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Interviewing Isis King
Jazz’s most prized possessions lay in a plastic bin in her bedroom. They’re not expensive or sentimental or even something one-of-a-kind, like the shimmering mermaid tails she’s sewn together as the perfect bikini bottoms.
They’re hand-me-downs, actually, from her big sister Ari, 15. Old bras 11-year-old Jazz, like most girls her age, is hoping to fill out soon rather than later.
“I titled that drawer, ‘Something for the future’,” Jazz tells me over the phone of her box of bras, “and then I put an arrow and wrote, ‘Or now’, because I’m desperate to wear it right now.”
Jazz says she wears the second-hand underwear “all the time,” trying them on in the privacy of her bedroom “continuously.” Recently, she was daring enough to leave the house in one of them, getting to her fifth-grade class unnoticed by her parents.
“But some of the girls noticed it,” her mother Jeanette chimed in.
“No,” Jazz quickly interjects. “One girl noticed it, and she wouldn’t have questioned me if she didn’t know I was transgender.”
At 11, girls begin breaking out of the prepubescent pack. They grow taller, they grow hairier, they grow curvier. These early bloomers pose a threat to their peers, like Jazz, who are lagging behind in the puberty pool, as they breast stroke towards the blossoming buds of early adulthood.
“She was like, ‘Why are you wearing a bra? You’re not supposed to have that,’” Jazz says of the girl who policed her bra-wearing that day. “But she really really wants boobs also, and the next day I stopped wearing the bra cause my mom made me stop but then she was wearing a bra.”
“You inspired her,” her mom Jeanette said, laughing.
“Yeah, she thought since I could do it she could too,” Jazz giggled.
And because Jazz is doing it — wearing bras, lip gloss, her hair long, girls garments to school — many kids know they can do it as well. This has been the overarching theme of Jazz’s young life. Her gender-defiant story began as a toddler when she would dance around in her sister’s plastic dress-up shoes. She soon expressed her love of mermaids and all things pink around her family, who learned to embrace her femininity.
But as they were busily planning Jazz’s fifth birthday pool party, Jazz had one request: she wanted to wear a rainbow-patterned, one-piece bathing suit. And by letting their youngest child do so, Jazz’s parents Jeanette and Greg took the initial step in their family’s journey into advocacy and education on behalf of their daughter and transgender children everywhere.
“[It] really was the first time we said to our friends, community, society that we were going to allow Jazz to be Jazz,” her father says in their documentary, I Am Jazz: A Family In Transition, airing Sunday night, Nov. 27, on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network (find your OWN channel here). “And it was an opportunity for Jazz to go out into the community and say, ‘I am Jazz.’”
The pool party was more than six years ago, and in that time Jazz and her family have been pioneers, sharing Jazz’s story of growing up trans in the media. I first heard Jazz’s story when I was flipping through channels in 2007 and saw a pretty little girl with olive skin and dark brown hair singing to Barbara Walters.
She seemed to be longing for something nearly unreachable as she sang, ”In my own little corner in my own little chair I can be whatever I want to be.” Her expression and the tone of her voice didn’t match the plush pinkness of the chair she sat in, breaking my heart. “On the wings of my fancy I can fly anywhere and the world will open its arms to me.”
Just a year or so after her fateful fifth birthday party, Jazz was coming out with Barbara Walters at her side on 20/20, telling the world that she was a transgender child and her family fully supported her.
“At first we were so scared to bring our story forward but with the way Jazz was, she had such a positive message to give other children and she was happy because we allowed her to transition,” Jeanette reflects on deciding to let her child come out on national television. “It was the best thing we’ve ever done.”
With Jazz ripe into Tweendom and approaching puberty, the family continues to tell their story as they help Jazz explore options towards growing into the young woman she desires to be.
“It’s not a magic pill by any means,” Jeanette says of the hormone-blocking medicine that will suppress Jazz’s male puberty, in effect stopping Jazz from developing male secondary physical traits and buying the family some time to weigh their options, including undergoing hormone therapy to achieve physical female transition.
“It’s hard,” Jeanette says of the medical interventions her family must weigh in support of Jazz. “The whole hormone gamut is just uncharted territory. It’s considered experimental. But it goes with the territory. I’d rather have to do something like that than the consequences of having her body develop like my husband … I don’t want her to look like that, and she doesn’t want to look like that.”
Calling the drugs “extremely expensive,” Jeanette says she was recently quoted $18,000 a year for the hormone-blocking medication. “Insurance said no and we’re trying different avenues, we’re trying to appeal,” she adds, “But in the meantime she’s being put on the back burner and her puberty isn’t going to wait.”
This is when Jazz has her say, “Hey mom: When am I getting the the opportunity to take the medicine to get boobs? Didn’t you say January?”
Jeanette says maybe, and it’s enough to ignite a giggle from Jazz. That laugh, which can warm any sentient being’s heart, makes me think about the kids who can’t even wear lip gloss in their home or even think of picking up a Barbie. And what’s beautiful about Jazz is that she knows just how lucky she is to be able to ask her mother for boobs.
“It’s hard to hear some of their sad stories,” Jazz says of meeting other trans people, who are usually many decades older than her. “I feel so lucky that I have a mother as amazing as she is. If I didn’t have such a supporting family I don’t know what I would’ve done. It’s just amazing that I have such amazing people in my life.”
“This is one of the reasons we have the foundation,” Jeanette says of starting the TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation. ”It’s a huge driving force because I know that whatever happens with us, we’ll make ends meet and we’ll figure out a way to pay for [the medicine]. But there are people that there’s just no way that they’ll even come close to affording any type of medication.”
Forced out of their homes and into shelters and often onto the streets, Jeanette cites stories of young trans people she’s met who are forced into prostitution to pay for hormones “on the black market” as motivation for her to keep telling her family’s story. ”These are the kids I really want to reach,” she says of her personal advocacy. “I hear the stories, and I met some [of these young people] and they just cry, ‘Why can’t my mom be like you?’ It’s heartbreaking, and if I can just help one kid like that it will be successful.”
Though Jazz hasn’t started hormone blocking therapy yet, she and her family continue to live openly, as evidence in I Am Jazz, which followed the family for nearly two weeks and captured the joys and struggles of raising a transgender child.
“Some people just don’t understand,” Jazz says in the beginning of the documentary. “They think what I’m doing and what my parents are doing is wrong. And me as a person, I’m wrong.”
What makes it such a powerful film is the family’s solidarity when it comes to supporting their baby daughter/sister Jazz. One of her twin brothers, Sander calls her “the whole package” while her father brought me to tears when he read an email he sent to the soccer board, pleading for them to allow Jazz to play with her girls soccer team.
“It was very touching and I cried,” Jazz says of her father’s emotional moment in the film. “That was the part that got me, and when people see it I think they’ll feel that I deserve to play girls soccer.”
“My first goal is to help other kids like Jazz by educating their parents and the children and then through the foundation, giving back,” Jeanette says of the documentary. “And then secondly is educating all the people that are on the fence, like they kind of know about this, but they really don’t know but they have an open mind. And it’d be great to win over the people who look at us like crazy freaks.”
As for Jazz, who by living so publicly doesn’t have the opportunity to live an anonymous life, one that allows her to choose to disclose or not disclose her trans journey, her goal is all about helping other kids.
“I want to tell them that it’s okay to step out of their shadows and be who they are,” she says. “Just be true to yourself and always know that it’s okay to express yourself and just be happy.”
Then, she turns the table on me.
“Janet, that’s why I feel I have such a big connection with you,” she says, “because you’ve face similar things that I have and have done things that I haven’t yet, so I feel I can really really connect with you.”
It’s then that I begin tearing up and tell her she’s making me cry, not because of what she says but because she understands the connectivity of this moment. When I saw her in 2007 on 20/20, I merely saw a little girl. But hearing her sing that sweet little song which boasted lyrics symbolic of the load she was carrying by being her authentic self, made me think of me. It also made me insanely proud that there has been progress. When I was growing up, transitioning as a high school student was groundbreaking, and to medically transition at all was a feat to the generations of trans women and men before me. Now to see that there are kids who are going into kindergarten, like Jazz, as the gender that speaks to their soul, filled me with hope.
It’s getting better because brave souls and sages, wrapped in the package of little human beings, choose to live visibly, choose to be exactly who they are, and choose to share with us all the joys and struggles of their journey. In effect, helping us all become more open, more brave and overall better human beings.
“Being your mom is such a pleasure, Jazz,” Jeanette tells her daughter at the end of our phone call. “I tell you I marvel at my child, I marvel at all four of my children for different reasons, but this one keeps me on my toes because I never know what I’m going to get.”
Watch Jazz and her family’s story unfold in I Am Jazz: A Family In Transition, airing Sunday, Nov. 27, on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network at 9/8c. And learn more about the family’s foundation on the TransKids Purple Rainbow website.