Jazz Jennings, teen boy, shows women how to “woman”

RoleModel

This is a joint post with the brilliant Hypotaxis.

Hey, gals, guess what? This fourteen-year-old boy is a role model for YOU. Yep, you, full-grown-ass women. Meet Jazz Jennings, YOUR ROLE MODEL.

This weekend, we sat a spell to watch an OWN documentary all about our role model. We wanted to know more about this person that we (dykes aged thirty-eight and forty) should look to and strive to emulate.

What we learned is that Jazz Jennings is a kid who likes pink, dresses, makeup and flipping his shiny hair. Jazz is also a kid who refers to himself in third person. “I like being Jazz,” he says, as he reclines in a pink bed awash with plush animals.

Most of what Jazz says sounds forced, coached, even as he spouts off the ubiquitous tropes surrounding transgenderism: “I’m a girl trapped in a boy’s body” and “I have a girl brain.”

Jazz, again, is fourteen. His parents began transing him when he was in preschool, after discovering that he preferred the company of girls and enjoyed wearing his sister’s swimsuit. Jazz himself never speaks of an inner torment, a period of struggle – his transition has been relatively easy, thanks to parents who immediately recognized his effervescence, his fondness for crimson hues as evidence of ladybrain.

What we swiftly deduced: Jazz’s parents, a relatively conservative duo, could not bear the thought of a homosexual son (much less the screamingly flamboyant, Fire-Island-style homosexual Jazz was on the road to becoming), and preferred instead a more “normal” straight daughter.

“Jazz has a girl brain,” the child’s father insists (he also frequently kisses his girlbrained child on the lips – make of that what you will).

“Jazz plays like a girl,” the child’s soccer coach affirms. “She runs daintily.” (No, really. One of the interviewed subjects in the film actually fucking said this.)

And then there’s the nauseatingly emphatic refrain that the kid is a “perfectly normal girl – no different than any other girl.” EXCEPT, of course, for small differences like how Jazz has to go to an endocrinologist to have his measured to determine if he’s yet reached puberty. (We mean, that’s a rite of passage for all girls. We’ll never forget the day out parents took us to the doctor to have our testicles measured.)

At the above doctor’s appointment, it is determined that Jazz has begun puberty. The child is then asked if he would like to start taking puberty blockers. “You don’t want to grow facial hair, do you?” His mother (who also refers to herself as a “transgender mom”) coyly queries her son.

“No,” Jazz says. “I don’t want that.” And so, a child is encouraged to make a permanently life-altering, fertility-destroying, medically unnecessary decision.

Despite the incessant claims that Jazz is “no different from any other girl,” Jazz is acutely aware of his specialness. In fact, his specialness seems to dominate life in this family, practically eclipsing the existence of his three other siblings. Jazz is constantly consulted regarding what he thinks; what he wants – because Jazz’ every word comes from the Burning Gender Bush.

But, the thing is, Jazz isn’t special. Jazz is a kid whose parents, like so many others, believe the lie that conflates biological reality with outward presentation; the lie that posits an individual’s preferences and tastes are intrinsically representative of the preferences and tastes of an entire category of people: female. They also believe the lie that females’ brains are structurally different from male brains – the lie from whence legally-codified misogyny has sprung since the beginning of time.

And this is where we get down to brass tacks. Jazz Jennings, himself, doesn’t really matter. Jazz is just another kid whose parents hock his “specialness” for reality-TV money and some skin care product commercials (he does have great skin, probably from the hormone blockers). What matters is what we can learn from this kid who’s been shoved into public view – and it’s not a lesson about bravery, or being “the real me” – rather, it’s a lesson in how hopelessly steeped in misogyny our culture still is.

As we watched the trainwreck of Jazz, we speculated about what might be a truly progressive way to work with and nurture a kid like him. Let him wear dresses and makeup, we decided. Let him grow his hair long, and hang out with girls and have crushes on boys. Be a good, vigilant parent and make sure no one is bullying your son for wearing his dresses and makeup and long hair to school.

And while you’re doing that, afford that kid a modicum of reality – let him be okay as a male, let him be okay with his body and his biology. Help him be part of a world where a boy can wear dresses if he wants, where a boy can drench his bedroom in pink if he likes, and still be what he is – a boy. A perfectly healthy, loveable little boy who likes things that our fucked up, narrow-minded, patriarchal society has deemed “abnormal” for him to like. And, when he grows from a boy into a man, let him fall in love with normal gay men who might love him back – not people who will simply fetishize him.

The progressive response to a kid like Jazz is NOT to conclude he has a “girl brain” but to accept that as individual human beings our inclinations do in fact vary, and that those variances have precious little to do with our biology. That approach might create a real cultural shift. That approach might take a sledgehammer to regressive notions of gender. Because if a male – a perfectly normal male – can pursue interests that have previously been deemed exclusively “female,” then we really have scrambled gender, really turned it on its head.

People like Jazz’s parents, people who believe in and perpetuate the tenets of transgenderism are the same people who – albeit inadvertently – cause problems for women like us. In a gendered sense, we don’t “do woman” very well. When we’re in rural areas, buying gas, we get stares because we’re not women “doing woman” the way we ought to. The butch-er one of us would probably make folks in some areas more comfortable if she’d just transition. A little facial hair might ward off some looks.

Because that’s gender – it’s not a spectrum, it’s a dichotomy.

Gender isn’t designed to be a playground of special identities – it’s a system that categorizes males and a female based on social/cultural conventions; then subjugates women while exalting men. The system that facilitates rape and honor killings is the same system that says a little boy can’t enjoy wearing a colorful swimsuit without requiring extreme medical intervention. This system says it’s better to medicate and mutilate your male child than have him be a homosexual boy who likes stereotypically “feminine” behaviors and interests. That’s how Iran does it, right? Better he be a girl than challenge repressive gender norms in a way that could, potentially, upend patriarchy. Better he appear on TV and condescend to girls (and full-grown-ass women) how to “be themselves.”

Masculinity and femininity are both bullshit notions. What is deemed masculine, what is deemed feminine – these are nothing but human behaviors. Males can be highly emotional but we’ve filed “emotional” underneath “feminine” so as to trivialize it. Males can like sparkly pink skirts and lipstick, but because we’ve relegated this aesthetic to the realm of the feminine, it is deemed “silly” and “prissy.” We equate femininity, and its coded behaviors and preferences, with weakness and frivolity – and yet, women (and only women) are supposed to be subsumed by these matters. When they show themselves subsumed (because how else to garner male approval in the hierarchical structure of gender?) we delude ourselves into believing that this is a natural state: Women are silly, trivial, frivolous, petty.

Conversely, females can be physically strong (watch any female Olympic lifter, martial artist, or gymnast) but we’ve relegated physical prowess and powerful musculature to the realm of the masculine. Females can be interested in auto mechanics. Females can be highly logical, a quality gender ascribes to the realm of the masculine. Females can also be serious and stoic. And none of these characteristics have jack shit to do with our DNA; our physical, biological reality.

What we do, as a society, when females and males blur these lines, employ behaviors, or follow interests that do not “fit” with the category their biological sex has socially placed them in, is we label them “anomalies” or “transgender.” We claim we can “fix” the male child who wants to grow out his hair and wear his sister’s sundress. We claim the butch dyke who likes tinkering with cars probably has a male brain. We work really hard, and the medical community is fully on board, to preserve gender norms. And transgenderism is a way of preserving gender norms and calling the oppressive mandate “subversive.”

Do we believe that some folks feel better, more comfortable, more “at home” in their bodies by presenting as women when they were born male? Yes, of course. And we support individuals’ decisions to present in a way that feels most “right” to them – but we do not, and will not, buy into a belief in “girl brains.” The very idea of “girl brains” is nothing more than a form of eugenics that’s been used against women (and racial/ethnic minorities) for many centuries in order to deprive us of bodily autonomy, education, votes, and anything else a human needs and wants to enjoy full humanity.

Nor do we believe that it is moral, ethical, or in the best interests of a child to medically alter his or her perfectly healthy body in order to make our sexist, misogynist society feel more comfortable with who that child is. Nor do we believe that swallowing large amounts of synthetic hormones MAKES one female or male, and we think selling that lie to a child is most pernicious because it denies a developing human being the opportunity to weigh her/his options as an adult with adult reasoning/critical thinking skills. It denies a developing human being the opportunity to know reality – i.e. biology.

And, at the end of the day, it hurts girls – you know, actual female children. In the documentary about Jazz, the child’s father laments that his daughter (son) cannot play on the girls’ soccer team at school. The child’s father CRIES (seriously) when discussing the grave injustice of a male-bodied person not being able to play on a girls’ sports team. (Especially when he runs so daintily!)

We encounter real problems when we sacrifice basic biological knowledge at the altar of special identities/feelings/and gender – e.g., biologically, boys and girls develop differently. Like, our bodies are actually different. And, particularly in adolescence, boys have a distinct physical advantage over girls. And athletics have, historically, been a great way for girls to gain access to college scholarships, as well as to develop healthy relationships with their bodies. Now, of course, in order to placate the feelings (delusions) of boy children, girls will be made to compete with male-bodied persons in the field of athletics, placing them at a disadvantage.

But this is what gender always does; this is what gender is meant to do – put females at a disadvantage in all things. Our needs, our feelings as females do not really matter. What matters is that we do what girl-brained people are supposed to do, shut up and suck it up, and accept the version of reality that’s being sold to us – even when it doesn’t make any fucking sense.

In the documentary about Jazz, no hard questions were asked of the child’s parents. Like, “what does it mean to have a girl brain?” Or, “Do you have any qualms about delaying your child’s normal growth when we don’t understand what the long-term ramifications of that decision might be?” Instead, the entire scenario was presented as “adorable” and “inspiring.” It’s adorable to delude your male child into believing he’s female. It’s adorable to pump a healthy, pre-pubescent body full of chemicals. It’s adorable to interpret meaningless penchants as biological imperatives. It’s inspiring when a child’s every whim is indulged. It’s inspiring when children emulate the repressive gender stereotypes laid out for them by the society in which they live.

But no one challenges the transgender line of thinking, because transgenderism is comfortable; transgenderism challenges nothing about the dominant gender paradigm, or the hierarchical structure that positions women on the bottom of everything. And those of us who dare ask meaningful questions about where all of this leads are slurred, villified, de-platformed.

The adults encouraging Jazz’ transition, though, are all presented as white gender knights. In one scene toward the end of the documentary, Jazz’ mother brings him to speak on a university panel. The only minor in attendance, Jazz is surrounded by grown-ass trans people who, frankly, look and sound pretty miserable. They all tell Jazz how lucky he is, and how happy he’ll be that he began transitioning early. This is the only time Jazz drops his confident, shiny-haired posing and looks like what he actually is – a scared little boy. He cowers toward his mother, and doesn’t have much to say except, “I want boobs.”

At the end of the panel, one of the transwomen wraps Jazz in a long hug and says, “I’ll trade you my boobs for your hair.”

How is this anything but skin-crawlingly weird?

So we hope, for Jazz’s sake, that the kid turns out all right, that the world is kind to him, and that he doesn’t grow to resent the bullshit line he’s been sold about “girl brains” and “boy brains,” that he doesn’t have to shoulder the profound burden of regret created by what his parents, the medical community, and the adults around him did to his perfectly normal body when he was still a child.

Sadly, however, we’re positioned as a society to only see more stories like Jazz’s – where parents apply gender dogma to their children’s behavior, and allow their firm (albeit erroneous) convictions about what “girls do” and what “boys do” to justify wreaking havoc on their children’s minds and bodies.

As for females, the consequences of continuing to perpetuate the lie of ladybrain will be increasingly devastating – as we make room for males who believe our lives are nothing more than a hunch; a feeling in a man’s head; we can say goodbye to women’s colleges, women’s sports, women’s clinics. As an understanding of reality becomes synonymous with bigotry, we will part with all language and art that allowed us to address, deconstruct, express and celebrate our lived female experience. Our feminist folk heroes will be grown men, our role models adolescent boys.

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On Planet Fitness and the question of judgment

My parents worked hard to instill good judgment in me, because kids are born with no judgment at all: I will put this dead bug in my mouth! I refuse to wear a jacket in winter! Watch me climb up on the roof and jump off into a pile of sofa pillows I have arranged on the lawn for this purpose!

Judgment – a complex function of the brain’s frontal lobe that includes risk assessment, long-range planning, the determination of similarities and differences between things and events, and an understanding of future consequences resulting from present actions – doesn’t fully develop in humans until our mid-20s. Remember the crazy noises AOL made when you tried to get online in 1997? How you couldn’t be on the phone AND the Internet at the same time? That’s what we’re like! Attempting to connect. Page loading. Page failed to load.

Good judgment is a sign of intelligence, character and maturity. That’s why I’m baffled by Planet Fitness’ “No Judgment” policy, which is all over the news this week: A female member got booted from the gym after taking issue with a full-grown male body in the women’s locker room.

As a veteran of 25 years in various and sundry gyms, I think the “No Judgment” policy sprung from a good intention: Eyes on your own workout; don’t comment on other people’s bodies. You’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) at how free some people, usually men, are with their opinions of strangers’ physiques and techniques. Men like to step in and correct your form, or tell you that what you’re doing will make you “bulky.” I’m all for a policy addressing this. Buzz off, dude. Go do some squats at the curl rack.

But what Planet Fitness seems to mean by “No Judgment” is: “Don’t judge the unclothed male body next to you in the women’s locker room as ‘male.’ If he says he’s a woman, accept it and keep your mouth shut.”

I assume the reverse would be true – an unclothed, female-bodied person identifying as male – a trans man – could change in the men’s locker room at Planet Fitness. If that happens, how do you think the men in there will react? Do you think they’ll just go along with it? If one of them complains, do you think he’ll be called a piece-of-shit bigot? And if he IS called a bigot, do you think he’ll internalize it or feel guilty for even one second?

The right-wing news is all over the Planet Fitness story, gleefully lumping all lesbians and gays in with those who believe that male-bodied individuals should have access to female spaces whenever their feelings demand it. This story is being used as evidence of what non-heterosexual people want; what we do and what we believe. This troubles me: I don’t wish to be lumped in. I’m not on board with this, because I have a well-developed sense of judgment informing my opinion: It’s not OK for male genitalia to be bopping around in women and girls’ private space. Public-accomodations laws must be followed, but this isn’t the right way.

I’m not afraid of penii. Seen plenty. No pearls to clutch here. I’m not concerned about being raped in the locker room, either. I can squat 1.5x my bodyweight and I’ve got nice sharp teeth, so if you touch me I’ll make you sorry.

Thanks to a combination of vigilance, circumstances, and sheer luck, I’ve never experienced sexual violence. I’m not elderly; I’m not frail; I’m not a young girl; I’m not a survivor of rape or abuse. Not every woman can say all this, though, and I can’t speak for them.

Neither can Planet Fitness. Or anyone else.

The world isn’t a safe, comfy Gender Studies class where we get to sit around and discuss our preferred pronouns at leisure. Most women who live in the real world aren’t inclined to obsessively parse the question, “What is a woman, really, you know?” It’s straightforward: They don’t want penises in the locker room. They shouldn’t have to defend their reasons why. A woman who does see a penis in the locker room ought to be allowed to freak out and ask questions later without being pilloried as a bigoted asshole.

I’m keeping my judgment, and women, I support yours. Our judgment – built and honed by all our lived and learned experience – is our most valuable asset. Whether that judgement tells us to stand our ground or run away, it’s more vital to our well-being than our heaviest squat or our longest set of pull-ups.

 

P.S.: Planet Fitness is a terrible gym. There’s a reason it’s $10 a month. Go to Gold’s, seriously.

P.P.S. Feminist at Sea has written a great piece on this. Read it here.