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