By: Amber Leventry
I was one of the many million people who watched the Bruce Jenner interview. As I watched, I pushed aside the Kardashian circus and focused on a very brave man beginning to really live his life as the woman who has always been in his soul. I was in awe of his courage and feel encouraged that his celebrity will bring awareness to the real topic that needs to be talked about and accepted in our country and all over the world.
Transgender men and women are very much a part of the LGBT rainbow, but sometimes the most misunderstood by the general population. To paraphrase an amazing transgender man in my life, we are not entitled to know all of the details of someone’s gender identity; it is a privilege. Yet his bravery along with other transgender men and women willing to share their stories makes it feel like an honor to learn about their journey.
With knowledge comes understanding and with understanding comes acceptance. I hope. Our country—literally and figuratively—is on fire with civil rights movements, so I cling to hope. And so do transgender youth who want nothing more than to be accepted as they figure out a way to accept themselves.
In 2007, in an interview called I’m a Girl—Understanding Transgender Children with Barbara Walters, we met a seven year old girl named Jazz Jennings. From the age of two, Jazz Jennings knew she was a girl, even though her family and the rest of the world saw her as a boy. With the support of her family, Jazz began her transition from her assigned male gender to her known female gender. She has become one of the youngest transgender activists and teen celebrities for the transgender community, and she talks openly about her life as a transgender teenager in her YouTube videos called I Am Jazz.
In a new children’s book by the same name, Jazz and Jessica Herthel co-wrote Jazz’s story. I Am Jazz is written in Jazz’s first person voice with dialogue simple enough for preschoolers to understand with a clear and honest description of what it means to be transgender. Jazz explains, “I have a girl brain but a boy body…I was born this way!”
The book navigates Jazz’s insistent and consistent desire to be called a girl, her family’s initial confusion then acceptance, and her overriding pride and joy in being who she is.
Just as powerful as the language are the illustrations by Shelagh McNicholas. McNicholas’ beautiful artwork captures Jazz’s pre and post-transition emotions with such poignancy that my four year old daughter, Eva, seemed to understand Jazz through the pictures more than the words. My daughter can emphasize with happy and sad. And even without reading the text, she knew this little kid was happy when she was a girl.
The only extra guidance I gave Eva was to explain to her what “boy body” meant. Jazz didn’t look just like a boy when she was little, perhaps like I or other girls with short hair who wear “boy” clothing, she also had boy body parts. She didn’t seem phased by this fact, but I knew she understood because later she told me she has a girl brain and girl body parts—but sometimes she likes boy things.
That is what author Jessica Herthel wants all kids and adults to understand about transgender youth: they are happiest when they can be themselves. Herthel is the Director of the Stonewall National Education Project, a partnership between the Stonewall National Museum & Archives and LGBT-inclusive school districts throughout the United States. The Education Project produces curriculum and support systems to create safer and more productive classrooms for all students.
Jessica Herthel met Jazz’s mom at a community committee working to keep all kids safe at school. After hitting it off, Jessica asked if her three young daughters could meet Jazz. Over ice cream and lots of admiration, Herthel quickly realized that talking to our kids about transgender youth and adults doesn’t need to be such a fuss. “I realized we adults make this so much more complicated that it needs to be.”
Jennings’ mother, Jennings and Herthel
When I asked Jessica about what it means to have LGBT-inclusive schools, she told me it is a process that grows from the students to the administrators. Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Clubs run by students, classroom incorporation of LGBT literature, history, and politics, and teacher and guidance counselors trained on these issues are all significant examples of making a school safe. Subtle, yet powerful gestures like rainbow and Safe Space stickers add to a student’s confidence and security to be themselves.
To continue this momentum and the impact the Stonewall National Education Project is making in our schools, the Project’s third annual symposium will take place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on May 13-15, 2015. Registration is closed for this year’s event, but those interested in attending next year should visit the website for more information. Herthel also mentioned that the Project hopes to launch one-day conferences in different regions across the country to accommodate school districts that cannot travel but still want to be a part of the conversation.
Websites like GSA Network, Gender Spectrum, and Human Rights Campaign Welcoming Schools are also great resources for students and educators. The handbook The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals is also a great source of guidance. The handbook covers gender variance from birth to college. The topics range from family conversations, advocacy for children at school, and medical options for transgender youth. The handbook can be found at Cleis Press.
To reiterate what Jessica told me, these conversations do not need to be complicated. Pioneers like Jazz Jennings, books like I Am Jazz, and allies like Jessica Herthel provide straightforward and simple dialogue to breed understanding. The goal is acceptance. The prerequisites are courageous people full of hope.
Note: Every transgender man and woman has a unique story, and pronoun use and identities vary with each person’s transition experience. Bruce Jenner is still using male pronouns, so I used them in this article as well. If you’re not sure what gender pronouns to use when talking to or about someone who is transgender, ask. And smile. Everyone likes smiles.
Photo Credit: Steve Rothas/Miami Herald