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Jazz Jennings: Swimming Upstream

Jazz Jennings always knew exactly who she was. Even when people excluded or bullied her, she stood up for transgender children like herself. Today, this brave, determined woman uses her voice to advocate for equality and respect for all.

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This story was produced by Olivia Riçhard with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Nicole Haroutunian and edited by Abby Sher. Narration by Anjali Kunapaneni. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!


This was the moment of truth.

Twelve-year-old Jazz Jennings held an airbrush nozzle in her hand, loaded with blue paint. In front of her was a project she’d been working on for a long, long time—maybe, in a way, her entire life. It was beautiful…it was colorful…It was…a mermaid tail!

Four years earlier, Jazz was at a theme park where performers whirled, twirled, and swam as mermaids. Her family had to hold her back from joining them! Something about those mermaids called out to Jazz. As a young girl growing up transgender, she felt like she and these magical mermaids had a special connection.

After leaving the park, she could not stop thinking about them. She started researching about mermaids and learned that there were lots of other transgender people just like her who felt the same way. Mermaids were a popular symbol of hope, joy and freedom.

So Jazz constructed a life-sized tail of her own, carving each scale with the help of her best friend. It took a long time, but here she was, putting the finishing touches on her spectacular creation. Once the paint dried, Jazz wriggled into her tail, the vibrant colors cascading behind her. It was a perfect fit!

She dove into the water gleefully. She whirled, twirled and swam, her long hair flowing. Jazz kicked her tail with strength, determination, and purpose. Thrilled to be uniquely herself.

Jazz was herself from day one. You see, a lot of people think there are just two genders — female and male. This is called the gender binary and many people use it to define how they act and treat others. Jazz stepped out of the gender binary box when she was a toddler. She knew that no matter what she looked like on the outside, in her heart, she was a girl. So she asked her mom when the good fairy was going to change her body to reflect how she wanted to feel.

Jazz’s mom realized their family couldn’t ignore what Jazz was saying. Together, they started a conversation about what it meant for Jazz to be a transgender girl.

Gender identity is about more than just what a person looks like physically though. It’s about how a person feels on the inside. Sometimes a person’s gender identity is different from how adults, parents, or even doctors might see them.

Even though Jazz had a very supportive family, she dealt with a lot of discrimination. For instance, Jazz loved soccer and being part of a team. She felt so strong and free during practice. But, come game time, she was benched — not because she wasn’t skilled enough or there wasn’t room for her on the field. She was banned from playing matches on the girls’ team because she was transgender!

It was the same story at school…but with the bathroom. Her school wouldn’t acknowledge that Jazz was a girl or let her use the girls’ bathroom. She was so frustrated and hurt. And…she had to pee! We all do, right? But Jazz had to hold it in…. the whole school day, tapping her toes and waiting for the bell to ring so she could rush home where she was truly accepted for who she was.

Many people wanted to help Jazz share her story. When she was approached about interviews, and then asked to film a reality TV show, she and her family had to think long and hard about whether to let cameras into their lives. Jazz was a private person. At the same time, she was very proud of who she was. So…she decided to go for it!

I Am Jazz began filming when she was fourteen. Her house was filled with a bustling crew, microphones bobbing overhead, and hot, bright lights. It was surreal! But soon, the crew became friends and the cameras faded into the background. Jazz wanted to show her triumphs and her struggles. In the first season, there was an episode about her battle to play girls’ soccer. She’d been able to get the rules changed, benefiting a lot of other kids, but the fight wasn’t over. I Am Jazz showed that Jazz was a kid who loved art, mermaids, and hanging out with her friends and family. It also highlighted some of the discrimination transgender kids face in sports, at school, and in the world in general.

Jazz also collaborated to write a book for kids about her life. She hoped her story would help trans kids know that they are special and beautiful, and to help others see that as well. She was elated to see her book in stores and on library shelves. But, because of their own fear and prejudice, some grown-ups wanted to stop kids from reading it. Jazz’s book was put on a list of banned and challenged books.

Jazz worked hard to find the bright side, saying, Making the list is both disappointing and honorable…It’s another stepping stone towards creating equality and ensuring that all people are respected and treated as equals, even those who are different.”

Today, Jazz has had surgeries to help her feel more at peace with her body — a process she talks openly about on her show. She’s also an advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community, a student at Harvard University, and a Human Rights Campaign youth ambassador for trans equity, which is a tremendous honor. She and her family run an organization called TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation that helps educate people about gender identity. The website is decorated with—you guessed it!—mermaids.

Because Jazz can still remember what it felt like the first time she dove into the water in her mermaid tail. She felt fierce and free, alive and evolving — rebel through and through! And she wants anyone and everyone to feel that way too.