Transgender Teen Activist Jazz Jennings: ‘I’m OK Being Called a Badass’

Jazz Jennings, star of I Am Jazz, which returns for a second season on Wednesday, June 8. (Mark DeLong/TLC)
Jazz Jennings, star of I Am Jazz, which returns for a second season on Wednesday, June 8. (Mark DeLong/TLC)

It’s 11 am on Monday morning, and transgender activist and totally cool teenager Jazz Jennings is ensconced in a conference room at Random House headquarters in New York City.

The 15-year-old knows she’s at her publisher’s office because the room is lined with books, including her new memoir, Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen. She knows she’s in New York City because she looks out the second-floor window and says, “I see tall buildings.” And she knows it’s not yet lunchtime because the table is still strewn with Starbucks coffee and pastries.

But that’s about all she knows for sure.

The kid has been on a whirlwind schedule. Last week, she finished finals at school, then stepped straight into a jam-packed itinerary of cross-country promotion for both her book and the second season of her acclaimed, ground-breaking TLC series, I Am Jazz, and this past weekend – well, she isn’t quite sure what happened.

“What did we do Saturday?” she asks her mom, Jeanette, who is at her side. “I already forgot.”

A moment later, Jazz laughingly remembers: “Oho yeah, I recorded a new YouTube video. But I still need to edit it and post it, which I probably won’t get to for the next five years.”

Watch I Am Jazz online here

She’s exaggerating, but only slightly. In a few days she’ll travel to Los Angeles. Then she’ll return to New York as the youngest ever Grand Marshall of that city’s 47th annual Pride Parade. At some point, she’ll light at her South Florida home where she lives with her parents and an older sister and two older brothers. But she rarely pauses. She’s the Youth Ambassador for the Human Rights Campaign and co-founded her own Transkids Purple Rainbow Foundation to help and inspire transgender children. In 2014, Time magazine named her one of the year’s 25 Most Influential Teens and Out put her on their influential “Out 100” list.

Her stature as a role model comes naturally, as might be expected from someone who appeared on 20/20 at age 6. As Jazz makes clear on her docu-reality TV series and in her book, from her earliest stirrings of self-awareness, she has known she’s a girl trapped in a boy’s body. “There was never any confusion in my mind,” she writes in her book. “The confusing part was why no one else could see what was wrong.”

We spoke with Jazz a couple days before the June 8 season 2 premiere of I Am Jazz (TLC, 10p/9c).

Teen Vogue described you as a “transgender teen and overall badass.” How do you describe yourself? I’m deep and complex. That’s what my mom said. I’m definitely complex, complicated. Creative, just but very outgoing as well.

How about badass? I guess you could call me a badass. I’m very resilient and I persevere through many things. I have a pretty thick skin, too, so I think that resonates with the idea of being a badass.

What impact did the first season of your TV series, I Am Jazz, have on you, your family, the world in general? I think the biggest impact about the show was that it  normalized the topic of being transgender. I think that’s what season one was all about, showing that I may be transgender, but I’m just like everyone else, a teenage girl trying to live her life, and going through many of the same issues that other teenage girls go through. I think it’s important for people to understand that I’m transgender, but I embrace that. It’s okay to be different. I can only be myself. I am Jazz and I’m going to keep moving forward that way. As for the way it impacted my family, it’s definitely different appearing in the media and being recognized in the public, so that was definitely a change that occurred. But overall as people, I don’t think we’ve changed. We’re just still the same weirdos living our life, acting crazy and having fun.

What can we expect in the second season? You’re going to see a lot in season two. One of the main things is that we are going to be confronted with hate directly, face-to-face, and it’s pretty intense. It shows how hard it can be for transgender people when society is judges them by labels rather than the content of their character. Season 2 also gets into the medical aspect. I go through a surgery procedure. You’re going to see me  talking to boys, things like that. There’s a lot going on.

Watch a preview of season 2 here

What about you enables you to deal with haters – and have such a thick skin? I’m not sure. I think it’s just a part of who I am. I think my parents and my family just raising me to be confident and to just love myself no matter what has definitely helped. When I just see hateful comments, I’m like, “Why? Why hate? Why would I listen to someone saying such negative and awful things?” It motivates me to continue educating people in society and letting them know that this is not okay.

You’re 15 years old. You mentioned the new season will include your interest in boys. How about learning to drive? You’re definitely going to see that and it’s very funny. I parked perfectly on my second try.

Your new book is titled Being Jazz. I’ll ask the obvious question – what’s it like being Jazz? It’s been pretty cool, I got to say. I definitely have an interesting life. I’ve only been around for 15 and a half years, but I feel like I’ve done so much and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been overwhelming, it’s been hard, but I wouldn’t change who I am at all. I’m proud to be Jazz because it’s just who I am and I can’t change that. I’ve definitely gone through some difficult things, but I don’t regret them because it’s kind of shaped the individual that I am today, so being Jazz, it’s just my authentic self and I’m proud of that.

What’s your favorite chapter in the book? I like the funny chapter. It’s chapter nine – when I talk about my boyfriend from fifth grade. It’s titled “Everyone Deserves to be Loved.”

Enough about your series and your book. Let’s talk about serious stuff – like what shows do you watch on TV? I love the British show, Black Mirror. It’s basically a modern-day Twilight Zone. I love Game of Thrones because who doesn’t love Game of Thrones? I used to love The Walking Dead until it got kind of weird. Then I watch a lot of anime as well. I love Big Brother, and I watch Survivor with my mom.

You used Instagram to make a simple, straight-forward comment on the bathroom controversy. You praised Target for their inclusive policy and advised everyone to stop making such a big deal out of it. In a sentence, what’s your take on this issue?  As I always say, we’re removing waste in the bathroom and it shouldn’t be a big deal. That’s the end of it.

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Do you feel like you were born into this mission of being an activist? Or is it one you have chosen and have control over? I think I have control over it. If I wanted to stop at any time, my parents would be like, “Okay, if you’re not happy doing this, we understand. Don’t do it anymore. ” They definitely listen to me. If I’m not feeling it, then I’m not feeling it. But for now I’m going to continue. I think the world needs the message I’m sharing because people are so unaccepting of individuals like myself.

Earlier I asked about the impact you’ve made. Is there one particular aspect or story that stands out? It’s one thing to be able to change lives, but when you save lives, it’s completely different. When I hear the stories about people who said they were about to commit suicide, but they thought about me and the message that I was trying to share and it caused them to change their mind and decide to live … I can’t even describe that feeling when someone says that, that they don’t think they would be alive without our story being represented in the media. I think that just kind of inspires me to keep moving forward with sharing my story. It’s helping other people – it’s so much better to help people than to hate them – and if I could just change or save one more life, then it’s all worth it.