From 'I Am Jazz' To 'I Am Cait,' It's A Trans-Formative Time For TV

TV’s – and the world’s – growing acceptance of transgender people and their lifestyles reaches a milestone of sorts Wednesday night with the convergence of two separate pieces of transgender programming airing at the same time.

One is the previously announced bestowing of a courage award on Caitlyn Jenner during a live, prime-time awards telecast on ABC. The other is the premiere of a new reality series on TLC about a transgender teen.

The transgender teen is a 14-year-old from Florida named Jazz Jennings who was born a boy but from the very beginning of her life has been feminine in every way but physically. According to TLC, Jazz has been “transitioning” to female since she was 5.

On the premiere episode of her show – called “I Am Jazz” and airing from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern Wednesday night on TLC – we learn that Jazz is in the midst of a gradual transformation that involves carefully meted-out doses of hormone blockers and estrogen.



It is a crucial time for her. Jazz is on the cusp of maturation – a young teen preparing to enter high school with, seemingly, greater challenges than other teens reaching the same point in their young lives. So Jazz worries about her development into a young woman, the outcome she prefers over developing into a young man, complete with the deeper voice of a teen-aged boy.

It’s complicated, isn’t it? I admit that this issue sometimes feels like it’s beyond my ability to write about it, but like most people, I am trying my best to adapt to our ever-changing world. I’ll say this about Jazz Jennings: She seems like a nice kid. I hope she survives whatever she is going through.

Meanwhile, some time between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern on ABC on the same night, Caitlyn Jenner will receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award given out annually as part of ESPN’s sports awards called “The ESPYs.” This year, the awards show goes in search of a wider audience by airing on co-owned ABC.

Ever since it was announced that Jenner – who won an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon in 1976 when he was known as Bruce – would receive this prestigious award in recognition of his coming out as a woman, critics have accused ESPN of naming Jenner as this year’s recipient simply to draw more attention to this telecast. The critics say various other people from the world of sports were just as deserving, if not more so, for their own acts of selflessness and courage.

In the face of the criticism, ESPN felt the need to issue a bland statement just this past Monday. “The Arthur Ashe Courage Award is meant to honor individuals whose contributions transcend sports through courageous action,” ESPN said. “Sometimes that courage is demonstrated over the course of a lifetime and sometimes it is demonstrated in a single act that shines a light on an important contemporary issue. At all times, there are many worthy candidates. This year, we are proud to honor Caitlyn Jenner embracing her identity and doing so in a public way to help move forward a constructive dialogue about progress and acceptance.”

I’m siding with the critics on this one. Whether or not one feels like applauding Jenner for his public coming out, the “achievement” of transforming from Bruce to Caitlyn doesn’t seem like something one would necessarily honor in a sports awards telecast, particularly since the recipient is better known today as a supporting player on a reality TV show (“Keeping Up With the Kardashians”) than as a star athlete.

I don’t doubt that it took courage for Jenner, as Bruce, to speak out publicly about his true nature and then follow through on his transformation to Caitlyn after living as a man for 65 years. But in her own way, Jazz Jennings is just as courageous, and she’s only 14. She’s not a rich celebrity either, but she may become famous, at least for as long as her TLC show lasts.

Next up in TV’s embrace of the transgender trend: The premiere July 26 of Caitlyn Jenner’s new reality series on E!, called “I Am Cait,” whose title mimics, coincidentally, the title of Jazz Jennings’ show “I Am Jazz.”

“The ESPY Awards” air Wednesday night (July 15) at 8 Eastern on ABC. “I Am Jazz” premieres Wednesday night at 10 Eastern on TLC.

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