The authentic voice of LGBTQ youth culture meets the Disney star to talk cult sci-fi, Laverne Cox and why she’s proud to be transgender – but it doesn’t define her
Jazz was just six years old when the world learned her name. Giving an interview with her family to ABC journalist Barbara Walters in 2007, she instantly became one of the youngest people in the public eye to identify as transgender. Even more trailblazing was the fact that her entire family supported her. They didn’t take Jazz’s gender identity as a question, but more of a statement.
Of course, by going public with your experience as a trans individual at any age, you inevitably (if unwittingly) subject yourself to critique. Becoming the target of bigotry from people you’ve never met is not something you sign up for in sharing your story with the world, and in my experience, when you first see this sort of abuse from complete strangers, it feels like a violation. Often, my first instinct is to retaliate. But Jazz and her family opted to take a different route. They chose not to fight blind ignorance with fire, but to make an impact by simply carrying on as themselves. The negative noise is dying away now, because the haters are realising that Jazz has no plans to add to it.
I think a lot about the icons we are presented with as teenage girls. They’re a one dimensional bunch, on the whole: tall, skinny, white, seemingly unattainable. They present an image of exclusivity that makes you wonder what it must be like to be friends with all those pretty models. It can be polarising and deceiving and can make you question your gravity.
And then I think about what an important icon Jazz Jennings is for teenage girls, as a teenage girl who has become famous by being herself – which is, arguably, the hardest thing you can do. She also refuses to apologise for being herself, which (now I’m going to contradict myself) is the hardest thing to do. Teenage girls, especially women of colour, have been conditioned to believe that they must be obedient to society’s decrees. Jazz is not. And I’m so glad that I, along with so many others, have her to look up to.
Rowan Blanchard: I watched your reality show, I Am Jazz, and my favourite thing is how it doesn’t just talk about you as transgender. You’ve always said you were proud of being transgender, but it doesn’t define you.
Jazz Jennings: Yeah, that’s so true for me, because sometimes it gets annoying in interviews. People ask the same questions about me being transgender. They say, ‘How does it feel to be transgender?’ or, ‘Why do you think this way?’ – blah, blah, blah! All these questions. And I tell them, ‘You know, I’m not just a transgender individual, I’m also Jazz.’ I’m a soccer player, I’m an artist, I love to be creative. I am a representative in my class office. I’m on the varsity soccer team, I am going to do tennis later in the year. I’m in the Gay-Straight Alliance and the Jewish Student Connection, as well…
Rowan Blanchard: Have you seen Rushmore? The main character (played by Jason Schwartzman) is the president of every club you can imagine at that school. He literally does everything, and I feel like you do everything too!
Jazz Jennings: Oh my God, I would never do that! But I’m very active at school. I love to do all these different things, and being transgender is just one per cent of who I actually am. I think that’s important – that transgender individuals are just like everyone else. We have our interests, our hobbies, our things we like to do. And people have to understand that.
“I tend not to have role models – just because I like some of the things that a person does, I don’t necessarily want to be them” – Jazz Jennings
Rowan Blanchard: Absolutely. Speaking of what you do for fun, I noticed that you love mermaids…
Jazz Jennings: I’ve always loved mermaids! It’s actually very interesting because a lot of transgender people gravitate towards mermaids, and they say it’s because they have no genitals – so it’s like wow, mermaid, cool, nothing below the waist, just a beautiful tail. For me it was an attraction right from the start. I would have dreams about being a mermaid, so I decided to become one – I created this silicone mermaid tail when I was 12 and then I started making more of them. They were cool, I started selling them!
Rowan Blanchard: What’s it like to swim in a mermaid tail?
Jazz Jennings: It’s an awesome feeling, because it’s not just like doing froggy paddle in the water. You feel this smooth, fluid movement. It’s like being a real mermaid. There’s this fin inside the tail called a monofin, it’s like two flippers connected to one big flipper. Free divers use them when they go down to the bottom of the sea. So that’s what I put inside the tail to get that cool movement. But now that I’ve started high school I can’t really sell them any more! I just have too many different things going on!
Rowan Blanchard: Have you noticed anybody in school treating you differently since the show premiered? Because I know that was weird for me, going from not being on TV to everybody knowing who you are.
Jazz Jennings: At first, some people were a bit like, ‘Ohh, there’s Jazz, the one with the show,’ and treated me differently. Either people wanted to be my friend or they wanted to avoid me, depending on the person. Kids can be annoying. Especially teenagers, oh my gosh. They can be cruel.
Rowan Blanchard: Nobody can prepare you for that, being recognised in public.
Jazz Jennings: Yeah, it’s been kind of difficult for me, because I’m the type of person that doesn’t like attention that much. I love having fun and being outgoing, but I’m private in some aspects as well. I went to Disney World with my friend Casey, and these people started recognising me and I kind of turned around because I just wanted to have fun with my friend. I didn’t really want to be recognised at that moment. It’s awkward, but it’s also cool that people appreciate you.
“Becoming the target of bigotry from people you’ve never met is not something you sign up for in sharing your story with the world... it feels like a violation” – Rowan Blanchard
Rowan Blanchard: Have you encountered any fans with amazing stories of how they first learned about you?
Jazz Jennings: I hear a lot of incredible stories. People have said that because of my show, and because of me putting myself out there and my family sharing our story, that we’ve been able to have a huge impact in their lives. In some cases, they say that we actually saved their lives. That without us being there they wouldn’t be alive today. That’s just the most empowering thing to hear, because it completely motivates me to carry on sharing my story, despite my doubts. It encourages me to continue putting myself out there if it can benefit others.
Rowan Blanchard: It’s so incredible that you’re doing that. So many people now have somebody they can identify with. I was wondering, are there any people that you look up to?
Jazz Jennings: There are definitely amazing people out there. We have Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock…they’re such inspirations for trans individuals. But I tend not to have role models – just because I like some of the things that a person does, I don’t necessarily want to be them. Laverne Cox has a term that I love – ‘possibility models’. I met Laverne around the time she was on the cover of Time magazine. When she saw me she kind of squealed and said, ‘Jaaazz!’ and came over, which was so awesome. And then I got to meet her again and watch her eat a brownie. Laverne Cox eats a brownie in the most amazing way. She has her hand in the air kind of like this, she was all diva-ish when she was eating her brownie and I was like, ‘Oh my God, you go Laverne. Queen.’ But I always say I want to be a mom just like my mom when I grow up. Love you, Mom!
“Laverne Cox eats a brownie in the most amazing way. She has her hand in the air kind of like this, she was all diva-ish when she was eating her brownie and I was like, ‘Oh my God, you go Laverne. Queen.’” – Jazz Jennings
Rowan Blanchard: Aww, that’s so sweet. I’m over here like, ‘Oh my gosh, adorable!’ Obviously, your family has been very supportive of you, which is amazing, because many kids who identify as transgender don’t get that. Now people have your show and your YouTube videos, even if their families don’t support them. I was wondering, do you think social media has created a safer place for people to find their communities?
Jazz Jennings: Definitely. Social media has created this space where people can share their experiences of what it means to be LGBTQIA+ and connect with one another more intimately. Or not intimately! Er, whatever. You learn more about other people, but you can learn more about yourself as well, and that’s so important in giving you courage to move forward until things get better.
Rowan Blanchard: I think a lot of people have definitely been able to feel safer in their own skin because of social media and the people they’ve been able to find on there, which is very cool. It’s interesting to me, because I was explaining to my nine-year-old brother what it means to be transgender and I was telling him about you and how you were assigned male at birth but you live as your true self as a girl, and he understood it perfectly. There were no questions. I find that when you say that to a lot of adults, they just completely do not understand it.
Jazz Jennings: That’s so true. Honestly, I feel like kids are much more open to change, because they’re learning about the world and about themselves. But adults can be so stuck in their own realities and what they’ve lived in the past that they don’t realise how things change, times change, ideas change, and that they have to open up their minds and move on from the era they grew up in.
Rowan Blanchard: I was reading an interview where you said you felt like a lot of people tended to overlook transgender problems. What are some of the problems that you feel get brushed aside?
Jazz Jennings: I think that a lot of people don’t understand how much discrimination transgender people actually face. They think that we’re just kind of saying it to put it out there and get sympathy, but that’s not true at all. I wasn’t allowed to use the girls’ restroom. I wasn’t allowed to play on the girls’ soccer team.
Rowan Blanchard: Have you always loved soccer?
Jazz Jennings: Yeah, right from the start. I played my first soccer game when I was five years old…I remember I lost my first tooth on that day. But when I was eight I was banned from playing girls’ soccer. They wouldn’t let me play on the girls’ team because they thought I had an advantage. So for two years I had to sit on the sidelines while my team got to play soccer. I moved to a boys’ soccer team because I was allowed to do that, but when I played with the boys I felt miserable. It was just awful. I wouldn’t even try on the field when I played with the boys. And this whole time my parents were fighting for my right to play travel soccer. After we fought a two year-long battle, the US Soccer Federation passed a trans-inclusive policy that allows all transgender players to play soccer.
Rowan Blanchard: That’s amazing! You guys fought for that and now everybody who is transgender can play on the team they belong in.
Jazz Jennings: We deserve the right to be treated equally and that’s not fully there yet, based on a lot of the policies that states have or that the US has. It still says ‘male’ on my birth certificate, and I can’t change that to female until I actually get the surgery. So it’s all these different things.
“Kids are much more open to change, because they’re still learning about the world... Adults can be so stuck in their own realities that they don’t realise how things change, times change, people change” – Jazz Jennings
Rowan Blanchard: Correct me if I’m wrong, but people tend to think of being transgender as a physical transformation, don’t they? But really it’s more of an emotional transformation.
Jazz Jennings: Yeah, definitely. It’s about learning to love yourself. That’s really our main message, that everyone deserves to live their lives authentically, be treated equally and be loved as well.
Rowan Blanchard: I feel like our generation is becoming much more accepting of people’s sexual orientation, because we’re realising that a lot of people don’t identify as a hundred percent gay, or a hundred percent straight.
Jazz Jennings: I’m still exploring. I think I’m physically attracted to guys but I know I could potentially be emotionally attracted to girls. I’m just attracted to people for who they are on the inside. That’s what it is to be pansexual, you know – loving people for who they are on the inside, no matter their label. Just loving someone. So I guess I am pansexual, but I don’t know because I haven’t fallen in love.
Rowan Blanchard: Do you ever think about what you’d like to do in the future?
Jazz Jennings: I think in the future I might want to go into the directing or movie-making business because I love coming up with stories. I love coming up with these cool ideas and worlds in my mind, and I want to share them with people.
Rowan Blanchard: It would be so cool to have you behind the camera one day, I would love that. I watch a lot of movies.
Jazz Jennings: I love movies! I love science fiction and fantasy, for sure. Alien and Aliens. And 2001: A Space Odyssey. I also love Cloud Atlas. Not many people like it, but the overall story really connected with me. The quote at the end is my favourite: this guy is like, ‘You’re just one drop in the ocean,’ and the other guy says, ‘The ocean wouldn’t be there without all the drops…’ Something like that.
Rowan Blanchard: What kind of movies would you want to direct one day?
Jazz Jennings: I would definitely want to do smart sci-fi, puzzle movies where people have to think and connect the dots but then come up with their own idea at the end.
Rowan Blanchard: Would you ever act?
Jazz Jennings: No, it’s not my thing. I’d prefer to write the screenplay.
Rowan Blanchard: You could write a sci-fi movie for a girl who is my age. Sign me up!
Jazz Jennings: Like Alien! Ellen Ripley is all, like, pulling aliens out of herself or whatever she does. She is the coolest tough chick.
Rowan Blanchard: Those are definitely severely lacking in the sci-fi genre. You gotta change that.
Jazz Jennings: Cloud Atlas is pretty long and you might think it’s kind of weird, but I like it a lot. You have a job to do, watch these things…Go!
Rowan Blanchard: You have a job to do too. I want you to watch Rushmore and some more Wes Anderson movies…Go!
Interview moderated by Veronica So. The new series of I Am Jazz will air in the UK on TLC later this year
Hair Tina Outen at Streeters using Wella Professionals, make-up Emi Kaneko at D+V Management using M.A.C, nails Honey at Exposure NY using Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics, set design Lauren Nikrooz at The Magnet Agency, photographic assistants Jarrod Turner, Guario Rodriguez, fashion assistants Ioana Ivan, Coco Campbell, Alison Isbell, Klara Auerbach, Yagmur Tirikei, hair assistant Joseph Torres, set assistants Megan Kiantos, production Daniel Aros at Rep Limited
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