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'I Am Jazz': a transgender girl plus a family that loves her

13 July 2015, 20:44

New York - Like many 14-year-old girls, Jazz Jennings goes to school, plays soccer, hangs out with friends, has a thing for mermaids and loves social media, kind of wishes her tummy were a little bit flatter, and lives life feeling good about herself.

She's also transgender. She was assigned male at birth yet was sure as young as 2 years old that she was a girl. She transitioned into Jazz at 5.

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Since being interviewed on ABC's "20/20" by Barbara Walters at age 6, Jazz Jennings has emerged as a leading advocate, role model and explainer for the transgender community. She wrote a children's book about her life. She makes heart-to-heart YouTube videos that get hundreds of thousands of views.

Now she's opening the door to her everyday routine on "I Am Jazz," an 11-episode unscripted series premiering on TLC on Wednesday at 10 p.m. EDT. (An illuminating companion piece: the recent documentary "Growing Up Trans," available on the "Frontline" website.)

"I think it's going to be a great thing," says Jazz, a remarkably poised young woman with big brown eyes and a dazzling smile, during a recent interview. "We're just the average family, being ourselves. We love one another. But it also shows how we handle the fact that I'm transgender how we embrace it and move forward."

Family includes Jeanette and Greg, her parents, sister Ari, 19, and her 17-year-old twin brothers Griffen and Sander, with whom Jazz shares a comfortable home in South Florida (the family doesn't say just where, or disclose its real surname, for security purposes).

The series doesn't soft-peddle the challenges the family has faced.

Jazz started hormone blockers about three years ago to ward off male puberty, and two years ago began estrogen treatments. It's a delicate drug regimen that, in the first episode, Jeanette acknowledges is "experimental stuff. I am messing with my kid's body."

In another telling scene, Jazz and her mother are chatting at an outdoor cafe when a teenage boy brushes past and blurts out, "Trannie freak." Jeanne is suitably enraged, but Jazz shrugs. She's heard it before.

"I face most of my discrimination from the boys," she tells her gal pals during a bedroom confessional, "because they think they're gay for liking another 'boy.'"

And when Ari takes Jazz to buy a swimsuit, she confides she doesn't really like shopping: "I have to look at it a little bit differently because of 'my area.' Also, when I'm swimming I have to make sure I'm wearing skirts or shorts over the bikini bottoms so that no one will see anything."

With admirable grace, Jazz has settled, early on, what likely is the audience's most pressing question, however misguided it may be.

"Everybody thinks it's what's between your legs that matters," she says during the interview. "But what really matters is what's between my ears. It's my brain that makes me a girl, makes me feel like a girl, makes me know that I'm a girl."

Yes, surgery is an option down the road.

"But it's not about the medical stuff," Jazz says. "It's about knowing who you are and embracing that."

That is what "I Am Jazz" is really about: Someone who, from infancy, has known who she is, born to a family that gave her full support in its expression. Everyone should be so lucky.

"I am proud of the fact that I'm transgender," Jazz declares, "because it shaped the person that I am today."

"She's faced a lot of discrimination in her short life," says Jeanette, who has joined Jazz for the interview. "But she handles herself with dignity and pride."

"People say that I was just born with a natural confidence," Jazz responds. "But I think because my family has showered me with love and support right from the start, I've been able to display that confidence throughout my life."

That confidence hasn't ignited a scramble for celebrity, she insists.

"You might look at me and think I'm lying, like: 'Deep down, she wants to be famous.' But I'm not the type of person who loves all the attention. This isn't about me. It's about my message. The main thing I promised myself: I'm not gonna get caught up in the fame that might occur from the show.

"But now comes the hard part: when everybody sees it."

Things may or may not change for Jazz and her family in the spotlight. But what's clear to her is that big changes are afoot for the transgender community.

She thinks back nine years, when, at her birthday pool party, she went public as Jazz, a girl in a little girl's swimsuit.

"Back then, we never thought things would occur so fast. It's awesome to be able to see the change occurring in front of you.

"I do get stressed out," she concedes. "Sometimes things feel overwhelming. But I just have to be happy and live life in the moment. And I'm going to keep sharing my story until it's needed no more and it's not a big deal."

- AP


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