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Jodie Patterson Encourages Black Moms To Boldly Accept Their Children For Who They Are

As the mother of a trans son, this author/activist walks us through her process of radical acceptance.

Motherhood

Shockwaves rippled through the Black community last spring when actress Gabrielle Union and her husband, retired basketball star Dwyane Wade, were spotted rallying around their daughter Zaya, as their parade float rode through Miami's annual pride event. At the time, the world knew Zaya as Zion. Over the next few months, we gained insight into Zaya's full story as she revealed her true essence to the public with the vocal support of her parents lighting her path. The Wades were framed as the standard for modern day Black familial acceptance by some, and condemned as blasphemers to those with hateful homophobic and transphobic ideologies.

Although celebrity tends to take up space in identity narratives, there are millions of families like the Wades all over this country. Social activist, entrepreneur and author Jodie Patterson is a proud member of this cohort. Her son, Penelope, told Patterson that he was a boy at 3 years old. Since that moment, the mom of five has worked relentlessly as an advocate for trans people and their families.

xoNecole spoke to Patterson about her family, the Black community, and why we have to adjust our language and understanding of gender to ensure the health and happiness of current and future generations of Black children.

xoNecole: There was uproar in our communities when Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade expressed support for their trans daughter, Zaya Wade. Why do you think Black people can be so resistant to parents accepting their kid for who they are?

Jodie Patterson: The time that I spent looking at it and thinking about it, it's not our people--it's just people. I think people have a harder time changing from one pattern to the next. I think people have a hard time going outside of their perspectives. But Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade and my family and millions of families are seeing our old habits no longer apply. The language we use around 'he' or 'she' and the associations we put to 'he' and 'she' no longer apply. And particularly, they don't apply to our children. Our children are asking us to see things differently, to say things differently, to live differently. And if we don't, if we aren't flexible like Gabrielle and Dwyane and others, we just we won't be with our children. We just won't be with our kids anymore.

What constructs of this adjustment did you personally battle with? Were there any beliefs you had to undo? 

In my family, girls and boys have always done great things. Women have run businesses. Men have raised children. We are all very involved in our families and in our economic strength and in our community. But underlying underneath that there were certain biases that I held. You know? I was speaking to my girls in one way, and I was talking to my boys with a sterner voice. I was buying butterfly diapers for my daughter, and I was buying superhero diapers for my son. I had to not only change my language, but change the way I interacted with the world. I had to let all of my children experience all of life. And when I started doing that, I had to do the same thing because I realized I was holding myself back. I was trying to think of what a good woman should do--what a responsible wife was supposed to be saying and what a 50-year-old woman looked like. And in reality, I want to do everything in life. Not just the things carved out for 50-year-old women. So like this whole bias and all of the breaking down of barriers and constructs, it doesn't just apply to my trans kid it applied to all of my children and to myself and to the world.

Courtesy of Jodie Patterson

"I had to not only change my language, but change the way I interacted with the world. I had to let all of my children experience all of life. And when I started doing that, I had to do the same thing because I realized I was holding myself back. I was trying to think of what a good woman should do--what a responsible wife was supposed to be saying and what a 50-year-old woman looked like. And in reality, I want to do everything in life. Not just the things carved out for 50-year-old women."

How did you shield your child from feeling uneasy if you were uneasy or unsure about any of it?

It's difficult and tricky to figure out what to share with your children and what not to share, and then what to share with the world and what not to share. Like my life seems very open on social media, but not everything is expressed in the moment. Sometimes I take a step back to be quiet, to process, put it in perspective, to sort it out in my own brain and in my own heart, and then I start to share with my kids or with the world.

How did your husband react at the time? Were there any quarrels you all had to resolve as a couple to be on the same page for what raising Penelope looked like?

We were on the same page in love. The reason why I married him was because we all believed in family so deeply. But we weren't always on the same page. I wanted to go really fast. I wanted to be public. I wanted to share with everyone I knew. Dad was very respectful of the questions he still had, and what he wants, but much slower. It took us some time to find a middle ground. Our relationship didn't last as a couple, but the family structure around our children was never broken, ever. And it didn't break. You know, the fact that Penelope is transgender absolutely wasn't going to break us as a family.

Did you have your own “mourning” process? I’ve heard some folks describe accepting their child/partner’s trans identity felt like a loss to who they thought they were in some ways?

I know that that is a reality for many people. But I would say I did not experience any loss. In fact, we've never taken down pictures. Penelope never wanted to change his name. In fact, he said, "Why would I change my name? That's my grandmother's name, and I love her." I mourn some of the time that I hadn't understood. I mourn some of the time that I was confused; I mourn the time when I just wasn't getting it.

Courtesy of Jodie Patterson

"Penelope never wanted to change his name. In fact, he said, 'Why would I change my name? That's my grandmother's name, and I love her.' I mourn some of the time that I hadn't understood. I mourn some of the time that I was confused; I mourn the time when I just wasn't getting it."

You said there were behavioral differences in Penelope before he explained he was a boy. Is there any behavior you would advise parents to look out for in case their child can’t articulate how they are feeling yet?

We should ask ourselves, what is our child rejecting? Because Penelope would stomp on a dress and grab and reach for [his] brother's pants or brother's shirt. Penelope would throw the pink toothbrush out in the bathroom and pick up [his] brother's Spiderman toothbrush. So look for disruption. Look for anger. Look for bullying. Penelope had actually become a bully--pushing kids and pushing siblings around, really an angry kid. Well, he was angry with the place that we were putting Penelope in.

You had a Ted Talk called “Gender Is Obsolete”. How do you talk to people who still hold the belief that anatomy and gender are one and the same? 

There's no amount of talking I can do or sharing I can do if the individual doesn't take one step in, one step on their own, to do some basic research. The basic research shows that scientifically that gender is not found in our anatomy. So even without my womb, I'm a woman--even without my breasts, even without my fallopian tubes, I'm a woman. And so when we look at the science around identity, it is in the brain. Identity is formed in the brain, not with trans people or certain people, but for all people. My identity is not in my vagina. So that's awesome.

"Even without my womb, I'm a woman--even without my breasts, even without my fallopian tubes, I'm a woman. And so when we look at the science around identity, it is in the brain. Identity is formed in the brain, not with trans people or certain people, but for all people. My identity is not in my vagina."

What advice would you give to soon-to-be mothers about labeling their child “boy” or "girl” before birth? Would you have done anything differently?

If what we think about our children turns out to be inaccurate, just shift. It's OK. Think about, "How flexible can I be? How flexible is my mind?" We have African naming ceremonies, like my children's father is from Ghana, and we did African naming ceremonies for each one. And there is a lot of that that I would do again and again and again if I could have my children again. And we would do some of the same ceremonies and rituals. And then, if it came to a point when it felt that I was inaccurately making assumptions of my kid or my kid was telling me, "Mom, that's not who I am," I would shift.

The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation is available on Amazon now. Patterson also has a children's book coming out called "Born Ready", which details Penelope's perspective on himself and his community.

Featured image courtesy of Jodie Patterson

Before she was Amira Unplugged, rapper, singer, and a Becoming a Popstar contestant on MTV, she was Amira Daughtery, a twenty-five year-old Georgian, with aspirations of becoming a lawyer. “I thought my career path was going to lead me to law because that’s the way I thought I would help people,” Amira tells xoNecole. “[But] I always came back to music.”

A music lover since childhood, Amira grew up in an artistic household where passion for music was emphasized. “My dad has always been my huge inspiration for music because he’s a musician himself and is so passionate about the history of music.” Amira’s also dealt with deafness in one ear since she was a toddler, a condition which she says only makes her more “intentional” about the music she makes, to ensure that what she hears inside her head can translate the way she wants it to for audiences.

“The loss of hearing means a person can’t experience music in the conventional way,” she says. “I’ve always responded to bigger, bolder anthemic songs because I can feel them [the vibrations] in my body, and I want to be sure my music does this for deaf/HOH people and everyone.”

A Black woman wearing a black hijab and black and gold dress stands in between two men who are both wearing black pants and colorful jackets and necklaces

Amira Unplugged and other contestants on Becoming a Popstar

Amira Unplugged / MTV

In order to lift people’s spirits at the beginning of the pandemic, Amira began posting videos on TikTok of herself singing and using sign language so her music could reach her deaf fans as well. She was surprised by how quickly she was able to amass a large audience. It was through her videos that she caught the attention of a talent scout for MTV’s new music competition show for rising TikTok singers, Becoming a Popstar. After a three-month process, Amira was one of those picked to be a contestant on the show.

Becoming a Popstar, as Amira describes, is different from other music competition shows we’ve all come to know over the years. “Well, first of all, it’s all original music. There’s not a single cover,” she says. “We have to write these songs in like a day or two and then meet with our producers, meet with our directors. Every week, we are producing a full project for people to vote on and decide if they’d listen to it on the radio.”

To make sure her deaf/HOH audiences can feel her songs, she makes sure to “add more bass, guitar, and violin in unique patterns.” She also incorporates “higher pitch sounds with like chimes, bells, and piccolo,” because, she says, they’re easier to feel. “But it’s less about the kind of instrument and more about how I arrange the pattern of the song. Everything I do is to create an atmosphere, a sensation, to make my music a multi-sensory experience.”

She says that working alongside the judges–pop stars Joe Jonas and Becky G, and choreographer Sean Bankhead – has helped expand her artistry. “Joe was really more about the vocal quality and the timber and Becky was really about the passion of [the song] and being convinced this was something you believed in,” she says. “And what was really great about [our choreographer] Sean is that obviously he’s a choreographer to the stars – Lil Nas X, Normani – but he didn’t only focus on choreo, he focused on stage presence, he focused on the overall message of the song. And I think all those critiques week to week helped us hone in on what we wanted to be saying with our next song.”

As her star rises, it’s been both her Muslim faith and her friends, whom she calls “The Glasses Gang” (“because none of us can see!”), that continue to ground her. “The Muslim and the Muslima community have really gone hard [supporting me] and all these people have come together and I truly appreciate them,” Amira says. “I have just been flooded with DMs and emails and texts from [young muslim kids] people who have just been so inspired,” she says. “People who have said they have never seen anything like this, that I embody a lot of the style that they wanted to see and that the message hit them, which is really the most important thing to me.”

A Black woman wears a long, salmon pink hijab, black outfit and pink boots, smiling down at the camera with her arm outstretched to it.

Amira Unplugged

Amira Unplugged / MTV

Throughout the show’s production, she was able to continue to uphold her faith practices with the help of the crew, such as making sure her food was halal, having time to pray, dressing modestly, and working with female choreographers. “If people can accept this, can learn, and can grow, and bring more people into the fold of this industry, then I’m making a real difference,” she says.

Though she didn’t win the competition, this is only the beginning for Amira. Whether it’s on Becoming a Popstar or her videos online, Amira has made it clear she has no plans on going anywhere but up. “I’m so excited that I’ve gotten this opportunity because this is really, truly what I think I’m meant to do.”

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