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
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Everything Kerry Washington Has Said About Her Husband Nnamdi Asomugha
Actress Kerry Washington and her relationship with her husband, actor Nnamdi Asomugha, is the perfect example of a winning team.
The pair became an item following a chance encounter in 2009, and many years later, on June 24, 2013, Washington and Asomugha would secretly tie the knot. Since then, the high-profile couple has expanded their blended family by welcoming two children, a daughter Isabelle Asomugha, 8, and a 6-year-old son Caleb Asomugha. Asomugha also has a daughter from a previous relationship.
Despite Washington and Asomugha choosing to live a relatively private life for the most part by not sharing images of their family on social media and occasionally attending events together. The rare glimpses they provide to the public showcase that Washington and Asomugha have much in common regarding essential topics.
For example, Washington is highly involved in politics and encourages others to participate by spreading information about various issues and how everyone would be affected.
As for Asomugha, the 41-year-old officially founded the Asomugha Foundation in 2010, years after doing other charity work in Nigeria. According to its site, the organization was created to help "disadvantaged youth and women by providing educational opportunities and mentorship."
Washington's public remarks regarding her relationship with Asomugha and their family may be rare, but when she does speak about their family, it's all positive.
Kerry On Why She Keeps Her Relationship Private
Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Bronx Children's Museum
In March 2016, the UnPrisioned actress revealed during a discussion panel at SXSW Festival that one of the reasons why she is adamant about remaining private about her union with Asomugha is because she doesn't want the public to make any narratives regarding her marriage.
At the time, it was reported that Washington and the former NFL player were experiencing marital troubles and were allegedly planning on getting a divorce. Washington would shut down those allegations by saying she hasn't and will not share any information about her private life.
"Social media has actually been great for [other celebrities'] relationships with the weeklies or the gossip sites because people say things and they say, 'That's not true!' So I'm thinking in some ways, it's been great because people are able to maintain their voice," she explained.
"It's a little different for me because I don't talk about my personal life. That means not only did I not tell you when I was getting married, it also means if somebody has rumors about what's going on in my marriage, I don't refute them, because I don't talk about my personal life."
Kerry On How She Met Nnamdi And What A Normal Day Looks Like for Their Family
Fast forward to October 2018, the Scandal star gave insight into how she met Asomugha and their family life. During an interview with Marie Claire, Washington shared that she and Asomugha met in 2009 while she was working on the Broadway play Race.
The mother of two told the publication that her life has "completely transformed" since their encounter. "The last time I did theater, it completely transformed my life. That's where I met my husband. I love being with my family. My days off look like homework, reading, and watching stuff. Just hanging out, doing things we love to do," she stated.
Kerry On Nnamdi's Accomplishment
Photo by Jeffrey Camarati/Getty Images
But as time progressed, Washington began speaking a little more openly about her man. In October 2022, Washington gushed over Asomugha and his Netflix project, The Good Nurse, which came out around the same time her film, The School for Good and Evil, was released. While talking to Entertainment Tonight, the star expressed how "proud" she was of her husband.
"I'm really proud of him, I think he's doing amazing work. I'm really excited for his film, The Good Nurse," she said. "It's really exciting to both have really important films at Netflix right now, we feel really blessed.”
Kerry On Why Nnamdi Is Her Soulmate
Washington shared how her love with Asomugha goes beyond the surface after spending over a decade together.
In a March 2023 interview with Marie Claire, Washington explained that she and Asomugha are perfectly aligned because she's allowed to be her authentic self with him.
"I'm in my immediate truth with [him]," Washington said. "Those mirrors are important because they help me get back to myself."
Kerry On The Couple's Upcoming 10-Year Wedding Anniversary
Photo by Bruce Glikas/Getty Images
That same month, Washington expressed that in addition to the many years the couple has been together, and their personal and professional accomplishments, she still finds Asomugha "incredible."
Washington shared this revelation while promoting her latest project, UnPrisioned, in an Entertainment Tonight interview.
"I do have an incredible husband," the actress told ET host Kevin Frazier as she disclosed little to no details about their upcoming plans for their tenth wedding anniversary. "Do you remember how secret my wedding was? How private and secretive it was? That's how the anniversary is gonna be too!"
Kerry On Why She Thinks Nnamdi And Their Children Are A Gift From God
Washington's love and admiration for Asomugha and their family grow increasingly each day, so much so that she uses it as inspiration to share positive messages with her fans.
The 46-year-old revealed during a panel with Al Sharpton at National Action Network Convention on April 12 that she sees her husband and their children as "proof" that God exists and loves her because of the great joy they bring to her life.
"Well, you've met my husband, my husband's amazing. I got a good one. We have three beautiful children. And I think, you know, when I look at my marriage, and I look at my kids, fundamentally, they are proof of God to me,” she said. "Because I know that God loves me to have put those people in my life. And that sense of like, knowing that God loves me. That, to me, is so much of how I make the decisions about the activism that I do and the content that I make."
Regardless of what the public may think about Washington and Asomugha's private union, they are proving with each moment that love can conquer all.
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Feature image by Arturo Holmes/MG23/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue