How Jazz Jennings Changed the World for Trans Youth Simply by Being Herself

In 2007, six-year-old Jazz Jennings went on national television to tell Barbara Walters the same thing she’d been telling her parents, siblings and anyone else who would listen: She was, despite her birth certificate’s insistence otherwise, a girl.

Shy and sweet, Jennings answered Walters’ probing questions with the clarity and patience of someone used to explaining herself over and over again. “She was so charismatic, so charming and so clearly herself,” Laverne Cox says of first seeing that “20/20” interview. “Her humanity was so on display that you couldn’t deny she had the right to be who she was.” It was a watershed moment for transgender visibility in media, not least because it made Jennings one of the youngest documented trans people to speak her truth for millions of viewers to hear.

Amy Lombard for Variety

It’d be easy for Jennings to say she always knew that moment would be life-changing. Looking back, though, she mostly just remembers it as something she got to brag about at recess. “I think there was like, one kid from school who recognized me from TV,” Jennings, now 20, recalls over a recent Zoom call from her home in South Florida. “Maybe my confidence increased a bit because I was like, ‘I’m on TV!’ like any little kid would think about it.”

Jennings’ awareness of how seismic the interview was would change soon enough. In the years after “20/20,” she appeared on “The Rosie Show,” won a GLAAD Media Award and sat down with Oprah Winfrey for an OWN special (“I Am Jazz: A Family in Transition”). Jennings spoke around the country, co-wrote a children’s book (also called “I Am Jazz”) and became a Johnson & Johnson spokesmodel. She led the New York City Pride parade as its youngest grand marshal ever, beaming at the crowds with a rainbow flag tied around her shoulders like a superhero cape. She launched her own TLC reality show (again titled “I Am Jazz” — her brand is strong). When she met President Obama in 2015, he smiled at her and said, as she recalls with an Obama-esque twang, “I’m proud of ya.”

Jazz Jennings Amy Lombard for Variety

The swell of interest in Jennings’ story was overwhelming if understandable. “20/20” tackling the story of her transition, not to mention showing her family’s unequivocal support, was unprecedented. “In 2007, there were almost no media stories about children who are trans,” says Nick Adams, GLAAD’s director of transgender representation. “Seeing Barbara Walters’ interview with Jazz and her family, in which Jazz was a happy, well-adjusted child, allowed so many other families to understand how to love and support their own trans children.”

Since then, trans visibility and representation has undergone a massive shift.

For decades, Hollywood allowed trans people on-screen only as toxic punchlines (“Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”) or as tragic figures played by cisgender men (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “The Danish Girl”). Now, trans people are getting to tell their own stories like never before. This past December, “Juno” and “The Umbrella Academy” star Elliot Page came out as trans by telling his many millions of social media followers, “I love that I am trans. And I love that I am queer.” In March, he became the first trans man to appear on the cover of Time; in April, he had his first on-camera interview with Winfrey, who’d gained a whole new trans-inclusive vocabulary since she interviewed Jazz a decade earlier.

Trans actors are also getting to play more thoughtful, authentic trans characters informed by their own experiences. This has been especially true for trans youth, who were practically invisible on TV before Jennings’ landmark interview. Young trans actors such as Hunter Schafer (“Euphoria”), Ian Alexander (“Star Trek: Discovery”), Indya Moore (“Pose”), Isaiah Stannard (“Good Girls”) and Nicole Maines (“Supergirl”) are paving a new path.

“For a long time we were seeing trans people where their transness was the end-all, be-all of their story,” Maines says. “Now we’re starting to see trans people portrayed as three-dimensional characters who make good choices and bad choices, who have wants and needs, who make mistakes and are people.”

Cox understands the argument that representation has its limits. “It doesn’t necessarily change the material conditions of working-class trans people,” she acknowledges. “But what representation does do that’s beautiful, for young people and people of all ages, is that they can just see themselves. They can just have a sense of existing, and a sense of possibility.”

The media’s ability to not just reflect but transform is a cornerstone of Jennings’ approach to her life and work. “Our goal is always to help people, and to share a message of positivity, love and acceptance,” she says. “I think we’re continuing to do that by sharing our story.”

Jazz Jennings photographed in Florida May 2021 by Amy Lombard Amy Lombard for Variety

Hollywood’s embrace of more nuanced portrayals of marginalized communities can engender sympathy in and evolve the perspectives of people who might not have thought twice before. (See President Biden crediting “Will & Grace” for inspiring him to support gay marriage.) As someone who plays a bona fide trans superhero on a broadcast network show, Maines thinks about this a lot. “Anti-trans sentiment is an issue of not seeing humanity in trans people,” she says. “So one of our best weapons against that is visibility, saying, ‘This is who we are. This is how we exist.’”

But with increased visibility comes increased scrutiny and reactionary discrimination, which is playing out across the country to devastating effect. Since Biden’s inauguration, conservative state legislators have introduced more than 100 anti-trans bills, some of which would outright criminalize gender-affirming health care for trans youth. For those who did get the support and medical expertise to transition before “the wrong puberty” hit, the idea of that possibility disappearing is chilling. As Maines says of that health care: “It didn’t change my life. It saved my life.”

Jennings is horrified by the discriminatory hatred behind the new bills, including the one signed into law the day before this story went live in her home state of Florida, which bans trans girls from playing on girls’ sports teams in public schools. After this interview, Jazz posted a message on Instagram for her 1.1 million followers. “As someone who has experienced discrimination in sports, it makes me feel terrible about the message that laws like this send out to transgender youth,” she wrote. “They may try to take away our sports, our healthcare, and our rights, but they can’t take away our PRIDE!”

Still, Jennings has been fighting similar measures for most of her life, and isn’t entirely surprised by their recent resurgence. “There’s been a lot of progress, but I think with the abundance of love and acceptance, there’s also that contrast of hatred and cruelty,” she says. “People are more outspoken. People feel empowered to share their loving, and empowered to share their hatred.”

In July 2015, as 14-year-old Jennings was about to enter high school, her family launched “I Am Jazz.” It premiered the same month as Caitlyn Jenner’s “I Am Cait,” though Jazz is quick to say that their show came first (“She stole [the title] from us”) and has far outlasted it. Over six seasons, viewers watched Jennings make friends, go to school, play sports and date. The series explained what gender-affirming health care actually means as Jennings maintained her hormone blockers and estrogen levels. In so doing, “I Am Jazz” taught a broad audience what it meant for a trans girl to grow up, and how important it is that she be loved for who she is.

One of TLC’s most consistently performing shows, with more than 1 million viewers an episode, “I Am Jazz” details the everyday realities of being a trans teen in ways unlike any other program on television before or since. Jennings is remarkably open about her highs, her lows and somewhat controversially, the detailed specifics of her gender-confirmation surgeries. Many trans people have made a point of not discussing the specifics of their bodies, as seen when Cox and trans model Carmen Carrera refused to in a 2014 interview with Katie Couric, to discourage sensationalizing their transitions.

Clockwise from top left, the Jennings family: Griffen, Jazz, Ari, Greg, Jeanette and Sander. Amy Lombard for Variety

“It was hard to decide how open I should be just because so many large-profile transgender people don’t talk about their surgeries,” Jennings acknowledges. “But for me, I just think I wanted to educate as many people as possible on the experience and what it’s like to go through it firsthand.”

Though “I Am Jazz” took an extended hiatus after its sixth season, it will officially go into production on a seventh season this summer, Variety has exclusively learned. “I think it’s gonna keep me busy,” Jennings says, “and I’m always happy to share my story and help as many people as possible.”

For 19-year-old “Saved by the Bell” star Josie Totah, seeing a trans girl her age put everything in perspective in ways she couldn’t quite articulate herself. “I distinctly remember feeling so connected to someone that felt so far away and yet very, very close to me,” says Totah. She’d later watch “I Am Jazz” with her mother and best friend as she embarked on her own transition, calling it “a touch point and a resource.” Totah had understood she was trans since she was 5, but by the time she saw Jennings in real life when both were 18, Jennings was the first trans person she ever met.

“Trans people sometimes don’t know trans people themselves, and it can be really isolating,” Totah says. “Meeting Jazz was just reaffirming, and so loving. She just felt like family.”

For Jennings, realizing the impact she had on trans kids like Totah was what convinced her she was doing something important. “I was learning that there were a lot of other kids like me out there who can relate to me, and who saw me, and learned more about themselves through seeing me and my experience,” she remembers. “Once I learned about it in that way, I was like, ‘OK, that’s pretty cool.’”

Jazz gets a visit from Leo and Nemo, two of the family’s four pet cats. Amy Lombard for Variety

Jennings is startlingly casual about her influence and all that she’s accomplished. She’s often described as a fierce LGBTQ+ activist, a responsibility she accepts and takes very seriously. But both on “I Am Jazz” and throughout our interview, Jennings is not exactly trying to be a polished Hollywood ambassador. She’s a 20-year-old who loves roller coasters, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and playing pickleball with her dad. She has a dreamy pink-and-blue tattoo of a mermaid on her biceps to honor a lifelong obsession she’s shared and bonded over with other trans girls ever since she could swim. She stages goofy TikTok dances with her older brother Sander for their combined 1.2 million followers. Now taking a break before starting her studies at Harvard University, she lives in Florida with her family, whom she considers her best friends.

“Just having my family support me, that’s all I need to boost my spirits,” Jennings says, lighting up. “Not everyone has that family support, and when I think about my family, I just feel, like, giddy inside.”

For a trans woman like Cox, who was 34 when the “20/20” interview aired, Jennings and her family represented both a hopeful future and an impossible past. “I remember just being so jealous,” Cox says. “I went back in my own life to think about what my childhood was like, and how difficult it was, and how it might have been different if I had supportive parents or even just some sort of critical framework to be able to say that I was trans and accepted and could live authentically.”

The image and reality of Jennings’ unconditionally encouraging support system has made her story stand out. “Watching the Jennings family rally around, support and uplift Jazz in such a loving and beautiful way is exactly what I wish for all trans and gender-expansive youth,” says Peppermint, the trans “RuPaul’s Drag Race” finalist who is considered a family friend.

Some favorite moments and people in Jennings’ life include soccer teammates, fundraising efforts and leading the New York City Pride parade. Amy Lombard for Variety

Despite its title, “I Am Jazz” is just as much about how the Jennings learned to embrace their transgender daughter, granddaughter and sister, and fight for her rights and those of every other trans kid. “It really is not just about the child who’s transitioning, but the family that’s transitioning,” Jazz explains. “You have to learn new pronouns. You have to learn to stick up for your transgender family member when they’re going through difficult situations or when someone’s not treating them correctly. There’s so many new things that you have to learn.”

Jazz’s family has always backed her unequivocally, believing that no trans kid deserves any less. “The transition really requires everybody to have additional love and support for each other, because it’s not easy,” says Jazz’s father, Greg. “But it’s important to work together.”

Despite the Jennings’ best and most public efforts, the road hasn’t always been smooth for their daughter. When she was 8, Jennings was barred from playing girls’ travel soccer and forced to play with the boys. “I was told that I was going to hurt the other kids,” she says with palpable frustration. “I had friends on the team. Those were my girls and my teammates.” Having to be on the boys’ team reminded her of how much she didn’t belong there. “Soccer was my favorite sport, my pride and joy,” she sighs. “It was just a way for me to release, have fun and just be myself.”

The Jennings successfully sued the United States Soccer Federation to adopt a trans-inclusive policy. And yet 2021 has seen an unprecedented wave of anti-trans bills across the country, many aimed at keeping trans girls out of girls’ sports. Even Jenner, the most famous trans Olympian in the world, recently made headlines for not siding with the trans community on the issue. But according to Dr. Jack Turban, a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine, these bills are “unnecessary and unscientific.”

“One major problem is that people repeatedly cite research about cisgender men to argue that transgender women shouldn’t be allowed to compete in female sports,” Turban says. “The problem with this is that transgender women are not cisgender men.”

Other legislation could be even more harmful. Some of the bills, including one recently passed in Arkansas, bar trans youth from accessing gender-affirming health care altogether, which could quite literally be a matter of life and death. Ask any trans person who got that care what it meant to them and the most consistently used word is “life-saving.” That’s how Jennings describes the hormone blockers that stopped her nightmares of beards and mustaches chasing her, and how Maines thinks about her ability to transition before she aged like her identical twin brother. “If I didn’t have access to that care, I would look just like him,” she says, “and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

A memento from Greg, Jeanette and Jazz’s visit with President Obama in 2015 Amy Lombard for Variety

According to Turban, being able to safely transition in consult with medical professionals can lower the alarmingly high rate of suicidal thoughts in trans youth, and removing that possibility altogether could prove catastrophic. “Nearly every major medical organization — from the American Medical Assn. to the American Psychiatric Assn. and the American Academy of Pediatrics — has voiced explicit opposition to this kind of legislation,” he says. “This kind of national transphobic rhetoric dramatically impacts kids, resulting in worsening self-esteem, anxiety and depression. … These bills truly represent a public mental health crisis.”

Jennings, for her part, is “very, very frustrated” at the resurgence of anti-trans action, particularly after spending so much time showing in intimate detail how trans kids can understand themselves better than anyone. “Never underestimate the power of kids. They’re smart!” she exclaims. “So often people are like, ‘Kids don’t know better.’ But the kids do know, and we should be listening to them, because they’re more connected to their spirit and to their soul than a lot of adults are.”

In Cox’s estimation, the bills represent an existential threat to trans people, period. “These battles are not necessarily new, but the way in which conservative lawmakers are painting trans youth is so dehumanizing,” she says. “Passing all these laws to stigmatize children is basically trying to stigmatize the entire trans community.”

Jennings appreciates hearing President Biden tell trans youth that he “has your back,” as he did in his first joint address to Congress in April. But she’s more interested in politicians backing up their supportive comments with supportive action. “I’m hopeful that the bills will be dismissed, or something will be passed at the federal level that prevents these bills from being able to be passed,” she says. “It’s discrimination, you know?”

In the early days of trying to understand her daughter, Jeanette Jennings would go on message boards to talk to other parents of trans children. None had any as young as Jazz. It would be almost another 20 years before 12 year-old Zaya Wade would come out with the full support of her parents, Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union, quite as publicly as Jazz eventually did. “With this tiny little kid, I felt very alone,” Jeanette recalls.

Now, she says with wonder and more than a little relief, it’s completely different. She constantly hears from other families with tiny little trans kids who are grateful for their example. “When I talk to a parent that says to me, ‘My child would not be alive today if it wasn’t for you,’ that makes it all worthwhile,” she says. “To save a child’s life, there’s nothing greater than that.”

Still, being a role model and chronicling your life on reality TV can be exhausting. Two years ago, Jennings hit a wall and found herself in need of a real break. Since “I Am Jazz” last filmed in 2019, she’s been taking some necessary time for herself, stepping back to sort through her burnout, depression and anxiety at home without having to broadcast it all to the world.

“I needed that break for my mental health and wellness, honestly,” she admits. “But I have had that time to really use self-care to boost myself up and evolve and grow as a person. I still have so much more to go, but I just feel like I’m moving in the right direction.”

One crucial thing Jennings has learned is that she doesn’t have to bear the burden of representing trans youth by herself — or maybe more accurately, that she no longer has to. “Definitely in the past I was the only kid or teenager who was transgender and so public,” she says. “But now there’s a lot of different transgender teenagers out there who are sharing their stories. It’s really cool to see that shift, that there’s some new people out there.”

For her next chapter, Jennings may not know exactly what she wants to study or how she wants to continue carrying the torch of trans advocacy. But she does know that she is, finally, not alone. “I’m not the only one who’s trying to make a difference in the world,” she says. “I’m just one person doing what I can to make a difference.