It all began with a ratty 10-year-old magazine I bought off eBay.
My three daughters had just hit the inevitable American Girl doll phase, and so I'd purchased a box of tattered American Girl Magazine back issues from some family in Kansas. Predictably, my girls devoured them, pages flying -- until they came across a story that stopped them in their tracks.
It was the profile of a young horseback rider who was born without half of her arm. In the photographs, the girl sat smiling upon her horse, not necessarily showing off her shorter limb, but not hiding it, either. The accompanying story was one about overcoming adversity and achieving one's dreams.
The photos frightened my precocious then-4-year-old youngest child, who was sitting on the magazine-covered bed with her older sisters finally feeling cool for once. "I don't like that picture," she said matter-of-factly.
I put my arm around her and smiled my best "there's nothing to fear" smile. "But that's the whole point of this story," I said. "This brave little girl is showing you that she's more than just her body -- in fact, her arm has nothing to do with who she truly is. It's important that we see people for their insides and not for their outsides. After all, if you were born with some kind of unusual shape, you wouldn't want other kids to be afraid of you, right?" She nodded and I wondered if she understood.
Months later, I'd have the chance to find out.
I first met Jeanette Jennings, the mother of a transgender child named Jazz, on a community committee tasked with keeping all students safe at school. We became fast friends. Jeanette mentioned that her family was going to be featured on 20/20 with Barbara Walters that week, so of course I raced home to set my DVR.
I wasn't expecting my three girls to walk in while I was watching the segment about transgender children, but in that split second I made the decision not to chase them out of the room. We'll see how much of this goes over their heads, I thought to myself.
"I know that little girl's mom," I announced when the segment broke for commercial. "You DO??" they gasped, equating anyone on television with unattainable prestige. "Yup. Would you like to meet that little girl Jazz? I bet I could arrange it." They nodded like bobbleheads.
"But did you hear what they said in the TV show just now? That Jazz has something special about her? She was born with a boy body. But that doesn't change the girl that she truly is on the inside." They tilted their heads, processing, cocker spaniel-like. "Just like the girl in the horseback riding story, remember? How I told you she's so much more than just the shape of her body? Same with Jazz. Her body got mixed up when she was growing in her mom's belly, and it came out in the shape of a boy, but that body isn't who Jazz is. See?"
There was a tense silence and then all three of my girls said, "OK," and scampered off to whatever they'd been doing.
I sat, DVR still on pause, reflecting on whether I'd said too much. My kids were only 4, 5 and 7, after all. Could they really digest the meaning of transgender, when so many adults cannot?
When I was finally able to introduce Jazz to my girls that spring, the answer to that question became abundantly clear. They gleefully fell in line, following Jazz like ducklings up to her mermaid-adorned room, and it wasn't long before I heard the giggling of four little girls wafting down the hallway. In the back seat as we were driving home that night, they were all atwitter:
"Did you see how cool her clothes were?"
"I loved her long, long hair!"
"I can't wait to make more funny videos next time we see her!"
My husband and I looked at each other and breathed sighs of relief. They got it. Or at least, they got enough of it. I had told them that Jazz was a girl born with a boy body and yet never once did it occur to my girls to refer to Jazz as "he" or "him." They saw Jazz for who she was on the inside: a bubbly, confident, girly girl.
Today, my kids -- now 6, 7, and 9 -- are more than happy to talk about their friend Jazz and explain what transgender means. It doesn't scare them, nor should it. They don't know about sex and they don't need to, because transgender is about who a person IS, not who a person wants to sleep with. They don't know about the stages of hormone blockers or the intricacies of gender reassignment surgery (although I have mentioned that when Jazz is old enough, and if she wants, then a doctor can fix her body so that it better matches the girl she is on the inside), because they don't need to know any of these things.
All my children need to know is that Jazz is a sweet and friendly 13-year-old girl who has the coolest closet of clothes. That, they understand. I hope that soon, more children can too.
I Am Jazz is available beginning September 4.