Jessica Mayer Herthel ’96 got involved with LGBT issues the day she watched her daughters argue over who would get to be the bride in their play wedding.
“I said, ‘You can both be the bride,’” Herthel recalls, “and my 5-year-old said, ‘That would be weird.’” A former employment lawyer who lives in Weston, Fla., with her three children and husband, Jason, Herthel began helping school districts with training and guidance on issues involving gay students. Eventually, she became director of education at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale, which preserves and shares the culture of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.
In September, the Penguin Group published I Am Jazz, a children’s book Herthel wrote with 14-year-old Jazz Jennings, who has, since the age of 6, spoken publicly about being transgender. The book, which is for children ages 4–8, describes Jazz’s fondness for soccer and mermaids, and has illustrations of her playing dress-up in princess gowns with her best friends, Samantha and Casey. Then Jazz says, “But I’m not exactly like Samantha and Casey. I have a girl brain but a boy body. This is called transgender. I was born this way!” She explains, “Pretending I was a boy felt like telling a lie.” She describes how her parents, after consulting with a doctor, let her wear girls’ clothes to school, grow her hair long, and change her name to Jazz. Herthel’s profits from the book go to the TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation.
Herthel took on the project because “after seeing how easily my own kids were able to understand a very basic explanation of what transgender means, I realized we could create a teaching tool for other young kids,” she says. “It’s not necessary to postpone this conversation until middle or high school. The message of ‘be who you are, no matter what’ is applicable to children of any age.” She hopes guidance counselors will read the book to classes, especially those with children who are struggling with gender identity and don’t have the words to express what they are experiencing.
What she’s reading: Revolution, by Russell Brand. “It’s a mistake to dismiss Russell Brand as merely a Hollywood actor or an ex-junkie. His profound observations on spirituality, civic responsibility, and society’s potential to evolve have impacted my way of thinking.”