between mother and daughter in this way, we can gain a new sense of common cause between all women, regardless of gender identity.
“I want her to just be happy,” Jeanette told me. “Now is a tough time. She is facing the end of high school. She has one more year. So many people say, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ She doesn't know. She doesn't know what she wants to do, and I want her to find passion. I really want her to find something in life that just makes her want to go out there and be the best that she can be.” As Jeanette continued, her voice softened, tenderly sharing the future she dreams of for her daughter.
“I want her to find love, I want her to experience that,” Jeanette said. “She's only 17 now, but I want her to be loved by somebody for who she is and put her on a pedestal and treat her the way she deserves to be treated.” Only a minority of families will ever know the unique experience of raising a trans child, but any mom in America can relate to Jeanine’s simple dream for her daughter’s life. The bottom line is happiness, but I'd like her to be able to find herself. She knows she's trans and she's proud of that, but I want to see more than that from her.”
“For my mom I actually wish the same thing,” Jazz said, immediately chiming in. “Just for her to be happy. I know so many other transgender and LGBTQ youth out there aren't as fortunate to have the love and support of their family, and that's why we share our story—to try to reach out to those kids and tell them that they need to stay strong no matter what and educate the parents, so they can be like my mom, and they can be the biggest supporters of their child.
“I love her,” Jazz said, then addressed Jeanette directly. “I love you, Mom.”