As protests for the Black Lives Matter movement coincide with Pride Month, the significance of two marginalized communities and their allies coming together in the ongoing fight for human rights is not to be overlooked. Now more than ever, the stories of black and brown LGBTQ+ people and families must be amplified and celebrated, as theirs are the voices at the forefront of lasting change.
We spoke to activist, author, and mother of five Jodie Patterson about her experience getting to know her trans son, the LGBTQ+ community, and, in the process, herself.
You have a transgender son, and your family’s transformation alongside him was the inspiration behind your memoir The Bold World. Was there a specific ‘A-ha’ moment where you realized that experience needed to be written and shared as a book?
I was going through it much of it in real time and trying to piece it all together – the book was sort of written just getting through the tunnel and then stepping into the light, so it was still really fresh in my mind and in my heart and I still am working a lot of it out. At 2, my child said ‘I’m not a girl, I’m a boy.’ So there were several years of trying to understand what that meant. Not knowing the language, not understanding it, not knowing of real trans stories. I had seen the way the media portrayed it, I had seen some devastating documentaries like ‘Paris Is Burning.’ I knew of Caitlyn Jenner, I knew of Jazz Jennings… but I didn’t really know intimate stories of families like ours. In particular, I didn’t know stories of black families with Southern upbringing, who came out of HBCU schools, dealing with trans kids and so I took several years after Penel told me ‘I’m a boy, Mama’ to really understand what that meant.
I listened, I watched. I opened up my social groups, I went to so many [trans] conferences all over the country. I sat in on groups of parents talking about raising trans kids, and I realized I knew so little. So this was like years of understanding, when I knew that I didn’t understand anything. I was spending not one year but two years and three years really at the bottom of the knowledge level… And so as I was acquiring so much information and I thought to myself that this is ridiculous I thought I was a pretty informed mom, I thought I was a smart person, but I knew nothing of my own child’s life, and millions of other people’s lives. So as I was seeing how much I didn’t know, because the more you, you start to learn you realize there’s so much I don’t know. And then I wanted to share that. I started sharing it in articles, and at the dinner table, and then at conferences, giving keynotes. But as I, I’ve always been a writer and so I was always notating and keeping intense journal entries. And then there was one summer when it kept brewing, all the things in my head and all of the articles and all of the conversations and it was like spilling out of my mouth and my head. And there wasn’t a moment that I wasn’t speaking about it, and it became a bit overwhelming to my other kids… I wrote the outline of the entire book one summer. I had outlined all the chapters I wrote several chapters I drafted a proposal and come fall I just started looking for an agent.
But I think it wasn’t one moment. It was really more like a swelling. And that’s what we see now. What you’re seeing in the moment is not from one moment. What we’re seeing with George Floyd is years and a culmination and an earth swelling and domino effect of so many moments that have not been articulated. That have not been heard. And so I wrote the book in the same sense, that Penelope had not been heard. The parent of a trans person had not been articulated so the LGBT story, the woman’s story, the black story, for me I thought this was a story that has to be shared in print. Because a lot of times, our stories are oral history. If you look at the history of women, the history of blacks, the history of LGBT folks, it’s been relegated to oral history. And the institutions haven’t captured it and I wanted to capture the story, in print.
The Bold World goes back in time to the world you grew up in, exploring the ways in which it hadn’t prepared you for the needs of your son. How have you created a home and community environment for your family that embraces diversity and inclusivity, and inspires your kids to take those values and use them to transform the world we live in?
At first, when I realized Penelope was a boy, I thought ‘I’m not prepared for this.’ I thought to myself, ‘How can I raise this child who is so different? How can I raise this child who’s confused?’ Which is understandable, because the entire society tells us that trans people and black trans people are crazy and dangerous. And so, what flooded into my head was doubt – ‘I’m not prepared for this. Who’s going to love Penelope? Who’s going to hurt Penelope? Who’s going to hurt us? How are we going to even survive this?’ And I didn’t think I had the tools to handle it. And that’s because I was isolating trans from everything else. I thought it was a unique experience, I thought it was a singular experience that happened in some ‘Trans World.’ I thought my family hadn’t prepared me for it and so what I did was I went back in time and really examined my family. And what I found, what I remembered, and what I was able to document was how much of a revolutionary family we are. I was raised by revolutionaries. Gil Scott Heron who wrote ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,’ he’s a very prolific musician and my uncle. My grandmother ran the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina. My father focused on economic revolution and had the first black brokerage firm on Wall Street. My mom focused her revolution in education, she opened a black private school in Harlem in the 70s. I was raised by revolutionaries and I was raised by change makers and I had to really look at what they did for civil liberties. And then I had to remember that that can be applied to any civil liberty, to all people. So when I looked at the way I was raised, I realized I was very well equipped.
My family brought us up with the understanding that people have to see themselves in the broad context, not only black people in America, but black people, brown people all over the world need to think about themselves collectively. And then now as a mother, raising a trans child and another gender nonconforming child – I have five children, two of them are gender nonconforming – I decided to open my community. I’m not only in the black community, I’m also in the LGBT community, and then anyone who’s down with women’s rights. I mean my community is so strong right now and so broad. And I try to teach to my children that if the community you’re in is not strong enough to reflect your needs, broaden it. And I learned that from my parents. So I would say where at first I thought that being black and of southern roots had not prepared me for raising a trans child, I would now say being black, being raised in the 70s, understanding self-determination, understanding collective unity, understanding revolution and transformation, all concepts that black people have used throughout the centuries to raise themselves up. I use those now with my son and with all my children.
You have a children’s book coming out – Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope. Why was it important to you to write a story about gender identity that is specifically for children and their families to engage with?
When I first wrote the book The Bold World, it was my story. It wasn’t telling Penel’s story or anyone else’s story, it was really my story – this cisgender older woman and my transformation. How I went from not knowing to knowing, how I went from small to much larger, how my vision changed, my language changed. And that first book was really a book about a woman’s. Many people thought it was gonna be a book about Penelope – I had people writing to me all the time saying ‘I can’t wait to share The Bold World with my four year old.’ And there bits and pieces of course that you can share with all ages, but I wanted to have a book that was for the mom who was trying to raise her children with a broader perspective, I wanted to write a book that was for the father who needed language to speak to his kids about trans kids. Whether you have a trans kid or not, it’s something that we have to talk about and if we’re not talking about it, we’re not really talking to our kids.
So I sat down to write this story from the eyes and the perspective of Penelope. And in order to do that I had to sit with Penelope, I had to sit with Penelope’s siblings and get the language right, get the moments right. The visual even had to be run past my kids because this was not my perspective, per se, this is Penelope’s perspective. I think it’s important for parents to have tools to use in the most intimate moments at the dinner table at, bedtime, bath time. Tools for parents to raise children that embrace all life. Many parents feel ill equipped to this time, and so, little things like a kid’s book or watching another mother do it can give us much more confidence. So I’m hoping that the book will be shared all over with all kinds of families to not only share what my family looks like, but also to give parents, the confidence to raise children to change the world.
While there’s still a lot of work ahead, we’ve been moved by how much of the country has come together in support of the black lives matter movement. Black LGBTQ+ lives are a very big part of that movement, and need to be protected and lifted up. Are there any organizations you are particularly passionate about that support the black LGBTQ+ community specifically?
One is based in New York, called the Ackerman Institute’s Gender and Family Project, which helps families of trans and non binary children, and the most marginalized are black and brown families. The Ackerman Institute’s Gender and Family Project, not only does it work with the families but it also trains institutions and schools and cultural institutions and corporations to be more understanding and supportive of trans lives. When you live in New York, it is so apparent that the world is black and brown and everything else in between, and so that organization does a lot for black and brown trans families.
Another organization that is a bit broader is the Human Rights Campaign, which is based in DC, but it’s a national organization. I sit as the chair of the board for that organization. We’re the largest human rights LGBT organization in the world. Our work is both political, so we’re lobbying getting officials elected that are pro-equality, lobbying against officials who are not. And we also do work within specific communities, so the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). We have a program in the deep south for black men living with AIDS. We have faith based communities. But historically HRC in general has been focused on white gay men, and over the years as everyone’s consciousness has changed and shifted, HRC has broadened its focus. And then most recently, with our new president who’s our first black male president, and myself as the first chair of the board, we have a heightened sense for Black Lives.
Recent events are proving that change is coming and unstoppable. Can you describe the world you hope is waiting for your children once they’ve become adults?
When you’re a mom, right now, you really just thinking about this moment. Like right today, trying to make sure that your kids have a good day – one day, each day is good. And by good I mean some moments of laughter and joy, by good I mean able to finish up your studies, by good I mean eating a meal, and by good I mean coming home at the end of the day and going to sleep. That’s a good day right now for most parents of children… And this idea of what do we want for the future? You know I have to pull myself out of this moment and think – well, I want some very basic things that moms want. I want my kids to be safe. I want my kids to be seen, and recognized. I want my children to not have to alter anything, not a smile to make people feel comfortable with their presence, to not have to lower their voices so that they’re not misunderstood on the streets. I want my kids to be able to walk into any town, and just be who they are, at any moment in the store.
I had to tell my kids the other day, we were in another town that was small and very white – we were the only black people pulling up into this town. And I told my kids ‘Look, when we get out of the car, it’s a very quiet town. Keep to yourselves, lower your level a little bit.’ But when I said a quiet town, I meant white and I meant dangerous and I meant they might not see you the way I know you. And I’ve never said that to my kids before, I’ve never told them to dim themselves for safety. This was the first time I had ever said it to my children and it felt horrible. And so as a mom I want my kids to be able to move in this world of freedom. I want my kids to be able to educate themselves as far as they want to be, uncovering new information all the time for the rest of their lives like investigators of life, explorers of life. I want for our children to have access to health… I want policies to reflect what most mothers intrinsically know.
What is your wish for parents of LGBTQ+ children, especially those who still have a lot of learning to do about what it means to truly support their child?
I took this path which Malcolm Gladwell suggested, which is 10,000 hours of studying anything and you’ll become an expert. And so I said ‘10,000 hours to my child. 10,000 hours to LGBT trans lives.’ And I read and I read, and I talked and I listened, and I asked questions and I wrote things down. 10,000 hours of just diving deep into what does it mean to be trans. What does gender mean, how is it determined, how do we support it? All of the questions we have, I spent 10,000 hours on them and it gave me such a different understanding of not my kid, not only the millions of trans people that exist, but also myself, because when you really dig into this about gender identity and being trans or being cis, what you end up realizing is we are literally just talking about the human phenomenon. The more you ask about this, the more you realize it is a human experience.
It doesn’t require 10,000 hours, I just geeked out on Malcolm Gladwell and did that. But what I thought was 10,000 hours – try 10 minutes with my son and you will get the basic understanding of what it means to be trans, and what it means to be trans is the same thing as what it means to be human. And then if you want to you can superimpose all this shit that people have imposed on them, but that’s not who Penelope is. So, the thing that I say to parents is spend the time with your child. Find out, start listing all of the great things, all the great aspects of your child. Write them down in a book. Get to know your child quietly, with no distraction. Then, take it one step further and get to know other parents with trans kids. So that you realize your child is not the only trans person in the world and then get to know and embrace that community. And then embrace that community and into that community. And then realize, with the strength of that community, you are actually fighting for human rights. And then release that information to the world because the real change happens when you realize you’re among among millions of phenomenal people.
Do you and your family have anything planned for Pride this month?
Unfortunately, my children are not going to be with me for this month. We’ll probably do our zooms, maybe we’ll need our book Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope, maybe we’ll read that together over the phone. We’ll definitely be watching protests, we’ll definitely be watching some speeches together. I can’t tell you what my kids are going to do right now because the last thing I want to do is force my kids to do anything right now, but what I’m gonna do as an activist and as an adult and as a mom is I look at and I listen to revolutionaries that have come before, like James Baldwin. And I apply what they’re saying to the experiences of my family and then I translate that into what is just revolution across all platforms… We have to understand that they have to be interconnected, they’ve always been interconnected and we can take from black culture to help us with the LGBT movement. Yeah. And we can look at the LGBT movement and understand that that community will support Black Lives Matter. So what I am doing for Pride month, is what I’m doing just as a black person, every freaking day.
Jodie Patterson’s Reading List:
- The Bold World – Jodie Patterson
- The Cross of Redemption – James Baldwin
- Difficult Women – Roxanne Gay
- Long Way Down – Jason Renyolds
For children & families:
- Julián Is A Mermaid – Jessica Love
- I Am Enough – Grace Byers
- Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope – Jodie Patterson (coming soon)
- Corduroy – Don Freeman
- Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti – Gerald McDermott
Jodie Patterson is a social activist, entrepreneur, writer, and author of The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation. She has been lauded for her activist work by Hillary Clinton, The Advocate, Family Circle, Essence, Cosmopolitan, and Yahoo!, among others. She sits on the board of a number of gender/family/human rights organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, and is a sought-after public speaker addressing a wide range of audiences about identity, gender, beauty, and entrepreneurship. Patterson was appointed by the United Nations as a Champion of Change and, perhaps most impressively, she is a former circus acrobat who performed in the Big Apple Circus. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she co-parents her five children with love, education, and family solidarity.