Jodie Patterson’s son Penelope wasn’t even in kindergarten yet when she realized that her son was transgender.
“Penelope was starting to display signs of distress: nightmares at night, biting nails until bloody, crying a lot, protesting the simplest of tasks — like putting on clothing in the morning, putting on a diaper,” she tells EW. “That kind of stuff was constantly traumatic in our house.”
This discovery set Patterson, a mother of five, and her family on a most unpredictable journey. She didn’t know what she didn’t know. But what she learned changed her entire outlook on life, identity, and her family. She chronicles this journey in her new memoir, The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation.
The book traces how Patterson, a noted public speaker and activist who’s done everything from own a successful beauty company to be appointed by the United Nations as a Champion of Change, grows as a parent, and by extension, as a person. She digs deeply into her childhood, growing up a black woman, and her family’s history, considering the mechanics of oppression past, present, and future. She comes to several sobering conclusions. But her book is ultimately one of hope.
EW caught up with Patterson to discuss what she’s learned from her son, what the experience of telling this story gave her, and much more. Read on below. The Bold World is now available for purchase.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you know you wanted to write a book about Penelope?
JODIE PATTERSON: Penelope was starting to display signs of distress: nightmares at night, biting nails until bloody, crying a lot, protesting the simplest of tasks — like putting on clothing in the morning, putting on a diaper. That kind of stuff was constantly traumatic in our house. But lives are so busy with five kids. It wasn’t until I sold my beauty company that I had a moment to really stop and think. The more I thought about Penelope and what we were going through, the more I learned about transgender. Once I realized that we were talking about gender and identity — and once I realized that my son was trans — I wanted to share the navigation of that world. As a parent, I didn’t know what doctors to go to, what communities to attach myself to, what books to read. I didn’t know anything. The original idea of this book was I was going to give a roadmap to parents of trans kids.
The Bold World is not exactly that book.
I couldn’t really get that book off the ground. People were like, “If you don’t have cancer, you don’t buy a book on cancer; if you don’t have a trans kid, you’re not going to buy a book on trans.” They were placing it in relation to a disease. “If you’re not forced to deal with this horrible thing, you’re not going to buy a book about it.” I decided on the advice of [my agent] to really look at my life and who raised me, who was really able to get me to the point of accepting and being an advocate. The book then became less of Penelope’s story, less about the doctors, and more about my own internal transformation. So it ended up in a place much different than I thought it’d be [in]. It still is a navigation, in a sense, but more for the individual to transition — not even talking about the transition of a trans person, just the transition of the human spirit.
You touched on it briefly there, but: What did you know about trans issues at the moment you realized Penelope was trans?
[Laughs] It is something I can laugh about now, because what I knew then is so different from what I know now. It wasn’t the truth: It was media frenzy, misinformation, fear. Two movies that always came to mind in the beginning: One was Silence of the Lambs, where you have the psychopath standing in front of the mirror, wiggling while he’s tucking his penis. I thought I was looking at someone who was perhaps trans or gender-nonconforming; I didn’t really have a word around it, but I thought, “That’s what I was looking at,” when in fact we’re just looking at a psychopath. But that image kept coming back to me. The other movie was Paris Is Burning. Beautiful documentary on kids who are gender-nonconforming. Many of them die or are murdered; many of them are addicts or homeless. I thought that’s what we were up against. In very real terms, I was thinking Penelope could die. In association, our family could very well be doomed. [Laughs] It sounds so hella-dramatic right now. But I remember really thinking that we were going to have this life; I thought the trajectory was drugs, sex work, potentially murder or suicide. Now I know it so differently. We’re talking about, in my case, a kid we accepted from 4 years old on now. He’s an A-student, class president, helpful and happy kid, karate champion. An adjusted kid.
You write at one point, “The world is unkind to people it doesn’t understand.” Over the course of your life, how did you learn that lesson?
I had to connect the dots. That took a long time. I’m a native New Yorker, but my mom’s from the South, and I went back every summer to see my grandmother — I knew my family very well, and they would tell me stories of their lives which seemed very different from mine. My grandmother was jailed dozens of times. She was called a communist. She sued school boards and hospitals — and won — in the segregated South. My father started the first black brokerage firm on Wall Street, called Patterson & Co. At the time, there weren’t any brokerage firms that would service black families. I had to really look at what my family had done in terms of black life, and think about what the reaction of the world was to them. What they wanted to do in the world and what they were doing in the world — shifting the paradigm — and how the world treated them in response. They were not always seen as heroes or as great folks. They tried to portray them negatively. I saw that history, and then I looked at what was going on currently with the gender revolution, and the criminalization of trans folks. It rang so familiar to the criminalization of black folks. The idea that trans people are evil and dangerous and scary, I know this to be a drummed-up frenzy around a community that many of us don’t know and don’t want to know.
Being an activist, what’s your response to that, as a person living in the world?
I was rereading James Baldwin’s Fire Next Time while writing my book. I said, “Let me just do this exercise: Every time he says ‘negro,’ put ‘trans’ on top of it.” I wasn’t trying to compare a black person to a trans person; I was trying to look at how oppression plays out. And it plays out really ugly. There’s this understanding that if you try to change the world, people don’t want that. They’ll come up with a lot of reasons why you shouldn’t exist: They said it for women, they said it for black people, they said it for Jews, they said it for Muslims, they’re saying it for trans and LGBT [people]. As well as my son’s story has played out, there are millions where it has not played out so well. I’ve seen it with black folks, with women, with LGBT activists. The hatred that we have towards the other, this process of othering, is very nasty. We find an other and we determine that other is very dangerous.
What has your son taught you, in all this?
A new language. I didn’t know that gender was fluid, I didn’t know gender identity could change throughout the course of someone’s life. I didn’t know identity had that ability. I have the absolute ability and right at any moment in my life to see myself in contact to the world differently. He taught me the very things that we feel are solid and impenetrable; they are not. It’s like quantum physics: You can pass through something that appears solid, because in reality it’s usually not solid. And there’s no one way of being happy, that happiness comes in all forms — and to let that happiness be in all forms. You cannot dictate someone’s happiness. And I learned whatever we don’t know about another person is the very thing we don’t know about ourselves. I was focusing a lot on my kid, and I realized that most of the work is the internal work of myself. I didn’t really fix the kid, I didn’t really fix the gender. I just changed the bias and pointed it back at myself. It’s really difficult as a parent to not lead. You want to have the answer, you want to use your experience to benefit the family. The parenting of a trans kid will quickly teach you that, sometimes, it’s best to hush up. Just listen. Something we don’t do that often.