Jazz Jennings is a student, an artist, an advocate and a published author—and she is only 14 years old. She was recently named one of Time Magazine’s Most Influential Teens of 2014.
The children’s book that Jazz co-authored, I Am Jazz, is a memoir about her life. Jazz was assigned male at birth but by age two, was telling people that she was a girl. She started transitioning from male to female when she was in kindergarten.
Jazz has been fortunate that throughout her journey, her parents have been understanding and supportive. Finding out a child or teen is transgender can be difficult for parents. They may worry, “Will they be bullied? Did I do something to cause this?”
How can parents help their transgender teen?
Gender identity is how people see and identify themselves. For most people, the gender identity they feel on the inside agrees with their anatomy. But when a person is transgender, their gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Gender dysphoria is the formal diagnosis used in the medical profession for people who experience significant discontent with the sex they were assigned at birth.
For some children, such as Jazz, these feelings of “being in the wrong body” will start in childhood. Jazz was diagnosed with gender dysphoria when she was three years old. For others, these feelings may not become apparent until they are in puberty and their body starts to change.
Debunking the Myths
Even though much has changed regarding awareness, there are still many misconceptions about being transgender. Says Jazz, “I feel that one of the biggest misconceptions center around choice. Many think that transgender people are choosing a different gender but this isn’t true. I was assigned male at birth, but I’ve always been a girl. Just like any other girl, I’ve identified as female from as long as I can remember.”
Another misconception is that gender identity has something to do with sexual orientation. Jazz’s mom Jeanette explains, “Transgender people can be can be gay, bisexual or lesbian. Jazz identifies as a girl, but that has nothing to do with who she is attracted to. If Jazz is attracted to boys, that doesn’t make her gay, it means she is heterosexual.”
Supporting Your Transgender Teen
Being a teenager can be hard and it is even harder when you feel alone or different. Many transgender teens struggle with depression and anxiety. They can be a target of cruel comments and bullying by uneducated peers.
Parental acceptance is vital to transgender children and teens.
Irwin Krieger, a social worker and author says, “By the time teenagers approach their parents about being transgender, they have already done a lot of research on their own. Parents need to find out basic information on gender identity so they can help their child.” There are many excellent resources available to parents of transgender teens (see below for more information) and parents should not be afraid to seek help and guidance.
The most important thing parents can do to help their transgender teen is to listen, love, and support them. Says Jeanette, “It’s a child’s birthright to be loved unconditionally. They need to remember that trans kids didn't ask to be born transgender. Parents need to put their own egos aside, and always put the well being of their children first.”
Help in the Transitioning Process
Transitioning can be a long journey and can include social transitioning (changing name, pronoun, style of dress, etc.) as well as medical transitioning (puberty blockers, hormones, surgery, etc.). Transgender teens need friends and family to respect and support them through the transitioning process. Says Krieger, “Transgender teens may worry that they will face peer rejection and/or family rejection when they express who they are. Support and validation are critical.”
This support should include:
- Medical support from experts who have experience with transgender youth.
- Support groups for both parents and teens. Groups are a great way of sharing thoughts, information and feeling less alone in this process.
- Family support from parents, siblings, friends and extended family.
- Support from school officials to ensure your child’s safety.
A lot has changed since Jazz first shared her story in 2007. Jazz remembers, “Back then you didn’t see young transkids in the media. Now trans youth are much more visible, speaking out, and sharing their stories. The public is much more accepting of trans people now.”
But there is still much work to be done. Creating laws that protect the rights and safety of transgender children and teens in school is of prime importance. Krieger explains, “Most schools are unprepared before they have their first transgender student. Administrators and teachers must be educated on how to be trans-friendly.”
Many parents and teens need to be educated too. Krieger admits that parents who are uninformed sometimes harbor unwarranted fears and prejudices—especially when it comes to bathroom usage and locker rooms at school. It can be disheartening. Jazz admits, “So many people don't understand us, and even consider us freaks. They can be cruel and unkind and not open to acceptance. I try not to let the negative opinion of others bring me down.”
In addition to writing the memoir, Jazz has shared her journey in a series of YouTube videos and in interviews with Rosie O’Donnell, Katie Couric, and Barbara Walters. Jazz hopes that by sharing her story, she can help other transgender teens as well as educate people. Says Jazz, “I receive hundred of emails from kids who feel alone. I try to comfort them and give them resources that can help. I also get heartwarming letters from kids who tell me that I’ve changed their lives by sharing my story publically.”
While Jazz has struggled with some friends in the past she now has a great group of friends who see her as “just one of the girls” and accept her for who she really is. Jazz asserts, “I hope that through my story other kids realize it is okay to be different, and you have to love yourself no matter what others say or think.”
For More Information:
- Helping Your Transgender Teen by Irwin Krieger (Genderwise Press, 2011)
- The Transgender Child by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper (Cleis Press, 2008)