Jodie Patterson is a writer and activist, raising five children in New York City. Jodie’s memoir, The Bold World, which recently came out in paperback, lovingly and unflinchingly discusses her childhood and her own experience of being parented, as preparation for the challenges she has faced as a parent herself. Jodie’s awakening as an activist grew from the experience of one of her children identifying as transgender: her son, Penelope. We talked to Jodie about her fascinating life, and her tips for parents facing unforeseeable and unique challenges.
We loved reading your memoir, The Bold World, which shares the story of your family history, your experience growing up in New York, and your life as a mother to five very different children. One of the main lessons your parents imparted is “to think in numbers” when it comes to the experience of being Black. What does that mean to you?
As a black person, I’m often made to feel that there aren’t many of “us” out there. That I’m only one of a few. That I’m the strange minority in the room. My parents taught me differently. They taught me to think collectively, to link arms with anyone who shared a similar perspective of the world and shared the obstacles we experience as Black people. So brown folks all over the world became “Our People”. Simply because all brown people experience racism and oppression in some form. Thinking collectively made me feel powerful — even as a little girl I felt like I was part of a warrior tribe. Whenever you link yourself to lineage and to a global collective, you center yourself. I’ve tried to pass that on to my children: You are the prototype. When you tell Black children, girls, queer kids “you are the prototype” it’s radical — because everything else in society is telling them they don’t count.
You attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart on the Upper East Side, where you had the experience of being one of only a few African-American students. You then attended an Historically Black College (HBCU), and chose a multicultural school for your children. How did you make decisions about race and education in New York City?
I look for schools that reflect how we identify — which is very diverse and layered — so it’s an intense process choosing the right school. In my family we speak Twi from Ghana, English, Swiss German, and French. We are cis, trans, gender queer, straight, and a few things in between. I also consider us a feminist family. Our parents and grandparents are from America, West Africa, Switzerland and Canada. I look for schools that support and reflect all those identities. Essentially our schools combine academic rigor and cultural awareness. It takes a very aware and capable school to meet our needs!
You mention that your father wanted you to be able to “flow” from one situation to another; to be comfortable with rich and poor, uptown and downtown, Black and White. How do you think we can best teach this skill to our children?
Adaptability is one of the hardest skills to learn. It’s also a key element in our children’s life success. Through practice children can build an inner ability to adapt to change. At some point I had to allow my kids to enter all spaces, not just the pretty ones — sparring rings, neighborhood basketball courts, country clubs, suburban, urban and visiting rural friends. It’s important to take your children into different neighborhoods, visit friends across town, experience a meal in an environment that is very different from their own so that crossing borders become no big deal.
Your oldest son was accepted into your family at age 19 as a “man-boy”. How did you open your heart and your family to a teenager? Do you have any advice for parents who might be adopting older children?
Nain and I met when he was just completing high school. We were immediately drawn to each other and over time developed an unbreakable bond. It was a connection that’s hard to put into words, because it sounds so reckless maybe: You meet a kid, you invite him into your home, you become family. But the best way to describe it is that we ‘chose each other’. And because we met when he was 19, there are many elements of his life that I don’t understand and don’t know. And vice versa. We take each other as we are today and not how we wish we were. For me this is a new approach to parenting because I’m not raising him, I’m sharing life with him.
You have a transgender son, Penelope, and your account of his pain as he tried to understand and express his identity is heartbreaking. How did you find the wisdom to come to a place of understanding yourself?
Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, so I researched, read, investigated on the internet, went to gender conferences all over the country and sat quietly in the back and listened, joined parents in discussion groups, sat with doctors, read more books… It was a year of deep learning of the basics around gender variance. And then eventually I put all that knowledge into my pocket and I just lived, experienced and enjoyed life with my son. The deepest learning came from staying in close proximity to the very person I was trying to understand better. The books and research took me out of the dark, but the real shift came from being with Penelope.
What resources would you recommend that parents of trans or gender non-conforming children tackle first as part of their 10,000 hours?
The Human Rights Campaign is an enormous source of information. It’s the largest LGBT organization and has made a commitment to protect trans identifying people. Within the organization, there is a group of parents — Parents for Transgender Equality Council — that gather information, offer support, influence policy, debunk negative stereotypes, and reshape the narrative one school, one person, one elected official at a time. They are phenomenal! I also really respect the work being done at The Ackerman Institutes Gender and Family Project. Their peer and parent groups saved my family from sadness and confusion. They also have great educators who train schools to be more gender inclusive and safe.
As a family, you attended Aranu-tiq, an overnight camp for transgender and gender non-conforming kids. What did you learn there?
It’s classic camp, so it’s about being in nature and experiencing the freedom of the outdoors. We learned to rock climb, swim, hike, sleep in the elements, all very basic camp activities. But the beauty of this camp is that nothing is gendered, language is neutral, bodies aren’t judged and there is a respect for all the ways people identify.. My first time going I was amazed at how many ways there are to identify! Countless ways. It was eye opening.
You mention that Penelope’s siblings all had their individual ways of accepting his trans status. How did you guide them through this?
We talk out ideas, and “Lab Out” big concepts — sometimes for hours at a time. Basically, anytime we don’t agree on big issues, we sit down and Lab it out. The rules are that whoever has the proverbial microphone gets to speak for as long as they need, you can’t interrupt and can only speak your truth. So my 13 year old scientist says, “I respect you Penelope, and I’ll always use your preferred pronouns. But I don’t believe in trans. It’s not scientifically proven. And scientifically speaking, physiologically speaking, you are a girl.” Penelope might then say, “Trans is a fact. And this is the way god has made me”. My 13 Year Old might counter that God is not proven either. They’ve been discussing both God and Gender for years and they still don’t see eye to eye. For us, the goal isn’t to agree, it is to discuss and disagree with decorum. Sometimes we discuss big ideas for so long that we become bored and the ideas become no big deal and we eventually decide to go play basketball instead.
One of the biggest challenges you talk about in your book of being a trans parent has been dealing with the rigidity of authority, from using pronouns with doctors, to being stopped at the Canadian border. As an activist, what do you hope will change in the future?
I feel very optimistic about individuals. What I’m worried about and where I see the biggest need for change is in our policies. Our policies need to protect trans kids from school bullying, from expensive medication, from cruel practices such as “conversion therapy”. When I look at all my five kids at the dinner table, I see two very different Americas: One for my cisgender kids and another for my trans kid. That’s unacceptable. What I’m focusing on in our near future is policy that establishes one America for all my kids.
What is next for you in your activism and work?
I was recently elected Chair of the Board of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. I’m very proud of the work in front of me: How do we empower parents to champion for their gender non-conforming kids? How do we help make HBCU college campuses safe and appealing to our LGBT students? How do we combat AIDS in the south and get PrEP into the hands of all people living with AIDS? How do we unite the faith community and the queer community so that we’re working together? What does LGBT acceptance look like globally? How can we elect a pro-equality president? Big questions that need strong programs and even stronger budgets… But this is the work that excites me these days!
Jodie Patterson’s Favorites
I wish I had more time for… A pedicure
I always feel saner after… An hour-long run in my neighborhood while listening to Drake
Favorite place to grab a bite to eat with the kids? Saraghina in Bed Stuy Brooklyn
Favorite date night spot? Indochine in Lower Manhattan
Favorite dessert spot? Brooklyn Baby Cakes on Nostrand for their red velvet cupcakes
Favorite park? Prospect, of course
Favorite spring activity with the fam? RV road tripping. We’ve been known to pile seven people plus our pup and a whole lotta groceries into an RV, drive until we’re tired and camp for a few days. It’s wonderful.
Photographer: Yumi Matsuo