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Author and activist Jodie Patterson on raising a trans child in a 'bold world'

“I had to learn a new language,” Patterson said. “And then I had to teach my mind to be extremely flexible around something that was not easy for me to learn at first."
Jodie Patterson and her son, Penelope.
Jodie Patterson and her son, Penelope.Courtesy of Jodie Patterson.

Nine years ago, Jodie Patterson’s 3-year-old child stunned her with ten words.

“Penelope said, ‘Mama, I am not a girl. I am a boy,’” Patterson recently told Know Your Value founder and “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski. “And I didn't know what that meant.”

Patterson, a mom of five, details her experiences raising her transgender son in her new book, “The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation.” Patterson is also the newly-elected chair of the board of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, America’s largest LGBT advocacy group.

“I made sure to tell my story, not my child's story,” Patterson said. “A lot of people think this is a book about a young transgender boy, transitioning. And this is really a book about a woman, this woman, this cisgender woman, with all this privilege that I didn't know much about, transforming from not knowing to knowing.”

Patterson is frank about the shock and confusion she felt around her son Penelope’s statement to her.

“It’s striking and it stops you in your tracks, and you don't know what it means,” she said. Patterson considered whether Penelope (who is now 12) was a feminist or was trying to be seen as tough. At age three, Penelope had been acting out for two years, showing anger and sadness by fighting and bullying other kids, crying, screaming, bedwetting, nail-biting to the point of bleeding and suffering recurring nightmares. At a loss, Patterson asked Penelope point-blank, "Why are you so angry?"

Jodie Patterson and her son, Penelope, at a Human Rights Campaign event.Courtesy of Jodie Patterson.

When Penelope answered, “because everyone thinks I"m a girl and I'm not. I'm a boy," Patterson recounted thinking, “I thought I had failed as a parent.”

“I [felt] like I have dropped the ball on my kid,” Patterson said. “I felt like I had not raised a proud child to be who Penelope was. I felt like I had overlooked something really critical in terms of self-love.”

Through her own research, Patterson began to learn about gender variance and developed an understanding of what her son was going through. At the time, even the word “transgender” was foreign to her.

“I had to learn a new language,” Patterson said. “And then I had to teach my mind to be extremely flexible around something that was not easy for me to learn at first, not at all.”

She also encountered resistance from teachers, karate coaches, and other family members, who told Patterson that Penelope didn’t know what he was saying.

"That was a lot of the feedback that we received: Penelope's too young to know about sexuality… Black children aren't transgender… God doesn't allow for this,” Patterson remembered.

“We were on our own for many, many months, many years. It was just Penelope and me trying to explain,” she said, “[that] Penelope is not dangerous. Penelope is not confused. Penelope is a boy who happens to be trans, but he's fundamentally a boy. There wasn't much validation.”

While Patterson worked to educate herself, she also worked to explain what was happening to her four other children.

Penelope, Jodie, and Jodie’s mother. Courtesy of Jodie Patterson.

“I learned first and then it was a slow process for each person in the family,” Patterson said. She encouraged her kids to read books, Google unfamiliar terms, and watch videos online to help them understand gender variance. Her home became “a laboratory for tough discussions” as her children debated everything from gender to science to race to the existence of God.

“I have this subversive parenting where we sit on the floor and we lab out these big ideas,” Patterson explained. Her kids follow the rules for discussion: They can say anything they want for as long as they want when they have the microphone, and no one is allowed to interrupt. The goal is not to debate each other, but to speak from the heart and have an open discussion.

“We can look at big ideas, not get rattled by them, and then they become no big deal, and we can actually live together. ”Patterson said. “So we don't agree on God. We don't agree on gender. We don't agree on race. However, we can eat a meal together, we can share life together.”