TLC’s I Am Jazz is one of the most respected reality shows on the air right now. Whereas many programs in the genre are tawdry or exploitative, this one attempts to be both positive and educational. It is, in many ways, a typical look at adolescence. What sets it apart is that its central figure, Jazz Jennings, is a transgender girl.
Each episode follows Jazz, who lives with her parents Greg and Jeanette, and her siblings. One big upside is that viewers actually get to know someone who is trans — if they don’t in real life — and learn about the issues that impact them. Jennings has openly stated her desire to use I Am Jazz to help break down misconceptions and prejudices.
From the time it debuted in July 2015, the program was a big hit. Aside from earning great ratings, it has additionally received widespread critical acclaim. I Am Jazz was even named Outstanding Reality Program at the 27th annual GLAAD Media Awards, which are given out each year to recognize outstanding LGBT representations in the arts.
As open as Jazz and her family are on-air, there are a lot of things you might not know. We’ve got all the behind-the-scenes details that will add to your appreciation of the show and its remarkably brave star.
Here are 15 Secrets Behind I Am Jazz.
15. Jazz’s parents knew she was a girl early on
Although things are starting to change a bit, most people who are transgender don’t begin the full process of transitioning until they are at least of adolescent age. However, most of them will tell you they knew very early on that their assigned gender was not correct.
In the case of Jazz, she knew as a toddler – as did her parents.
Jeanette told ABC News that Jazz “acted like a girl” from the time she was old enough to begin expressing herself. “She liked anything sparkly and pink,” she said. “And she’s so feminine.” Jazz also preferred to wear dresses and would correct her parents when they referred to her as a boy. Her father Greg picked up on it too, although he and his wife didn’t initially understand the full meaning of the signs they were seeing. “We thought it was a phase,” he told the network.
14. Gender Identity Disorder is a psychological condition
Faced with the realization that their biological son indentified as a girl, Greg and Jeanette sought professional answers. They took Jazz to a psychologist, who diagnosed her with Gender Identity Disorder (GID).
What most people don’t realize is that GID is a psychological condition, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the book widely used by psychiatrists and psychologists to identify such disorders. It is marked by “persistent cross-gender identification, persistent discomfort with his or her sex,” and “significant distress or impairment in their life.” Depression and anxiety often accompany it.
Although the exact cause of GID is unknown, current research is moving away from previous theories that some sort of childhood trauma accounted for it. Instead, scientists now believe it is biological, possibly even determined while the individual is still in the womb. It is not, as some people maintain, a “choice.”
13. The heart-breaking dance recital
Once Greg and Jeanette Jennings realized that their biological son identified as a girl, the question became what to do about it. They felt strongly that Jazz should not be made to feel unloved or unaccepted. Their goal was to love her unconditionally. The issue was identifying the appropriate time to allow her to openly live as a girl.
They got their answer after Jazz was not allowed to wear a tutu for a dance recital. Watching her appear so dejected during the performance was all they needed to know that this could not continue. Shortly afterward, at age five, Jazz threw a pool party, and her parents permitted her to wear a girl’s one-piece bathing suit, rather than the traditional boy’s swimming trunks.
12. Jazz’s bathroom issue
Because Jazz’s parents supported her in living as her identified gender from an early age, there was an issue with the elementary school she attended. The administration forbade her from using the girls’ restroom. She obviously did not feel comfortable using the one for boys, which created some strife.
A gender-neutral bathroom was located in the classroom, which was easy. The problem arose when she left that room for special classes like art and gym. Officials suggested she use a private bathroom in the nurse’s office, but this made her feel separated from her peers. She was additionally uncomfortable using that facility, given that she didn’t want to contract whatever sick students in the office had.
11. The Jennings didn’t want to show their faces on camera
If you’ve ever wondered how normal people end up getting their own reality shows, the honest answer is that they’ve often achieved some form of recognition beforehand. In the case of Jazz, veteran reporter Barbara Walters is responsible for first giving her a platform.
Walters and her team were interested in doing a story about transgender children. They needed to interview one, as well as a set of parents. When Jazz came to their attention, they reached out. The Jennings family initially declined, saying they were not certain of whether they wanted to make a private family issue so public.
After about ten months of persistence, Jazz and family agreed to a sit-down, provided they could set the terms.
10. The family doesn’t use their real last name
Even before I Am Jazz went on the air, its central figure was something of a celebrity. Especially in today’s age of social media and tabloid journalism, it’s a difficult decision for parents to do anything that puts their child into the national spotlight, where they might face criticism or ridicule.
Jazz was determined to tell her story, so her parents agreed on a way of offering some protection.
The family decided not to use their real name.
The surname “Jennings” is made up so they can hang on to some small degree of anonymity. “Our last name is a very Jewish, long last name,” Jazz’s mother Jeanette explained to the Miami Herald. “Jennings is our pseudonym, to sort of make life easier. We try to hide our real last name as much as possible.” Using an assumed name also makes it harder for fans or detractors to locate them.
9. A fellow TLC star’s criticism
The TLC network found itself in an awkward situation in the summer of 2017. One of their most popular shows had been 19 Kids and Counting, but it was canceled in the wake of Josh Duggar’s abuse scandal. Still, that was an important show for the channel, helping to establish TLC as a leader in reality programming. It posed a bit of a problem, then, when Derick Dillard — a member of the Duggar family through marriage — publicly slammed I Am Jazz and its young star.
Dillard ranted on social media, writing, “What an oxymoron…a ‘reality’ show which follows a non-reality. Transgender is a myth. Gender is not fluid; it’s ordained by God.” When Jazz’s fans came to her defense, Dillard went even further, referring to Jazz as “him.”
8. An activist group staged a protest
It’s sad to say, but being transgender is “controversial.” There are people in the world who not only don’t understand, but even hate transgender people.
One Million Moms is a right-wing group with a history of opposing TV shows and commercials that offer positive representations of LGBT people. In 2015, they set their sights on I Am Jazz, accusing it of “attempting to desensitize America’s youth” and “attempting to normalize the transgender lifestyle and make it appear OK while using a young cast member to lure a young audience.”
OMM then urged its members to contact Revlon — the cosmetics company that advertised heavily on the show — and demand that they pull their financial support. Although it achieved some publicity, the protest was essentially a failure, as I Am Jazz continued to earn good ratings and entice major advertisers, including Revlon.
7. Paparazzi caught Jazz engaging in suspicious behavior
Without a doubt, one of the biggest downsides to being a celebrity is the invasion of privacy that comes with it. Members of the paparazzi are known to stake out famous people, snapping and selling pictures of whatever they’re doing, especially if it appears at all salacious. Jazz has been no stranger to that, and it led to one embarrassing moment.
In late 2017, a photographer got pictures of her approaching a car, handing money to the man standing beside it, and receiving what appeared to be a small bag of marijuana. Of course, she would hardly be the first teenager to try the substance, but the incident did generate enough juice on the gossip sites to divert from the positive messages that Jazz attempts to convey with the show. It also put a small puncture in her overall role model vibe.
6. A hate group targeted Jazz
Jazz’s primary goal is to be a role model for other transgender children, to send them a message that they are okay just as they are. Surprisingly, that’s a message some people don’t want sent.
After the publication of her children’s book, also titled I Am Jazz, she was scheduled to do a reading at a Wisconsin elementary school. The Liberty Council, which has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, got wind of the reading and threatened a federal lawsuit if the event was allowed to proceed. It was their contention that the reading would be damaging to the kids in attendance.
5. Certain scenes are staged for the cameras
One of the universal truths of reality shows is that they’re never 100% real. The actual percentage varies from show to show, with some more fabricated than others. I Am Jazz has been celebrated for being one of the more real programs on the air.
Jazz has acknowledged, however, that certain moments are not entirely authentic.
In her autobiography Being Jazz, she said that scenes around the dinner table are staged to a degree, although it occurs more out of necessity than an intent to deceive the audience. “Any time there’s a scene that’s happening over a meal, you’re not supposed to actually eat,” she wrote. “The sound of the chewing gets picked up by all the microphones and ruins any conversations that are happening. We learned fast that whenever we needed to film a lunch or dinner scene, we’d need to really eat beforehand.”
4. The family has received threats
Because there are many people out there who have prejudices against LGBT individuals, being a transgender person at the center of a nationally-televised TV show can, at times, be like having a target on your back. Rather than simply not watching, some detractors feel the need to lash out.
Jazz and her family have subsequently received death threats. Jeanette told Metro Weekly that the idea that anyone would want to harm a child is unfathomable to her. She even used the word “evil” to describe it. Jeanette said that her daughter also routinely gets “some horrible, horrible comments” on social media and YouTube.
While threats can be scary, Jazz tries to take it in stride. “When I see the hateful comments, I just push them aside,” she said. “Because if they’re going to judge me without understanding who I am, then their opinion isn’t worth it to me.”
3. She battles an eating disorder
I Am Jazz regularly shows the issues that Jazz deals with on a day-to-day basis. Most of them involve being transgender and a teenager, but she has another kind of struggle currently going on in her life. Specifically, she revealed on her YouTube channel that she’s dealing with an eating disorder.
Binge eating is a negative coping skill that involves eating excessive amounts of food, then entering a guilt cycle over it. That guilt leads to more binge eating, creating a spiral that is difficult to escape.
It can be life-threatening if not controlled.
Jazz told her fans that she recognizes the problem, and is now looking to eat healthy and lose weight. The goal is especially important to her, as she was informed by doctors that she’ll need to lose thirty pounds in order to get the bottom surgery she’s been working toward.
2. Transgender kids can have traumatic teen years
One of the debates that I Am Jazz has — intentionally or unintentionally — stirred up is what age is appropriate to allow a child to openly identify as the opposite gender. Some people believe that kids and teenagers are not mature enough to make such a life-changing decision. Others think it’s crucial to encourage them to feel comfortable with themselves from as early an age as possible.
Research has shown that making trans kids go through puberty as their biological gender can be extremely detrimental to their mental health. Having them live a life that fundamentally feels wrong leads to severe depression and anxiety. There is also some evidence that it may be a contributor to taking their own lives — something that is already scarily high among trans teens.
1. Jazz has big plans for her future
At such a young age, Jazz Jennings has already done a lot. She’s the star of a popular TV show. She’s written two books. She’s become a nationally known figure, being named to Time magazine’s 25 Most Influential Teens of 2014. That being the case, what more could she possibly want to accomplish? Actually, there are two major goals she would like to pursue.
Jazz told Paper that she wants to become a filmmaker at some point. “I love films,” she said. “What I love most about them is when you can tell a beautiful story that has a great message behind it that could really teach you something.”
An even bigger goal is motherhood. Jazz has repeatedly talked in interviews about her desire to have children someday. Because she would not be able to carry a child herself, her sister Ari has offered to act as a surrogate.
What’s your favorite part of I Am Jazz? Which episode impacted you the most? Give us your thoughts in the comments.
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