Love and Identity with Minda Harts

Photo Credit: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Minda Harts, author of The Memo and the founder of The Memo LLC — a career-development company for women of color — is the creator and host of the Secure the Seat podcast, “The podcast for today’s professional women of color.”

In this episode, Minda sits down with social activist, entrepreneur, and the author of The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation, Jodie Patterson, who talks about allyship and sexual identity. The following is an abridged transcript of their discussion.

Minda Harts:

Today's episode is about the intersection of love, and in order for us to expect good allyship from others, we have to be good allies as well. I first learned about Jodie Patterson a couple of years ago. I heard her speaking about her trans son, Penelope, and I just love how she shows up in the world as a Black, fearless woman. I hope you enjoy today's episode. She has a book that just came out called The Bold World. If you are not trans, it doesn't mean this episode is not for you. This is for all of us. If we want to stand in the gap or be good stewards and be good allies, then this episode is for each and every one of us. Jodie, welcome to Secure the Seat. How are you?

Jodie Patterson:

I am really good. Thank you for having me.

Minda:

I'm excited for our conversation, and it's a big week for you. Your book drops — The Bold World. Congratulations.

Jodie:

Yeah, thank you. I have this book that's dropping, I have a child going into high school, I have one who's left to go study German in Switzerland. It is one of the many things that I'm very proud of right now.

Minda:

Congrats to all of that. I love it. Before we get into the conversation, I'd love for you to tell people a little bit more about you.

Jodie:

Okay, well, I'm a New Yorker, a native New Yorker. I'm a mom of five children. I am a single mother. Although I grew up in New York City, I consider myself Southern in some ways. My mom was raised in the South and she really sort of sprinkled Southern dust on us as kids, so I have a bit of a Southern upbringing. I have a definite Southern upbringing and a bit of a Southern way about me. What else can I tell you? I'm a writer, an advocate. I recently left my career in beauty and decided to write and speak full time. That was a big move for me. I mean, I did not stay in one profession all my life. I've been in many different professions in many different fields. In fact, I think I counted it out. I think it was 17 different jobs, 17 different fields over the last 35 years, so switching and moving is not new to me. But I left the beauty industry, which was obviously very externally focused, and I moved into writing and advocating, which for me is very internally focused. I am a new woman at almost 50, in that sense.

Minda:

I love that, and many of our listeners are women of color who work, who are still in a traditional workplace, and I know they love hearing that you can reinvent yourself at any time, so I'm glad you shared that part. Your story ...

Jodie:

It's interesting that you picked up on that, that reinvention, and also that traditional sort of lifestyle. I am torn. I am really in both worlds — sometimes one more than the other, sometimes both at the same time. I mean, like I said, my parents raised me in New York but I'm Southern; my mother was Southern, so there's a lot of tradition that went into my raising, my upbringing. I still keep that with me. Then there's a lot of bravado, and I lean toward experimenting, and that is also a part of me. So for anyone who's listening who is in a traditional marriage or traditional relationship or traditional career, there's also a place — you don't have to leave that to be experimental and to be daring and to be bold. In fact, I was doing both at the same time for many years. As a new mother, there's a lot of tradition and repetition and cultural norms that we use to get us through each day. At the same time I would at night just dream up ideas for my entrepreneurial side. While I was nursing I was also creating, and I think we can do both until we only want to do one thing. But until that time, feel free to be both traditional and daring at the same time.

Minda:

I love that and we are, I think now, moving into more of a multidimensional career and person. Obviously you've been doing it for a while, but we're allowing ourselves the agency to be all those things, right?

Jodie:

Mm-hmm, and it really takes a large or it takes a strong village, so while I was raising my five children — I have four biological and one adopted — and while I was nursing and birthing and breastfeeding and educating my kids and loving my kids, I also was able to work on some projects that I was really passionate about while my husband was really securing other aspects of the family. He was working diligently to finance the whole operation. I think we have to rely on our village, and that might be a husband or a wife, a lover, a best friend, a grandmother or cousin, but that sense of community is absolutely critical. As women, we have to really get comfortable with asking people to do things that we need them to do so that all of our talents can come to the surface, because a lot of times we're doing everything and we're not asking people to step in and to step up.

I've gotten really good at that. At one point in my life I just stopped cooking. Honestly, I tell you, I stopped cooking, I stopped chopping the garlic, I stopped chopping the vegetables, and I sat down and I didn't get up. The hour before people were hungry I just didn't cook, and so people were hungry and then people started cooking and it changed the dynamic. My husband at the time became the cook of the family, and that was a good lesson in redirecting.

Minda:

Funny how that works out.

Jodie:

Yeah. It does work.

Minda:

I love it. One thing that I wanted to touch on is your book, The Bold World, and I love this. There are various themes within the book, but a couple that I really centered on are love and identity. In part of the book you tell a story of your third child, Penelope, who came to you at the age of 3 and said, "Everyone thinks I'm a girl, Mama, and I'm not." At what point did you realize you needed to reshape your own belief? Tell us about that experience.

Jodie:

So this was maybe ... Penelope is 11 now and this is around just before her third birthday, and at that point I had all of the children in my house so I was a mother of five people. I had some experience with raising kids at that point, and I was really just trying to keep the machine moving forward each day, right? Try to get up on time, try to get the teeth brushed, try to get the clothing on the kids, try to get them out the house to school or wherever they were going, play dates, try to read books at bedtime, try to get them to sleep on the right hour so that we could start all over again. It was all pretty, I thought, rudimentary because I had what I thought were two girls and three boys, but Penelope, my third child, was problematic. Penelope kept changing the system. Penelope said no to the diaper change, no to the hair brushing, no to getting dressed. In fact, I think Penelope's first word was a protest word. It was "no."

It was "no" to really everything. I thought, "This kid is going to try me and I'm going to win because I'm the parent and I have a system here and I have a plan." So we did many months the first year, and into the second was really just trying to get Penelope to shape up and be an appropriate toddler, and I'm laughing at it now because it's so far away from when it happened. At the time it was really disruptive and I felt like I was doing something wrong because my kid was just always angry, and by the time Penelope was 2 there wasn't a day that would go by without screaming, pushing brothers, pushing kids on the playground down the slide, knocking over blocks, screaming on the floor. I needed help to change a diaper; my husband would have to come in and help hold Penelope so we could change the diaper. Hair brushing was impossible. I'd try to brush Penelope's teeth and Penelope would swat the toothbrush away. I would try to put on the beautiful vintage dresses and Penelope would refuse the dresses, refuse to have hair brushed into ponytails.

As Penelope's language started, Penelope would say things like "brother's clothing" or "jeans" or "cut my hair into a Mohawk like Papa's." These things were, again, a little bit startling, but they weren't impossible to get over. We ended up giving Penelope lots of jeans and sneakers and cut Penelope's hair, but the attitude and the temperament of my child continued to get worse. So one day after trying more nap time, trying more hugs and more love, after trying even — we tried to change Penelope's diet. We thought maybe it's a dairy allergy. Maybe Penelope is just agitated.

Minda:

Yeah.

Penelope just opened up, tears flooded, those eyes flooded with tears, and Penelope said, 'Well, Mommy, because everyone thinks I'm a girl and I'm not.'

Jodie:

We tried everything, and I remember it was one summer day, I was so frustrated I just picked Penelope up and we marched into Penelope's bedroom, we sat on the floor, and I asked a question that I had never asked before: "Why are you so angry?" It was as if I had asked the million-dollar question. Penelope just opened up, tears flooded, those eyes flooded with tears, and Penelope said, "Well, Mommy, because everyone thinks I'm a girl and I'm not." In that moment as a parent you're trying to take that sentence and put it into context. What do I know about that? So I thought, "Oh, here, I know. We have a feminist who notices the ways in which this world is working mostly for the benefit of men. Maybe Penelope wants to be seen as tough and Penelope thinks only boys are tough or only boys are treated with respect." So I said with the most respect, with the utmost respect, I said, "However you feel is fine. If you feel like your brothers, just act like them. It's fine." Penelope said, "No, Mama. I don't feel like a boy. I am a boy."

That was a time when I did not have any comeback line. I didn't have anything to say to that because Penelope was talking about identity — being, not feeling. An absolute "I am boy," and again, I was thinking, "Maybe I dropped the ball. Maybe I forgot to raise a feminist. Maybe I have not taught Penelope about all of the strong women who have changed the world." Like Billie Jean King, Nina Simone, Shirley Chisholm, Aretha Franklin, women who have really done ... Assata Shakur, Elaine Brown. There's so many women who I wanted to pull from and who my parents used to teach me to be strong and to be confident. I thought maybe I had forgotten the lesson. Maybe I'd forgotten to do what my Southern family had done for me. So I felt really guilty about my failures. I listened in that moment to Penelope telling me over and over again about his world. He said, "Mama, I love you but I don't want to be you. I want to be Poppa. I want a doctor to make me a peanut. I don't want boobies." Right? These are things that most people feel, or many people feel, are too advanced for a child to be thinking about.

But he did and he was and we do. People start ... the human brain starts to identify at around 3 years old, around that time. It's very typical. Penelope happened to be precocious with his language, but his mental activity around identity was right on time with what humans do. So I learned. I was getting a lesson on identity from my 3-year-old that afternoon and I never forgot it. It stayed with me all these years and it changed the way I live.

Minda:

That's a beaut ... You know, the first time I heard that story or a piece of it was a few years ago, and the one thing that popped into my head was that I'm so glad Penelope had a mother like you to be there in that moment and not press the panic button out loud and all of those things. So I'm just so happy that God chose you to be his mother and that is so important, so thank you for sharing that. Something that you touched on was identity. Some people may not understand what that means. How do you define it?

Jodie:

It's a good question. I never thought too much about identity. I mean, I was raised by my family —I talk a lot about this in my book, The Bold World — I was raised by parents and in our house they created what I like to call an actively Black household. Everything that we saw and touched and heard and smelled had elements of Blackness. We had Faith Ringgold books and we had Nina Simone songs and Gil Scott-Heron, who was my uncle, at the dinner table, who wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” but he lived his life that way, too. I had Romare Bearden on the walls. We just had ... We went to play tennis at the country club but we also played tennis in Harlem on the street. I had a family who really infused Black culture, Black activism, Black politics, Black education, Black history into my life. I never was given the speech that you are Black; I just knew it intrinsically and so my identity growing up was very wrapped in and solidified in the Black community.

Then when my child turned 3 and started talking about his way of seeing himself and placing himself in the world, I realized that my identity and the identity that I was developing in my family needed to be expanded and it needed to expand into the LGBT community. So identity is how you place it. The way I see it, identity is how you place yourself in the world. It is how you see yourself in this world in relation to other people, things, and ideas, and identities can shift. We have multiple identities. I see myself Black, I see myself female, I see myself mother, I see myself LGBT, and so I think identity oftentimes will expand as our understanding expands and as our language expands. Penelope knew girl, boy, and he knew what each one meant in the world he lived in. He knew how he was in that construct, so it's interesting because I think oftentimes we don't want to divide the person up too much. I don't want to divide myself up so much that I become compartments and not a human, and not a spirit, but sometimes we need the language to understand.

Identity and the way we look at it is how we see ourselves in the world; the language we put on that ... and again, I always put a caveat that identities can change, they can shift as needed. They're not stiff. In fact, they're quite flexible.

Minda:

I love that you add that. I think that's important to know and in the book, The Bold World, as I mentioned before, there are a lot of intersections, as we're talking about intersectionality, to race, identity, authenticity, and love. How has love helped guide you to be a fearless mother to Penelope. What tips do you have for other parents and relatives and friends?

Jodie:

Love is it. You can learn and you have to learn a new language. There were a million and two words I didn't know. I didn't know what cisgender meant or transgender or gender-fluid, gender-non-conforming, gender-queer. The vocabulary was endless and I tried to learn my best and I spent years — as Malcolm Gladwell would say, 10,000 hours can make you an expert. So I spent years doing the 10,000 hours of transgender education just so I could be capable of supporting my family and my child. We put the work in, we do the studying, we did the long nights on the internet down the rabbit hole. We get our feelings hurt, we stand back up, but in the end, really, it comes down to love for me because I wore myself out trying to learn it all and trying to change and holding onto anger and holding on secrets. I was holding onto Penelope's secret for a long time. I didn't tell people what I knew for a long time. Then at a point it just wore me down, and I talk about it in The Bold World as feeling like I'd fallen down into a manhole and I just was clawing my way to get back up.

When I got back up I realized, well ... trying to get back up I realized that up is where the love is and the light is, and that's where I want to be. I don't want to be in the darkness, so I remind myself all the time that love ... well, actually, love reminds me all the time that it is a compelling reason we get up in the morning and is the reason why we stay in our families, in our communities; it is the reason why we try one more time, and I tell my kids, "Winners are losers who got back up, and lovers are people who got back up." We just have to get up and the love will pull us there. I can't say that I fully understand gender or that even our family agrees on gender. We have different opinions. I have one kid who doesn't believe that, scientifically, transgender is even valid in science terms. Yet still we love each other, we eat dinner together, we use the same bathrooms, we vacation together. It is that thing that just, if you let it be, if you let love be, it will feel like you have pink and yellow sunglasses on. The world will look great and the world will be great, and even in the hardest times that lens of love adds to your disposition and that's really what it's about: How are you dealing with what's in front of you.

Minda:

Yep, I love that. I love it. Love is at the center of it all, and I love that you talk about that. You also mention that even in your household there is diversity of thought around hot topics like gender, and you mentioned it a little bit, but how do you encourage that diversity of thought? Maybe feelings do get hurt or maybe they don't, but at least we're talking about that. What does that look like at home for you?

Jodie:

Well, you know, I wanted people to — once I knew and once I understood that Penelope was a transgender boy — I wanted everybody else to feel it and know it and support it. So I went on a mission to share that information with the world, and specifically with our friends and family. I thought, "Well, it is something I believe in, and the family will believe in it, too." That's just not realistic because we all have our perspectives, we all have our own truths, and as much as you want to believe in right and wrong, you can be right or you can be with the people you love. So I learned really quickly there's no forcing this, and so I foster it by, well ... I was forced to understand that because it was not working. As much as I was trying to make people see it, it wasn't working and it was driving people away. I have a tendency to be heavy-handed or I have a tendency to want the things I want and to go for them, but that really ... it works until it doesn't work, and I found out that one of my kids was just really angry with me, another kid, a science kid. I have one kid who's very heavily ... his mind thinks like a scientist and he said to me, "All you think about is trans, Mom, all, you know?"

That was his way of saying I wasn't focused on him and I wasn't tuned into his world. So we had this ... that broke my heart, of course. I understood my perspective. There's only so much ... your energy is finite, your time is finite, your emotions are finite, and I had used up all my time, my energy, trying to save Penelope's life and being successful in that, but now I had to realize that there was some collateral damage there. Now I have this thing that I do with my kids called "the lab," and whenever there's an issue of debate, whenever there's an issue up for debate, we sit down, we "lab" it out. So it can be around gender, it can be around science, it can be around faith, it can even be around who sits in the front seat of the car — anything that's important, and the rules are you can't interrupt; the person who has the mic can talk for as long as they want.

Cassius will go on and say, "Look, my brother, I'll always use the right pronouns, but scientifically speaking, Penelope's a girl. That doesn't mean that Penelope can do certain things and not do others. Penelope can do anything he wants, but scientifically speaking, Penelope is female." Then Penelope will sit and wait and then quietly at his turn he'll take the mic and say, "Well, I'm not science. I'm just the way God made me, and God has made me this way and this is my natural way." Then Cassius will say, "Well, I don't believe in God, either. God's not scientifically proven." They have this thing where they go back and forth with ideas that are really big and foreign and sometimes it'll take 40 minutes, and by the end of 40 minutes they're like, "Oh, gosh, can we just move on and go play basketball?" They're totally done with the conversation and they found that it's much more interesting to interact than to not. I don't think that they're necessarily any closer on their belief system. They might be at the opposite ends of the spectrum, Penelope having lived as a trans person and Cassius not believing in transgender.

They kind of are at the opposite ends, yet still we eat dinner together, we play basketball together, we use the same house, and we live. I think that is a very good example of what can happen in the world. We don't have to agree.

Minda:

Right. We could take that on the road.

Jodie:

It's so funny. My son said to me the other night, and it's a little bit of a subversive tactic, right? The longer you talk things out with kids, the less they want to talk about it and they just want to get back to fun stuff, right? In that sense I'm trying to really do two things. One is to allow us to develop the ability to learn ... sorry, a couple of things I'm trying to do. One of the things I'm trying to do is to allow us the ability to debate, discuss, and disagree in a respectful way. They really understand. Penelope has heard his own brother say, "Well, I don't believe in transgender," and he although does not like that at all and I'm sure it hurts his feelings on a certain level, if he can understand that that's how some people feel and if he can learn to not let that break him from his very safe space at home, then when he goes out into the world to college, to the office, wherever he is as an adult, he has already understood and he's already prepared for diversity of thought.

It does not mean that he is less than or more than whatever he is that he's determined for himself; his brother has a different perspective and it's okay. You know what I mean? It's okay, and I think Cassius, on the same note, my science kid, he may not ever "believe in trans," but he will have 20, 30, 40 years of experience of living with a trans person and it will not make him want to pick up a gun or hurt someone or deny someone of a job or fight against someone who's trans. He will have that experience and I think that will carry him throughout life and dictate his behavior. Maybe not his perspective, but it will dictate his behavior and that's my goal. How do we behave in this world? How are we with other people?

Minda:

Tell people how they can find you.

Jodie:

I am on Instagram. I'm actually very easy to get in touch with. If you DM me on Instagram I'm always getting back in touch with people. In fact, many of my great, close friends and work associates I've met through social media. I'm Jodie Patterson on Instagram, and that's probably the best way. And my website is jodiepatterson.com: J-O-D-I-E Patterson, with two T's, dot-com. To the point of the book, the book was really about me. I want to make sure that, for myself ... I wanted to make sure that I understood this process, and this process of understanding my trans kid and standing up for my trans kid and becoming a trans advocate really has a lot more to do with how I see the world than just one person. When I stand up for trans rights I'm standing up for women's rights and Black rights and I'm saying that all of our lives matter in a very ...

We have to connect the dots so that when I see people oppressing transgender folks, I know what that is like. I can relate to that on many levels, and so I don't need any proof around being trans. I have had so much proof on oppression, so the book for me was just connecting the dots and showing that my family, as advocates for integration and for equality, felt very useful for me in this process of standing up for my son, for transgender people, for intersex people, and for gender-non-conforming people. I hope that even if you don't know a trans person, even if you yourself are not trans, even if you're not a parent of a trans person ... if you want to know this world a little bit more, if you want to fight oppression with a little more ammunition, if you want to understand the diversity of this human experience so that we can be better in this world, be bolder in this world, that is what the book is for, right? It's for anyone who wants to know how to be more.

I also wrote the book specifically for the Black trans kid, right? I'm a mom and I wanted to tell Black trans kids I'm not ever turning my back. I'm here, I see you, I care about your story, and I'm here to help lobby for better rights and legislature. I'm here to speak at school so that you're safe at school. I'm here to try to talk to parents and family members so they can see your perspective. So the book specifically is for my Penelope and for any and all Penelopes.

Minda:

Yes, I love that, and I'm glad you articulated that the way you did because it's all of our fight and it's important that we all educate ourselves, and this is one way to do that. There are many other ways but this is a good first step if you're not sure where to move forward on that.


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