The author of a new children's book about being transgender is speaking Thursday, Oct.9, at 7 p.m. at the Stonewall Gallery in Wilton Manors. Jessica Herthel wrote "I am Jazz" with Jazz Jennings (not her real last name; her family uses the pseudonym to protect her safety).
When Jazz's parents used to say, "You're such a good boy," Jazz would reply, "No, good girl." She was diagnosed as transgender at age three, and from then on, to her family and the world, Jazz was a girl. Her two older brothers were too young to remember much, but she says her older sister was upset because, "she wanted to be the only princess in the house." Her sister's in college now, and Jazz says they're close.
A few years later, at age six, she did her first Barbara Walters special on ABC News' 20/20, telling the world about being a proud transgender kid. (Below, you can see another Walters special she did last year.)
Jazz has been in the spotlight ever since, giving interviews, making speeches, getting awards from organizations like GLAAD and making YouTube videos answering questions and giving advice to other kids.
Those YouTube videos were the inspiration for much of the text in "I am Jazz." Jessica Herthel, now director of the Stonewall National Education Project, met Jazz's mom while volunteering on a committee to make schools safer. Herthel, a Harvard Law grad, was fed up with practicing law and was looking for work that mattered more to her. She had the idea to make Jazz's story into a book for kids after watching her three young daughters hanging out with Jazz.
"We had gone out to see Jazz in a school play. We went out for ice cream afterwards. The girls sat at a table giggling and talking, and I said to my husband when we got home [that] night, 'It's so easy.'" Herthel recalls. "This was so easy for my little kids who don't know anything about anything. They don't know about sex. They don't know about hormones. They don't know about gender reassignment surgery."
Herthel had never written a book before, and people in the industry told her it had to have a theme, like "Jazz Goes to the Zoo" or "Jazz Goes to the Movies," but Herthel held firm that it should be a proud first-person introduction to the fact of being transgender.
"We had always assumed the best-case scenario, it would be an LGBT press or a queer press," she says. And they came very close to self-publishing. They hired a college kid to do the illustrations and were figuring out how many copies to print. She thought, "If this doesn't end up in school libraries, then we failed." Then Herthel met some people who knew some people, and eventually got the book published by an imprint of Penguin Press.
Jazz is 14 now and taking hormone blockers to prevent her voice from deepening and the development of other male physical qualities.
"I'm not stealth," she says, "which means you hide the fact that you're transgender." The point of the book is to help other kids feel OK with who they are too, whether it's being transgender or "whether you like to play with dolls at an older age, or anything like that."
Proceeds from the book go to the TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation, started by Jazz's family.
Herthel got her wish. The book has made it into school libraries. This week, she's doing a reading in a Broward school.
"I think progressive schools led by progressive principals and with a progressive staff," she says, "they're ready to say, 'OK, let's take the book off the shelf and actually read it aloud and say: Do you have questions?' Not because there's a transgender kid in the class, but because one day there might be."
Here's one of several Barbara Walters specials featuring Jazz on ABC News' 20/20:
And here's Jazz swimming in a mermaid tail she made (you can hear her talk about that in the radio interview above). She sells them to benefit the TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation, which supports other transgender kids. They hold an annual pool party, where kids who often feel uncomfortable with their bodies, get a chance to be around other kids who understand what they're going through.