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Podcast Ep. 3: It’s Time to Have “The Talk” With Gender and Sexuality Expert Jena Curtis, EdD

In this episode


Are you ready to have “the talk”? In this episode, Audra and Justin are joined by Jena Curtis, EdD, professor of gender and sexuality at SUNY Cortland, to learn how and when to talk to our kids about everything from gender identity to sexuality to romantic love. Not only will Jena go over how to have healthy discussions about sex, but she’ll also touch on what parents should know about biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality. So get comfy and get ready to have THE TALK!


Listen here


About our guest

Jena Curtis is a professor of Gender and Sexuality and SUNY Cortland. After years of being on the main stage for HIV/AIDS advocacy, Jena turned to academia. Some of her published works include “HIV/AIDS Adherence: Teaching About Treatment and Stigma” and “Using Online Discussion Forums to Promote Critical Reflection among Pre and In-Service HIV/AIDS Educators and Service Providers.


Show notes

  • MaxLove Project is a service organization that Audra and Justin founded in an effort to help other childhood cancer families improve their children’s quality of life.
  • According to Roland Griffiths, PhD psychedelics show therapeutic potential across a number of ailments.
  • In an interview with Dr. Griffiths and Johns Hopkins, Robert Jesse says that “an unpleasant, ‘bad’ [trip] can sometimes lead to positive outcomes.”
  • Medline Plus defines trisomy 18 as “a chromosomal condition associated with abnormalities in many parts of the body.” Due to these complications, most individuals with trisomy 18 die before birth or within the first year of birth.
  • Ryan White was one of the first children with hemophilia to be diagnosed with AIDS. His diagnosis followed a blood transfusion in December 1984, and he faced pushback and discrimination from his Indiana community when he tried to return to school. He and his mother, Jeanne White Ginder, rallied for his rights, and later, Congress passed his namesake legislation: the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act.
  • In 1987, the Florida home of the Ray family was burned down after the three Ray brothers returned to class at their elementary school. The school originally barred the brothers because of their AIDS diagnosis, but a federal judge reinstated them. The family suffered boycotts against them, threatening phone calls, and arson.
  • A documentary, “Eagle Scout: The Story of Henry Nicols” (1993) was created around the HIV/AIDS advocacy work Jena and her brother performed.
  • Mercedes Lackey is an American author known for her fantasy series, including the stories in her Valdemar Universe.
  • “Babe” (1995) follows the story of a pig who was raised by sheepdogs—ironically, Babe the pig is a character who is confused about his own identity!  
  • Michael Crichton is a medical doctor, an American author, and the creator of “Jurassic Park.”
  • Jena mentions: “If your kid tells you that they are trans and you don't believe them and you make them pretend to not be trans, you are threatening their life.” According to a 2018 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, attempted suicide rates are alarmingly high in transgender and non-binary teens (50.8% of transgender male teens, 29.9% of transgender female teens, and 41.8% of non-binary teens).

Cheat Sheet:

Gender and Sexuality 101 from Jena Curtis

  • Sex: “Sex is our biology, it is a combination of our hormones, our chromosomes, and our physical bodies… There's really three things that people can be in regard to sex: [male, female, or intersex]. Most people only know about two.”
  • Intersex: “Someone who has the chromosomes, the hormones, or the physical genitals of both male and female sex.”
  • Gender: “With gender, there's an entire spectrum… We used to think that people could either be boys or girls, and that sex—our physicality, our biology—had to correspond with our gender… Now, we understand that sex and gender are separate.”
  • Gender Identity: “So gender is somebody's a male or a female, and our identity is how we think of ourselves that way. Do I think of myself as a girly girl, or do I think of myself as a strong woman? ...That’s all gender identity: how do we think of ourselves and our gender?
  • Gender Expression: “So my foundation, my mascara, the lipstick, the hair, is all part of my gender expression. How I portray myself as a woman in the outside world.”
  • Non-Binary: “Five to 10% of people have a sense of themselves as something other than [male or female]...  Some people feel that their gender box or their gender label is such a bad fit that they want something else, but the other gender label isn't a better fit. People in this non-binary state—not female, not male—are still creating language to talk about that.”
  • Transgender: “So what we do when we talk about people whose sense of themselves, whose gender is different than the sex that was assigned to them at birth based on their genitals, we call those people transgender, or people who are non-binary, TGNB for short.”
  • Cisgender: “We call...the 90% of the people whose sex assigned at birth corresponds with or matches their gender identity, their sense of themselves as male or female—cisgender, meaning same-gender.”
  • Neo-Pronouns: “Again, people who are transgender and genderqueer are still evolving their own language around this, so there are also what we call neo-pronouns, people are coming up with other pronouns like xe, xyr or xem,... instead of she, her, or hers.” See a more descriptive list here.
  • Sexuality: “Sexual attraction...is about gender. So it doesn't matter if one of the women who's attracted to another woman has a penis, it is all about: do they identify as women.
  • Lesbian: “We think of lesbians as people, women, who are attracted to other women.”
  • Gay: “Gay men...are attracted to other men.”
  • Bisexual: “We invented the term bisexual and really popularized it in the ‘70s with the idea that there were two sexes and some people were attracted to both of them. Now that we understand that there are more than two genders that people can be attracted to.”
  • Pansexual: “Pansexual people, people said, ‘Well, I used to think I was bisexual, but now I know that I'm attracted to men and women, and sort-of femmy boys, and sort-of really strong women with short crew cut hair... I’m pansexual.’”
  • Two-Spirited: “Two-spirited people—in native traditions, people whose gender wasn't in the binary, were sometimes identified as having two spirits.”
  • Queer: “Queer is...for sexual orientation and gender identity. It's this big umbrella as an identity, and a signifier that someone's sexual orientation or gender identity isn't the regular old vanilla.”
  • Asexual: “A, for asexual people who said, ‘I don't really feel like I'm attracted to anybody very much regardless of their gender.’”


Justin: You remember when one or both of your parents gave you ‘the talk?’ How awful that was, and now as a parent, you need to give the talk to your kids. And today things are way more complicated, it's not just sex we need to talk about, but gender, sexuality, identity, consent, and a lot more. 

Well, parents, we got your back. In this episode, we're talking with the professor of Gender and Sexuality, Jena Curtis PhD. It is an amazing episode where we talk about everything from how to have the talk to when it's okay to start dating, to why it's so damn important to talk openly with our kids about gender, sexuality, and identity. A quick note, Dr. Curtis' sound was not great in this episode, but the energy she brings and the amazing wisdom she shares is too important to toss, so we're going with it. But I promise if you stick with it, you're gonna be super happy you did.

Jena: There is a road map, and I can’t tell you, take the highway or take the country roads. I can tell you, you need to get to a place where your child feels loved and accepted for who they are. Listening to your child, allowing your child to express themselves as their gender identity is life-saving.

Justin: We are so thrilled to present this episode with Dr. Jena Curtis, she holds a Doctorate in Education from Columbia University and is a professor of Gender and Sexuality at SUNY Cortland. She started her adult life as a community AIDS educator in 1987, when she was just out of high school. She ended up delivering hundreds of HIV/AIDS presentation programs and workshops to high school kids, college students, and community audiences all before finishing her undergraduate degree. 

So what would cause a kid just out of high school and rural upstate New York to travel around the world educating people on AIDS in 1987? Well, you're gonna need to listen to find out. Enjoy this awesome episode with Dr. Jena Curtis. 

So we can just dive right in. So the first thing we were gonna talk about was like, how far back we go, and so we started to touch on this, it's been 15, almost 16 years since we've seen Jena.

Audra: 'Cause we were in grad school together, and she was completing a doctoral degree, and I was completing a master's degree, and we worked together in family housing, and I remember being the one without kids. And I remember that kind of being a little bit of a thing. It's like, I remember struggling and being like, “But I have a family...but I know it's not the same thing. I’m not one of those people who assumes that I know what it's like.” But I remember you being our first parenting mentors.

Justin: Yeah, I remember watching how you guys parented... 

Audra: There was an apple thing. I don't know if you remember, but you told me the story about apples and how you would keep apples in the fridge and you tell the kids they can't have them because they're treats... I totally use that, I stored that away to file. And I was like, that is really good. That's good and I've been using it ever since. Now, Maesie will eat two flats of strawberries, I'd be like, “I don't know... I don't know if you should, is that…” 

So did you accept the position at Cortland right after grad school? 

Jena: Right out of grad school. As it happens in grad school, my dissertation advisor was like, “Jena, you should interview at Cortland,” ‘cause that's where he went, and I was like, “Yeah, sure, so I go to California where it's warm…” But, he was my advisor, so I interviewed at Cortland and I fell in love with it. I went from hoping they won’t make me an offer, and I have to deal with that, to  please let them make me an offer… and I’ve been here ever since. 

Justin: Oh, that's awesome. All right, so before we get into your professional work, I just wanna rewind to the personal stuff. And so when did you first know that you wanted to be a mom? Was there a moment where you're like, “Oh, dang.”

Jena: No, no, I actually talk about this when I teach about gender…  I never made a decision to be a parent. From my earliest memories, I grew up in this huge Irish Catholic family, where there were aunts and uncles and cousins everywhere, where any adult could grab you by the scruff of the neck and say, “Straighten up.” Right? Like that was my family. 

Everybody said to me, my entire childhood “Well when you will have children” or “You might not like this now, but when you have children, you will understand.” It was just part of the... It was like when you become an adult. It was just one of those things that you did. But I never regret having children, but now I have students, and I work with young adults, who are really thinking about, do they want to have families. 

Justin: Oh Jena, this is great. So you experience part of what I think of as the old way of parenting, which is, it's just part of life. It's like you grow up, you have kids, you retire and you die.

Jena: You retire, you get to do what you want, but the having kids and supporting your family is work.

Justin: So was there a moment when as a parent, you realize like, this is something more, like this is, this is a life project, like this is part of some, you know, deeper there... There's a deeper meaning here in my relationship with my kids and... Did it ever hit like that?

Jena: Yeah, absolutely. It's interesting 'cause now both of my children are adults and with their people and talking about starting their own families, not maybe right now, but in the foreseeable…within a five year plan, that's something that's certainly gonna come up. 

And Tory, my oldest, asked before the wedding, “What about kids?” And I said, “Here's the thing about kids.” And I had this conversation, I don't remember ever deciding I'm gonna be a mom as opposed to not being a mom. Like anything else, it was just always part of my identity of who I would be the same way that I would be an adult. And I would grow up to be a mom, 'cause that's what women did.

But within that, I also very much in my family, was instilled that was the best thing that you could do. It was very much like Hillary Clinton, no matter what other great things you do with your life, if you don't do a great job raising your kids like you have not nailed it. It was the most important, most crucial work you're gonna do. 

And so when I was talking to Tory about this, I said, the thing about that is, it's right. The happiest, best things that have ever happened in my life—almost all of them are tied to my kids. My proudest moment, the things that I reflect on. And some of my hardest too, like hands-down, are plenty of work, it is nothing compared to your kid is in trouble and you can’t help.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: And to Tory I said, I can't imagine my life being as happy as it is if I hadn’t had kids. And for as long as you have children, you are... It's harder to be happier than your saddest kid, or the most troubled kid. So it's sort of this incredible leap of faith to trust in this process that you see from everyone around you does not always end well and often makes parents really miserable. But brings such incredible joy.

Justin: I guess that's what makes parenting, for me at least, this almost spiritual life project, because it's not like a just totally enjoyable hobby. Like I like to surf or bike, and it's like, no, no, no. This is something different. This is, for me, yeah, as close to a spiritual project as possible because it will reveal every unprocessed wound from childhood that I have, every issue, every hang-up. And then, of course, as you alluded to, all the joy and the pain that just goes with seeing your kids struggle or go through stuff that you wish they didn't have to.

Audra: So, Jena, I'm interested because getting to know you as a parent, as parents, so you and Todd, we met. You’re parents. I didn't know you before. And you are such incredible examples to us, and we're soaking it up from you. This has been your life's work, and this is something that you went into because it's a part of a life trajectory that was passed on to you. 

And so at what point did you, or was there a point when you said, “Hey, this is something that I'm not just sort of floating through and biding my time until they're 18.” Was there a point for you where you start to really lean into that? 'Cause you're really good at it, and so I'd love to know where that kind of came to or how they came together for you.

Jena: So, this is gonna sound odd, but one of the things that was really pivotal, and really helpful for my parenting, was that my brother got sick when I was a teenager. And so Todd, who was my high school boyfriend, and I had lots of conversations about that. And he had AIDs back when AIDs was pretty, immediately fatal. And so for my entire relationship with Todd, in the beginning, I had a critically ill, we would say terminally ill brother, and family stuff was super important and super intense and super accelerated because we had that thing that lots of families with diagnoses have of you gotta get it all in. 

Audra: Yup. 

Jena: So Todd and I were high school sweethearts who got married at 22.  Because my brother had just been diagnosed with AIDS and they said he’d gonna live for a year or two. And I went to him and I said, “I love you and we’re gonna get married at some point, but if we don't get married before my brother dies, I'm gonna be too sad to get married, so we need to do it now.” 

And then kids was the same thing. Like, “Let's have kids.” But because of that, but I think maybe because of who I am, 'cause I knew I was putting it—I was fast-tracking it, right? It was also really important to me to sit down and sort of talk to him about what would that look like. “We're gonna get married anyway, but if we get married soon, how does that change our relationship from what it is now, right? And we're gonna have kids. We always knew we were gonna have kids. But if we have kids now, what does that mean for work? And what does it mean for this?” 

And so we had these really intentional conversations, I think in part because I was really aware of the fact that we were incredibly young and making it up while we were going along. And I didn't wanna half-ass it. Like, I didn't know what I was doing and I knew that. So we got to have these conversations about like, “What do you think about spanking on them, I think we should never hit our kids, do you... What do you think about religion, what—” 

Justin: Wow.

Audra: You brought this intentionality into it.

Justin: Yeah, and like, really building the boat as you're sailing across the ocean.

Jena: We’ve got three months to decide what a good marriage looks like, go!

Justin: Oh, I love it. Oh my god, that is why I feel like you have so much wisdom. Even back then, we would watch you guys and it really felt intentional, like you guys were not half-assing it and that these decisions were intentional. Yeah, they were done kind of on fly and kind of quickly, but it was intentional. I love that. Yeah, yeah. 

Audra: The other thing I wanted to reflect on too, speaking of your brother, is, and I'd love to talk a bit more about this because it's something that has just...there has been continued resonance for me, in reflection, looking back. 

You, in sharing with us along the way. You brought us to your home, you bought us into your lives and you shared with us, and then we end up years later with a son diagnosed with a brain tumor, and there's something there that... I don't know how to describe it, but I felt you there because you introduced us in a way, to this world that we just ended up in. And it's been very powerful for me. And you as a sibling, I see in my daughter. And a lot of that journey, I feel like you gave us… I don't know, you gave us some sort of advanced comfort in some way of just being able to be with you, and so you see, she’s surviving and thriving and making this give, and making something out of this... This is just incredibly inspiring. I think it's been, for me, it's been a huge part of my inspiration knowing that it's possible. 

Jena: Oh wow, I notice I'm feeling choked up. I teach students how to talk about things like this, and I say, “When you feel you’re alone just own it.” Yeah, I think... Yeah, one of the gifts that we had being one of the early AIDs families, and one of the gifts I got getting married so early, was the sense of there wasn't a right way to do it, there wasn't a handbook, you make it up as you go along. Because there isn't anything else to do. 

And I see so much of that in the work that you and Justin have done with MaxLove. Of sort of, there has to be a path, and we don't know what it is, but we know that there must be one and we have to build it, and sometimes veer the wrong way occasionally to get there, we will do it.

Audra: Build a ship as we sail. It's the same thing, right? 

Justin: I think the commonalities are like this, the only rules that we know we have to follow are love and authenticity. If we can just follow these two rules, we'll get somewhere.

Jena: We don’t have to stay here and hurt, we have to do something with this. Doing nothing isn’t an option. So even though you aren't sure... The good thing is we're gonna try with love and authenticity then in that moment...

Audra: Yeah, it's like what I notice in this, and I was coming up for me in this conversation, is that we oftentimes, many of us are unaware that the pursuit of the perfect life is something that we've just consented to by default because the expectation is that you do this right. Do the things perfectly and build a perfect, happy life. And when you go through what your family's been through, when you go through what we've been through, in our whole community of families, that whole notion of perfect life is destroyed. 

And out of that, you do have a choice. You can, I think there's grief that goes along with that for everybody, and there's something that it can be, and I've seen a lot of families in more of a state of disempowerment from that, like it is completely shattering. For us, we took it as an opportunity to build, at that point, and it's like, well, that's out the window.

Jena: Right. 

Audra: And now we're free in a sense. We're free to do us, to be us, and to figure out what our purpose is and what we really feel like we're gonna be good at, and so, we can make some good things happen in the world. What's it gonna be? And it was, in a sense, liberating, and it's hard to say that to people who have been through something like this or a diagnosis like this, because you know what I'm saying. I'm not trying to say that I'm grateful for my son's cancer diagnosis. That’s not the point. That’s not what I'm saying. 

Jena: Thank goodness my brother died of AIDs because I never would have gone to grad school without that... 

Justin: Right, right. 

Jena: Yeah, and that's why the language that works for me mostly—except when it doesn't...of being willing to get it wrong, because what is right is a moving thing…  One of the gifts that this gave me, like you can go on a really... And Todd does this, my husband, who was still my favorite person in the world.

Justin: Aww, after all these years, high school sweethearts.

Jena: Todd does a whole bunch of international travel and often with people who haven't done it, and he says from the time you leave your house with your bag until you get home, it's an adventure. Sometimes the adventure sucks, and sometimes the adventure is awesome, but it’s always...

Justin: But it's an adventure.

Jena: That sort of mindset of, we're always learning, and sometimes we're not getting it right, but that's not the point. It can be difficult and it can be not what you anticipated and still fabulous. 

Or it can absolutely suck... Some of the things, some of the trips that I learned the most on have been the ones that were absolutely terrible from a accomplishing-my-goals perspective. 

Audra: Right. 

Jena: The first time I did a research trip in India, I remember. I don't remember the time I decided I became a mom. I remember the time promising my higher power that if it got me out of India, I would never return again... Right. Of course. That research trip broke me, it sucked, I did everything wrong. I didn’t go back for four years. But I learned so much from that trip, and the reason it broke me was because I was doing everything wrong. 

Justin: Oh my gosh. So Jena, when you said trip at first and I was like, “Oh, Jena's kinda talking about psychedelic trips now. Alright, cool.” But it's funny because I do follow the research, so there's now real clinical trials on psychedelic therapy, and so I follow this, I'm super interested in it, and the researchers. I've heard this several times, 'cause they're asked on news shows like, “Well, what about the bad trips?” And they say, “Well, actually, people often will get the most healing and most benefit from what we think of as a bad trip.” And so, this goes in just exactly with what you're saying.

Jena: Right. Sometimes life gives you what you need instead of what you want.

Audra: Yeah, beautifully said. 

Jena: Again, sometimes right? Because sometimes people say that to me and I'm just like, “Ahhhh, I do not need this flat tire this morning on the freeway.”

Audra: Well, yes, there's a difference between someone else saying that to you and you saying it to yourself. Right?

Justin: Right, yeah.

Audra: I had the experience of a very, for me, it was a very difficult loss of a baby at 20 weeks.  She had trisomy 18. It was very difficult. And I definitely had people in my life who were like, “You'll see, it's for the best.” I was like, “Oh, I'll see?”

Justin: Or it was part of a plan or whatever. Alright, so Jena, you alluded to this when you said that had your brother not passed, you probably wouldn't have gone to grad school, and so this is a part of your professional life. It really goes back to that. So can you tell us a little bit about how you even got into researching and teaching Gender and Sexuality?

Jena: Sure... So the first thing I think that's super important to note, because this is, I think for parents to help them think about how to do this and how to have these conversations with children, and think about these topics with regard to children. My parents botched the sex talk. And I was destined to be a sex professor, so it was a real mismatch. 

Again, Irish Catholic family, and when I was seven, my dad caught me reading his Playboys, because again, from my earliest memories, how would you not wanna look at pictures of naked people? It’s obviously fascinating. I stand by that as a 51-and-a-half-year-old. It just makes sense. And so, in this very strict Catholic family that I had, nobody had the resources or skills to sit down and have conversations with me about why this is inappropriate or why it's okay for adults but not for a seven-year-old, or why children shouldn't go into their parents’ bedroom without permission. 

Like there's so many ways that conversation could have happened, except my parents just didn't have those skills. So what they did instead is they got a whole bunch of books about puberty and sexuality, and they gave them to their seven-year-old.  

Justin: Jena, just go get a PhD in this so that we don't have to have this discussion. 

Jena: That is exactly what happened. And so, one of the things I talk about when I talk to parents about how you teach them about sex, is that it's sort of like teaching kids about smoking. There's what you say and there's what you do, right? 

Before you have a conversation with your kids about their tobacco use, they have learned a thousand lessons about it from watching their uncles, people on the subway, right? It's not that if you don't talk to them, they're not learning. And it's not that if you say, “Don't ever smoke,” but you have two packs a day and a pack of the glove compartment and one stashed everywhere that you're not teaching them two separate sets of messages.

But my parents didn't—so in terms of the talk, they did everything exactly wrong. They froze, and the thing that they taught me was, is that sex is so fascinating and horrifying, both, that you can't talk to people you know about it, you can only read about it in books. 

Justin: Wow. 

Jena: I became a great reader. I learned to read everything. But at the same time, they sent that message, my parents are in their seventies and they're still really in love with each other. And they really care about each other, and they're each other's best friends, and they taught us that no matter what we did, we were always gonna be loved. And they taught us that we owned our bodies and that nobody was allowed to mess with us, and if there's somebody’s gonna mess with your brother or your sister, you were allowed to fight them. Like you were your own person and nobody could hurt you. They taught me all the great stuff that I needed to know, they just bombed the sex talk.

Justin: And so you're like, “Screw this, I'm getting a PhD and I'm gonna go and talk about this in front of thousands and thousands of people.” 

Jena: Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. And the way, actually, what happened in the background of all that, so I'm secretly hoarding all the sex books I can find. And this is the ‘70s, and the ‘80s, so there is no internet, there is no, it's really like stealing Uncle Bob’s Playboy from the closet... It’s only the way to get it ‘cause Victoria's catalogs are not even a thing yet. This is... You know, we talk about food deserts, this is a porn desert. In rural New York state. 

But still, there are enough books and stuff, and I’m learning stuff, and then my kid brother, who has hemophilia, which has just been sort of in the background of our family, he got like super confident... Like my dad is a former MP, he's a police chief, we are the “Get it done, make a plan, work the plan” family. My brother, who has hemophilia, gets HIV and then AIDs. And so, this is in, we find out he’s infected in 1985. But, for historical context for folks who don’t know about this, 1985 was a really scary time, in terms of HIV. It was our first global pandemic. And people were pretty hysterical. Kids with hemophilia who had AIDS—Ryan White was the most famous. Kids were being kicked out of their schools, there were three brothers in Florida with hemophilia whose houses were burned down when they tried to go to school. So my family, in this tiny little town of 2,000 people and one traffic light in Cooperstown says, “We're just not gonna tell anyone, right?”

Audra: Right. 

Jena: They started taking my brother to New York City for AIDS care, because there's nothing in our area, and to bring him to the local hospital would be an equivalent to out him. And so that is what we do. 

So for my entire high school career, I knew that my brother had hemophilia and had HIV, and nobody knew what that meant. But we could also never talk about it. And I went off to college and that’s how it was. I was pre-law, I wanted to be the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. We still don't have one by the way.

Audra: Right. 

Jena: 35 years later. Still not there. This was 1987. I wanted to be the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Yeah, I'm still waiting too, Audra. 

Audra: We’re still waiting for you. 

Jena: Life called me in a different direction. I went to college to do that, I was gonna be pre-law, I was gonna be a lawyer, I was gonna be a justice, I was gonna fight for, you know. And my brother stayed home in high school, junior high, at that point. And then later in high school, hiding the fact he was HIV-positive until he got too sick. And when he was a senior in high school, he got his first case-defining illness, we used to do that... remember HIV-positive, and then case-defining illness, and then you were full-blown AIDS, like, right? Yeah, the way we label disease is really...maybe a whole other talk.  

Audra: Yes, yeah. For sure.

Jena: Right, yeah, so many. He was full-blown and once he was full-blown, it was one to two years. [That] was the diagnosis. It just was November of his senior year in high school, he had just started. So don't bother to apply to college. I dropped out of college, I came home, he was like, decided that keeping it a secret didn't make any sense. Like you had to. Being mad at him...it wasn't the worst thing in the world anymore. Losing friends wasn't... So he was a Boy Scout and decided to do this Eagle Scout project talking about AIDS. And I was his big sister so I was like, “I'm a college dropout, I can tag along and talk about AIDS.” And we started speaking together. And so by the time that you and I met, or we met, ‘cause Justin was in grad school too with you, I had been doing that for almost a decade. And my brother had just died, like, I think he died the May I started grad school.

Audra: I didn't know it was that recent to you starting grad school. 

Jena: I look back on those years and think, “Wow, that's amazing,” because I remember just barely holding it together. Like in having a sense of myself as sober... Okay, really just overwhelming grief and we need to hold this together.

Audra: It strikes me too, and you say that I'm really impacted because I hear that in you from the beginning, from childhood to some degree, and that you've been holding so much together throughout your life. That's what brings you to plan a marriage at 22 and plan it out and plan exactly how the kids are gonna go, you know, it's... 

Justin: I think when tragedy strikes like this, we can hold it together by avoiding and repressing and ignoring, and “I'm just gonna hold it together, I don't wanna break,” you know? Or I can hold it together by diving straight into this thing, by walking straight towards it, and I feel like that's what we've done with childhood cancer, I'm just like... And that's exactly what you did is like... I'm going straight into that fire. Yeah, that's powerful. 

Audra: Yeah, that is my memory of meeting you is, I think that that was one thing that was so impactful to me is that your openness, vulnerability, presence, being able to speak about your experience, being able to speak about Henry, being able... It wasn't a secret part of your life. It was a part of your life that felt very incorporated in your life and in who you are, and still very much does. It's a really, really powerful journey. 

So when your brother was diagnosed, he must have been very young, initially with hemophilia. Is that something that's typically diagnosed early in childhood? 

Jena: Well. This is again... Now, it would be, almost definitely. This was 1973. So actually the first eminent diagnosis was leukemia, 'cause he presented the toddler-crawling with bruising and bleeding gums...

Audra: Right. 

Jena: Lumps... And so we had to go, my parents were in the service in Fort Gordon, Georgia, and there was nobody there who could diagnose this little toddler who's bleeding. So they sent us to the CDC in Atlanta. My parents brought us there... I remember—this is one of my earliest memories, 'cause my brother was one-and-a-half and I was about five-and-a-half. And they brought us to the CDC, and they had ruled it down to leukemia, which was terrible because this was 1974. 

Justin: Right.

Audra: It's terminal at that point.

Justin: It’s a death sentence.

Jena: Toddlers with leukemia. And my parents are not educated, they're—I’m five—they're 25-year-old kids in the service.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: So what they know is their kid’s probably got leukemia, and if he’s got leukemia he's gonna die. And instead, it turns out it's not leukemia, it's this other thing, hemophilia, which we have never heard of and we know nothing about. And it turns out it's just this blood disease, and if the kid gets hurt, you can give them lots of other people's blood and they'll stop bleeding.

Audra: Transfusions. And at this point, there's no Facebook support groups, no online chats, there's none of this. Your parents are going it alone with a kid with a rare diagnosis that seems to be treatable...if you have access to blood transfusions.

Jena: You dive in and teach yourself everything you can. It isn't an accident I decided I could plan a marriage at 22. 

Audra: Yes. 

Jena: As a child, I was taught how to do IV blood transfusions at age 10, because at 10, again we were Catholic, and seven was old enough to get your ears pierced 'cause that was like First Communion, so 10 seemed like good enough for IV therapy.

Audra: Yes, of course. Yeah.

Justin: The math works out.

Jena: You are a woman, now, here's the IV— 

Audra: And caregiver. 

Justin: Yeah, yeah. So Jena, to bring us up to the present, how would you describe the work you do right now? You're at a dinner party, like... How do you describe it?

Jena: It depends. If I come to your dinner party, I would tell people that I teach Gender and Sexuality. That I do research about gender and sexuality typically on stigmatized or minoritized groups or sexualities. So I can do a lot of work with sexual violence with women around the world, I do a lot of stuff with the LGBTQ+ community. That's what I do.

Justin: But if it's a really bad dinner party... What do you say?

Jena: Right. If it's my uber-conservative cousin's dinner party, I’m a health professor.

Justin: Yeah.

Jena: I teach people how to be healthy.

Justin: Yeah, got it.

Jena: Mostly with women's health around the world. Lately, I have been working a lot in Haiti and in India and—oooh, look at the time.

Justin: Exactly, exactly. Alright, so this is the part in the conversation where I wanna start getting into stuff where I think a lot of listeners, parent listeners can start to put some things into action. How to talk to our kids about gender and sexuality, how to think about these things. But before we do, I'm imagining that there are some parents out there who come from families like mine, where... Yeah, the whole sex talk, it was just this awkward, terrible thing, and the less we can talk about this, the better. Let's just... Just ignore it. How can we kind of lower the temperature before we get into talking about these things?

Jena: That is the perfect question, because think about how we frame this, like “the talk,” which conveys to people, think about this, some time in your childhood, we're gonna have a conversation in which I will tell you everything you need to know, about emotional aspects of sex and intimacy.

Justin: And there's an idea of a forbidden knowledge too, right?

Jena: We will never speak of this again. Can you imagine if you approach table manners like that? There’s a dinner in sixth grade, and we will teach you all the silverware and how to use your wine glass, and if you don't get it, you're gonna be a social failure forever because you don’t know what a shrimp fork does.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: In reality, we start teaching our kids about sexuality—and table manners—in infancy, right? As soon as our kids start eating solid food, we say, “Oh no, you don't spit it back at mommy, that's not nice.” When we change our kids’ diapers, when we label body parts. When we say, “Oh no, you don't take stuff from your diaper and you don't touch your…” And we give that thing a name. We are... So again, getting back to my family where we didn't talk about this, the names that we had for things that were covered by diapers or underpants was bottom, front or back, boy or girl, it was all your bottom. You did not touch your bottom, you kept your bottom covered, nobody got to see your bottom except you or your doctor. Or if someone was giving you a bath... Right, that sends a really significant message in a family where everything else has a name. 

Justin: So, what I'm hearing is that we can lower the temperature by just understanding that whether we like it or not, we've been having the talk ever since the beginning.

Jena: A less risky example: when I was in junior high, all my friends started wearing makeup, and I really, really wanted to wear makeup. I didn't go to my mom and say, “Hey, Mom, what do you think about me as a seventh-grader wearing make-up?” Because in seventh grade, I knew exactly what my mom thought about that...right? I had had 12 years watching her in the mall go, “I don't know who that person thinks she is, but she just looked so much prettier if she'd wash all that gunk off her face.”

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: I had heard that a thousand times before I ever considered having the makeup conversation with my mom, so... Right, so I just bought friends’, I borrowed friends' make-up and hid it in my lunch bag 'cause I d know that she would say the wrong thing. I didn’t have to ask what she thought. She had already told me what she thought over and over, and it's okay for her to do that. 

It is okay for us as parents to have our values around things like what makeup is appropriate or what clothes are appropriate or what age kids should be allowed to do certain things with their friends. That's why we got elected parents, not only are we allowed to do that, it's our responsibility. But ideally, we communicate with our kids about what those rules are and what our expectations are explicitly, rather than just letting them guess based on how they see our behavior.

Audra: Yeah, it's such an amazing point. They're picking up on everything, from all the conversations we're having that are indirect, that we don't realize that we're having, all of the sharing within the family unit and without, and all of our judgments, everything that we're sharing, and then very often just never having a direct conversation.

Jena: Right, and again, I think as parents, one of the things I hate most about talking about the talk is if I'm a parent who's nervous or anxious about that, right. I don't wanna get just...which most parents are, right? I am sometimes nervous about important talks I have with my kids, 'cause they’re high-stakes and I love my kids, and I don't wanna mess it up. 

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: That's so important, but if I'm nervous about it, and I think it's one talk and it's... I'm the one teaching my kids about sex, I can put it off because I allow myself to believe that everybody else isn't teaching my kids about sex. 

So my oldest kid, Tory, came out to us pretty early, in junior high...actually, in middle school, in sixth grade. I suspected for most of Tory’s life that Tory liked girls. Tory had a crush on this adorable little girl in kindergarten, I just always knew. But when Tory entered middle school, Tory hadn't had a conversation about that with us. So I got this book, a fantasy book, Mercedes Lackey, it's the Valdemar series—she still writes them—and it has same-sex characters in it, just part of the canon… It's not a sexual book but it's just a fantasy series where sometimes boys have boyfriends and sometimes girls have girlfriends while they're riding magic horses and saving the world. 

Audra: Right, yeah. 

Jena: And so in Tory was at that age in middle school, she's reading a lot of fantasy, I just say, “Hey, here's this really good series I'm reading,” 'cause I wanna give a positive role model to my kid who I'm pretty sure is queer. But she's not bringing up the conversation and at this point in my life, I don't feel like I can say, “Hey, just wanna remind you, even if you were gay, but no matter what, I'm always gonna love you.” I'm telling her that enough anyway. Right, Tory reads the first book, loves it, decides in her 11-year-old brain that I can't possibly know what is actually in this book.

Justin: Oh wow.

Jena: This is when we were living in Bancroft Hall, we knew you guys at this point, remember?

Audra and Justin: Yeah!

Jena: Tory sneaks on the subway by herself, down to the Barnes and Noble at 70th Street to buy the second book in the series because she doesn't wanna ask for it 'cause she's afraid we might read it and find out there are gay characters.

Justin: Oh my gosh.

Jena: Because, despite the fact that I am studying what I do— 

Justin: Do you know what I do every day? 

Jena: All of her friends and everybody else around her and all the messages she's getting from society are, “You can’t let your parents know you might be gay because they hate you.”

Audra: Right, right. So no matter how open you are and supportive you've been, those messages and narratives just present in society, in our culture are so oppressive. 

Jena: Yeah, people are talking to your kids…about sex and gender every day.

Justin: So you just used some terms that I think we all think we know what they mean, but maybe we don't. So maybe we can get some 101 Gender and Sexuality from Jena Curtis here. So what do these terms mean? So I wanna know about gender, I wanna know about sex, and I wanna know about sexuality. Are they the same thing, are they different? 

Jena: Okay, so I love the way that you said that most of us think we know. And I think I know too, and I'm gonna give you the best definition that I have today. I've been doing this work now for 30 years. So the way that I have defined those terms has changed really radically in that time, because our understanding of what those things are have changed. So it would make sense that this would be new information for lots of folks, and it's okay not to know. They change and sometimes I have to ask, tell me what that is. 

So sex is our biology, it is a combination of our hormones, our chromosomes, and our physical bodies. And in the US, people start talking about our sex, typically before were born, right? To point through a pregnancy— 

Justin: Not just talking, but sometimes exploding things in blue and pink colors.

Jena: In the US, because we have lots of technology, at some point in a pregnancy, so typically somebody will look at the fetus’ genitals and say, “Do you wanna know the baby’s sex?” And the people have talked it over and they decided they do, or they talk it over right there, and they consult and they decide or they don't. But even if they decide, then...it's interesting because people are like, “No. We wanna be surprised.” You're gonna have to find out eventually, right?

Justin: You’re gonna know sometime.

Jena: You’re gonna know sometime and might still be surprised. So at some point in the pregnancy or when the baby is born, somebody who is a medical provider for that person and the baby is gonna say, “Congratulations, it's a boy or a girl.” Those are the two choices we give everybody: boy or girl.

Justin: We've seen the hardware, we can tell you what the sex is. 

Jena: Exactly. It is based on a quick check of genitalia. Yup, that looks like a penis. Yeah, that's a vulva. The only two choices. And here's the good news: in the past, I would say that 90-95% of the time that we have gotten that right. And what I mean by getting it right is that up till now, and I'll talk about how now is different in a second, but up till now, about 90% of the time when we say “Congratulations, you've got a baby boy!” Or “congratulations, she's a little girl!” We've been correct. That human has grown up and become a man or become a woman, just as we predicted the day they were born. 

Sometimes, and this is pretty rare, probably less than 2% of all births, and some people would say as rare as one in a 1,000, there are babies born with what we call intersex. And that means that their genitalia are somewhat ambiguous. It's hard to tell if it's a baby girl or a baby boy sometimes. Or sometimes babies are born intersex, and their genitalia look exactly the way we think that penises and vulvas should, but what's inside is different. Right?

Depending on the reason that happened, sometimes babies are born intersex because of hormones that they're exposed to while they’re fetuses, that they're not gonna be exposed to anymore, so we just need time for their bodies to change and their own hormones to take over. Sometimes those babies need surgery to bring their genitals into line with what their brains and their hormones are going to do. And sometimes those babies need to be left to grow into humans that have genitals that look different than what most people think penises or vulvas should look like. But that's a process of working with the child and their doctors and the parents to figure out what's best.

Justin : So sex is mostly about this perceived biological reality, but you've alluded to the fact that there is more there...

Jena: There is gender there, and gender is someone's own sense of themselves as male or female, or something else. So again, when we talk about sex, we have two choices, typically is what most people think of: we have male or female. And now I've introduced this third option that we don't normally talk about is intersex, someone who has the chromosomes, the hormones, or the physical genitals of both male and female sex. So that’s sex. There's really three things that people can be in regard to sex. Most people only know about two. 

With gender, there's an entire spectrum. We used to think that people could either be boys or girls, and that sex—our physicality, our biology—had to correspond with our gender. Our sense of ourselves as men or women or something else. Now, we understand that sex and gender are separate. For most people, they are aligned. Ninety percent of people will grow up—who have already been born—will grow up feeling in their head like exactly what the doctor or midwife said that morning they slapped them on the butt. “Congratulations, you’re a little baby girl. You're a little baby boy.” 

Five to 10% of people have a sense of themselves as something other than that. Some of them have a very clear sense, “No, I'm not a little girl, I'm a boy.” “No, I'm not a man, I'm a woman.” Other people don't feel like those, what we call “gender boxes” maybe, that box of “Here’s all the things that men should be” and “Here’s all the things women should be...” Fit them. 

Actually, lots of people feel that way. Some people feel that their gender box or their gender label is such a bad fit that they want something else. But the other gender label isn't a better fit, people in this non-binary state—not female, not male—are still creating language to talk about that. Some people call that gender queer, some people call that non-binary. So what we do when we talk about people whose sense of themselves, whose gender is different than the sex that was assigned to them at birth based on their genitals, we call those people transgender, or people who are non-binary. TGNB for short. I have to type it out a lot. 

We call everyone else, the 90% of the people whose sex assigned at birth corresponds with or matches their gender identity, their sense of themselves as male or female—cisgender, meaning same-gender.

Audra: Can I just observe for a moment that that was just the most succinct, beautiful, simplified, educational opportunity I've had to explore sex and gender, maybe ever. And Jena, one thing I love, love, love that you said is speaking of how things are changing and have changed. Because of course, things change. And we learn and we grow, we change, and one of the worst things that we see anyway, working in health and wellness and healthcare is when someone comes up with a theory in 1965 and because they did, they gotta stick to it. I mean, it's really destructive. 

And so to be, to honor the movement in change and growth and learning, it's such a beautiful thing. I think it's probably hard to do in academia because we wanna stick with, 'cause it's naturally pretty conservative. We wanna stick with the things that were written before.

Jena: And before we do anything, we have to form a committee to explore it, so now that we've gotten the glacier here, you're saying you wanna turn it and move it where?

Justin: Right, well, so there's a historical change, but I'm wondering if you can talk briefly what I've learned is that there's also just super individual factors. So learning, as teaching on a university campus, you have to ask somebody, how would you like to be... How would you like to be addressed? And so can you speak about that aspect?

Jena: So when I started my explanation, I said, so, before people who are already born? Right, and I talked about how when we're talking about people who are born in the past, probably 90-95% of the time, we got sex assigned at birth correct. Most people were the gender, the same gender as their sex assigned at birth. For reasons that we're not exactly sure that we completely understand, there are many more transgender and genderqueer people below the age of 30-40, then there are above it. Probably twice as many. 

Justin: Oh wow, I didn't know the numbers. Okay. 

Jena: So now on your campus and my campus, we have twice as many students, probably if we reflect national trends, I know my campus does, we have twice as many students who identify as trans or genderqueer than we have before, and we don't think we're capturing the true picture of that because one: our population is still figuring themselves out; and two: we think that the way that students are starting to think about talking about gender identity is different. 

So let me add a fourth term, so we talked about sex, we talked about gender. We'll get to sexuality, I promise, but now I wanna talk about gender identity and gender expression. So gender is somebody's a male or a female, and our identity is how we think of ourselves that way. Do I think of myself as a girly girl, or do I think of myself as a strong woman? Do I think of myself as a hard guy who can cry and separate? Like that’s all gender identity, how do we think of ourselves and our gender. Right, I think of myself as a smart, strong woman. And in that context, smart and strong have a feminine flavor to them. I am smart, the way that women are smart, there's some strategy and there's a social skill involved there, and it's not just about blinding ego. And I'm strong, the way that women are strong. Again, getting allies… So that's all gender identity, and that's our sense of ourselves in our head, that develops over the course of our lives. What kind of man or woman or person are we relating to our gender? 

Our gender expression is how we portray that on the outside. Am I wearing a dress? Am I wearing makeup? Because we're doing this call, I put on makeup, I put on foundation.

Audra: Justin keeps forgetting to tell people that we're not. 

Justin: Well, yeah, so we are not necessarily using the video, but we may use clips. 

Audra: Okay, alright, alright.

Jena: You haven’t seen me in 15 years, I said to Todd, “If you saw this face, would you be like, ‘Wow, Jena’s really let herself go...’”

So my foundation, my mascara, the lipstick, the hair, is all part of my gender expression. How I portray myself as a woman on the outside world. Yesterday I was in sweat pants and a ponytail: my gender identity wasn't the same. I was still the same, smart, strong woman today that I was yesterday. Today, I'm just femming it up a little bit to impress you guys, right? 

We don't know if our students’ gender is changing or their gender expression, their willingness to be seen as androgynous or gender queer, their willingness to demand—as you suggested, Justin—that we ask them about their pronouns, because some of our students or some of our children, instead of just wanting to be he or she, or to be pronouned based on the sex that they were assigned at birth, want to be able to tell you what their pronouns are. “No, my pronouns are she, even though you think I'm a boy,” or “No my pronouns are they, even though you think I look like a girl.” Right? 

Again, people who are transgender and genderqueer are still evolving their own language around this, so there are also what we call neo-pronouns, people are coming up with other pronouns like xe, xyr or xem,... instead of she, her, or hers.

Justin: So there's this historical change and then I'm visually seeing like, then there's just this individual context.

Jena: And we're still figuring that out, and that's why five years from now when we have the...the anniversary of this, I'll be able to have a much better sense of why we have more transgender and genderqueer adolescents and young adults than ever before, and are we gonna continue to see that? 

My guess is that we're gonna see something in over the next 10 years, very similar to what we saw after the gay rights movement in the ‘60s through the ‘70s and ‘80s It's not probably that more people have same sex attraction now then did before. It's probably that now that we have marriage equity, now that we have civil rights, people who experience that, feel comfortable marrying the person they love, because they're not gonna risk getting fired from their job or losing their... Right?

We have throughout history, if you talk to Civil War experts, they will tell you stories of soldiers who are killed, and then when they bury them, we discover they were really secretly women pretending to be men. Although maybe 'cause that's the language we had back then, but maybe there were people who experience themselves as men, who went off to fight for their country, even though they had vulvas. 

We always had people whose gender identity has been outside the binary, in all cultures that we've studied around the world. We have always had people whose sexual attraction was outside the “you should be attracted to someone of the other sex.”

Justin: Jena, real quick, do you have any statistics on the rise in transgender parents. Has this tracked as well for parents?

Jena: We are just now starting to ask questions about gender identity related to respondents in surveys. And there were huge fights around the census and all of these things, and it's really fascinating for me as a health educator because we're always fighting in all these national data collection efforts, because people are saying that our data collections for sexual health matters are too sexually explicit...

Audra: Too sexually explicit?

Justin: It's too much knowledge.

Jena: So for instance, we only have data about kids and specific sexual behaviors for very recently, because before we would only ask children if they were sexually active, but we wouldn't define what that meant.

Audra: Okay. Yes.  

Jena: Right, that’s... 

Audra: To plant a seed, is that what the problem is? 

Jena: That's what they thought.

Justin: So the census made me do it.

Jena: Like walking into your house and saying…

Justin: Right, right. 

Jena: Did you eat any of the cookies that I said were for dessert?

Audra: And then on the other side of the coin, you likely have people saying, “Well, you don't have data.” 

Jena: Exactly, so when we talk about queer families is that we have more people identifing as LGBTQ+ as parents than ever before, and the willingness of physicians to work with these families…

Justin: Oh wow. 

Jena: ...around fertility and other needs related to queer and genderqueer parenting, so... So there's another word I use the word “queer.” 

Justin: Yes. Define that. 

Jena:  Which, yes, in that LGBT... Let me talk about that too. L is lesbian. We think of lesbian as people, women, who are attracted to other women. And sexual attraction, when we talk about the sexual attraction, is about gender. So it doesn't matter if one of the women who's attracted to another woman has a penis, it is all about, do they identify as women. So lesbians are women who are attracted to women, bisexual people. And we're gonna have to change this alphabet, 'cause again, this is... Things are exploding in the sexuality world right now. We invented the term bisexual and really popularized it in the ‘70s with the idea that there were two sexes and some people were attracted to both of them. Now that we understand that there are more than two genders that people can be attracted to. We think of bisexual people and as people who can be two or more genders.

Audra: More fluid.

Jena: So L is lesbian, G is gay, men who are attracted to other men. B is bisexual, people who are attracted to ..., and T is transgender, somebody who's gender identity doesn't meet their sex or match their sex assignment. 

Now because people do, I just said, I think myself as a strong, smart woman, I've created my own identity label. People have done the same thing for their sexual orientation, intersex people have said, “Hey, we wanna be included in the LGBT umbrella.” LGBT, okay we’ll put an I in there, right. Two spirited people—in native traditions, people whose gender wasn't in the binary, were sometimes identified as having two spirits.

Audra: I didn’t know that.

Jena: Two-spirited people said, “Hey, we wanna be in the umbrella.” Transgender people were already there, so, we already have a T. Pansexual people, people said, “Well, I used to think I was bisexual, but now I know that I'm attracted to men and women, and sort of femmy boys, and sort of really strong women with short crew cut hairs, and I had, I’m pansexual.” So now we have LGBTQ, A, for asexual people who said, “I don't really feel like I'm attracted to anybody very much regardless of their gender.” P for pansexual, and Q for the word queer, which we use in two ways. Some people have queer as an identity, and they say, “I'm not straight, but I'm not…none of those other labels really work for me. I'm queer, I'm beyond the typical binary of how we think about sexuality.”

Justin: So, queer is another way of saying, like, “Don't box me in?”

Jena: So queer is when, there's two things. So one appears as an identity label. So people whose sexual orientation or gender identity doesn't align with any of the labels they have, often identify as queer. Maybe somebody, a woman who is largely attracted to other women, but occasionally will date a man. Or a man who is attracted to men and trans women. Right? So queer is sort of outside... So another way, if we're talking about kinky sex, maybe someday, we'll launch that podcast.

Justin: Oh yeah, we’re gonna have you back on. 

Audra: It's gotta be recurring. 

Jena: Or when you talk about kink with people, people will talk about kink versus vanilla sex. And vanilla is sort of the missionary, in the dark, with the lights on and the blankets up to your chin, the way we imagine our grandparents have sex. That is not how they had sex. But that’s what we want we think. 

Justin: That's what I prefer to think. 

Audra: Yes.

Jena: That changes everything that's not vanilla. And then whether it's spanking or role play, it's just not the vanilla missionary-style. Queer is like that for sexual orientation and gender identity, it's this big umbrella as an identity, and a signifier that someone's sexual orientation or gender identity isn't the regular old vanilla, no offence to anybody who's listening, I believe that whatever someone sexual orientation or gender identity is that's awesome. But it isn't the regular old vanilla straight-versus-gender. So people will use queer as an identity.

Those of us who study and research sexuality and gender, use queer as a descriptor for those studies, like queer studies and gender studies, studies of sexuality and sexual orientation. We also, and here's one of my favorite ways to use this word, use the word queer as a verb, to talk about ways that we can kind of subvert the standard narrative, especially around sex or gender or race. 

So for instance, one of the things I suggest to my students when I'm talking to them about their sexual behaviors is they queer the dating narrative that they think about who's supposed to do what, where, and think about, how they would construct a date if they didn't have these rules in their head about what it's supposed to be? What would you do if you didn't think that because you're the boy, you have to do these things, or what would you do if you didn't think that because you're the girl you have to sit and wait to see what the boy wants to do?

Audra: Oh my gosh, I love it. I wish I had your class. 

Justin: Yeah, right, well, and that's why we have Jena on the show, and so we can get a little piece of this magic. 

Audra: We need to keep it going. It’s really amazing.

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Alright, so I imagine new parents, let's say I'm a new parent, we just had a brand new baby. And do I need to know about this stuff yet, or can I just push this off till puberty? Can I come back to you in 12 or 13 years?

Jena: So I'm gonna tell you the same thing your pediatrician is gonna tell you as a new parent. Listen to your baby. I remember when I was a new parent, I was so... I was 23 as a new parent. I had my first kid two weeks before my 24th birthday. That plan we made 22, we just stuck to it. Right? And I was so scared I was gonna mess it up. 

How will I know if the baby's hungry, how do I do the baby needs to be... And the pediatrician said listen to your baby. When your baby cries, pick him up and see if he needs to be fed, see if the baby wants to be changed. As a new parent, you can absolutely bring your baby home, have the gender reveal party, if that's what you need to do. If that is your family's tradition and your parents or godparents or whatever, are going to be heartbroken if it doesn't happen. It will not make people in the trans community happy, and for the sake of family harmony, do what you need to do. Please just don't put it in everybody's Facebook. 

It's okay, because 90% of the time your pediatrician, your obstetrician is gonna be right. If when that child is two or three and they say, “Mommy, I'm not a boy, I'm a girl,” listen to them. I don't need you to come out and get them hormones or do anything else. You might mention it to the pediatrician, because lots of kids will do that. Most of them will still be cisgender 90% of the time, we get it right. But right now, 5-10% percent of kids, will say they’re one gender and they’re not. And what I'm saying sounds really revolutionary, except that it's not. Right? 

We indulge our kids and our toddlers all the time. So, Zach, who you just saw, I think this was before you met him, but when Zach was three, the movie “Babe” the pig movie came out. Zach wanted to be Babe the pig. He didn’t want to be the farmer, he wanted to grow up to be a piglet. He watched the movie every day. And for about a year when he was three, any time I would say, “Oh, you're such a good little boy,” he would say, “I'm not a boy, Mommy, I’m a pig.” And so I got in the habit of saying, “Ok come on piggy, it’s time for bed. Okay, little pig, I love you so much.” 

Right, I remember one time in the grocery store, I got this bizarre look from a woman because she heard me saying to my toddler, “You’re the best little piggy ever.” But I didn’t say you can't be a pig because humans can only grow into humans. And here's the thing, my little boy cannot grow up to be a pig. He could possibly some day be my daughter. Probably not, most kids are not trans, but when kids are, we don't get to know that they are until they tell us. And when they tell us we need to listen to them, because here is the…

And I think it goes back to that conversation in the beginning about this is not the journey I plan to be on... Like, you did not sign up to be cancer parents, right? You did not say, “We feel really great, really confident in our family and our marriage, in our parenting, and we are ready for this journey.” This was the journey you were put on, you get to step up and do what you're doing, or you get to not, but this is gonna still be your journey, you have to get on this ride...

Justin: As we said at the beginning, you aren't gonna know what to do, but if you step forth in love and authenticity and honesty, you're gonna be going in the right direction. 

Audra: You could just use that response. 

Jena: Right, and I would argue that for lots of parents, for parents whose children have critical illnesses, often we don't have good evidence as to what the best course action is... Right? 

One of the horrible things I experienced, one of my children was critically ill during their childhood often, and those hard choices you have to make as a parent where a year from now, or five years from now, or maybe when the kid’s grown, you're gonna have an answer...if it’s the right choice. But now you just have to listen to the experts or listen to your faith, or listen to and make that choice. 

For a transgender parents, for the parents of trans and genderqueer kids, we have overwhelming evidence that listening to your child, allowing your child to express themselves as their gender identity is life-saving.

Audra: It's incredible. So there's a road map. 

Jena: There is a road map, and it doesn't, but I can't tell you, take the highway or take the country roads. I can tell you, you need to get to a place where your child feels loved and accepted for who they are.

Justin: So Jena, this is like all parenting for everything, always.

Jena: And how you accept that and how we, right, your kid picks a person that you’re not...is not your favorite or you want them to study to be a doctor, right? Being a parent is finding a way to be. 

But here's the thing, if you force your kid to be a doctor, they might be a miserable doctor and they might write novels on the side. We have a whole bunch of best selling authors who are actually doctors—Michael Crichton has his MD, right?

If your kid tells you that they are trans and you don't believe them and you make them pretend to not be trans, you are threatening their life. Being transgender is not a disease, it is not an illness, it is not a life threat, being a trans kid and trying to pretend you're not is life-threatening... You know, I teach this as suicide prevention.

Justin: God, yeah.

Audra: That is incredible. I think we need to really put a pin in that and make a note that not supporting your child in being who they are, expressing who they are and being able to live their lives as who they are and who they wanna be, is life-threatening.

Jena: And the hard thing about parenting is we all have visions of who we want our kids to be. I have had kids date people I didn't like, I have had kids dropout of college, I have had kids make all sorts of choices that I would not have voted for in their adolescent and adult lives. 

And I have their entire lives to help them grow into the kind of person they're meant to be, and to push towards the kind of person I'd like them to be. Things that will protect them, things that will keep them here, things that will keep that dialogue open, so I can keep giving them guidance, that's what I prioritize. 

Justin: Beautiful.

Audra: So what I'm hearing is that it's not going to be damaging to put the girl... She's born, we identify as a girl in birth, you put her in pink clothes, you put the boy in blue clothes, that's not going to be necessarily the most damaging thing ever. You're sending a message certainly, and there is communication happening here, but it's not the end of the world. What we need to do is, 'cause one thing that I thought was really powerful, you're acknowledging family dynamics and culture and all of the other rich things going on. But when the child expresses who they are, you listen and take that seriously.

Jena: Yes, the same way that if my child said, “Mom…” Actually, Tory did. My oldest kid went to college at 16 and super bright, and was getting a lot of college notices and my college really heavily recruited Tory. And I was kind of gently like, “Wouldn’t that be so cool? We could commute together.” And finally Tory turned to me and said, “Mom, every time you talk about me going to your college, I throw up a little bit in the back of my throat.” Tory is not a beat-around-the-bush kid… “Mom, this is not my path. Listen!”

Justin: Yeah. 

Jena: It would be great, we could have lunch together every day for four years. Was not Tory’s path.

Justin: No. Alright, so we are coming up against time here, so what is coming up for me first is that we absolutely have to have you back on because there's like five questions that I absolutely want answered, and so we're gonna have to have you back.

Jena: The kink section. 

Justin: Oh my god, it's like, Come on. It's gonna be awesome. So we're gonna have you back, but one question before I get into the three quick ones that we throw everybody, 'cause it's just standing out to me, maybe because we have a teenager. Dating... How early is too early?

Jena: Okay, so Justin, this is the price of admission, right here. This is the same answer for anything your kid tells you about sex and relationships. My kid comes to me and says, in kindergarten, and says, “Mom, Mahogany at and I are dating,” right? I say, “Tory, what does that look like?” Right? 'Cause here's the thing I know. My kid thought, Tory thought that Tory and Mahogany were dating in kindergarten. And kindergarten dating is “I sit next to you on the school bus, and we sit together at lunch.” Right? And the reason I wanna know what is…

First of all, it's contextual, but then the other thing that that question gives me, is it allows me that there is a red flag there for me as a parent, I can just say, “Wait a minute about this part, right?” So when Tory says, “I'm dating Mahogany,” and I say, “What does dating look like?” Tory says, “We sit together on the bus every day, and Mahogany’s not allowed to talk to anybody else.” 

I will just say, “I love that you guys are sitting on the bus today, I love sitting next to your dad on the bus. That's one of my favorite things. And I think not letting the person you're dating talk to anyone is sad.” So if my kid comes and says, “Mom, I'm going all the way…” Let's talk about that. What does that look like? One of my kids, adult kids, just came to me with really serious relationship news… “Awesome, congratulations. What do you think that's gonna look like? You and your person, you've obviously talked about this, you've thought about this. Well, what does that look like for you? How's your relationship gonna be now, what do you think this means?” 

So your teenage kid comes and says, “Dad I’m dating my best friend.” This kid has been in your house for dinner a million times, and you didn't even know they were checking your kid out, like that's some messed up stuff right there, right? Like all potential dates should have to claim their intentions, you start looking at your kid’s best friends, like… Your kid comes and says, “Dad, I'm dating this person. Yeah, that's awesome. What does that look like for you? Now you guys are friends, and how does the friendship different.” Or “Oh, that's great. This isn't somebody we've met before, talk to me about your connection with them.”

Jena: Oh, I love it. This opening Jena, it's just like this beautiful, beautiful, powerful opening and an open invitation to connect and converse as opposed to the typical closing, clamping, and controlling.

Jena: “Over my dead body,” right? And then the other one I use a lot with, I use a lot with my adolescents and still my kids say, “You make great choices.” 

I know your kids make great choices, I see on social media, all the fabulous things they do. Think about how much better your conversations with your adolescent kids go around dating and all those things, if they know that you think they make good choices and you respect their choices, and they know your family values. 

People think that because I do this work, and people who know me and know my politics and everything else think I’m this uber-liberal mother. Yeah, I sat down with both of my kids when they were in high school and told them that I'd rather they weren't sexually active in high school. 

Because in my experience, people who have sex in high school often do it really bad reasons, in adulthood, they look back on it and they regret it. Right? I said, “I think most high school students probably are, and in most high school relationships probably aren't ready for sex. And no matter what, I'm always gonna love you, I'm always gonna support you, and as your mom, here's what I want for you.”

Justin: Ohhh, gosh, so this opens up so many other questions for me. Alright, so we definitely have to have you back on because I wanna dig into this because there's so much, we're like, Okay, well then what if they're like, “Thanks for the advice, mom. But this is what I wanna do.”

Jena: I did not tell you, Justin, that either of my children followed my advice. But here’s the thing... And I don't talk about my kids sexual behaviors publicly anywhere that I want my own, but over the course of... I've got a, almost 30-year-old and a 25-year-old now, over the course of their adult lives and relationships, they have done things that I have disagreed with.

They did not always follow my firm guidelines or parental rules, and every time they have gotten into trouble where they have had a question or a relationship problem, or a pregnancy scare, all the sorts of things that happen around sexuality, I have been one of the first people that they had called to. Because I'm the expert, but also because I’m their parent.

Justin: Yeah, the communication was open. It was always open.

Jena: And they knew that I would disagree sometimes. I have my own values and high expectations for my kids, but I'm never gonna shame them, and I'm never going to tell them that they're not allowed as young adults or adults to make their own choices in their lives. 

I'll respectfully tell them that I disagree sometimes with choices. But they get to... Zach when he turned 18, told us that he was now thinking of us as an advisory… Neither of my children have a hard time telling me what they actually think.

Justin: Yes, yes, but the relationship is...

Audra: Okay, you know what, I just... I have to reflect to a couple of things, I'm really, really struck by, I think what I feel like I'm hearing and getting a feel for, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I wanna check in on this, is that when you talk about your family values, I have to think respect as a core one.

Jena: Very much so. 

Audra: I feel it. 

Jena: Yes, so we are friends and you get to have your own life. My children are adults, we get to live their own life, that’s all respect. And honesty is, as someone who cares for you and loves you, I also have an obligation to give you my best feedback and my best advice, even if I don't agree. So the respect can sometimes be hand-off, I think with honesty it's sort of yes, 'cause with parenting too, or sometimes with friends. I don't go...as a relationship person, I have such a rule about not offering unsolicited relationship advice anymore... And I think the honesty part is something that gets negotiated in relationships and close friendships and family, because you do have an obligation. But especially with your kids as they’re young adults and I was [able to] help them navigate this really complicated thing.

Justin: Beautiful. Alright.

Audra: So, one more thing before the three things, please. I know, I'm so sorry, I know we're getting on a time and we are going to talk. I think we have to talk with you at least 10 more times. I don't know, Jena, it's gotta be just a continuing thing. It is, like, it is so uplifting of my heart and spirit, I've learned so much, and I just wanted to express thanks to you for going into academia, going into research, for digging in and doing this work because I do... weren’t you and your brother on the “Today Show?”

Jena: I often... Again, the way I describe my job, the close friends, versus the way I describe it more formally and appropriately. The appropriate way I would describe my early twenties is I spent a lot of time offering myself to various media venues.

Audra: Yes, you were on the world stage. And you’re definitely a voice and a beautiful, passionate, articulate voice; something that is deeply needed in the world. And I get the sense you could have continued on that path. You could have continued on the advocacy path and in very many ways you're still on the advocacy path, but to be able to decide that you're gonna dig deeper and dig in and stay really involved with the research and be a part of this evolution of knowledge and sharing is really, really powerful. And I just wanted to appreciate that because I'm getting just a huge sense of gratitude for you and your work.

Justin: Heck yeah, me too. Yeah. Alright, so the intention is set. We're gonna have you back on 10 more times. 

So the final three questions we ask everybody, if you could put a big post-it note on every parent's fridge tomorrow morning, they wake up, go to the kitchen, it’s right there... What is it gonna say? 

Jena: “There is no test.” I, so often, especially early in my parenting career, I saw parenting as a series of challenges or tests, that are either pass or fail. Childbirth was a test, and there was good ways to have birth, and there were bad ways to have birth. 

Parenting is this huge, long marathon. Maybe decades after you have finished, you are able to look back and see, but there's not a task like you show up and you do it the best you can, and you get it right 60-80% of the time, depending on the day, and you try and keep the major screw ups down to a couple...

Justin: Beautiful… And a quote that has changed the way you think or feel lately.

Jena: Oh my gosh, I have this poster over my desk at work, so when I look up—anyone walking into my office is the first thing I see. Audra will remember it. “When I dare to be powerful, use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Audra: Oh, it's an amazing quote. It's one of my favorites.

Jena: I, 'cause... Here's the thing, we talk about, like, well, you can't sit and do nothing else, and you have to do something, and we don't know the way forward, so you quit... You really could. There are days where you can absolutely just sit in bed with your head under the covers and eat chocolate and sob because there is so much freaking suck. And there isn't a single good solution, and it's overwhelming to get around. The stakes are so high sometimes. It’s so easy to be afraid and to be overwhelmed, and so that one helps me remember that I don't ever have to be brave on my own behalf. I can use that power and harness it for something else and not have to be scared for myself.

Justin: Beautiful. 

Audra: Yeah, you strike me as someone who makes your decisions out of hope, not out of fear. And not to say you don't wrestle with fear like we all do, but you don't track me as a fear-based decision-maker.

Jena: I am the, “We’re standing at the lake edge on February…” I am the “I have to jump in because otherwise I will stand and analyze it forever,” so I'm constantly leaping because this right here doesn't have a chance or good judgment rather— 

Audra: Oh interesting. So just jump so that you don't have to overthink it or the fear set in? 

Jena: Exactly that... Judgment hardly ever sets in.

Justin: That's a great strategy. Alright, this last question is about kids, because for most parents and you’re way past this, but for parents of young kids, there's an exhaustion and like oh god, kids... It's just draining. But they're also wonderful, so we wanna celebrate kids, so what is your favorite thing about kids? 

Jena: So many things, I could go on about how amazing my kids are...for hours. But I think my favorite thing about kids is how many chances they give us... You can be snappy with your kids, you can be short with your kids, you can be distracted with your kids, they still think you’re one of the coolest humans on the planet. They still keep showing up. And for years or weeks. I wrote an entire dissertation and I'm pretty sure that my kids did not see me for weeks on end. And when I got done and came up for air, they were there with me. 

Audra: Oh, it's beautiful, it's beautiful. So that is an incredible reflection. I feel like how many chances they give us, or make mistakes over and over and over again. How forgiving they are. 

Justin: Yeah, yeah. Just continue to show up. Yeah.

Jena: Yeah, and the cool thing, I can tell you as somebody who's in a very different parenting place, I have the adult kids who are thinking about their own kids… They will look back and reminisce on ridiculous things that were not important as pivotal and wonderful...or fabulous. You know the stupid bodega on the corner of Amsterdam, and my kids loved, and they loved stopping here. And the fact that I stop there on the way home from school every afternoon is one of the reasons I'm the best mom ever, when really it was just I couldn't walk 12 blocks without diet Dr Pepper. Right? So moving and so willing to give us the chance to get this right.

Audra: It speaks to love and authenticity again, that children are living and often leading with love and authenticity, and so there is that open-heartedness. And it's one thing that we'll continue to talk about because we are super interested in talking about traumas and Justin is really deep into the work of emotional processing and things like this, and I feel like this reminder of the resilience and love and authenticity and the forgiving nature of kids, like kids showing up in love is like... “You haven't—Mom, Dad, you haven't ruined it.”

Jena: Right, right.

Audra: It is one thing to argue about tonight or something.

Jena: Yeah, think about the expectation of perfection that sets in at some point in all of our lives around different things. There's something that I just absolutely have to show up and nail. Like public speaking, this stuff. And then there's stuff that I'm allowed to be shitty at, softball, right? 

And then there's imposter syndrome, and you think about kids like they don’t have that... What age does imposter syndrome set in? Like middle school, maybe later, depending on the kid and their environment...but...little kids will try shit. They'll get it wrong, they don't expect you to be good. And they don’t expect us… Yeah, kids are cool people. 

Justin: I love it. 

Audra: I'm gonna be sitting in that space for a while. I'm really, really enjoying thinking about little kids through that lens, through the, like, so authentic. There is no onset of impostor syndrome at that point, it's delayed or later.

Jena: Yeah, you could grow up to be a pig. If nobody tells you at three, that you can’t... You can plan your whole pig life at that point...

Audra: Right. What are we so afraid of? 

Justin: Hey, thanks for listening to The Family Thrive Podcast. If you like what you heard, please subscribe. Tell two friends and head on over to Apple Podcast, or anywhere you listen to podcasts, and give us a review. We're so grateful you've chosen to join us on this Family Thrive Journey.



Podcast Ep. 3: It’s Time to Have “The Talk” With Gender and Sexuality Expert Jena Curtis, EdD

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Podcast Ep. 3: It’s Time to Have “The Talk” With Gender and Sexuality Expert Jena Curtis, EdD

Are you ready to have “the talk”? In this episode, Audra and Justin are joined by Jena Curtis, EdD to learn how and when to talk to our kids about everything from gender identity to sexuality to romantic love.

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In this episode


Are you ready to have “the talk”? In this episode, Audra and Justin are joined by Jena Curtis, EdD, professor of gender and sexuality at SUNY Cortland, to learn how and when to talk to our kids about everything from gender identity to sexuality to romantic love. Not only will Jena go over how to have healthy discussions about sex, but she’ll also touch on what parents should know about biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality. So get comfy and get ready to have THE TALK!


Listen here


About our guest

Jena Curtis is a professor of Gender and Sexuality and SUNY Cortland. After years of being on the main stage for HIV/AIDS advocacy, Jena turned to academia. Some of her published works include “HIV/AIDS Adherence: Teaching About Treatment and Stigma” and “Using Online Discussion Forums to Promote Critical Reflection among Pre and In-Service HIV/AIDS Educators and Service Providers.


Show notes

  • MaxLove Project is a service organization that Audra and Justin founded in an effort to help other childhood cancer families improve their children’s quality of life.
  • According to Roland Griffiths, PhD psychedelics show therapeutic potential across a number of ailments.
  • In an interview with Dr. Griffiths and Johns Hopkins, Robert Jesse says that “an unpleasant, ‘bad’ [trip] can sometimes lead to positive outcomes.”
  • Medline Plus defines trisomy 18 as “a chromosomal condition associated with abnormalities in many parts of the body.” Due to these complications, most individuals with trisomy 18 die before birth or within the first year of birth.
  • Ryan White was one of the first children with hemophilia to be diagnosed with AIDS. His diagnosis followed a blood transfusion in December 1984, and he faced pushback and discrimination from his Indiana community when he tried to return to school. He and his mother, Jeanne White Ginder, rallied for his rights, and later, Congress passed his namesake legislation: the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act.
  • In 1987, the Florida home of the Ray family was burned down after the three Ray brothers returned to class at their elementary school. The school originally barred the brothers because of their AIDS diagnosis, but a federal judge reinstated them. The family suffered boycotts against them, threatening phone calls, and arson.
  • A documentary, “Eagle Scout: The Story of Henry Nicols” (1993) was created around the HIV/AIDS advocacy work Jena and her brother performed.
  • Mercedes Lackey is an American author known for her fantasy series, including the stories in her Valdemar Universe.
  • “Babe” (1995) follows the story of a pig who was raised by sheepdogs—ironically, Babe the pig is a character who is confused about his own identity!  
  • Michael Crichton is a medical doctor, an American author, and the creator of “Jurassic Park.”
  • Jena mentions: “If your kid tells you that they are trans and you don't believe them and you make them pretend to not be trans, you are threatening their life.” According to a 2018 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, attempted suicide rates are alarmingly high in transgender and non-binary teens (50.8% of transgender male teens, 29.9% of transgender female teens, and 41.8% of non-binary teens).

Cheat Sheet:

Gender and Sexuality 101 from Jena Curtis

  • Sex: “Sex is our biology, it is a combination of our hormones, our chromosomes, and our physical bodies… There's really three things that people can be in regard to sex: [male, female, or intersex]. Most people only know about two.”
  • Intersex: “Someone who has the chromosomes, the hormones, or the physical genitals of both male and female sex.”
  • Gender: “With gender, there's an entire spectrum… We used to think that people could either be boys or girls, and that sex—our physicality, our biology—had to correspond with our gender… Now, we understand that sex and gender are separate.”
  • Gender Identity: “So gender is somebody's a male or a female, and our identity is how we think of ourselves that way. Do I think of myself as a girly girl, or do I think of myself as a strong woman? ...That’s all gender identity: how do we think of ourselves and our gender?
  • Gender Expression: “So my foundation, my mascara, the lipstick, the hair, is all part of my gender expression. How I portray myself as a woman in the outside world.”
  • Non-Binary: “Five to 10% of people have a sense of themselves as something other than [male or female]...  Some people feel that their gender box or their gender label is such a bad fit that they want something else, but the other gender label isn't a better fit. People in this non-binary state—not female, not male—are still creating language to talk about that.”
  • Transgender: “So what we do when we talk about people whose sense of themselves, whose gender is different than the sex that was assigned to them at birth based on their genitals, we call those people transgender, or people who are non-binary, TGNB for short.”
  • Cisgender: “We call...the 90% of the people whose sex assigned at birth corresponds with or matches their gender identity, their sense of themselves as male or female—cisgender, meaning same-gender.”
  • Neo-Pronouns: “Again, people who are transgender and genderqueer are still evolving their own language around this, so there are also what we call neo-pronouns, people are coming up with other pronouns like xe, xyr or xem,... instead of she, her, or hers.” See a more descriptive list here.
  • Sexuality: “Sexual attraction...is about gender. So it doesn't matter if one of the women who's attracted to another woman has a penis, it is all about: do they identify as women.
  • Lesbian: “We think of lesbians as people, women, who are attracted to other women.”
  • Gay: “Gay men...are attracted to other men.”
  • Bisexual: “We invented the term bisexual and really popularized it in the ‘70s with the idea that there were two sexes and some people were attracted to both of them. Now that we understand that there are more than two genders that people can be attracted to.”
  • Pansexual: “Pansexual people, people said, ‘Well, I used to think I was bisexual, but now I know that I'm attracted to men and women, and sort-of femmy boys, and sort-of really strong women with short crew cut hair... I’m pansexual.’”
  • Two-Spirited: “Two-spirited people—in native traditions, people whose gender wasn't in the binary, were sometimes identified as having two spirits.”
  • Queer: “Queer is...for sexual orientation and gender identity. It's this big umbrella as an identity, and a signifier that someone's sexual orientation or gender identity isn't the regular old vanilla.”
  • Asexual: “A, for asexual people who said, ‘I don't really feel like I'm attracted to anybody very much regardless of their gender.’”

In this episode


Are you ready to have “the talk”? In this episode, Audra and Justin are joined by Jena Curtis, EdD, professor of gender and sexuality at SUNY Cortland, to learn how and when to talk to our kids about everything from gender identity to sexuality to romantic love. Not only will Jena go over how to have healthy discussions about sex, but she’ll also touch on what parents should know about biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality. So get comfy and get ready to have THE TALK!


Listen here


About our guest

Jena Curtis is a professor of Gender and Sexuality and SUNY Cortland. After years of being on the main stage for HIV/AIDS advocacy, Jena turned to academia. Some of her published works include “HIV/AIDS Adherence: Teaching About Treatment and Stigma” and “Using Online Discussion Forums to Promote Critical Reflection among Pre and In-Service HIV/AIDS Educators and Service Providers.


Show notes

  • MaxLove Project is a service organization that Audra and Justin founded in an effort to help other childhood cancer families improve their children’s quality of life.
  • According to Roland Griffiths, PhD psychedelics show therapeutic potential across a number of ailments.
  • In an interview with Dr. Griffiths and Johns Hopkins, Robert Jesse says that “an unpleasant, ‘bad’ [trip] can sometimes lead to positive outcomes.”
  • Medline Plus defines trisomy 18 as “a chromosomal condition associated with abnormalities in many parts of the body.” Due to these complications, most individuals with trisomy 18 die before birth or within the first year of birth.
  • Ryan White was one of the first children with hemophilia to be diagnosed with AIDS. His diagnosis followed a blood transfusion in December 1984, and he faced pushback and discrimination from his Indiana community when he tried to return to school. He and his mother, Jeanne White Ginder, rallied for his rights, and later, Congress passed his namesake legislation: the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act.
  • In 1987, the Florida home of the Ray family was burned down after the three Ray brothers returned to class at their elementary school. The school originally barred the brothers because of their AIDS diagnosis, but a federal judge reinstated them. The family suffered boycotts against them, threatening phone calls, and arson.
  • A documentary, “Eagle Scout: The Story of Henry Nicols” (1993) was created around the HIV/AIDS advocacy work Jena and her brother performed.
  • Mercedes Lackey is an American author known for her fantasy series, including the stories in her Valdemar Universe.
  • “Babe” (1995) follows the story of a pig who was raised by sheepdogs—ironically, Babe the pig is a character who is confused about his own identity!  
  • Michael Crichton is a medical doctor, an American author, and the creator of “Jurassic Park.”
  • Jena mentions: “If your kid tells you that they are trans and you don't believe them and you make them pretend to not be trans, you are threatening their life.” According to a 2018 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, attempted suicide rates are alarmingly high in transgender and non-binary teens (50.8% of transgender male teens, 29.9% of transgender female teens, and 41.8% of non-binary teens).

Cheat Sheet:

Gender and Sexuality 101 from Jena Curtis

  • Sex: “Sex is our biology, it is a combination of our hormones, our chromosomes, and our physical bodies… There's really three things that people can be in regard to sex: [male, female, or intersex]. Most people only know about two.”
  • Intersex: “Someone who has the chromosomes, the hormones, or the physical genitals of both male and female sex.”
  • Gender: “With gender, there's an entire spectrum… We used to think that people could either be boys or girls, and that sex—our physicality, our biology—had to correspond with our gender… Now, we understand that sex and gender are separate.”
  • Gender Identity: “So gender is somebody's a male or a female, and our identity is how we think of ourselves that way. Do I think of myself as a girly girl, or do I think of myself as a strong woman? ...That’s all gender identity: how do we think of ourselves and our gender?
  • Gender Expression: “So my foundation, my mascara, the lipstick, the hair, is all part of my gender expression. How I portray myself as a woman in the outside world.”
  • Non-Binary: “Five to 10% of people have a sense of themselves as something other than [male or female]...  Some people feel that their gender box or their gender label is such a bad fit that they want something else, but the other gender label isn't a better fit. People in this non-binary state—not female, not male—are still creating language to talk about that.”
  • Transgender: “So what we do when we talk about people whose sense of themselves, whose gender is different than the sex that was assigned to them at birth based on their genitals, we call those people transgender, or people who are non-binary, TGNB for short.”
  • Cisgender: “We call...the 90% of the people whose sex assigned at birth corresponds with or matches their gender identity, their sense of themselves as male or female—cisgender, meaning same-gender.”
  • Neo-Pronouns: “Again, people who are transgender and genderqueer are still evolving their own language around this, so there are also what we call neo-pronouns, people are coming up with other pronouns like xe, xyr or xem,... instead of she, her, or hers.” See a more descriptive list here.
  • Sexuality: “Sexual attraction...is about gender. So it doesn't matter if one of the women who's attracted to another woman has a penis, it is all about: do they identify as women.
  • Lesbian: “We think of lesbians as people, women, who are attracted to other women.”
  • Gay: “Gay men...are attracted to other men.”
  • Bisexual: “We invented the term bisexual and really popularized it in the ‘70s with the idea that there were two sexes and some people were attracted to both of them. Now that we understand that there are more than two genders that people can be attracted to.”
  • Pansexual: “Pansexual people, people said, ‘Well, I used to think I was bisexual, but now I know that I'm attracted to men and women, and sort-of femmy boys, and sort-of really strong women with short crew cut hair... I’m pansexual.’”
  • Two-Spirited: “Two-spirited people—in native traditions, people whose gender wasn't in the binary, were sometimes identified as having two spirits.”
  • Queer: “Queer is...for sexual orientation and gender identity. It's this big umbrella as an identity, and a signifier that someone's sexual orientation or gender identity isn't the regular old vanilla.”
  • Asexual: “A, for asexual people who said, ‘I don't really feel like I'm attracted to anybody very much regardless of their gender.’”

In this episode


Are you ready to have “the talk”? In this episode, Audra and Justin are joined by Jena Curtis, EdD, professor of gender and sexuality at SUNY Cortland, to learn how and when to talk to our kids about everything from gender identity to sexuality to romantic love. Not only will Jena go over how to have healthy discussions about sex, but she’ll also touch on what parents should know about biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality. So get comfy and get ready to have THE TALK!


Listen here


About our guest

Jena Curtis is a professor of Gender and Sexuality and SUNY Cortland. After years of being on the main stage for HIV/AIDS advocacy, Jena turned to academia. Some of her published works include “HIV/AIDS Adherence: Teaching About Treatment and Stigma” and “Using Online Discussion Forums to Promote Critical Reflection among Pre and In-Service HIV/AIDS Educators and Service Providers.


Show notes

  • MaxLove Project is a service organization that Audra and Justin founded in an effort to help other childhood cancer families improve their children’s quality of life.
  • According to Roland Griffiths, PhD psychedelics show therapeutic potential across a number of ailments.
  • In an interview with Dr. Griffiths and Johns Hopkins, Robert Jesse says that “an unpleasant, ‘bad’ [trip] can sometimes lead to positive outcomes.”
  • Medline Plus defines trisomy 18 as “a chromosomal condition associated with abnormalities in many parts of the body.” Due to these complications, most individuals with trisomy 18 die before birth or within the first year of birth.
  • Ryan White was one of the first children with hemophilia to be diagnosed with AIDS. His diagnosis followed a blood transfusion in December 1984, and he faced pushback and discrimination from his Indiana community when he tried to return to school. He and his mother, Jeanne White Ginder, rallied for his rights, and later, Congress passed his namesake legislation: the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act.
  • In 1987, the Florida home of the Ray family was burned down after the three Ray brothers returned to class at their elementary school. The school originally barred the brothers because of their AIDS diagnosis, but a federal judge reinstated them. The family suffered boycotts against them, threatening phone calls, and arson.
  • A documentary, “Eagle Scout: The Story of Henry Nicols” (1993) was created around the HIV/AIDS advocacy work Jena and her brother performed.
  • Mercedes Lackey is an American author known for her fantasy series, including the stories in her Valdemar Universe.
  • “Babe” (1995) follows the story of a pig who was raised by sheepdogs—ironically, Babe the pig is a character who is confused about his own identity!  
  • Michael Crichton is a medical doctor, an American author, and the creator of “Jurassic Park.”
  • Jena mentions: “If your kid tells you that they are trans and you don't believe them and you make them pretend to not be trans, you are threatening their life.” According to a 2018 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, attempted suicide rates are alarmingly high in transgender and non-binary teens (50.8% of transgender male teens, 29.9% of transgender female teens, and 41.8% of non-binary teens).

Cheat Sheet:

Gender and Sexuality 101 from Jena Curtis

  • Sex: “Sex is our biology, it is a combination of our hormones, our chromosomes, and our physical bodies… There's really three things that people can be in regard to sex: [male, female, or intersex]. Most people only know about two.”
  • Intersex: “Someone who has the chromosomes, the hormones, or the physical genitals of both male and female sex.”
  • Gender: “With gender, there's an entire spectrum… We used to think that people could either be boys or girls, and that sex—our physicality, our biology—had to correspond with our gender… Now, we understand that sex and gender are separate.”
  • Gender Identity: “So gender is somebody's a male or a female, and our identity is how we think of ourselves that way. Do I think of myself as a girly girl, or do I think of myself as a strong woman? ...That’s all gender identity: how do we think of ourselves and our gender?
  • Gender Expression: “So my foundation, my mascara, the lipstick, the hair, is all part of my gender expression. How I portray myself as a woman in the outside world.”
  • Non-Binary: “Five to 10% of people have a sense of themselves as something other than [male or female]...  Some people feel that their gender box or their gender label is such a bad fit that they want something else, but the other gender label isn't a better fit. People in this non-binary state—not female, not male—are still creating language to talk about that.”
  • Transgender: “So what we do when we talk about people whose sense of themselves, whose gender is different than the sex that was assigned to them at birth based on their genitals, we call those people transgender, or people who are non-binary, TGNB for short.”
  • Cisgender: “We call...the 90% of the people whose sex assigned at birth corresponds with or matches their gender identity, their sense of themselves as male or female—cisgender, meaning same-gender.”
  • Neo-Pronouns: “Again, people who are transgender and genderqueer are still evolving their own language around this, so there are also what we call neo-pronouns, people are coming up with other pronouns like xe, xyr or xem,... instead of she, her, or hers.” See a more descriptive list here.
  • Sexuality: “Sexual attraction...is about gender. So it doesn't matter if one of the women who's attracted to another woman has a penis, it is all about: do they identify as women.
  • Lesbian: “We think of lesbians as people, women, who are attracted to other women.”
  • Gay: “Gay men...are attracted to other men.”
  • Bisexual: “We invented the term bisexual and really popularized it in the ‘70s with the idea that there were two sexes and some people were attracted to both of them. Now that we understand that there are more than two genders that people can be attracted to.”
  • Pansexual: “Pansexual people, people said, ‘Well, I used to think I was bisexual, but now I know that I'm attracted to men and women, and sort-of femmy boys, and sort-of really strong women with short crew cut hair... I’m pansexual.’”
  • Two-Spirited: “Two-spirited people—in native traditions, people whose gender wasn't in the binary, were sometimes identified as having two spirits.”
  • Queer: “Queer is...for sexual orientation and gender identity. It's this big umbrella as an identity, and a signifier that someone's sexual orientation or gender identity isn't the regular old vanilla.”
  • Asexual: “A, for asexual people who said, ‘I don't really feel like I'm attracted to anybody very much regardless of their gender.’”

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Justin: You remember when one or both of your parents gave you ‘the talk?’ How awful that was, and now as a parent, you need to give the talk to your kids. And today things are way more complicated, it's not just sex we need to talk about, but gender, sexuality, identity, consent, and a lot more. 

Well, parents, we got your back. In this episode, we're talking with the professor of Gender and Sexuality, Jena Curtis PhD. It is an amazing episode where we talk about everything from how to have the talk to when it's okay to start dating, to why it's so damn important to talk openly with our kids about gender, sexuality, and identity. A quick note, Dr. Curtis' sound was not great in this episode, but the energy she brings and the amazing wisdom she shares is too important to toss, so we're going with it. But I promise if you stick with it, you're gonna be super happy you did.

Jena: There is a road map, and I can’t tell you, take the highway or take the country roads. I can tell you, you need to get to a place where your child feels loved and accepted for who they are. Listening to your child, allowing your child to express themselves as their gender identity is life-saving.

Justin: We are so thrilled to present this episode with Dr. Jena Curtis, she holds a Doctorate in Education from Columbia University and is a professor of Gender and Sexuality at SUNY Cortland. She started her adult life as a community AIDS educator in 1987, when she was just out of high school. She ended up delivering hundreds of HIV/AIDS presentation programs and workshops to high school kids, college students, and community audiences all before finishing her undergraduate degree. 

So what would cause a kid just out of high school and rural upstate New York to travel around the world educating people on AIDS in 1987? Well, you're gonna need to listen to find out. Enjoy this awesome episode with Dr. Jena Curtis. 

So we can just dive right in. So the first thing we were gonna talk about was like, how far back we go, and so we started to touch on this, it's been 15, almost 16 years since we've seen Jena.

Audra: 'Cause we were in grad school together, and she was completing a doctoral degree, and I was completing a master's degree, and we worked together in family housing, and I remember being the one without kids. And I remember that kind of being a little bit of a thing. It's like, I remember struggling and being like, “But I have a family...but I know it's not the same thing. I’m not one of those people who assumes that I know what it's like.” But I remember you being our first parenting mentors.

Justin: Yeah, I remember watching how you guys parented... 

Audra: There was an apple thing. I don't know if you remember, but you told me the story about apples and how you would keep apples in the fridge and you tell the kids they can't have them because they're treats... I totally use that, I stored that away to file. And I was like, that is really good. That's good and I've been using it ever since. Now, Maesie will eat two flats of strawberries, I'd be like, “I don't know... I don't know if you should, is that…” 

So did you accept the position at Cortland right after grad school? 

Jena: Right out of grad school. As it happens in grad school, my dissertation advisor was like, “Jena, you should interview at Cortland,” ‘cause that's where he went, and I was like, “Yeah, sure, so I go to California where it's warm…” But, he was my advisor, so I interviewed at Cortland and I fell in love with it. I went from hoping they won’t make me an offer, and I have to deal with that, to  please let them make me an offer… and I’ve been here ever since. 

Justin: Oh, that's awesome. All right, so before we get into your professional work, I just wanna rewind to the personal stuff. And so when did you first know that you wanted to be a mom? Was there a moment where you're like, “Oh, dang.”

Jena: No, no, I actually talk about this when I teach about gender…  I never made a decision to be a parent. From my earliest memories, I grew up in this huge Irish Catholic family, where there were aunts and uncles and cousins everywhere, where any adult could grab you by the scruff of the neck and say, “Straighten up.” Right? Like that was my family. 

Everybody said to me, my entire childhood “Well when you will have children” or “You might not like this now, but when you have children, you will understand.” It was just part of the... It was like when you become an adult. It was just one of those things that you did. But I never regret having children, but now I have students, and I work with young adults, who are really thinking about, do they want to have families. 

Justin: Oh Jena, this is great. So you experience part of what I think of as the old way of parenting, which is, it's just part of life. It's like you grow up, you have kids, you retire and you die.

Jena: You retire, you get to do what you want, but the having kids and supporting your family is work.

Justin: So was there a moment when as a parent, you realize like, this is something more, like this is, this is a life project, like this is part of some, you know, deeper there... There's a deeper meaning here in my relationship with my kids and... Did it ever hit like that?

Jena: Yeah, absolutely. It's interesting 'cause now both of my children are adults and with their people and talking about starting their own families, not maybe right now, but in the foreseeable…within a five year plan, that's something that's certainly gonna come up. 

And Tory, my oldest, asked before the wedding, “What about kids?” And I said, “Here's the thing about kids.” And I had this conversation, I don't remember ever deciding I'm gonna be a mom as opposed to not being a mom. Like anything else, it was just always part of my identity of who I would be the same way that I would be an adult. And I would grow up to be a mom, 'cause that's what women did.

But within that, I also very much in my family, was instilled that was the best thing that you could do. It was very much like Hillary Clinton, no matter what other great things you do with your life, if you don't do a great job raising your kids like you have not nailed it. It was the most important, most crucial work you're gonna do. 

And so when I was talking to Tory about this, I said, the thing about that is, it's right. The happiest, best things that have ever happened in my life—almost all of them are tied to my kids. My proudest moment, the things that I reflect on. And some of my hardest too, like hands-down, are plenty of work, it is nothing compared to your kid is in trouble and you can’t help.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: And to Tory I said, I can't imagine my life being as happy as it is if I hadn’t had kids. And for as long as you have children, you are... It's harder to be happier than your saddest kid, or the most troubled kid. So it's sort of this incredible leap of faith to trust in this process that you see from everyone around you does not always end well and often makes parents really miserable. But brings such incredible joy.

Justin: I guess that's what makes parenting, for me at least, this almost spiritual life project, because it's not like a just totally enjoyable hobby. Like I like to surf or bike, and it's like, no, no, no. This is something different. This is, for me, yeah, as close to a spiritual project as possible because it will reveal every unprocessed wound from childhood that I have, every issue, every hang-up. And then, of course, as you alluded to, all the joy and the pain that just goes with seeing your kids struggle or go through stuff that you wish they didn't have to.

Audra: So, Jena, I'm interested because getting to know you as a parent, as parents, so you and Todd, we met. You’re parents. I didn't know you before. And you are such incredible examples to us, and we're soaking it up from you. This has been your life's work, and this is something that you went into because it's a part of a life trajectory that was passed on to you. 

And so at what point did you, or was there a point when you said, “Hey, this is something that I'm not just sort of floating through and biding my time until they're 18.” Was there a point for you where you start to really lean into that? 'Cause you're really good at it, and so I'd love to know where that kind of came to or how they came together for you.

Jena: So, this is gonna sound odd, but one of the things that was really pivotal, and really helpful for my parenting, was that my brother got sick when I was a teenager. And so Todd, who was my high school boyfriend, and I had lots of conversations about that. And he had AIDs back when AIDs was pretty, immediately fatal. And so for my entire relationship with Todd, in the beginning, I had a critically ill, we would say terminally ill brother, and family stuff was super important and super intense and super accelerated because we had that thing that lots of families with diagnoses have of you gotta get it all in. 

Audra: Yup. 

Jena: So Todd and I were high school sweethearts who got married at 22.  Because my brother had just been diagnosed with AIDS and they said he’d gonna live for a year or two. And I went to him and I said, “I love you and we’re gonna get married at some point, but if we don't get married before my brother dies, I'm gonna be too sad to get married, so we need to do it now.” 

And then kids was the same thing. Like, “Let's have kids.” But because of that, but I think maybe because of who I am, 'cause I knew I was putting it—I was fast-tracking it, right? It was also really important to me to sit down and sort of talk to him about what would that look like. “We're gonna get married anyway, but if we get married soon, how does that change our relationship from what it is now, right? And we're gonna have kids. We always knew we were gonna have kids. But if we have kids now, what does that mean for work? And what does it mean for this?” 

And so we had these really intentional conversations, I think in part because I was really aware of the fact that we were incredibly young and making it up while we were going along. And I didn't wanna half-ass it. Like, I didn't know what I was doing and I knew that. So we got to have these conversations about like, “What do you think about spanking on them, I think we should never hit our kids, do you... What do you think about religion, what—” 

Justin: Wow.

Audra: You brought this intentionality into it.

Justin: Yeah, and like, really building the boat as you're sailing across the ocean.

Jena: We’ve got three months to decide what a good marriage looks like, go!

Justin: Oh, I love it. Oh my god, that is why I feel like you have so much wisdom. Even back then, we would watch you guys and it really felt intentional, like you guys were not half-assing it and that these decisions were intentional. Yeah, they were done kind of on fly and kind of quickly, but it was intentional. I love that. Yeah, yeah. 

Audra: The other thing I wanted to reflect on too, speaking of your brother, is, and I'd love to talk a bit more about this because it's something that has just...there has been continued resonance for me, in reflection, looking back. 

You, in sharing with us along the way. You brought us to your home, you bought us into your lives and you shared with us, and then we end up years later with a son diagnosed with a brain tumor, and there's something there that... I don't know how to describe it, but I felt you there because you introduced us in a way, to this world that we just ended up in. And it's been very powerful for me. And you as a sibling, I see in my daughter. And a lot of that journey, I feel like you gave us… I don't know, you gave us some sort of advanced comfort in some way of just being able to be with you, and so you see, she’s surviving and thriving and making this give, and making something out of this... This is just incredibly inspiring. I think it's been, for me, it's been a huge part of my inspiration knowing that it's possible. 

Jena: Oh wow, I notice I'm feeling choked up. I teach students how to talk about things like this, and I say, “When you feel you’re alone just own it.” Yeah, I think... Yeah, one of the gifts that we had being one of the early AIDs families, and one of the gifts I got getting married so early, was the sense of there wasn't a right way to do it, there wasn't a handbook, you make it up as you go along. Because there isn't anything else to do. 

And I see so much of that in the work that you and Justin have done with MaxLove. Of sort of, there has to be a path, and we don't know what it is, but we know that there must be one and we have to build it, and sometimes veer the wrong way occasionally to get there, we will do it.

Audra: Build a ship as we sail. It's the same thing, right? 

Justin: I think the commonalities are like this, the only rules that we know we have to follow are love and authenticity. If we can just follow these two rules, we'll get somewhere.

Jena: We don’t have to stay here and hurt, we have to do something with this. Doing nothing isn’t an option. So even though you aren't sure... The good thing is we're gonna try with love and authenticity then in that moment...

Audra: Yeah, it's like what I notice in this, and I was coming up for me in this conversation, is that we oftentimes, many of us are unaware that the pursuit of the perfect life is something that we've just consented to by default because the expectation is that you do this right. Do the things perfectly and build a perfect, happy life. And when you go through what your family's been through, when you go through what we've been through, in our whole community of families, that whole notion of perfect life is destroyed. 

And out of that, you do have a choice. You can, I think there's grief that goes along with that for everybody, and there's something that it can be, and I've seen a lot of families in more of a state of disempowerment from that, like it is completely shattering. For us, we took it as an opportunity to build, at that point, and it's like, well, that's out the window.

Jena: Right. 

Audra: And now we're free in a sense. We're free to do us, to be us, and to figure out what our purpose is and what we really feel like we're gonna be good at, and so, we can make some good things happen in the world. What's it gonna be? And it was, in a sense, liberating, and it's hard to say that to people who have been through something like this or a diagnosis like this, because you know what I'm saying. I'm not trying to say that I'm grateful for my son's cancer diagnosis. That’s not the point. That’s not what I'm saying. 

Jena: Thank goodness my brother died of AIDs because I never would have gone to grad school without that... 

Justin: Right, right. 

Jena: Yeah, and that's why the language that works for me mostly—except when it doesn't...of being willing to get it wrong, because what is right is a moving thing…  One of the gifts that this gave me, like you can go on a really... And Todd does this, my husband, who was still my favorite person in the world.

Justin: Aww, after all these years, high school sweethearts.

Jena: Todd does a whole bunch of international travel and often with people who haven't done it, and he says from the time you leave your house with your bag until you get home, it's an adventure. Sometimes the adventure sucks, and sometimes the adventure is awesome, but it’s always...

Justin: But it's an adventure.

Jena: That sort of mindset of, we're always learning, and sometimes we're not getting it right, but that's not the point. It can be difficult and it can be not what you anticipated and still fabulous. 

Or it can absolutely suck... Some of the things, some of the trips that I learned the most on have been the ones that were absolutely terrible from a accomplishing-my-goals perspective. 

Audra: Right. 

Jena: The first time I did a research trip in India, I remember. I don't remember the time I decided I became a mom. I remember the time promising my higher power that if it got me out of India, I would never return again... Right. Of course. That research trip broke me, it sucked, I did everything wrong. I didn’t go back for four years. But I learned so much from that trip, and the reason it broke me was because I was doing everything wrong. 

Justin: Oh my gosh. So Jena, when you said trip at first and I was like, “Oh, Jena's kinda talking about psychedelic trips now. Alright, cool.” But it's funny because I do follow the research, so there's now real clinical trials on psychedelic therapy, and so I follow this, I'm super interested in it, and the researchers. I've heard this several times, 'cause they're asked on news shows like, “Well, what about the bad trips?” And they say, “Well, actually, people often will get the most healing and most benefit from what we think of as a bad trip.” And so, this goes in just exactly with what you're saying.

Jena: Right. Sometimes life gives you what you need instead of what you want.

Audra: Yeah, beautifully said. 

Jena: Again, sometimes right? Because sometimes people say that to me and I'm just like, “Ahhhh, I do not need this flat tire this morning on the freeway.”

Audra: Well, yes, there's a difference between someone else saying that to you and you saying it to yourself. Right?

Justin: Right, yeah.

Audra: I had the experience of a very, for me, it was a very difficult loss of a baby at 20 weeks.  She had trisomy 18. It was very difficult. And I definitely had people in my life who were like, “You'll see, it's for the best.” I was like, “Oh, I'll see?”

Justin: Or it was part of a plan or whatever. Alright, so Jena, you alluded to this when you said that had your brother not passed, you probably wouldn't have gone to grad school, and so this is a part of your professional life. It really goes back to that. So can you tell us a little bit about how you even got into researching and teaching Gender and Sexuality?

Jena: Sure... So the first thing I think that's super important to note, because this is, I think for parents to help them think about how to do this and how to have these conversations with children, and think about these topics with regard to children. My parents botched the sex talk. And I was destined to be a sex professor, so it was a real mismatch. 

Again, Irish Catholic family, and when I was seven, my dad caught me reading his Playboys, because again, from my earliest memories, how would you not wanna look at pictures of naked people? It’s obviously fascinating. I stand by that as a 51-and-a-half-year-old. It just makes sense. And so, in this very strict Catholic family that I had, nobody had the resources or skills to sit down and have conversations with me about why this is inappropriate or why it's okay for adults but not for a seven-year-old, or why children shouldn't go into their parents’ bedroom without permission. 

Like there's so many ways that conversation could have happened, except my parents just didn't have those skills. So what they did instead is they got a whole bunch of books about puberty and sexuality, and they gave them to their seven-year-old.  

Justin: Jena, just go get a PhD in this so that we don't have to have this discussion. 

Jena: That is exactly what happened. And so, one of the things I talk about when I talk to parents about how you teach them about sex, is that it's sort of like teaching kids about smoking. There's what you say and there's what you do, right? 

Before you have a conversation with your kids about their tobacco use, they have learned a thousand lessons about it from watching their uncles, people on the subway, right? It's not that if you don't talk to them, they're not learning. And it's not that if you say, “Don't ever smoke,” but you have two packs a day and a pack of the glove compartment and one stashed everywhere that you're not teaching them two separate sets of messages.

But my parents didn't—so in terms of the talk, they did everything exactly wrong. They froze, and the thing that they taught me was, is that sex is so fascinating and horrifying, both, that you can't talk to people you know about it, you can only read about it in books. 

Justin: Wow. 

Jena: I became a great reader. I learned to read everything. But at the same time, they sent that message, my parents are in their seventies and they're still really in love with each other. And they really care about each other, and they're each other's best friends, and they taught us that no matter what we did, we were always gonna be loved. And they taught us that we owned our bodies and that nobody was allowed to mess with us, and if there's somebody’s gonna mess with your brother or your sister, you were allowed to fight them. Like you were your own person and nobody could hurt you. They taught me all the great stuff that I needed to know, they just bombed the sex talk.

Justin: And so you're like, “Screw this, I'm getting a PhD and I'm gonna go and talk about this in front of thousands and thousands of people.” 

Jena: Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. And the way, actually, what happened in the background of all that, so I'm secretly hoarding all the sex books I can find. And this is the ‘70s, and the ‘80s, so there is no internet, there is no, it's really like stealing Uncle Bob’s Playboy from the closet... It’s only the way to get it ‘cause Victoria's catalogs are not even a thing yet. This is... You know, we talk about food deserts, this is a porn desert. In rural New York state. 

But still, there are enough books and stuff, and I’m learning stuff, and then my kid brother, who has hemophilia, which has just been sort of in the background of our family, he got like super confident... Like my dad is a former MP, he's a police chief, we are the “Get it done, make a plan, work the plan” family. My brother, who has hemophilia, gets HIV and then AIDs. And so, this is in, we find out he’s infected in 1985. But, for historical context for folks who don’t know about this, 1985 was a really scary time, in terms of HIV. It was our first global pandemic. And people were pretty hysterical. Kids with hemophilia who had AIDS—Ryan White was the most famous. Kids were being kicked out of their schools, there were three brothers in Florida with hemophilia whose houses were burned down when they tried to go to school. So my family, in this tiny little town of 2,000 people and one traffic light in Cooperstown says, “We're just not gonna tell anyone, right?”

Audra: Right. 

Jena: They started taking my brother to New York City for AIDS care, because there's nothing in our area, and to bring him to the local hospital would be an equivalent to out him. And so that is what we do. 

So for my entire high school career, I knew that my brother had hemophilia and had HIV, and nobody knew what that meant. But we could also never talk about it. And I went off to college and that’s how it was. I was pre-law, I wanted to be the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. We still don't have one by the way.

Audra: Right. 

Jena: 35 years later. Still not there. This was 1987. I wanted to be the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Yeah, I'm still waiting too, Audra. 

Audra: We’re still waiting for you. 

Jena: Life called me in a different direction. I went to college to do that, I was gonna be pre-law, I was gonna be a lawyer, I was gonna be a justice, I was gonna fight for, you know. And my brother stayed home in high school, junior high, at that point. And then later in high school, hiding the fact he was HIV-positive until he got too sick. And when he was a senior in high school, he got his first case-defining illness, we used to do that... remember HIV-positive, and then case-defining illness, and then you were full-blown AIDS, like, right? Yeah, the way we label disease is really...maybe a whole other talk.  

Audra: Yes, yeah. For sure.

Jena: Right, yeah, so many. He was full-blown and once he was full-blown, it was one to two years. [That] was the diagnosis. It just was November of his senior year in high school, he had just started. So don't bother to apply to college. I dropped out of college, I came home, he was like, decided that keeping it a secret didn't make any sense. Like you had to. Being mad at him...it wasn't the worst thing in the world anymore. Losing friends wasn't... So he was a Boy Scout and decided to do this Eagle Scout project talking about AIDS. And I was his big sister so I was like, “I'm a college dropout, I can tag along and talk about AIDS.” And we started speaking together. And so by the time that you and I met, or we met, ‘cause Justin was in grad school too with you, I had been doing that for almost a decade. And my brother had just died, like, I think he died the May I started grad school.

Audra: I didn't know it was that recent to you starting grad school. 

Jena: I look back on those years and think, “Wow, that's amazing,” because I remember just barely holding it together. Like in having a sense of myself as sober... Okay, really just overwhelming grief and we need to hold this together.

Audra: It strikes me too, and you say that I'm really impacted because I hear that in you from the beginning, from childhood to some degree, and that you've been holding so much together throughout your life. That's what brings you to plan a marriage at 22 and plan it out and plan exactly how the kids are gonna go, you know, it's... 

Justin: I think when tragedy strikes like this, we can hold it together by avoiding and repressing and ignoring, and “I'm just gonna hold it together, I don't wanna break,” you know? Or I can hold it together by diving straight into this thing, by walking straight towards it, and I feel like that's what we've done with childhood cancer, I'm just like... And that's exactly what you did is like... I'm going straight into that fire. Yeah, that's powerful. 

Audra: Yeah, that is my memory of meeting you is, I think that that was one thing that was so impactful to me is that your openness, vulnerability, presence, being able to speak about your experience, being able to speak about Henry, being able... It wasn't a secret part of your life. It was a part of your life that felt very incorporated in your life and in who you are, and still very much does. It's a really, really powerful journey. 

So when your brother was diagnosed, he must have been very young, initially with hemophilia. Is that something that's typically diagnosed early in childhood? 

Jena: Well. This is again... Now, it would be, almost definitely. This was 1973. So actually the first eminent diagnosis was leukemia, 'cause he presented the toddler-crawling with bruising and bleeding gums...

Audra: Right. 

Jena: Lumps... And so we had to go, my parents were in the service in Fort Gordon, Georgia, and there was nobody there who could diagnose this little toddler who's bleeding. So they sent us to the CDC in Atlanta. My parents brought us there... I remember—this is one of my earliest memories, 'cause my brother was one-and-a-half and I was about five-and-a-half. And they brought us to the CDC, and they had ruled it down to leukemia, which was terrible because this was 1974. 

Justin: Right.

Audra: It's terminal at that point.

Justin: It’s a death sentence.

Jena: Toddlers with leukemia. And my parents are not educated, they're—I’m five—they're 25-year-old kids in the service.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: So what they know is their kid’s probably got leukemia, and if he’s got leukemia he's gonna die. And instead, it turns out it's not leukemia, it's this other thing, hemophilia, which we have never heard of and we know nothing about. And it turns out it's just this blood disease, and if the kid gets hurt, you can give them lots of other people's blood and they'll stop bleeding.

Audra: Transfusions. And at this point, there's no Facebook support groups, no online chats, there's none of this. Your parents are going it alone with a kid with a rare diagnosis that seems to be treatable...if you have access to blood transfusions.

Jena: You dive in and teach yourself everything you can. It isn't an accident I decided I could plan a marriage at 22. 

Audra: Yes. 

Jena: As a child, I was taught how to do IV blood transfusions at age 10, because at 10, again we were Catholic, and seven was old enough to get your ears pierced 'cause that was like First Communion, so 10 seemed like good enough for IV therapy.

Audra: Yes, of course. Yeah.

Justin: The math works out.

Jena: You are a woman, now, here's the IV— 

Audra: And caregiver. 

Justin: Yeah, yeah. So Jena, to bring us up to the present, how would you describe the work you do right now? You're at a dinner party, like... How do you describe it?

Jena: It depends. If I come to your dinner party, I would tell people that I teach Gender and Sexuality. That I do research about gender and sexuality typically on stigmatized or minoritized groups or sexualities. So I can do a lot of work with sexual violence with women around the world, I do a lot of stuff with the LGBTQ+ community. That's what I do.

Justin: But if it's a really bad dinner party... What do you say?

Jena: Right. If it's my uber-conservative cousin's dinner party, I’m a health professor.

Justin: Yeah.

Jena: I teach people how to be healthy.

Justin: Yeah, got it.

Jena: Mostly with women's health around the world. Lately, I have been working a lot in Haiti and in India and—oooh, look at the time.

Justin: Exactly, exactly. Alright, so this is the part in the conversation where I wanna start getting into stuff where I think a lot of listeners, parent listeners can start to put some things into action. How to talk to our kids about gender and sexuality, how to think about these things. But before we do, I'm imagining that there are some parents out there who come from families like mine, where... Yeah, the whole sex talk, it was just this awkward, terrible thing, and the less we can talk about this, the better. Let's just... Just ignore it. How can we kind of lower the temperature before we get into talking about these things?

Jena: That is the perfect question, because think about how we frame this, like “the talk,” which conveys to people, think about this, some time in your childhood, we're gonna have a conversation in which I will tell you everything you need to know, about emotional aspects of sex and intimacy.

Justin: And there's an idea of a forbidden knowledge too, right?

Jena: We will never speak of this again. Can you imagine if you approach table manners like that? There’s a dinner in sixth grade, and we will teach you all the silverware and how to use your wine glass, and if you don't get it, you're gonna be a social failure forever because you don’t know what a shrimp fork does.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: In reality, we start teaching our kids about sexuality—and table manners—in infancy, right? As soon as our kids start eating solid food, we say, “Oh no, you don't spit it back at mommy, that's not nice.” When we change our kids’ diapers, when we label body parts. When we say, “Oh no, you don't take stuff from your diaper and you don't touch your…” And we give that thing a name. We are... So again, getting back to my family where we didn't talk about this, the names that we had for things that were covered by diapers or underpants was bottom, front or back, boy or girl, it was all your bottom. You did not touch your bottom, you kept your bottom covered, nobody got to see your bottom except you or your doctor. Or if someone was giving you a bath... Right, that sends a really significant message in a family where everything else has a name. 

Justin: So, what I'm hearing is that we can lower the temperature by just understanding that whether we like it or not, we've been having the talk ever since the beginning.

Jena: A less risky example: when I was in junior high, all my friends started wearing makeup, and I really, really wanted to wear makeup. I didn't go to my mom and say, “Hey, Mom, what do you think about me as a seventh-grader wearing make-up?” Because in seventh grade, I knew exactly what my mom thought about that...right? I had had 12 years watching her in the mall go, “I don't know who that person thinks she is, but she just looked so much prettier if she'd wash all that gunk off her face.”

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: I had heard that a thousand times before I ever considered having the makeup conversation with my mom, so... Right, so I just bought friends’, I borrowed friends' make-up and hid it in my lunch bag 'cause I d know that she would say the wrong thing. I didn’t have to ask what she thought. She had already told me what she thought over and over, and it's okay for her to do that. 

It is okay for us as parents to have our values around things like what makeup is appropriate or what clothes are appropriate or what age kids should be allowed to do certain things with their friends. That's why we got elected parents, not only are we allowed to do that, it's our responsibility. But ideally, we communicate with our kids about what those rules are and what our expectations are explicitly, rather than just letting them guess based on how they see our behavior.

Audra: Yeah, it's such an amazing point. They're picking up on everything, from all the conversations we're having that are indirect, that we don't realize that we're having, all of the sharing within the family unit and without, and all of our judgments, everything that we're sharing, and then very often just never having a direct conversation.

Jena: Right, and again, I think as parents, one of the things I hate most about talking about the talk is if I'm a parent who's nervous or anxious about that, right. I don't wanna get just...which most parents are, right? I am sometimes nervous about important talks I have with my kids, 'cause they’re high-stakes and I love my kids, and I don't wanna mess it up. 

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: That's so important, but if I'm nervous about it, and I think it's one talk and it's... I'm the one teaching my kids about sex, I can put it off because I allow myself to believe that everybody else isn't teaching my kids about sex. 

So my oldest kid, Tory, came out to us pretty early, in junior high...actually, in middle school, in sixth grade. I suspected for most of Tory’s life that Tory liked girls. Tory had a crush on this adorable little girl in kindergarten, I just always knew. But when Tory entered middle school, Tory hadn't had a conversation about that with us. So I got this book, a fantasy book, Mercedes Lackey, it's the Valdemar series—she still writes them—and it has same-sex characters in it, just part of the canon… It's not a sexual book but it's just a fantasy series where sometimes boys have boyfriends and sometimes girls have girlfriends while they're riding magic horses and saving the world. 

Audra: Right, yeah. 

Jena: And so in Tory was at that age in middle school, she's reading a lot of fantasy, I just say, “Hey, here's this really good series I'm reading,” 'cause I wanna give a positive role model to my kid who I'm pretty sure is queer. But she's not bringing up the conversation and at this point in my life, I don't feel like I can say, “Hey, just wanna remind you, even if you were gay, but no matter what, I'm always gonna love you.” I'm telling her that enough anyway. Right, Tory reads the first book, loves it, decides in her 11-year-old brain that I can't possibly know what is actually in this book.

Justin: Oh wow.

Jena: This is when we were living in Bancroft Hall, we knew you guys at this point, remember?

Audra and Justin: Yeah!

Jena: Tory sneaks on the subway by herself, down to the Barnes and Noble at 70th Street to buy the second book in the series because she doesn't wanna ask for it 'cause she's afraid we might read it and find out there are gay characters.

Justin: Oh my gosh.

Jena: Because, despite the fact that I am studying what I do— 

Justin: Do you know what I do every day? 

Jena: All of her friends and everybody else around her and all the messages she's getting from society are, “You can’t let your parents know you might be gay because they hate you.”

Audra: Right, right. So no matter how open you are and supportive you've been, those messages and narratives just present in society, in our culture are so oppressive. 

Jena: Yeah, people are talking to your kids…about sex and gender every day.

Justin: So you just used some terms that I think we all think we know what they mean, but maybe we don't. So maybe we can get some 101 Gender and Sexuality from Jena Curtis here. So what do these terms mean? So I wanna know about gender, I wanna know about sex, and I wanna know about sexuality. Are they the same thing, are they different? 

Jena: Okay, so I love the way that you said that most of us think we know. And I think I know too, and I'm gonna give you the best definition that I have today. I've been doing this work now for 30 years. So the way that I have defined those terms has changed really radically in that time, because our understanding of what those things are have changed. So it would make sense that this would be new information for lots of folks, and it's okay not to know. They change and sometimes I have to ask, tell me what that is. 

So sex is our biology, it is a combination of our hormones, our chromosomes, and our physical bodies. And in the US, people start talking about our sex, typically before were born, right? To point through a pregnancy— 

Justin: Not just talking, but sometimes exploding things in blue and pink colors.

Jena: In the US, because we have lots of technology, at some point in a pregnancy, so typically somebody will look at the fetus’ genitals and say, “Do you wanna know the baby’s sex?” And the people have talked it over and they decided they do, or they talk it over right there, and they consult and they decide or they don't. But even if they decide, then...it's interesting because people are like, “No. We wanna be surprised.” You're gonna have to find out eventually, right?

Justin: You’re gonna know sometime.

Jena: You’re gonna know sometime and might still be surprised. So at some point in the pregnancy or when the baby is born, somebody who is a medical provider for that person and the baby is gonna say, “Congratulations, it's a boy or a girl.” Those are the two choices we give everybody: boy or girl.

Justin: We've seen the hardware, we can tell you what the sex is. 

Jena: Exactly. It is based on a quick check of genitalia. Yup, that looks like a penis. Yeah, that's a vulva. The only two choices. And here's the good news: in the past, I would say that 90-95% of the time that we have gotten that right. And what I mean by getting it right is that up till now, and I'll talk about how now is different in a second, but up till now, about 90% of the time when we say “Congratulations, you've got a baby boy!” Or “congratulations, she's a little girl!” We've been correct. That human has grown up and become a man or become a woman, just as we predicted the day they were born. 

Sometimes, and this is pretty rare, probably less than 2% of all births, and some people would say as rare as one in a 1,000, there are babies born with what we call intersex. And that means that their genitalia are somewhat ambiguous. It's hard to tell if it's a baby girl or a baby boy sometimes. Or sometimes babies are born intersex, and their genitalia look exactly the way we think that penises and vulvas should, but what's inside is different. Right?

Depending on the reason that happened, sometimes babies are born intersex because of hormones that they're exposed to while they’re fetuses, that they're not gonna be exposed to anymore, so we just need time for their bodies to change and their own hormones to take over. Sometimes those babies need surgery to bring their genitals into line with what their brains and their hormones are going to do. And sometimes those babies need to be left to grow into humans that have genitals that look different than what most people think penises or vulvas should look like. But that's a process of working with the child and their doctors and the parents to figure out what's best.

Justin : So sex is mostly about this perceived biological reality, but you've alluded to the fact that there is more there...

Jena: There is gender there, and gender is someone's own sense of themselves as male or female, or something else. So again, when we talk about sex, we have two choices, typically is what most people think of: we have male or female. And now I've introduced this third option that we don't normally talk about is intersex, someone who has the chromosomes, the hormones, or the physical genitals of both male and female sex. So that’s sex. There's really three things that people can be in regard to sex. Most people only know about two. 

With gender, there's an entire spectrum. We used to think that people could either be boys or girls, and that sex—our physicality, our biology—had to correspond with our gender. Our sense of ourselves as men or women or something else. Now, we understand that sex and gender are separate. For most people, they are aligned. Ninety percent of people will grow up—who have already been born—will grow up feeling in their head like exactly what the doctor or midwife said that morning they slapped them on the butt. “Congratulations, you’re a little baby girl. You're a little baby boy.” 

Five to 10% of people have a sense of themselves as something other than that. Some of them have a very clear sense, “No, I'm not a little girl, I'm a boy.” “No, I'm not a man, I'm a woman.” Other people don't feel like those, what we call “gender boxes” maybe, that box of “Here’s all the things that men should be” and “Here’s all the things women should be...” Fit them. 

Actually, lots of people feel that way. Some people feel that their gender box or their gender label is such a bad fit that they want something else. But the other gender label isn't a better fit, people in this non-binary state—not female, not male—are still creating language to talk about that. Some people call that gender queer, some people call that non-binary. So what we do when we talk about people whose sense of themselves, whose gender is different than the sex that was assigned to them at birth based on their genitals, we call those people transgender, or people who are non-binary. TGNB for short. I have to type it out a lot. 

We call everyone else, the 90% of the people whose sex assigned at birth corresponds with or matches their gender identity, their sense of themselves as male or female—cisgender, meaning same-gender.

Audra: Can I just observe for a moment that that was just the most succinct, beautiful, simplified, educational opportunity I've had to explore sex and gender, maybe ever. And Jena, one thing I love, love, love that you said is speaking of how things are changing and have changed. Because of course, things change. And we learn and we grow, we change, and one of the worst things that we see anyway, working in health and wellness and healthcare is when someone comes up with a theory in 1965 and because they did, they gotta stick to it. I mean, it's really destructive. 

And so to be, to honor the movement in change and growth and learning, it's such a beautiful thing. I think it's probably hard to do in academia because we wanna stick with, 'cause it's naturally pretty conservative. We wanna stick with the things that were written before.

Jena: And before we do anything, we have to form a committee to explore it, so now that we've gotten the glacier here, you're saying you wanna turn it and move it where?

Justin: Right, well, so there's a historical change, but I'm wondering if you can talk briefly what I've learned is that there's also just super individual factors. So learning, as teaching on a university campus, you have to ask somebody, how would you like to be... How would you like to be addressed? And so can you speak about that aspect?

Jena: So when I started my explanation, I said, so, before people who are already born? Right, and I talked about how when we're talking about people who are born in the past, probably 90-95% of the time, we got sex assigned at birth correct. Most people were the gender, the same gender as their sex assigned at birth. For reasons that we're not exactly sure that we completely understand, there are many more transgender and genderqueer people below the age of 30-40, then there are above it. Probably twice as many. 

Justin: Oh wow, I didn't know the numbers. Okay. 

Jena: So now on your campus and my campus, we have twice as many students, probably if we reflect national trends, I know my campus does, we have twice as many students who identify as trans or genderqueer than we have before, and we don't think we're capturing the true picture of that because one: our population is still figuring themselves out; and two: we think that the way that students are starting to think about talking about gender identity is different. 

So let me add a fourth term, so we talked about sex, we talked about gender. We'll get to sexuality, I promise, but now I wanna talk about gender identity and gender expression. So gender is somebody's a male or a female, and our identity is how we think of ourselves that way. Do I think of myself as a girly girl, or do I think of myself as a strong woman? Do I think of myself as a hard guy who can cry and separate? Like that’s all gender identity, how do we think of ourselves and our gender. Right, I think of myself as a smart, strong woman. And in that context, smart and strong have a feminine flavor to them. I am smart, the way that women are smart, there's some strategy and there's a social skill involved there, and it's not just about blinding ego. And I'm strong, the way that women are strong. Again, getting allies… So that's all gender identity, and that's our sense of ourselves in our head, that develops over the course of our lives. What kind of man or woman or person are we relating to our gender? 

Our gender expression is how we portray that on the outside. Am I wearing a dress? Am I wearing makeup? Because we're doing this call, I put on makeup, I put on foundation.

Audra: Justin keeps forgetting to tell people that we're not. 

Justin: Well, yeah, so we are not necessarily using the video, but we may use clips. 

Audra: Okay, alright, alright.

Jena: You haven’t seen me in 15 years, I said to Todd, “If you saw this face, would you be like, ‘Wow, Jena’s really let herself go...’”

So my foundation, my mascara, the lipstick, the hair, is all part of my gender expression. How I portray myself as a woman on the outside world. Yesterday I was in sweat pants and a ponytail: my gender identity wasn't the same. I was still the same, smart, strong woman today that I was yesterday. Today, I'm just femming it up a little bit to impress you guys, right? 

We don't know if our students’ gender is changing or their gender expression, their willingness to be seen as androgynous or gender queer, their willingness to demand—as you suggested, Justin—that we ask them about their pronouns, because some of our students or some of our children, instead of just wanting to be he or she, or to be pronouned based on the sex that they were assigned at birth, want to be able to tell you what their pronouns are. “No, my pronouns are she, even though you think I'm a boy,” or “No my pronouns are they, even though you think I look like a girl.” Right? 

Again, people who are transgender and genderqueer are still evolving their own language around this, so there are also what we call neo-pronouns, people are coming up with other pronouns like xe, xyr or xem,... instead of she, her, or hers.

Justin: So there's this historical change and then I'm visually seeing like, then there's just this individual context.

Jena: And we're still figuring that out, and that's why five years from now when we have the...the anniversary of this, I'll be able to have a much better sense of why we have more transgender and genderqueer adolescents and young adults than ever before, and are we gonna continue to see that? 

My guess is that we're gonna see something in over the next 10 years, very similar to what we saw after the gay rights movement in the ‘60s through the ‘70s and ‘80s It's not probably that more people have same sex attraction now then did before. It's probably that now that we have marriage equity, now that we have civil rights, people who experience that, feel comfortable marrying the person they love, because they're not gonna risk getting fired from their job or losing their... Right?

We have throughout history, if you talk to Civil War experts, they will tell you stories of soldiers who are killed, and then when they bury them, we discover they were really secretly women pretending to be men. Although maybe 'cause that's the language we had back then, but maybe there were people who experience themselves as men, who went off to fight for their country, even though they had vulvas. 

We always had people whose gender identity has been outside the binary, in all cultures that we've studied around the world. We have always had people whose sexual attraction was outside the “you should be attracted to someone of the other sex.”

Justin: Jena, real quick, do you have any statistics on the rise in transgender parents. Has this tracked as well for parents?

Jena: We are just now starting to ask questions about gender identity related to respondents in surveys. And there were huge fights around the census and all of these things, and it's really fascinating for me as a health educator because we're always fighting in all these national data collection efforts, because people are saying that our data collections for sexual health matters are too sexually explicit...

Audra: Too sexually explicit?

Justin: It's too much knowledge.

Jena: So for instance, we only have data about kids and specific sexual behaviors for very recently, because before we would only ask children if they were sexually active, but we wouldn't define what that meant.

Audra: Okay. Yes.  

Jena: Right, that’s... 

Audra: To plant a seed, is that what the problem is? 

Jena: That's what they thought.

Justin: So the census made me do it.

Jena: Like walking into your house and saying…

Justin: Right, right. 

Jena: Did you eat any of the cookies that I said were for dessert?

Audra: And then on the other side of the coin, you likely have people saying, “Well, you don't have data.” 

Jena: Exactly, so when we talk about queer families is that we have more people identifing as LGBTQ+ as parents than ever before, and the willingness of physicians to work with these families…

Justin: Oh wow. 

Jena: ...around fertility and other needs related to queer and genderqueer parenting, so... So there's another word I use the word “queer.” 

Justin: Yes. Define that. 

Jena:  Which, yes, in that LGBT... Let me talk about that too. L is lesbian. We think of lesbian as people, women, who are attracted to other women. And sexual attraction, when we talk about the sexual attraction, is about gender. So it doesn't matter if one of the women who's attracted to another woman has a penis, it is all about, do they identify as women. So lesbians are women who are attracted to women, bisexual people. And we're gonna have to change this alphabet, 'cause again, this is... Things are exploding in the sexuality world right now. We invented the term bisexual and really popularized it in the ‘70s with the idea that there were two sexes and some people were attracted to both of them. Now that we understand that there are more than two genders that people can be attracted to. We think of bisexual people and as people who can be two or more genders.

Audra: More fluid.

Jena: So L is lesbian, G is gay, men who are attracted to other men. B is bisexual, people who are attracted to ..., and T is transgender, somebody who's gender identity doesn't meet their sex or match their sex assignment. 

Now because people do, I just said, I think myself as a strong, smart woman, I've created my own identity label. People have done the same thing for their sexual orientation, intersex people have said, “Hey, we wanna be included in the LGBT umbrella.” LGBT, okay we’ll put an I in there, right. Two spirited people—in native traditions, people whose gender wasn't in the binary, were sometimes identified as having two spirits.

Audra: I didn’t know that.

Jena: Two-spirited people said, “Hey, we wanna be in the umbrella.” Transgender people were already there, so, we already have a T. Pansexual people, people said, “Well, I used to think I was bisexual, but now I know that I'm attracted to men and women, and sort of femmy boys, and sort of really strong women with short crew cut hairs, and I had, I’m pansexual.” So now we have LGBTQ, A, for asexual people who said, “I don't really feel like I'm attracted to anybody very much regardless of their gender.” P for pansexual, and Q for the word queer, which we use in two ways. Some people have queer as an identity, and they say, “I'm not straight, but I'm not…none of those other labels really work for me. I'm queer, I'm beyond the typical binary of how we think about sexuality.”

Justin: So, queer is another way of saying, like, “Don't box me in?”

Jena: So queer is when, there's two things. So one appears as an identity label. So people whose sexual orientation or gender identity doesn't align with any of the labels they have, often identify as queer. Maybe somebody, a woman who is largely attracted to other women, but occasionally will date a man. Or a man who is attracted to men and trans women. Right? So queer is sort of outside... So another way, if we're talking about kinky sex, maybe someday, we'll launch that podcast.

Justin: Oh yeah, we’re gonna have you back on. 

Audra: It's gotta be recurring. 

Jena: Or when you talk about kink with people, people will talk about kink versus vanilla sex. And vanilla is sort of the missionary, in the dark, with the lights on and the blankets up to your chin, the way we imagine our grandparents have sex. That is not how they had sex. But that’s what we want we think. 

Justin: That's what I prefer to think. 

Audra: Yes.

Jena: That changes everything that's not vanilla. And then whether it's spanking or role play, it's just not the vanilla missionary-style. Queer is like that for sexual orientation and gender identity, it's this big umbrella as an identity, and a signifier that someone's sexual orientation or gender identity isn't the regular old vanilla, no offence to anybody who's listening, I believe that whatever someone sexual orientation or gender identity is that's awesome. But it isn't the regular old vanilla straight-versus-gender. So people will use queer as an identity.

Those of us who study and research sexuality and gender, use queer as a descriptor for those studies, like queer studies and gender studies, studies of sexuality and sexual orientation. We also, and here's one of my favorite ways to use this word, use the word queer as a verb, to talk about ways that we can kind of subvert the standard narrative, especially around sex or gender or race. 

So for instance, one of the things I suggest to my students when I'm talking to them about their sexual behaviors is they queer the dating narrative that they think about who's supposed to do what, where, and think about, how they would construct a date if they didn't have these rules in their head about what it's supposed to be? What would you do if you didn't think that because you're the boy, you have to do these things, or what would you do if you didn't think that because you're the girl you have to sit and wait to see what the boy wants to do?

Audra: Oh my gosh, I love it. I wish I had your class. 

Justin: Yeah, right, well, and that's why we have Jena on the show, and so we can get a little piece of this magic. 

Audra: We need to keep it going. It’s really amazing.

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Alright, so I imagine new parents, let's say I'm a new parent, we just had a brand new baby. And do I need to know about this stuff yet, or can I just push this off till puberty? Can I come back to you in 12 or 13 years?

Jena: So I'm gonna tell you the same thing your pediatrician is gonna tell you as a new parent. Listen to your baby. I remember when I was a new parent, I was so... I was 23 as a new parent. I had my first kid two weeks before my 24th birthday. That plan we made 22, we just stuck to it. Right? And I was so scared I was gonna mess it up. 

How will I know if the baby's hungry, how do I do the baby needs to be... And the pediatrician said listen to your baby. When your baby cries, pick him up and see if he needs to be fed, see if the baby wants to be changed. As a new parent, you can absolutely bring your baby home, have the gender reveal party, if that's what you need to do. If that is your family's tradition and your parents or godparents or whatever, are going to be heartbroken if it doesn't happen. It will not make people in the trans community happy, and for the sake of family harmony, do what you need to do. Please just don't put it in everybody's Facebook. 

It's okay, because 90% of the time your pediatrician, your obstetrician is gonna be right. If when that child is two or three and they say, “Mommy, I'm not a boy, I'm a girl,” listen to them. I don't need you to come out and get them hormones or do anything else. You might mention it to the pediatrician, because lots of kids will do that. Most of them will still be cisgender 90% of the time, we get it right. But right now, 5-10% percent of kids, will say they’re one gender and they’re not. And what I'm saying sounds really revolutionary, except that it's not. Right? 

We indulge our kids and our toddlers all the time. So, Zach, who you just saw, I think this was before you met him, but when Zach was three, the movie “Babe” the pig movie came out. Zach wanted to be Babe the pig. He didn’t want to be the farmer, he wanted to grow up to be a piglet. He watched the movie every day. And for about a year when he was three, any time I would say, “Oh, you're such a good little boy,” he would say, “I'm not a boy, Mommy, I’m a pig.” And so I got in the habit of saying, “Ok come on piggy, it’s time for bed. Okay, little pig, I love you so much.” 

Right, I remember one time in the grocery store, I got this bizarre look from a woman because she heard me saying to my toddler, “You’re the best little piggy ever.” But I didn’t say you can't be a pig because humans can only grow into humans. And here's the thing, my little boy cannot grow up to be a pig. He could possibly some day be my daughter. Probably not, most kids are not trans, but when kids are, we don't get to know that they are until they tell us. And when they tell us we need to listen to them, because here is the…

And I think it goes back to that conversation in the beginning about this is not the journey I plan to be on... Like, you did not sign up to be cancer parents, right? You did not say, “We feel really great, really confident in our family and our marriage, in our parenting, and we are ready for this journey.” This was the journey you were put on, you get to step up and do what you're doing, or you get to not, but this is gonna still be your journey, you have to get on this ride...

Justin: As we said at the beginning, you aren't gonna know what to do, but if you step forth in love and authenticity and honesty, you're gonna be going in the right direction. 

Audra: You could just use that response. 

Jena: Right, and I would argue that for lots of parents, for parents whose children have critical illnesses, often we don't have good evidence as to what the best course action is... Right? 

One of the horrible things I experienced, one of my children was critically ill during their childhood often, and those hard choices you have to make as a parent where a year from now, or five years from now, or maybe when the kid’s grown, you're gonna have an answer...if it’s the right choice. But now you just have to listen to the experts or listen to your faith, or listen to and make that choice. 

For a transgender parents, for the parents of trans and genderqueer kids, we have overwhelming evidence that listening to your child, allowing your child to express themselves as their gender identity is life-saving.

Audra: It's incredible. So there's a road map. 

Jena: There is a road map, and it doesn't, but I can't tell you, take the highway or take the country roads. I can tell you, you need to get to a place where your child feels loved and accepted for who they are.

Justin: So Jena, this is like all parenting for everything, always.

Jena: And how you accept that and how we, right, your kid picks a person that you’re not...is not your favorite or you want them to study to be a doctor, right? Being a parent is finding a way to be. 

But here's the thing, if you force your kid to be a doctor, they might be a miserable doctor and they might write novels on the side. We have a whole bunch of best selling authors who are actually doctors—Michael Crichton has his MD, right?

If your kid tells you that they are trans and you don't believe them and you make them pretend to not be trans, you are threatening their life. Being transgender is not a disease, it is not an illness, it is not a life threat, being a trans kid and trying to pretend you're not is life-threatening... You know, I teach this as suicide prevention.

Justin: God, yeah.

Audra: That is incredible. I think we need to really put a pin in that and make a note that not supporting your child in being who they are, expressing who they are and being able to live their lives as who they are and who they wanna be, is life-threatening.

Jena: And the hard thing about parenting is we all have visions of who we want our kids to be. I have had kids date people I didn't like, I have had kids dropout of college, I have had kids make all sorts of choices that I would not have voted for in their adolescent and adult lives. 

And I have their entire lives to help them grow into the kind of person they're meant to be, and to push towards the kind of person I'd like them to be. Things that will protect them, things that will keep them here, things that will keep that dialogue open, so I can keep giving them guidance, that's what I prioritize. 

Justin: Beautiful.

Audra: So what I'm hearing is that it's not going to be damaging to put the girl... She's born, we identify as a girl in birth, you put her in pink clothes, you put the boy in blue clothes, that's not going to be necessarily the most damaging thing ever. You're sending a message certainly, and there is communication happening here, but it's not the end of the world. What we need to do is, 'cause one thing that I thought was really powerful, you're acknowledging family dynamics and culture and all of the other rich things going on. But when the child expresses who they are, you listen and take that seriously.

Jena: Yes, the same way that if my child said, “Mom…” Actually, Tory did. My oldest kid went to college at 16 and super bright, and was getting a lot of college notices and my college really heavily recruited Tory. And I was kind of gently like, “Wouldn’t that be so cool? We could commute together.” And finally Tory turned to me and said, “Mom, every time you talk about me going to your college, I throw up a little bit in the back of my throat.” Tory is not a beat-around-the-bush kid… “Mom, this is not my path. Listen!”

Justin: Yeah. 

Jena: It would be great, we could have lunch together every day for four years. Was not Tory’s path.

Justin: No. Alright, so we are coming up against time here, so what is coming up for me first is that we absolutely have to have you back on because there's like five questions that I absolutely want answered, and so we're gonna have to have you back.

Jena: The kink section. 

Justin: Oh my god, it's like, Come on. It's gonna be awesome. So we're gonna have you back, but one question before I get into the three quick ones that we throw everybody, 'cause it's just standing out to me, maybe because we have a teenager. Dating... How early is too early?

Jena: Okay, so Justin, this is the price of admission, right here. This is the same answer for anything your kid tells you about sex and relationships. My kid comes to me and says, in kindergarten, and says, “Mom, Mahogany at and I are dating,” right? I say, “Tory, what does that look like?” Right? 'Cause here's the thing I know. My kid thought, Tory thought that Tory and Mahogany were dating in kindergarten. And kindergarten dating is “I sit next to you on the school bus, and we sit together at lunch.” Right? And the reason I wanna know what is…

First of all, it's contextual, but then the other thing that that question gives me, is it allows me that there is a red flag there for me as a parent, I can just say, “Wait a minute about this part, right?” So when Tory says, “I'm dating Mahogany,” and I say, “What does dating look like?” Tory says, “We sit together on the bus every day, and Mahogany’s not allowed to talk to anybody else.” 

I will just say, “I love that you guys are sitting on the bus today, I love sitting next to your dad on the bus. That's one of my favorite things. And I think not letting the person you're dating talk to anyone is sad.” So if my kid comes and says, “Mom, I'm going all the way…” Let's talk about that. What does that look like? One of my kids, adult kids, just came to me with really serious relationship news… “Awesome, congratulations. What do you think that's gonna look like? You and your person, you've obviously talked about this, you've thought about this. Well, what does that look like for you? How's your relationship gonna be now, what do you think this means?” 

So your teenage kid comes and says, “Dad I’m dating my best friend.” This kid has been in your house for dinner a million times, and you didn't even know they were checking your kid out, like that's some messed up stuff right there, right? Like all potential dates should have to claim their intentions, you start looking at your kid’s best friends, like… Your kid comes and says, “Dad, I'm dating this person. Yeah, that's awesome. What does that look like for you? Now you guys are friends, and how does the friendship different.” Or “Oh, that's great. This isn't somebody we've met before, talk to me about your connection with them.”

Jena: Oh, I love it. This opening Jena, it's just like this beautiful, beautiful, powerful opening and an open invitation to connect and converse as opposed to the typical closing, clamping, and controlling.

Jena: “Over my dead body,” right? And then the other one I use a lot with, I use a lot with my adolescents and still my kids say, “You make great choices.” 

I know your kids make great choices, I see on social media, all the fabulous things they do. Think about how much better your conversations with your adolescent kids go around dating and all those things, if they know that you think they make good choices and you respect their choices, and they know your family values. 

People think that because I do this work, and people who know me and know my politics and everything else think I’m this uber-liberal mother. Yeah, I sat down with both of my kids when they were in high school and told them that I'd rather they weren't sexually active in high school. 

Because in my experience, people who have sex in high school often do it really bad reasons, in adulthood, they look back on it and they regret it. Right? I said, “I think most high school students probably are, and in most high school relationships probably aren't ready for sex. And no matter what, I'm always gonna love you, I'm always gonna support you, and as your mom, here's what I want for you.”

Justin: Ohhh, gosh, so this opens up so many other questions for me. Alright, so we definitely have to have you back on because I wanna dig into this because there's so much, we're like, Okay, well then what if they're like, “Thanks for the advice, mom. But this is what I wanna do.”

Jena: I did not tell you, Justin, that either of my children followed my advice. But here’s the thing... And I don't talk about my kids sexual behaviors publicly anywhere that I want my own, but over the course of... I've got a, almost 30-year-old and a 25-year-old now, over the course of their adult lives and relationships, they have done things that I have disagreed with.

They did not always follow my firm guidelines or parental rules, and every time they have gotten into trouble where they have had a question or a relationship problem, or a pregnancy scare, all the sorts of things that happen around sexuality, I have been one of the first people that they had called to. Because I'm the expert, but also because I’m their parent.

Justin: Yeah, the communication was open. It was always open.

Jena: And they knew that I would disagree sometimes. I have my own values and high expectations for my kids, but I'm never gonna shame them, and I'm never going to tell them that they're not allowed as young adults or adults to make their own choices in their lives. 

I'll respectfully tell them that I disagree sometimes with choices. But they get to... Zach when he turned 18, told us that he was now thinking of us as an advisory… Neither of my children have a hard time telling me what they actually think.

Justin: Yes, yes, but the relationship is...

Audra: Okay, you know what, I just... I have to reflect to a couple of things, I'm really, really struck by, I think what I feel like I'm hearing and getting a feel for, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I wanna check in on this, is that when you talk about your family values, I have to think respect as a core one.

Jena: Very much so. 

Audra: I feel it. 

Jena: Yes, so we are friends and you get to have your own life. My children are adults, we get to live their own life, that’s all respect. And honesty is, as someone who cares for you and loves you, I also have an obligation to give you my best feedback and my best advice, even if I don't agree. So the respect can sometimes be hand-off, I think with honesty it's sort of yes, 'cause with parenting too, or sometimes with friends. I don't go...as a relationship person, I have such a rule about not offering unsolicited relationship advice anymore... And I think the honesty part is something that gets negotiated in relationships and close friendships and family, because you do have an obligation. But especially with your kids as they’re young adults and I was [able to] help them navigate this really complicated thing.

Justin: Beautiful. Alright.

Audra: So, one more thing before the three things, please. I know, I'm so sorry, I know we're getting on a time and we are going to talk. I think we have to talk with you at least 10 more times. I don't know, Jena, it's gotta be just a continuing thing. It is, like, it is so uplifting of my heart and spirit, I've learned so much, and I just wanted to express thanks to you for going into academia, going into research, for digging in and doing this work because I do... weren’t you and your brother on the “Today Show?”

Jena: I often... Again, the way I describe my job, the close friends, versus the way I describe it more formally and appropriately. The appropriate way I would describe my early twenties is I spent a lot of time offering myself to various media venues.

Audra: Yes, you were on the world stage. And you’re definitely a voice and a beautiful, passionate, articulate voice; something that is deeply needed in the world. And I get the sense you could have continued on that path. You could have continued on the advocacy path and in very many ways you're still on the advocacy path, but to be able to decide that you're gonna dig deeper and dig in and stay really involved with the research and be a part of this evolution of knowledge and sharing is really, really powerful. And I just wanted to appreciate that because I'm getting just a huge sense of gratitude for you and your work.

Justin: Heck yeah, me too. Yeah. Alright, so the intention is set. We're gonna have you back on 10 more times. 

So the final three questions we ask everybody, if you could put a big post-it note on every parent's fridge tomorrow morning, they wake up, go to the kitchen, it’s right there... What is it gonna say? 

Jena: “There is no test.” I, so often, especially early in my parenting career, I saw parenting as a series of challenges or tests, that are either pass or fail. Childbirth was a test, and there was good ways to have birth, and there were bad ways to have birth. 

Parenting is this huge, long marathon. Maybe decades after you have finished, you are able to look back and see, but there's not a task like you show up and you do it the best you can, and you get it right 60-80% of the time, depending on the day, and you try and keep the major screw ups down to a couple...

Justin: Beautiful… And a quote that has changed the way you think or feel lately.

Jena: Oh my gosh, I have this poster over my desk at work, so when I look up—anyone walking into my office is the first thing I see. Audra will remember it. “When I dare to be powerful, use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Audra: Oh, it's an amazing quote. It's one of my favorites.

Jena: I, 'cause... Here's the thing, we talk about, like, well, you can't sit and do nothing else, and you have to do something, and we don't know the way forward, so you quit... You really could. There are days where you can absolutely just sit in bed with your head under the covers and eat chocolate and sob because there is so much freaking suck. And there isn't a single good solution, and it's overwhelming to get around. The stakes are so high sometimes. It’s so easy to be afraid and to be overwhelmed, and so that one helps me remember that I don't ever have to be brave on my own behalf. I can use that power and harness it for something else and not have to be scared for myself.

Justin: Beautiful. 

Audra: Yeah, you strike me as someone who makes your decisions out of hope, not out of fear. And not to say you don't wrestle with fear like we all do, but you don't track me as a fear-based decision-maker.

Jena: I am the, “We’re standing at the lake edge on February…” I am the “I have to jump in because otherwise I will stand and analyze it forever,” so I'm constantly leaping because this right here doesn't have a chance or good judgment rather— 

Audra: Oh interesting. So just jump so that you don't have to overthink it or the fear set in? 

Jena: Exactly that... Judgment hardly ever sets in.

Justin: That's a great strategy. Alright, this last question is about kids, because for most parents and you’re way past this, but for parents of young kids, there's an exhaustion and like oh god, kids... It's just draining. But they're also wonderful, so we wanna celebrate kids, so what is your favorite thing about kids? 

Jena: So many things, I could go on about how amazing my kids are...for hours. But I think my favorite thing about kids is how many chances they give us... You can be snappy with your kids, you can be short with your kids, you can be distracted with your kids, they still think you’re one of the coolest humans on the planet. They still keep showing up. And for years or weeks. I wrote an entire dissertation and I'm pretty sure that my kids did not see me for weeks on end. And when I got done and came up for air, they were there with me. 

Audra: Oh, it's beautiful, it's beautiful. So that is an incredible reflection. I feel like how many chances they give us, or make mistakes over and over and over again. How forgiving they are. 

Justin: Yeah, yeah. Just continue to show up. Yeah.

Jena: Yeah, and the cool thing, I can tell you as somebody who's in a very different parenting place, I have the adult kids who are thinking about their own kids… They will look back and reminisce on ridiculous things that were not important as pivotal and wonderful...or fabulous. You know the stupid bodega on the corner of Amsterdam, and my kids loved, and they loved stopping here. And the fact that I stop there on the way home from school every afternoon is one of the reasons I'm the best mom ever, when really it was just I couldn't walk 12 blocks without diet Dr Pepper. Right? So moving and so willing to give us the chance to get this right.

Audra: It speaks to love and authenticity again, that children are living and often leading with love and authenticity, and so there is that open-heartedness. And it's one thing that we'll continue to talk about because we are super interested in talking about traumas and Justin is really deep into the work of emotional processing and things like this, and I feel like this reminder of the resilience and love and authenticity and the forgiving nature of kids, like kids showing up in love is like... “You haven't—Mom, Dad, you haven't ruined it.”

Jena: Right, right.

Audra: It is one thing to argue about tonight or something.

Jena: Yeah, think about the expectation of perfection that sets in at some point in all of our lives around different things. There's something that I just absolutely have to show up and nail. Like public speaking, this stuff. And then there's stuff that I'm allowed to be shitty at, softball, right? 

And then there's imposter syndrome, and you think about kids like they don’t have that... What age does imposter syndrome set in? Like middle school, maybe later, depending on the kid and their environment...but...little kids will try shit. They'll get it wrong, they don't expect you to be good. And they don’t expect us… Yeah, kids are cool people. 

Justin: I love it. 

Audra: I'm gonna be sitting in that space for a while. I'm really, really enjoying thinking about little kids through that lens, through the, like, so authentic. There is no onset of impostor syndrome at that point, it's delayed or later.

Jena: Yeah, you could grow up to be a pig. If nobody tells you at three, that you can’t... You can plan your whole pig life at that point...

Audra: Right. What are we so afraid of? 

Justin: Hey, thanks for listening to The Family Thrive Podcast. If you like what you heard, please subscribe. Tell two friends and head on over to Apple Podcast, or anywhere you listen to podcasts, and give us a review. We're so grateful you've chosen to join us on this Family Thrive Journey.




Justin: You remember when one or both of your parents gave you ‘the talk?’ How awful that was, and now as a parent, you need to give the talk to your kids. And today things are way more complicated, it's not just sex we need to talk about, but gender, sexuality, identity, consent, and a lot more. 

Well, parents, we got your back. In this episode, we're talking with the professor of Gender and Sexuality, Jena Curtis PhD. It is an amazing episode where we talk about everything from how to have the talk to when it's okay to start dating, to why it's so damn important to talk openly with our kids about gender, sexuality, and identity. A quick note, Dr. Curtis' sound was not great in this episode, but the energy she brings and the amazing wisdom she shares is too important to toss, so we're going with it. But I promise if you stick with it, you're gonna be super happy you did.

Jena: There is a road map, and I can’t tell you, take the highway or take the country roads. I can tell you, you need to get to a place where your child feels loved and accepted for who they are. Listening to your child, allowing your child to express themselves as their gender identity is life-saving.

Justin: We are so thrilled to present this episode with Dr. Jena Curtis, she holds a Doctorate in Education from Columbia University and is a professor of Gender and Sexuality at SUNY Cortland. She started her adult life as a community AIDS educator in 1987, when she was just out of high school. She ended up delivering hundreds of HIV/AIDS presentation programs and workshops to high school kids, college students, and community audiences all before finishing her undergraduate degree. 

So what would cause a kid just out of high school and rural upstate New York to travel around the world educating people on AIDS in 1987? Well, you're gonna need to listen to find out. Enjoy this awesome episode with Dr. Jena Curtis. 

So we can just dive right in. So the first thing we were gonna talk about was like, how far back we go, and so we started to touch on this, it's been 15, almost 16 years since we've seen Jena.

Audra: 'Cause we were in grad school together, and she was completing a doctoral degree, and I was completing a master's degree, and we worked together in family housing, and I remember being the one without kids. And I remember that kind of being a little bit of a thing. It's like, I remember struggling and being like, “But I have a family...but I know it's not the same thing. I’m not one of those people who assumes that I know what it's like.” But I remember you being our first parenting mentors.

Justin: Yeah, I remember watching how you guys parented... 

Audra: There was an apple thing. I don't know if you remember, but you told me the story about apples and how you would keep apples in the fridge and you tell the kids they can't have them because they're treats... I totally use that, I stored that away to file. And I was like, that is really good. That's good and I've been using it ever since. Now, Maesie will eat two flats of strawberries, I'd be like, “I don't know... I don't know if you should, is that…” 

So did you accept the position at Cortland right after grad school? 

Jena: Right out of grad school. As it happens in grad school, my dissertation advisor was like, “Jena, you should interview at Cortland,” ‘cause that's where he went, and I was like, “Yeah, sure, so I go to California where it's warm…” But, he was my advisor, so I interviewed at Cortland and I fell in love with it. I went from hoping they won’t make me an offer, and I have to deal with that, to  please let them make me an offer… and I’ve been here ever since. 

Justin: Oh, that's awesome. All right, so before we get into your professional work, I just wanna rewind to the personal stuff. And so when did you first know that you wanted to be a mom? Was there a moment where you're like, “Oh, dang.”

Jena: No, no, I actually talk about this when I teach about gender…  I never made a decision to be a parent. From my earliest memories, I grew up in this huge Irish Catholic family, where there were aunts and uncles and cousins everywhere, where any adult could grab you by the scruff of the neck and say, “Straighten up.” Right? Like that was my family. 

Everybody said to me, my entire childhood “Well when you will have children” or “You might not like this now, but when you have children, you will understand.” It was just part of the... It was like when you become an adult. It was just one of those things that you did. But I never regret having children, but now I have students, and I work with young adults, who are really thinking about, do they want to have families. 

Justin: Oh Jena, this is great. So you experience part of what I think of as the old way of parenting, which is, it's just part of life. It's like you grow up, you have kids, you retire and you die.

Jena: You retire, you get to do what you want, but the having kids and supporting your family is work.

Justin: So was there a moment when as a parent, you realize like, this is something more, like this is, this is a life project, like this is part of some, you know, deeper there... There's a deeper meaning here in my relationship with my kids and... Did it ever hit like that?

Jena: Yeah, absolutely. It's interesting 'cause now both of my children are adults and with their people and talking about starting their own families, not maybe right now, but in the foreseeable…within a five year plan, that's something that's certainly gonna come up. 

And Tory, my oldest, asked before the wedding, “What about kids?” And I said, “Here's the thing about kids.” And I had this conversation, I don't remember ever deciding I'm gonna be a mom as opposed to not being a mom. Like anything else, it was just always part of my identity of who I would be the same way that I would be an adult. And I would grow up to be a mom, 'cause that's what women did.

But within that, I also very much in my family, was instilled that was the best thing that you could do. It was very much like Hillary Clinton, no matter what other great things you do with your life, if you don't do a great job raising your kids like you have not nailed it. It was the most important, most crucial work you're gonna do. 

And so when I was talking to Tory about this, I said, the thing about that is, it's right. The happiest, best things that have ever happened in my life—almost all of them are tied to my kids. My proudest moment, the things that I reflect on. And some of my hardest too, like hands-down, are plenty of work, it is nothing compared to your kid is in trouble and you can’t help.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: And to Tory I said, I can't imagine my life being as happy as it is if I hadn’t had kids. And for as long as you have children, you are... It's harder to be happier than your saddest kid, or the most troubled kid. So it's sort of this incredible leap of faith to trust in this process that you see from everyone around you does not always end well and often makes parents really miserable. But brings such incredible joy.

Justin: I guess that's what makes parenting, for me at least, this almost spiritual life project, because it's not like a just totally enjoyable hobby. Like I like to surf or bike, and it's like, no, no, no. This is something different. This is, for me, yeah, as close to a spiritual project as possible because it will reveal every unprocessed wound from childhood that I have, every issue, every hang-up. And then, of course, as you alluded to, all the joy and the pain that just goes with seeing your kids struggle or go through stuff that you wish they didn't have to.

Audra: So, Jena, I'm interested because getting to know you as a parent, as parents, so you and Todd, we met. You’re parents. I didn't know you before. And you are such incredible examples to us, and we're soaking it up from you. This has been your life's work, and this is something that you went into because it's a part of a life trajectory that was passed on to you. 

And so at what point did you, or was there a point when you said, “Hey, this is something that I'm not just sort of floating through and biding my time until they're 18.” Was there a point for you where you start to really lean into that? 'Cause you're really good at it, and so I'd love to know where that kind of came to or how they came together for you.

Jena: So, this is gonna sound odd, but one of the things that was really pivotal, and really helpful for my parenting, was that my brother got sick when I was a teenager. And so Todd, who was my high school boyfriend, and I had lots of conversations about that. And he had AIDs back when AIDs was pretty, immediately fatal. And so for my entire relationship with Todd, in the beginning, I had a critically ill, we would say terminally ill brother, and family stuff was super important and super intense and super accelerated because we had that thing that lots of families with diagnoses have of you gotta get it all in. 

Audra: Yup. 

Jena: So Todd and I were high school sweethearts who got married at 22.  Because my brother had just been diagnosed with AIDS and they said he’d gonna live for a year or two. And I went to him and I said, “I love you and we’re gonna get married at some point, but if we don't get married before my brother dies, I'm gonna be too sad to get married, so we need to do it now.” 

And then kids was the same thing. Like, “Let's have kids.” But because of that, but I think maybe because of who I am, 'cause I knew I was putting it—I was fast-tracking it, right? It was also really important to me to sit down and sort of talk to him about what would that look like. “We're gonna get married anyway, but if we get married soon, how does that change our relationship from what it is now, right? And we're gonna have kids. We always knew we were gonna have kids. But if we have kids now, what does that mean for work? And what does it mean for this?” 

And so we had these really intentional conversations, I think in part because I was really aware of the fact that we were incredibly young and making it up while we were going along. And I didn't wanna half-ass it. Like, I didn't know what I was doing and I knew that. So we got to have these conversations about like, “What do you think about spanking on them, I think we should never hit our kids, do you... What do you think about religion, what—” 

Justin: Wow.

Audra: You brought this intentionality into it.

Justin: Yeah, and like, really building the boat as you're sailing across the ocean.

Jena: We’ve got three months to decide what a good marriage looks like, go!

Justin: Oh, I love it. Oh my god, that is why I feel like you have so much wisdom. Even back then, we would watch you guys and it really felt intentional, like you guys were not half-assing it and that these decisions were intentional. Yeah, they were done kind of on fly and kind of quickly, but it was intentional. I love that. Yeah, yeah. 

Audra: The other thing I wanted to reflect on too, speaking of your brother, is, and I'd love to talk a bit more about this because it's something that has just...there has been continued resonance for me, in reflection, looking back. 

You, in sharing with us along the way. You brought us to your home, you bought us into your lives and you shared with us, and then we end up years later with a son diagnosed with a brain tumor, and there's something there that... I don't know how to describe it, but I felt you there because you introduced us in a way, to this world that we just ended up in. And it's been very powerful for me. And you as a sibling, I see in my daughter. And a lot of that journey, I feel like you gave us… I don't know, you gave us some sort of advanced comfort in some way of just being able to be with you, and so you see, she’s surviving and thriving and making this give, and making something out of this... This is just incredibly inspiring. I think it's been, for me, it's been a huge part of my inspiration knowing that it's possible. 

Jena: Oh wow, I notice I'm feeling choked up. I teach students how to talk about things like this, and I say, “When you feel you’re alone just own it.” Yeah, I think... Yeah, one of the gifts that we had being one of the early AIDs families, and one of the gifts I got getting married so early, was the sense of there wasn't a right way to do it, there wasn't a handbook, you make it up as you go along. Because there isn't anything else to do. 

And I see so much of that in the work that you and Justin have done with MaxLove. Of sort of, there has to be a path, and we don't know what it is, but we know that there must be one and we have to build it, and sometimes veer the wrong way occasionally to get there, we will do it.

Audra: Build a ship as we sail. It's the same thing, right? 

Justin: I think the commonalities are like this, the only rules that we know we have to follow are love and authenticity. If we can just follow these two rules, we'll get somewhere.

Jena: We don’t have to stay here and hurt, we have to do something with this. Doing nothing isn’t an option. So even though you aren't sure... The good thing is we're gonna try with love and authenticity then in that moment...

Audra: Yeah, it's like what I notice in this, and I was coming up for me in this conversation, is that we oftentimes, many of us are unaware that the pursuit of the perfect life is something that we've just consented to by default because the expectation is that you do this right. Do the things perfectly and build a perfect, happy life. And when you go through what your family's been through, when you go through what we've been through, in our whole community of families, that whole notion of perfect life is destroyed. 

And out of that, you do have a choice. You can, I think there's grief that goes along with that for everybody, and there's something that it can be, and I've seen a lot of families in more of a state of disempowerment from that, like it is completely shattering. For us, we took it as an opportunity to build, at that point, and it's like, well, that's out the window.

Jena: Right. 

Audra: And now we're free in a sense. We're free to do us, to be us, and to figure out what our purpose is and what we really feel like we're gonna be good at, and so, we can make some good things happen in the world. What's it gonna be? And it was, in a sense, liberating, and it's hard to say that to people who have been through something like this or a diagnosis like this, because you know what I'm saying. I'm not trying to say that I'm grateful for my son's cancer diagnosis. That’s not the point. That’s not what I'm saying. 

Jena: Thank goodness my brother died of AIDs because I never would have gone to grad school without that... 

Justin: Right, right. 

Jena: Yeah, and that's why the language that works for me mostly—except when it doesn't...of being willing to get it wrong, because what is right is a moving thing…  One of the gifts that this gave me, like you can go on a really... And Todd does this, my husband, who was still my favorite person in the world.

Justin: Aww, after all these years, high school sweethearts.

Jena: Todd does a whole bunch of international travel and often with people who haven't done it, and he says from the time you leave your house with your bag until you get home, it's an adventure. Sometimes the adventure sucks, and sometimes the adventure is awesome, but it’s always...

Justin: But it's an adventure.

Jena: That sort of mindset of, we're always learning, and sometimes we're not getting it right, but that's not the point. It can be difficult and it can be not what you anticipated and still fabulous. 

Or it can absolutely suck... Some of the things, some of the trips that I learned the most on have been the ones that were absolutely terrible from a accomplishing-my-goals perspective. 

Audra: Right. 

Jena: The first time I did a research trip in India, I remember. I don't remember the time I decided I became a mom. I remember the time promising my higher power that if it got me out of India, I would never return again... Right. Of course. That research trip broke me, it sucked, I did everything wrong. I didn’t go back for four years. But I learned so much from that trip, and the reason it broke me was because I was doing everything wrong. 

Justin: Oh my gosh. So Jena, when you said trip at first and I was like, “Oh, Jena's kinda talking about psychedelic trips now. Alright, cool.” But it's funny because I do follow the research, so there's now real clinical trials on psychedelic therapy, and so I follow this, I'm super interested in it, and the researchers. I've heard this several times, 'cause they're asked on news shows like, “Well, what about the bad trips?” And they say, “Well, actually, people often will get the most healing and most benefit from what we think of as a bad trip.” And so, this goes in just exactly with what you're saying.

Jena: Right. Sometimes life gives you what you need instead of what you want.

Audra: Yeah, beautifully said. 

Jena: Again, sometimes right? Because sometimes people say that to me and I'm just like, “Ahhhh, I do not need this flat tire this morning on the freeway.”

Audra: Well, yes, there's a difference between someone else saying that to you and you saying it to yourself. Right?

Justin: Right, yeah.

Audra: I had the experience of a very, for me, it was a very difficult loss of a baby at 20 weeks.  She had trisomy 18. It was very difficult. And I definitely had people in my life who were like, “You'll see, it's for the best.” I was like, “Oh, I'll see?”

Justin: Or it was part of a plan or whatever. Alright, so Jena, you alluded to this when you said that had your brother not passed, you probably wouldn't have gone to grad school, and so this is a part of your professional life. It really goes back to that. So can you tell us a little bit about how you even got into researching and teaching Gender and Sexuality?

Jena: Sure... So the first thing I think that's super important to note, because this is, I think for parents to help them think about how to do this and how to have these conversations with children, and think about these topics with regard to children. My parents botched the sex talk. And I was destined to be a sex professor, so it was a real mismatch. 

Again, Irish Catholic family, and when I was seven, my dad caught me reading his Playboys, because again, from my earliest memories, how would you not wanna look at pictures of naked people? It’s obviously fascinating. I stand by that as a 51-and-a-half-year-old. It just makes sense. And so, in this very strict Catholic family that I had, nobody had the resources or skills to sit down and have conversations with me about why this is inappropriate or why it's okay for adults but not for a seven-year-old, or why children shouldn't go into their parents’ bedroom without permission. 

Like there's so many ways that conversation could have happened, except my parents just didn't have those skills. So what they did instead is they got a whole bunch of books about puberty and sexuality, and they gave them to their seven-year-old.  

Justin: Jena, just go get a PhD in this so that we don't have to have this discussion. 

Jena: That is exactly what happened. And so, one of the things I talk about when I talk to parents about how you teach them about sex, is that it's sort of like teaching kids about smoking. There's what you say and there's what you do, right? 

Before you have a conversation with your kids about their tobacco use, they have learned a thousand lessons about it from watching their uncles, people on the subway, right? It's not that if you don't talk to them, they're not learning. And it's not that if you say, “Don't ever smoke,” but you have two packs a day and a pack of the glove compartment and one stashed everywhere that you're not teaching them two separate sets of messages.

But my parents didn't—so in terms of the talk, they did everything exactly wrong. They froze, and the thing that they taught me was, is that sex is so fascinating and horrifying, both, that you can't talk to people you know about it, you can only read about it in books. 

Justin: Wow. 

Jena: I became a great reader. I learned to read everything. But at the same time, they sent that message, my parents are in their seventies and they're still really in love with each other. And they really care about each other, and they're each other's best friends, and they taught us that no matter what we did, we were always gonna be loved. And they taught us that we owned our bodies and that nobody was allowed to mess with us, and if there's somebody’s gonna mess with your brother or your sister, you were allowed to fight them. Like you were your own person and nobody could hurt you. They taught me all the great stuff that I needed to know, they just bombed the sex talk.

Justin: And so you're like, “Screw this, I'm getting a PhD and I'm gonna go and talk about this in front of thousands and thousands of people.” 

Jena: Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. And the way, actually, what happened in the background of all that, so I'm secretly hoarding all the sex books I can find. And this is the ‘70s, and the ‘80s, so there is no internet, there is no, it's really like stealing Uncle Bob’s Playboy from the closet... It’s only the way to get it ‘cause Victoria's catalogs are not even a thing yet. This is... You know, we talk about food deserts, this is a porn desert. In rural New York state. 

But still, there are enough books and stuff, and I’m learning stuff, and then my kid brother, who has hemophilia, which has just been sort of in the background of our family, he got like super confident... Like my dad is a former MP, he's a police chief, we are the “Get it done, make a plan, work the plan” family. My brother, who has hemophilia, gets HIV and then AIDs. And so, this is in, we find out he’s infected in 1985. But, for historical context for folks who don’t know about this, 1985 was a really scary time, in terms of HIV. It was our first global pandemic. And people were pretty hysterical. Kids with hemophilia who had AIDS—Ryan White was the most famous. Kids were being kicked out of their schools, there were three brothers in Florida with hemophilia whose houses were burned down when they tried to go to school. So my family, in this tiny little town of 2,000 people and one traffic light in Cooperstown says, “We're just not gonna tell anyone, right?”

Audra: Right. 

Jena: They started taking my brother to New York City for AIDS care, because there's nothing in our area, and to bring him to the local hospital would be an equivalent to out him. And so that is what we do. 

So for my entire high school career, I knew that my brother had hemophilia and had HIV, and nobody knew what that meant. But we could also never talk about it. And I went off to college and that’s how it was. I was pre-law, I wanted to be the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. We still don't have one by the way.

Audra: Right. 

Jena: 35 years later. Still not there. This was 1987. I wanted to be the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Yeah, I'm still waiting too, Audra. 

Audra: We’re still waiting for you. 

Jena: Life called me in a different direction. I went to college to do that, I was gonna be pre-law, I was gonna be a lawyer, I was gonna be a justice, I was gonna fight for, you know. And my brother stayed home in high school, junior high, at that point. And then later in high school, hiding the fact he was HIV-positive until he got too sick. And when he was a senior in high school, he got his first case-defining illness, we used to do that... remember HIV-positive, and then case-defining illness, and then you were full-blown AIDS, like, right? Yeah, the way we label disease is really...maybe a whole other talk.  

Audra: Yes, yeah. For sure.

Jena: Right, yeah, so many. He was full-blown and once he was full-blown, it was one to two years. [That] was the diagnosis. It just was November of his senior year in high school, he had just started. So don't bother to apply to college. I dropped out of college, I came home, he was like, decided that keeping it a secret didn't make any sense. Like you had to. Being mad at him...it wasn't the worst thing in the world anymore. Losing friends wasn't... So he was a Boy Scout and decided to do this Eagle Scout project talking about AIDS. And I was his big sister so I was like, “I'm a college dropout, I can tag along and talk about AIDS.” And we started speaking together. And so by the time that you and I met, or we met, ‘cause Justin was in grad school too with you, I had been doing that for almost a decade. And my brother had just died, like, I think he died the May I started grad school.

Audra: I didn't know it was that recent to you starting grad school. 

Jena: I look back on those years and think, “Wow, that's amazing,” because I remember just barely holding it together. Like in having a sense of myself as sober... Okay, really just overwhelming grief and we need to hold this together.

Audra: It strikes me too, and you say that I'm really impacted because I hear that in you from the beginning, from childhood to some degree, and that you've been holding so much together throughout your life. That's what brings you to plan a marriage at 22 and plan it out and plan exactly how the kids are gonna go, you know, it's... 

Justin: I think when tragedy strikes like this, we can hold it together by avoiding and repressing and ignoring, and “I'm just gonna hold it together, I don't wanna break,” you know? Or I can hold it together by diving straight into this thing, by walking straight towards it, and I feel like that's what we've done with childhood cancer, I'm just like... And that's exactly what you did is like... I'm going straight into that fire. Yeah, that's powerful. 

Audra: Yeah, that is my memory of meeting you is, I think that that was one thing that was so impactful to me is that your openness, vulnerability, presence, being able to speak about your experience, being able to speak about Henry, being able... It wasn't a secret part of your life. It was a part of your life that felt very incorporated in your life and in who you are, and still very much does. It's a really, really powerful journey. 

So when your brother was diagnosed, he must have been very young, initially with hemophilia. Is that something that's typically diagnosed early in childhood? 

Jena: Well. This is again... Now, it would be, almost definitely. This was 1973. So actually the first eminent diagnosis was leukemia, 'cause he presented the toddler-crawling with bruising and bleeding gums...

Audra: Right. 

Jena: Lumps... And so we had to go, my parents were in the service in Fort Gordon, Georgia, and there was nobody there who could diagnose this little toddler who's bleeding. So they sent us to the CDC in Atlanta. My parents brought us there... I remember—this is one of my earliest memories, 'cause my brother was one-and-a-half and I was about five-and-a-half. And they brought us to the CDC, and they had ruled it down to leukemia, which was terrible because this was 1974. 

Justin: Right.

Audra: It's terminal at that point.

Justin: It’s a death sentence.

Jena: Toddlers with leukemia. And my parents are not educated, they're—I’m five—they're 25-year-old kids in the service.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: So what they know is their kid’s probably got leukemia, and if he’s got leukemia he's gonna die. And instead, it turns out it's not leukemia, it's this other thing, hemophilia, which we have never heard of and we know nothing about. And it turns out it's just this blood disease, and if the kid gets hurt, you can give them lots of other people's blood and they'll stop bleeding.

Audra: Transfusions. And at this point, there's no Facebook support groups, no online chats, there's none of this. Your parents are going it alone with a kid with a rare diagnosis that seems to be treatable...if you have access to blood transfusions.

Jena: You dive in and teach yourself everything you can. It isn't an accident I decided I could plan a marriage at 22. 

Audra: Yes. 

Jena: As a child, I was taught how to do IV blood transfusions at age 10, because at 10, again we were Catholic, and seven was old enough to get your ears pierced 'cause that was like First Communion, so 10 seemed like good enough for IV therapy.

Audra: Yes, of course. Yeah.

Justin: The math works out.

Jena: You are a woman, now, here's the IV— 

Audra: And caregiver. 

Justin: Yeah, yeah. So Jena, to bring us up to the present, how would you describe the work you do right now? You're at a dinner party, like... How do you describe it?

Jena: It depends. If I come to your dinner party, I would tell people that I teach Gender and Sexuality. That I do research about gender and sexuality typically on stigmatized or minoritized groups or sexualities. So I can do a lot of work with sexual violence with women around the world, I do a lot of stuff with the LGBTQ+ community. That's what I do.

Justin: But if it's a really bad dinner party... What do you say?

Jena: Right. If it's my uber-conservative cousin's dinner party, I’m a health professor.

Justin: Yeah.

Jena: I teach people how to be healthy.

Justin: Yeah, got it.

Jena: Mostly with women's health around the world. Lately, I have been working a lot in Haiti and in India and—oooh, look at the time.

Justin: Exactly, exactly. Alright, so this is the part in the conversation where I wanna start getting into stuff where I think a lot of listeners, parent listeners can start to put some things into action. How to talk to our kids about gender and sexuality, how to think about these things. But before we do, I'm imagining that there are some parents out there who come from families like mine, where... Yeah, the whole sex talk, it was just this awkward, terrible thing, and the less we can talk about this, the better. Let's just... Just ignore it. How can we kind of lower the temperature before we get into talking about these things?

Jena: That is the perfect question, because think about how we frame this, like “the talk,” which conveys to people, think about this, some time in your childhood, we're gonna have a conversation in which I will tell you everything you need to know, about emotional aspects of sex and intimacy.

Justin: And there's an idea of a forbidden knowledge too, right?

Jena: We will never speak of this again. Can you imagine if you approach table manners like that? There’s a dinner in sixth grade, and we will teach you all the silverware and how to use your wine glass, and if you don't get it, you're gonna be a social failure forever because you don’t know what a shrimp fork does.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: In reality, we start teaching our kids about sexuality—and table manners—in infancy, right? As soon as our kids start eating solid food, we say, “Oh no, you don't spit it back at mommy, that's not nice.” When we change our kids’ diapers, when we label body parts. When we say, “Oh no, you don't take stuff from your diaper and you don't touch your…” And we give that thing a name. We are... So again, getting back to my family where we didn't talk about this, the names that we had for things that were covered by diapers or underpants was bottom, front or back, boy or girl, it was all your bottom. You did not touch your bottom, you kept your bottom covered, nobody got to see your bottom except you or your doctor. Or if someone was giving you a bath... Right, that sends a really significant message in a family where everything else has a name. 

Justin: So, what I'm hearing is that we can lower the temperature by just understanding that whether we like it or not, we've been having the talk ever since the beginning.

Jena: A less risky example: when I was in junior high, all my friends started wearing makeup, and I really, really wanted to wear makeup. I didn't go to my mom and say, “Hey, Mom, what do you think about me as a seventh-grader wearing make-up?” Because in seventh grade, I knew exactly what my mom thought about that...right? I had had 12 years watching her in the mall go, “I don't know who that person thinks she is, but she just looked so much prettier if she'd wash all that gunk off her face.”

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: I had heard that a thousand times before I ever considered having the makeup conversation with my mom, so... Right, so I just bought friends’, I borrowed friends' make-up and hid it in my lunch bag 'cause I d know that she would say the wrong thing. I didn’t have to ask what she thought. She had already told me what she thought over and over, and it's okay for her to do that. 

It is okay for us as parents to have our values around things like what makeup is appropriate or what clothes are appropriate or what age kids should be allowed to do certain things with their friends. That's why we got elected parents, not only are we allowed to do that, it's our responsibility. But ideally, we communicate with our kids about what those rules are and what our expectations are explicitly, rather than just letting them guess based on how they see our behavior.

Audra: Yeah, it's such an amazing point. They're picking up on everything, from all the conversations we're having that are indirect, that we don't realize that we're having, all of the sharing within the family unit and without, and all of our judgments, everything that we're sharing, and then very often just never having a direct conversation.

Jena: Right, and again, I think as parents, one of the things I hate most about talking about the talk is if I'm a parent who's nervous or anxious about that, right. I don't wanna get just...which most parents are, right? I am sometimes nervous about important talks I have with my kids, 'cause they’re high-stakes and I love my kids, and I don't wanna mess it up. 

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: That's so important, but if I'm nervous about it, and I think it's one talk and it's... I'm the one teaching my kids about sex, I can put it off because I allow myself to believe that everybody else isn't teaching my kids about sex. 

So my oldest kid, Tory, came out to us pretty early, in junior high...actually, in middle school, in sixth grade. I suspected for most of Tory’s life that Tory liked girls. Tory had a crush on this adorable little girl in kindergarten, I just always knew. But when Tory entered middle school, Tory hadn't had a conversation about that with us. So I got this book, a fantasy book, Mercedes Lackey, it's the Valdemar series—she still writes them—and it has same-sex characters in it, just part of the canon… It's not a sexual book but it's just a fantasy series where sometimes boys have boyfriends and sometimes girls have girlfriends while they're riding magic horses and saving the world. 

Audra: Right, yeah. 

Jena: And so in Tory was at that age in middle school, she's reading a lot of fantasy, I just say, “Hey, here's this really good series I'm reading,” 'cause I wanna give a positive role model to my kid who I'm pretty sure is queer. But she's not bringing up the conversation and at this point in my life, I don't feel like I can say, “Hey, just wanna remind you, even if you were gay, but no matter what, I'm always gonna love you.” I'm telling her that enough anyway. Right, Tory reads the first book, loves it, decides in her 11-year-old brain that I can't possibly know what is actually in this book.

Justin: Oh wow.

Jena: This is when we were living in Bancroft Hall, we knew you guys at this point, remember?

Audra and Justin: Yeah!

Jena: Tory sneaks on the subway by herself, down to the Barnes and Noble at 70th Street to buy the second book in the series because she doesn't wanna ask for it 'cause she's afraid we might read it and find out there are gay characters.

Justin: Oh my gosh.

Jena: Because, despite the fact that I am studying what I do— 

Justin: Do you know what I do every day? 

Jena: All of her friends and everybody else around her and all the messages she's getting from society are, “You can’t let your parents know you might be gay because they hate you.”

Audra: Right, right. So no matter how open you are and supportive you've been, those messages and narratives just present in society, in our culture are so oppressive. 

Jena: Yeah, people are talking to your kids…about sex and gender every day.

Justin: So you just used some terms that I think we all think we know what they mean, but maybe we don't. So maybe we can get some 101 Gender and Sexuality from Jena Curtis here. So what do these terms mean? So I wanna know about gender, I wanna know about sex, and I wanna know about sexuality. Are they the same thing, are they different? 

Jena: Okay, so I love the way that you said that most of us think we know. And I think I know too, and I'm gonna give you the best definition that I have today. I've been doing this work now for 30 years. So the way that I have defined those terms has changed really radically in that time, because our understanding of what those things are have changed. So it would make sense that this would be new information for lots of folks, and it's okay not to know. They change and sometimes I have to ask, tell me what that is. 

So sex is our biology, it is a combination of our hormones, our chromosomes, and our physical bodies. And in the US, people start talking about our sex, typically before were born, right? To point through a pregnancy— 

Justin: Not just talking, but sometimes exploding things in blue and pink colors.

Jena: In the US, because we have lots of technology, at some point in a pregnancy, so typically somebody will look at the fetus’ genitals and say, “Do you wanna know the baby’s sex?” And the people have talked it over and they decided they do, or they talk it over right there, and they consult and they decide or they don't. But even if they decide, then...it's interesting because people are like, “No. We wanna be surprised.” You're gonna have to find out eventually, right?

Justin: You’re gonna know sometime.

Jena: You’re gonna know sometime and might still be surprised. So at some point in the pregnancy or when the baby is born, somebody who is a medical provider for that person and the baby is gonna say, “Congratulations, it's a boy or a girl.” Those are the two choices we give everybody: boy or girl.

Justin: We've seen the hardware, we can tell you what the sex is. 

Jena: Exactly. It is based on a quick check of genitalia. Yup, that looks like a penis. Yeah, that's a vulva. The only two choices. And here's the good news: in the past, I would say that 90-95% of the time that we have gotten that right. And what I mean by getting it right is that up till now, and I'll talk about how now is different in a second, but up till now, about 90% of the time when we say “Congratulations, you've got a baby boy!” Or “congratulations, she's a little girl!” We've been correct. That human has grown up and become a man or become a woman, just as we predicted the day they were born. 

Sometimes, and this is pretty rare, probably less than 2% of all births, and some people would say as rare as one in a 1,000, there are babies born with what we call intersex. And that means that their genitalia are somewhat ambiguous. It's hard to tell if it's a baby girl or a baby boy sometimes. Or sometimes babies are born intersex, and their genitalia look exactly the way we think that penises and vulvas should, but what's inside is different. Right?

Depending on the reason that happened, sometimes babies are born intersex because of hormones that they're exposed to while they’re fetuses, that they're not gonna be exposed to anymore, so we just need time for their bodies to change and their own hormones to take over. Sometimes those babies need surgery to bring their genitals into line with what their brains and their hormones are going to do. And sometimes those babies need to be left to grow into humans that have genitals that look different than what most people think penises or vulvas should look like. But that's a process of working with the child and their doctors and the parents to figure out what's best.

Justin : So sex is mostly about this perceived biological reality, but you've alluded to the fact that there is more there...

Jena: There is gender there, and gender is someone's own sense of themselves as male or female, or something else. So again, when we talk about sex, we have two choices, typically is what most people think of: we have male or female. And now I've introduced this third option that we don't normally talk about is intersex, someone who has the chromosomes, the hormones, or the physical genitals of both male and female sex. So that’s sex. There's really three things that people can be in regard to sex. Most people only know about two. 

With gender, there's an entire spectrum. We used to think that people could either be boys or girls, and that sex—our physicality, our biology—had to correspond with our gender. Our sense of ourselves as men or women or something else. Now, we understand that sex and gender are separate. For most people, they are aligned. Ninety percent of people will grow up—who have already been born—will grow up feeling in their head like exactly what the doctor or midwife said that morning they slapped them on the butt. “Congratulations, you’re a little baby girl. You're a little baby boy.” 

Five to 10% of people have a sense of themselves as something other than that. Some of them have a very clear sense, “No, I'm not a little girl, I'm a boy.” “No, I'm not a man, I'm a woman.” Other people don't feel like those, what we call “gender boxes” maybe, that box of “Here’s all the things that men should be” and “Here’s all the things women should be...” Fit them. 

Actually, lots of people feel that way. Some people feel that their gender box or their gender label is such a bad fit that they want something else. But the other gender label isn't a better fit, people in this non-binary state—not female, not male—are still creating language to talk about that. Some people call that gender queer, some people call that non-binary. So what we do when we talk about people whose sense of themselves, whose gender is different than the sex that was assigned to them at birth based on their genitals, we call those people transgender, or people who are non-binary. TGNB for short. I have to type it out a lot. 

We call everyone else, the 90% of the people whose sex assigned at birth corresponds with or matches their gender identity, their sense of themselves as male or female—cisgender, meaning same-gender.

Audra: Can I just observe for a moment that that was just the most succinct, beautiful, simplified, educational opportunity I've had to explore sex and gender, maybe ever. And Jena, one thing I love, love, love that you said is speaking of how things are changing and have changed. Because of course, things change. And we learn and we grow, we change, and one of the worst things that we see anyway, working in health and wellness and healthcare is when someone comes up with a theory in 1965 and because they did, they gotta stick to it. I mean, it's really destructive. 

And so to be, to honor the movement in change and growth and learning, it's such a beautiful thing. I think it's probably hard to do in academia because we wanna stick with, 'cause it's naturally pretty conservative. We wanna stick with the things that were written before.

Jena: And before we do anything, we have to form a committee to explore it, so now that we've gotten the glacier here, you're saying you wanna turn it and move it where?

Justin: Right, well, so there's a historical change, but I'm wondering if you can talk briefly what I've learned is that there's also just super individual factors. So learning, as teaching on a university campus, you have to ask somebody, how would you like to be... How would you like to be addressed? And so can you speak about that aspect?

Jena: So when I started my explanation, I said, so, before people who are already born? Right, and I talked about how when we're talking about people who are born in the past, probably 90-95% of the time, we got sex assigned at birth correct. Most people were the gender, the same gender as their sex assigned at birth. For reasons that we're not exactly sure that we completely understand, there are many more transgender and genderqueer people below the age of 30-40, then there are above it. Probably twice as many. 

Justin: Oh wow, I didn't know the numbers. Okay. 

Jena: So now on your campus and my campus, we have twice as many students, probably if we reflect national trends, I know my campus does, we have twice as many students who identify as trans or genderqueer than we have before, and we don't think we're capturing the true picture of that because one: our population is still figuring themselves out; and two: we think that the way that students are starting to think about talking about gender identity is different. 

So let me add a fourth term, so we talked about sex, we talked about gender. We'll get to sexuality, I promise, but now I wanna talk about gender identity and gender expression. So gender is somebody's a male or a female, and our identity is how we think of ourselves that way. Do I think of myself as a girly girl, or do I think of myself as a strong woman? Do I think of myself as a hard guy who can cry and separate? Like that’s all gender identity, how do we think of ourselves and our gender. Right, I think of myself as a smart, strong woman. And in that context, smart and strong have a feminine flavor to them. I am smart, the way that women are smart, there's some strategy and there's a social skill involved there, and it's not just about blinding ego. And I'm strong, the way that women are strong. Again, getting allies… So that's all gender identity, and that's our sense of ourselves in our head, that develops over the course of our lives. What kind of man or woman or person are we relating to our gender? 

Our gender expression is how we portray that on the outside. Am I wearing a dress? Am I wearing makeup? Because we're doing this call, I put on makeup, I put on foundation.

Audra: Justin keeps forgetting to tell people that we're not. 

Justin: Well, yeah, so we are not necessarily using the video, but we may use clips. 

Audra: Okay, alright, alright.

Jena: You haven’t seen me in 15 years, I said to Todd, “If you saw this face, would you be like, ‘Wow, Jena’s really let herself go...’”

So my foundation, my mascara, the lipstick, the hair, is all part of my gender expression. How I portray myself as a woman on the outside world. Yesterday I was in sweat pants and a ponytail: my gender identity wasn't the same. I was still the same, smart, strong woman today that I was yesterday. Today, I'm just femming it up a little bit to impress you guys, right? 

We don't know if our students’ gender is changing or their gender expression, their willingness to be seen as androgynous or gender queer, their willingness to demand—as you suggested, Justin—that we ask them about their pronouns, because some of our students or some of our children, instead of just wanting to be he or she, or to be pronouned based on the sex that they were assigned at birth, want to be able to tell you what their pronouns are. “No, my pronouns are she, even though you think I'm a boy,” or “No my pronouns are they, even though you think I look like a girl.” Right? 

Again, people who are transgender and genderqueer are still evolving their own language around this, so there are also what we call neo-pronouns, people are coming up with other pronouns like xe, xyr or xem,... instead of she, her, or hers.

Justin: So there's this historical change and then I'm visually seeing like, then there's just this individual context.

Jena: And we're still figuring that out, and that's why five years from now when we have the...the anniversary of this, I'll be able to have a much better sense of why we have more transgender and genderqueer adolescents and young adults than ever before, and are we gonna continue to see that? 

My guess is that we're gonna see something in over the next 10 years, very similar to what we saw after the gay rights movement in the ‘60s through the ‘70s and ‘80s It's not probably that more people have same sex attraction now then did before. It's probably that now that we have marriage equity, now that we have civil rights, people who experience that, feel comfortable marrying the person they love, because they're not gonna risk getting fired from their job or losing their... Right?

We have throughout history, if you talk to Civil War experts, they will tell you stories of soldiers who are killed, and then when they bury them, we discover they were really secretly women pretending to be men. Although maybe 'cause that's the language we had back then, but maybe there were people who experience themselves as men, who went off to fight for their country, even though they had vulvas. 

We always had people whose gender identity has been outside the binary, in all cultures that we've studied around the world. We have always had people whose sexual attraction was outside the “you should be attracted to someone of the other sex.”

Justin: Jena, real quick, do you have any statistics on the rise in transgender parents. Has this tracked as well for parents?

Jena: We are just now starting to ask questions about gender identity related to respondents in surveys. And there were huge fights around the census and all of these things, and it's really fascinating for me as a health educator because we're always fighting in all these national data collection efforts, because people are saying that our data collections for sexual health matters are too sexually explicit...

Audra: Too sexually explicit?

Justin: It's too much knowledge.

Jena: So for instance, we only have data about kids and specific sexual behaviors for very recently, because before we would only ask children if they were sexually active, but we wouldn't define what that meant.

Audra: Okay. Yes.  

Jena: Right, that’s... 

Audra: To plant a seed, is that what the problem is? 

Jena: That's what they thought.

Justin: So the census made me do it.

Jena: Like walking into your house and saying…

Justin: Right, right. 

Jena: Did you eat any of the cookies that I said were for dessert?

Audra: And then on the other side of the coin, you likely have people saying, “Well, you don't have data.” 

Jena: Exactly, so when we talk about queer families is that we have more people identifing as LGBTQ+ as parents than ever before, and the willingness of physicians to work with these families…

Justin: Oh wow. 

Jena: ...around fertility and other needs related to queer and genderqueer parenting, so... So there's another word I use the word “queer.” 

Justin: Yes. Define that. 

Jena:  Which, yes, in that LGBT... Let me talk about that too. L is lesbian. We think of lesbian as people, women, who are attracted to other women. And sexual attraction, when we talk about the sexual attraction, is about gender. So it doesn't matter if one of the women who's attracted to another woman has a penis, it is all about, do they identify as women. So lesbians are women who are attracted to women, bisexual people. And we're gonna have to change this alphabet, 'cause again, this is... Things are exploding in the sexuality world right now. We invented the term bisexual and really popularized it in the ‘70s with the idea that there were two sexes and some people were attracted to both of them. Now that we understand that there are more than two genders that people can be attracted to. We think of bisexual people and as people who can be two or more genders.

Audra: More fluid.

Jena: So L is lesbian, G is gay, men who are attracted to other men. B is bisexual, people who are attracted to ..., and T is transgender, somebody who's gender identity doesn't meet their sex or match their sex assignment. 

Now because people do, I just said, I think myself as a strong, smart woman, I've created my own identity label. People have done the same thing for their sexual orientation, intersex people have said, “Hey, we wanna be included in the LGBT umbrella.” LGBT, okay we’ll put an I in there, right. Two spirited people—in native traditions, people whose gender wasn't in the binary, were sometimes identified as having two spirits.

Audra: I didn’t know that.

Jena: Two-spirited people said, “Hey, we wanna be in the umbrella.” Transgender people were already there, so, we already have a T. Pansexual people, people said, “Well, I used to think I was bisexual, but now I know that I'm attracted to men and women, and sort of femmy boys, and sort of really strong women with short crew cut hairs, and I had, I’m pansexual.” So now we have LGBTQ, A, for asexual people who said, “I don't really feel like I'm attracted to anybody very much regardless of their gender.” P for pansexual, and Q for the word queer, which we use in two ways. Some people have queer as an identity, and they say, “I'm not straight, but I'm not…none of those other labels really work for me. I'm queer, I'm beyond the typical binary of how we think about sexuality.”

Justin: So, queer is another way of saying, like, “Don't box me in?”

Jena: So queer is when, there's two things. So one appears as an identity label. So people whose sexual orientation or gender identity doesn't align with any of the labels they have, often identify as queer. Maybe somebody, a woman who is largely attracted to other women, but occasionally will date a man. Or a man who is attracted to men and trans women. Right? So queer is sort of outside... So another way, if we're talking about kinky sex, maybe someday, we'll launch that podcast.

Justin: Oh yeah, we’re gonna have you back on. 

Audra: It's gotta be recurring. 

Jena: Or when you talk about kink with people, people will talk about kink versus vanilla sex. And vanilla is sort of the missionary, in the dark, with the lights on and the blankets up to your chin, the way we imagine our grandparents have sex. That is not how they had sex. But that’s what we want we think. 

Justin: That's what I prefer to think. 

Audra: Yes.

Jena: That changes everything that's not vanilla. And then whether it's spanking or role play, it's just not the vanilla missionary-style. Queer is like that for sexual orientation and gender identity, it's this big umbrella as an identity, and a signifier that someone's sexual orientation or gender identity isn't the regular old vanilla, no offence to anybody who's listening, I believe that whatever someone sexual orientation or gender identity is that's awesome. But it isn't the regular old vanilla straight-versus-gender. So people will use queer as an identity.

Those of us who study and research sexuality and gender, use queer as a descriptor for those studies, like queer studies and gender studies, studies of sexuality and sexual orientation. We also, and here's one of my favorite ways to use this word, use the word queer as a verb, to talk about ways that we can kind of subvert the standard narrative, especially around sex or gender or race. 

So for instance, one of the things I suggest to my students when I'm talking to them about their sexual behaviors is they queer the dating narrative that they think about who's supposed to do what, where, and think about, how they would construct a date if they didn't have these rules in their head about what it's supposed to be? What would you do if you didn't think that because you're the boy, you have to do these things, or what would you do if you didn't think that because you're the girl you have to sit and wait to see what the boy wants to do?

Audra: Oh my gosh, I love it. I wish I had your class. 

Justin: Yeah, right, well, and that's why we have Jena on the show, and so we can get a little piece of this magic. 

Audra: We need to keep it going. It’s really amazing.

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Alright, so I imagine new parents, let's say I'm a new parent, we just had a brand new baby. And do I need to know about this stuff yet, or can I just push this off till puberty? Can I come back to you in 12 or 13 years?

Jena: So I'm gonna tell you the same thing your pediatrician is gonna tell you as a new parent. Listen to your baby. I remember when I was a new parent, I was so... I was 23 as a new parent. I had my first kid two weeks before my 24th birthday. That plan we made 22, we just stuck to it. Right? And I was so scared I was gonna mess it up. 

How will I know if the baby's hungry, how do I do the baby needs to be... And the pediatrician said listen to your baby. When your baby cries, pick him up and see if he needs to be fed, see if the baby wants to be changed. As a new parent, you can absolutely bring your baby home, have the gender reveal party, if that's what you need to do. If that is your family's tradition and your parents or godparents or whatever, are going to be heartbroken if it doesn't happen. It will not make people in the trans community happy, and for the sake of family harmony, do what you need to do. Please just don't put it in everybody's Facebook. 

It's okay, because 90% of the time your pediatrician, your obstetrician is gonna be right. If when that child is two or three and they say, “Mommy, I'm not a boy, I'm a girl,” listen to them. I don't need you to come out and get them hormones or do anything else. You might mention it to the pediatrician, because lots of kids will do that. Most of them will still be cisgender 90% of the time, we get it right. But right now, 5-10% percent of kids, will say they’re one gender and they’re not. And what I'm saying sounds really revolutionary, except that it's not. Right? 

We indulge our kids and our toddlers all the time. So, Zach, who you just saw, I think this was before you met him, but when Zach was three, the movie “Babe” the pig movie came out. Zach wanted to be Babe the pig. He didn’t want to be the farmer, he wanted to grow up to be a piglet. He watched the movie every day. And for about a year when he was three, any time I would say, “Oh, you're such a good little boy,” he would say, “I'm not a boy, Mommy, I’m a pig.” And so I got in the habit of saying, “Ok come on piggy, it’s time for bed. Okay, little pig, I love you so much.” 

Right, I remember one time in the grocery store, I got this bizarre look from a woman because she heard me saying to my toddler, “You’re the best little piggy ever.” But I didn’t say you can't be a pig because humans can only grow into humans. And here's the thing, my little boy cannot grow up to be a pig. He could possibly some day be my daughter. Probably not, most kids are not trans, but when kids are, we don't get to know that they are until they tell us. And when they tell us we need to listen to them, because here is the…

And I think it goes back to that conversation in the beginning about this is not the journey I plan to be on... Like, you did not sign up to be cancer parents, right? You did not say, “We feel really great, really confident in our family and our marriage, in our parenting, and we are ready for this journey.” This was the journey you were put on, you get to step up and do what you're doing, or you get to not, but this is gonna still be your journey, you have to get on this ride...

Justin: As we said at the beginning, you aren't gonna know what to do, but if you step forth in love and authenticity and honesty, you're gonna be going in the right direction. 

Audra: You could just use that response. 

Jena: Right, and I would argue that for lots of parents, for parents whose children have critical illnesses, often we don't have good evidence as to what the best course action is... Right? 

One of the horrible things I experienced, one of my children was critically ill during their childhood often, and those hard choices you have to make as a parent where a year from now, or five years from now, or maybe when the kid’s grown, you're gonna have an answer...if it’s the right choice. But now you just have to listen to the experts or listen to your faith, or listen to and make that choice. 

For a transgender parents, for the parents of trans and genderqueer kids, we have overwhelming evidence that listening to your child, allowing your child to express themselves as their gender identity is life-saving.

Audra: It's incredible. So there's a road map. 

Jena: There is a road map, and it doesn't, but I can't tell you, take the highway or take the country roads. I can tell you, you need to get to a place where your child feels loved and accepted for who they are.

Justin: So Jena, this is like all parenting for everything, always.

Jena: And how you accept that and how we, right, your kid picks a person that you’re not...is not your favorite or you want them to study to be a doctor, right? Being a parent is finding a way to be. 

But here's the thing, if you force your kid to be a doctor, they might be a miserable doctor and they might write novels on the side. We have a whole bunch of best selling authors who are actually doctors—Michael Crichton has his MD, right?

If your kid tells you that they are trans and you don't believe them and you make them pretend to not be trans, you are threatening their life. Being transgender is not a disease, it is not an illness, it is not a life threat, being a trans kid and trying to pretend you're not is life-threatening... You know, I teach this as suicide prevention.

Justin: God, yeah.

Audra: That is incredible. I think we need to really put a pin in that and make a note that not supporting your child in being who they are, expressing who they are and being able to live their lives as who they are and who they wanna be, is life-threatening.

Jena: And the hard thing about parenting is we all have visions of who we want our kids to be. I have had kids date people I didn't like, I have had kids dropout of college, I have had kids make all sorts of choices that I would not have voted for in their adolescent and adult lives. 

And I have their entire lives to help them grow into the kind of person they're meant to be, and to push towards the kind of person I'd like them to be. Things that will protect them, things that will keep them here, things that will keep that dialogue open, so I can keep giving them guidance, that's what I prioritize. 

Justin: Beautiful.

Audra: So what I'm hearing is that it's not going to be damaging to put the girl... She's born, we identify as a girl in birth, you put her in pink clothes, you put the boy in blue clothes, that's not going to be necessarily the most damaging thing ever. You're sending a message certainly, and there is communication happening here, but it's not the end of the world. What we need to do is, 'cause one thing that I thought was really powerful, you're acknowledging family dynamics and culture and all of the other rich things going on. But when the child expresses who they are, you listen and take that seriously.

Jena: Yes, the same way that if my child said, “Mom…” Actually, Tory did. My oldest kid went to college at 16 and super bright, and was getting a lot of college notices and my college really heavily recruited Tory. And I was kind of gently like, “Wouldn’t that be so cool? We could commute together.” And finally Tory turned to me and said, “Mom, every time you talk about me going to your college, I throw up a little bit in the back of my throat.” Tory is not a beat-around-the-bush kid… “Mom, this is not my path. Listen!”

Justin: Yeah. 

Jena: It would be great, we could have lunch together every day for four years. Was not Tory’s path.

Justin: No. Alright, so we are coming up against time here, so what is coming up for me first is that we absolutely have to have you back on because there's like five questions that I absolutely want answered, and so we're gonna have to have you back.

Jena: The kink section. 

Justin: Oh my god, it's like, Come on. It's gonna be awesome. So we're gonna have you back, but one question before I get into the three quick ones that we throw everybody, 'cause it's just standing out to me, maybe because we have a teenager. Dating... How early is too early?

Jena: Okay, so Justin, this is the price of admission, right here. This is the same answer for anything your kid tells you about sex and relationships. My kid comes to me and says, in kindergarten, and says, “Mom, Mahogany at and I are dating,” right? I say, “Tory, what does that look like?” Right? 'Cause here's the thing I know. My kid thought, Tory thought that Tory and Mahogany were dating in kindergarten. And kindergarten dating is “I sit next to you on the school bus, and we sit together at lunch.” Right? And the reason I wanna know what is…

First of all, it's contextual, but then the other thing that that question gives me, is it allows me that there is a red flag there for me as a parent, I can just say, “Wait a minute about this part, right?” So when Tory says, “I'm dating Mahogany,” and I say, “What does dating look like?” Tory says, “We sit together on the bus every day, and Mahogany’s not allowed to talk to anybody else.” 

I will just say, “I love that you guys are sitting on the bus today, I love sitting next to your dad on the bus. That's one of my favorite things. And I think not letting the person you're dating talk to anyone is sad.” So if my kid comes and says, “Mom, I'm going all the way…” Let's talk about that. What does that look like? One of my kids, adult kids, just came to me with really serious relationship news… “Awesome, congratulations. What do you think that's gonna look like? You and your person, you've obviously talked about this, you've thought about this. Well, what does that look like for you? How's your relationship gonna be now, what do you think this means?” 

So your teenage kid comes and says, “Dad I’m dating my best friend.” This kid has been in your house for dinner a million times, and you didn't even know they were checking your kid out, like that's some messed up stuff right there, right? Like all potential dates should have to claim their intentions, you start looking at your kid’s best friends, like… Your kid comes and says, “Dad, I'm dating this person. Yeah, that's awesome. What does that look like for you? Now you guys are friends, and how does the friendship different.” Or “Oh, that's great. This isn't somebody we've met before, talk to me about your connection with them.”

Jena: Oh, I love it. This opening Jena, it's just like this beautiful, beautiful, powerful opening and an open invitation to connect and converse as opposed to the typical closing, clamping, and controlling.

Jena: “Over my dead body,” right? And then the other one I use a lot with, I use a lot with my adolescents and still my kids say, “You make great choices.” 

I know your kids make great choices, I see on social media, all the fabulous things they do. Think about how much better your conversations with your adolescent kids go around dating and all those things, if they know that you think they make good choices and you respect their choices, and they know your family values. 

People think that because I do this work, and people who know me and know my politics and everything else think I’m this uber-liberal mother. Yeah, I sat down with both of my kids when they were in high school and told them that I'd rather they weren't sexually active in high school. 

Because in my experience, people who have sex in high school often do it really bad reasons, in adulthood, they look back on it and they regret it. Right? I said, “I think most high school students probably are, and in most high school relationships probably aren't ready for sex. And no matter what, I'm always gonna love you, I'm always gonna support you, and as your mom, here's what I want for you.”

Justin: Ohhh, gosh, so this opens up so many other questions for me. Alright, so we definitely have to have you back on because I wanna dig into this because there's so much, we're like, Okay, well then what if they're like, “Thanks for the advice, mom. But this is what I wanna do.”

Jena: I did not tell you, Justin, that either of my children followed my advice. But here’s the thing... And I don't talk about my kids sexual behaviors publicly anywhere that I want my own, but over the course of... I've got a, almost 30-year-old and a 25-year-old now, over the course of their adult lives and relationships, they have done things that I have disagreed with.

They did not always follow my firm guidelines or parental rules, and every time they have gotten into trouble where they have had a question or a relationship problem, or a pregnancy scare, all the sorts of things that happen around sexuality, I have been one of the first people that they had called to. Because I'm the expert, but also because I’m their parent.

Justin: Yeah, the communication was open. It was always open.

Jena: And they knew that I would disagree sometimes. I have my own values and high expectations for my kids, but I'm never gonna shame them, and I'm never going to tell them that they're not allowed as young adults or adults to make their own choices in their lives. 

I'll respectfully tell them that I disagree sometimes with choices. But they get to... Zach when he turned 18, told us that he was now thinking of us as an advisory… Neither of my children have a hard time telling me what they actually think.

Justin: Yes, yes, but the relationship is...

Audra: Okay, you know what, I just... I have to reflect to a couple of things, I'm really, really struck by, I think what I feel like I'm hearing and getting a feel for, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I wanna check in on this, is that when you talk about your family values, I have to think respect as a core one.

Jena: Very much so. 

Audra: I feel it. 

Jena: Yes, so we are friends and you get to have your own life. My children are adults, we get to live their own life, that’s all respect. And honesty is, as someone who cares for you and loves you, I also have an obligation to give you my best feedback and my best advice, even if I don't agree. So the respect can sometimes be hand-off, I think with honesty it's sort of yes, 'cause with parenting too, or sometimes with friends. I don't go...as a relationship person, I have such a rule about not offering unsolicited relationship advice anymore... And I think the honesty part is something that gets negotiated in relationships and close friendships and family, because you do have an obligation. But especially with your kids as they’re young adults and I was [able to] help them navigate this really complicated thing.

Justin: Beautiful. Alright.

Audra: So, one more thing before the three things, please. I know, I'm so sorry, I know we're getting on a time and we are going to talk. I think we have to talk with you at least 10 more times. I don't know, Jena, it's gotta be just a continuing thing. It is, like, it is so uplifting of my heart and spirit, I've learned so much, and I just wanted to express thanks to you for going into academia, going into research, for digging in and doing this work because I do... weren’t you and your brother on the “Today Show?”

Jena: I often... Again, the way I describe my job, the close friends, versus the way I describe it more formally and appropriately. The appropriate way I would describe my early twenties is I spent a lot of time offering myself to various media venues.

Audra: Yes, you were on the world stage. And you’re definitely a voice and a beautiful, passionate, articulate voice; something that is deeply needed in the world. And I get the sense you could have continued on that path. You could have continued on the advocacy path and in very many ways you're still on the advocacy path, but to be able to decide that you're gonna dig deeper and dig in and stay really involved with the research and be a part of this evolution of knowledge and sharing is really, really powerful. And I just wanted to appreciate that because I'm getting just a huge sense of gratitude for you and your work.

Justin: Heck yeah, me too. Yeah. Alright, so the intention is set. We're gonna have you back on 10 more times. 

So the final three questions we ask everybody, if you could put a big post-it note on every parent's fridge tomorrow morning, they wake up, go to the kitchen, it’s right there... What is it gonna say? 

Jena: “There is no test.” I, so often, especially early in my parenting career, I saw parenting as a series of challenges or tests, that are either pass or fail. Childbirth was a test, and there was good ways to have birth, and there were bad ways to have birth. 

Parenting is this huge, long marathon. Maybe decades after you have finished, you are able to look back and see, but there's not a task like you show up and you do it the best you can, and you get it right 60-80% of the time, depending on the day, and you try and keep the major screw ups down to a couple...

Justin: Beautiful… And a quote that has changed the way you think or feel lately.

Jena: Oh my gosh, I have this poster over my desk at work, so when I look up—anyone walking into my office is the first thing I see. Audra will remember it. “When I dare to be powerful, use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Audra: Oh, it's an amazing quote. It's one of my favorites.

Jena: I, 'cause... Here's the thing, we talk about, like, well, you can't sit and do nothing else, and you have to do something, and we don't know the way forward, so you quit... You really could. There are days where you can absolutely just sit in bed with your head under the covers and eat chocolate and sob because there is so much freaking suck. And there isn't a single good solution, and it's overwhelming to get around. The stakes are so high sometimes. It’s so easy to be afraid and to be overwhelmed, and so that one helps me remember that I don't ever have to be brave on my own behalf. I can use that power and harness it for something else and not have to be scared for myself.

Justin: Beautiful. 

Audra: Yeah, you strike me as someone who makes your decisions out of hope, not out of fear. And not to say you don't wrestle with fear like we all do, but you don't track me as a fear-based decision-maker.

Jena: I am the, “We’re standing at the lake edge on February…” I am the “I have to jump in because otherwise I will stand and analyze it forever,” so I'm constantly leaping because this right here doesn't have a chance or good judgment rather— 

Audra: Oh interesting. So just jump so that you don't have to overthink it or the fear set in? 

Jena: Exactly that... Judgment hardly ever sets in.

Justin: That's a great strategy. Alright, this last question is about kids, because for most parents and you’re way past this, but for parents of young kids, there's an exhaustion and like oh god, kids... It's just draining. But they're also wonderful, so we wanna celebrate kids, so what is your favorite thing about kids? 

Jena: So many things, I could go on about how amazing my kids are...for hours. But I think my favorite thing about kids is how many chances they give us... You can be snappy with your kids, you can be short with your kids, you can be distracted with your kids, they still think you’re one of the coolest humans on the planet. They still keep showing up. And for years or weeks. I wrote an entire dissertation and I'm pretty sure that my kids did not see me for weeks on end. And when I got done and came up for air, they were there with me. 

Audra: Oh, it's beautiful, it's beautiful. So that is an incredible reflection. I feel like how many chances they give us, or make mistakes over and over and over again. How forgiving they are. 

Justin: Yeah, yeah. Just continue to show up. Yeah.

Jena: Yeah, and the cool thing, I can tell you as somebody who's in a very different parenting place, I have the adult kids who are thinking about their own kids… They will look back and reminisce on ridiculous things that were not important as pivotal and wonderful...or fabulous. You know the stupid bodega on the corner of Amsterdam, and my kids loved, and they loved stopping here. And the fact that I stop there on the way home from school every afternoon is one of the reasons I'm the best mom ever, when really it was just I couldn't walk 12 blocks without diet Dr Pepper. Right? So moving and so willing to give us the chance to get this right.

Audra: It speaks to love and authenticity again, that children are living and often leading with love and authenticity, and so there is that open-heartedness. And it's one thing that we'll continue to talk about because we are super interested in talking about traumas and Justin is really deep into the work of emotional processing and things like this, and I feel like this reminder of the resilience and love and authenticity and the forgiving nature of kids, like kids showing up in love is like... “You haven't—Mom, Dad, you haven't ruined it.”

Jena: Right, right.

Audra: It is one thing to argue about tonight or something.

Jena: Yeah, think about the expectation of perfection that sets in at some point in all of our lives around different things. There's something that I just absolutely have to show up and nail. Like public speaking, this stuff. And then there's stuff that I'm allowed to be shitty at, softball, right? 

And then there's imposter syndrome, and you think about kids like they don’t have that... What age does imposter syndrome set in? Like middle school, maybe later, depending on the kid and their environment...but...little kids will try shit. They'll get it wrong, they don't expect you to be good. And they don’t expect us… Yeah, kids are cool people. 

Justin: I love it. 

Audra: I'm gonna be sitting in that space for a while. I'm really, really enjoying thinking about little kids through that lens, through the, like, so authentic. There is no onset of impostor syndrome at that point, it's delayed or later.

Jena: Yeah, you could grow up to be a pig. If nobody tells you at three, that you can’t... You can plan your whole pig life at that point...

Audra: Right. What are we so afraid of? 

Justin: Hey, thanks for listening to The Family Thrive Podcast. If you like what you heard, please subscribe. Tell two friends and head on over to Apple Podcast, or anywhere you listen to podcasts, and give us a review. We're so grateful you've chosen to join us on this Family Thrive Journey.




Justin: You remember when one or both of your parents gave you ‘the talk?’ How awful that was, and now as a parent, you need to give the talk to your kids. And today things are way more complicated, it's not just sex we need to talk about, but gender, sexuality, identity, consent, and a lot more. 

Well, parents, we got your back. In this episode, we're talking with the professor of Gender and Sexuality, Jena Curtis PhD. It is an amazing episode where we talk about everything from how to have the talk to when it's okay to start dating, to why it's so damn important to talk openly with our kids about gender, sexuality, and identity. A quick note, Dr. Curtis' sound was not great in this episode, but the energy she brings and the amazing wisdom she shares is too important to toss, so we're going with it. But I promise if you stick with it, you're gonna be super happy you did.

Jena: There is a road map, and I can’t tell you, take the highway or take the country roads. I can tell you, you need to get to a place where your child feels loved and accepted for who they are. Listening to your child, allowing your child to express themselves as their gender identity is life-saving.

Justin: We are so thrilled to present this episode with Dr. Jena Curtis, she holds a Doctorate in Education from Columbia University and is a professor of Gender and Sexuality at SUNY Cortland. She started her adult life as a community AIDS educator in 1987, when she was just out of high school. She ended up delivering hundreds of HIV/AIDS presentation programs and workshops to high school kids, college students, and community audiences all before finishing her undergraduate degree. 

So what would cause a kid just out of high school and rural upstate New York to travel around the world educating people on AIDS in 1987? Well, you're gonna need to listen to find out. Enjoy this awesome episode with Dr. Jena Curtis. 

So we can just dive right in. So the first thing we were gonna talk about was like, how far back we go, and so we started to touch on this, it's been 15, almost 16 years since we've seen Jena.

Audra: 'Cause we were in grad school together, and she was completing a doctoral degree, and I was completing a master's degree, and we worked together in family housing, and I remember being the one without kids. And I remember that kind of being a little bit of a thing. It's like, I remember struggling and being like, “But I have a family...but I know it's not the same thing. I’m not one of those people who assumes that I know what it's like.” But I remember you being our first parenting mentors.

Justin: Yeah, I remember watching how you guys parented... 

Audra: There was an apple thing. I don't know if you remember, but you told me the story about apples and how you would keep apples in the fridge and you tell the kids they can't have them because they're treats... I totally use that, I stored that away to file. And I was like, that is really good. That's good and I've been using it ever since. Now, Maesie will eat two flats of strawberries, I'd be like, “I don't know... I don't know if you should, is that…” 

So did you accept the position at Cortland right after grad school? 

Jena: Right out of grad school. As it happens in grad school, my dissertation advisor was like, “Jena, you should interview at Cortland,” ‘cause that's where he went, and I was like, “Yeah, sure, so I go to California where it's warm…” But, he was my advisor, so I interviewed at Cortland and I fell in love with it. I went from hoping they won’t make me an offer, and I have to deal with that, to  please let them make me an offer… and I’ve been here ever since. 

Justin: Oh, that's awesome. All right, so before we get into your professional work, I just wanna rewind to the personal stuff. And so when did you first know that you wanted to be a mom? Was there a moment where you're like, “Oh, dang.”

Jena: No, no, I actually talk about this when I teach about gender…  I never made a decision to be a parent. From my earliest memories, I grew up in this huge Irish Catholic family, where there were aunts and uncles and cousins everywhere, where any adult could grab you by the scruff of the neck and say, “Straighten up.” Right? Like that was my family. 

Everybody said to me, my entire childhood “Well when you will have children” or “You might not like this now, but when you have children, you will understand.” It was just part of the... It was like when you become an adult. It was just one of those things that you did. But I never regret having children, but now I have students, and I work with young adults, who are really thinking about, do they want to have families. 

Justin: Oh Jena, this is great. So you experience part of what I think of as the old way of parenting, which is, it's just part of life. It's like you grow up, you have kids, you retire and you die.

Jena: You retire, you get to do what you want, but the having kids and supporting your family is work.

Justin: So was there a moment when as a parent, you realize like, this is something more, like this is, this is a life project, like this is part of some, you know, deeper there... There's a deeper meaning here in my relationship with my kids and... Did it ever hit like that?

Jena: Yeah, absolutely. It's interesting 'cause now both of my children are adults and with their people and talking about starting their own families, not maybe right now, but in the foreseeable…within a five year plan, that's something that's certainly gonna come up. 

And Tory, my oldest, asked before the wedding, “What about kids?” And I said, “Here's the thing about kids.” And I had this conversation, I don't remember ever deciding I'm gonna be a mom as opposed to not being a mom. Like anything else, it was just always part of my identity of who I would be the same way that I would be an adult. And I would grow up to be a mom, 'cause that's what women did.

But within that, I also very much in my family, was instilled that was the best thing that you could do. It was very much like Hillary Clinton, no matter what other great things you do with your life, if you don't do a great job raising your kids like you have not nailed it. It was the most important, most crucial work you're gonna do. 

And so when I was talking to Tory about this, I said, the thing about that is, it's right. The happiest, best things that have ever happened in my life—almost all of them are tied to my kids. My proudest moment, the things that I reflect on. And some of my hardest too, like hands-down, are plenty of work, it is nothing compared to your kid is in trouble and you can’t help.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: And to Tory I said, I can't imagine my life being as happy as it is if I hadn’t had kids. And for as long as you have children, you are... It's harder to be happier than your saddest kid, or the most troubled kid. So it's sort of this incredible leap of faith to trust in this process that you see from everyone around you does not always end well and often makes parents really miserable. But brings such incredible joy.

Justin: I guess that's what makes parenting, for me at least, this almost spiritual life project, because it's not like a just totally enjoyable hobby. Like I like to surf or bike, and it's like, no, no, no. This is something different. This is, for me, yeah, as close to a spiritual project as possible because it will reveal every unprocessed wound from childhood that I have, every issue, every hang-up. And then, of course, as you alluded to, all the joy and the pain that just goes with seeing your kids struggle or go through stuff that you wish they didn't have to.

Audra: So, Jena, I'm interested because getting to know you as a parent, as parents, so you and Todd, we met. You’re parents. I didn't know you before. And you are such incredible examples to us, and we're soaking it up from you. This has been your life's work, and this is something that you went into because it's a part of a life trajectory that was passed on to you. 

And so at what point did you, or was there a point when you said, “Hey, this is something that I'm not just sort of floating through and biding my time until they're 18.” Was there a point for you where you start to really lean into that? 'Cause you're really good at it, and so I'd love to know where that kind of came to or how they came together for you.

Jena: So, this is gonna sound odd, but one of the things that was really pivotal, and really helpful for my parenting, was that my brother got sick when I was a teenager. And so Todd, who was my high school boyfriend, and I had lots of conversations about that. And he had AIDs back when AIDs was pretty, immediately fatal. And so for my entire relationship with Todd, in the beginning, I had a critically ill, we would say terminally ill brother, and family stuff was super important and super intense and super accelerated because we had that thing that lots of families with diagnoses have of you gotta get it all in. 

Audra: Yup. 

Jena: So Todd and I were high school sweethearts who got married at 22.  Because my brother had just been diagnosed with AIDS and they said he’d gonna live for a year or two. And I went to him and I said, “I love you and we’re gonna get married at some point, but if we don't get married before my brother dies, I'm gonna be too sad to get married, so we need to do it now.” 

And then kids was the same thing. Like, “Let's have kids.” But because of that, but I think maybe because of who I am, 'cause I knew I was putting it—I was fast-tracking it, right? It was also really important to me to sit down and sort of talk to him about what would that look like. “We're gonna get married anyway, but if we get married soon, how does that change our relationship from what it is now, right? And we're gonna have kids. We always knew we were gonna have kids. But if we have kids now, what does that mean for work? And what does it mean for this?” 

And so we had these really intentional conversations, I think in part because I was really aware of the fact that we were incredibly young and making it up while we were going along. And I didn't wanna half-ass it. Like, I didn't know what I was doing and I knew that. So we got to have these conversations about like, “What do you think about spanking on them, I think we should never hit our kids, do you... What do you think about religion, what—” 

Justin: Wow.

Audra: You brought this intentionality into it.

Justin: Yeah, and like, really building the boat as you're sailing across the ocean.

Jena: We’ve got three months to decide what a good marriage looks like, go!

Justin: Oh, I love it. Oh my god, that is why I feel like you have so much wisdom. Even back then, we would watch you guys and it really felt intentional, like you guys were not half-assing it and that these decisions were intentional. Yeah, they were done kind of on fly and kind of quickly, but it was intentional. I love that. Yeah, yeah. 

Audra: The other thing I wanted to reflect on too, speaking of your brother, is, and I'd love to talk a bit more about this because it's something that has just...there has been continued resonance for me, in reflection, looking back. 

You, in sharing with us along the way. You brought us to your home, you bought us into your lives and you shared with us, and then we end up years later with a son diagnosed with a brain tumor, and there's something there that... I don't know how to describe it, but I felt you there because you introduced us in a way, to this world that we just ended up in. And it's been very powerful for me. And you as a sibling, I see in my daughter. And a lot of that journey, I feel like you gave us… I don't know, you gave us some sort of advanced comfort in some way of just being able to be with you, and so you see, she’s surviving and thriving and making this give, and making something out of this... This is just incredibly inspiring. I think it's been, for me, it's been a huge part of my inspiration knowing that it's possible. 

Jena: Oh wow, I notice I'm feeling choked up. I teach students how to talk about things like this, and I say, “When you feel you’re alone just own it.” Yeah, I think... Yeah, one of the gifts that we had being one of the early AIDs families, and one of the gifts I got getting married so early, was the sense of there wasn't a right way to do it, there wasn't a handbook, you make it up as you go along. Because there isn't anything else to do. 

And I see so much of that in the work that you and Justin have done with MaxLove. Of sort of, there has to be a path, and we don't know what it is, but we know that there must be one and we have to build it, and sometimes veer the wrong way occasionally to get there, we will do it.

Audra: Build a ship as we sail. It's the same thing, right? 

Justin: I think the commonalities are like this, the only rules that we know we have to follow are love and authenticity. If we can just follow these two rules, we'll get somewhere.

Jena: We don’t have to stay here and hurt, we have to do something with this. Doing nothing isn’t an option. So even though you aren't sure... The good thing is we're gonna try with love and authenticity then in that moment...

Audra: Yeah, it's like what I notice in this, and I was coming up for me in this conversation, is that we oftentimes, many of us are unaware that the pursuit of the perfect life is something that we've just consented to by default because the expectation is that you do this right. Do the things perfectly and build a perfect, happy life. And when you go through what your family's been through, when you go through what we've been through, in our whole community of families, that whole notion of perfect life is destroyed. 

And out of that, you do have a choice. You can, I think there's grief that goes along with that for everybody, and there's something that it can be, and I've seen a lot of families in more of a state of disempowerment from that, like it is completely shattering. For us, we took it as an opportunity to build, at that point, and it's like, well, that's out the window.

Jena: Right. 

Audra: And now we're free in a sense. We're free to do us, to be us, and to figure out what our purpose is and what we really feel like we're gonna be good at, and so, we can make some good things happen in the world. What's it gonna be? And it was, in a sense, liberating, and it's hard to say that to people who have been through something like this or a diagnosis like this, because you know what I'm saying. I'm not trying to say that I'm grateful for my son's cancer diagnosis. That’s not the point. That’s not what I'm saying. 

Jena: Thank goodness my brother died of AIDs because I never would have gone to grad school without that... 

Justin: Right, right. 

Jena: Yeah, and that's why the language that works for me mostly—except when it doesn't...of being willing to get it wrong, because what is right is a moving thing…  One of the gifts that this gave me, like you can go on a really... And Todd does this, my husband, who was still my favorite person in the world.

Justin: Aww, after all these years, high school sweethearts.

Jena: Todd does a whole bunch of international travel and often with people who haven't done it, and he says from the time you leave your house with your bag until you get home, it's an adventure. Sometimes the adventure sucks, and sometimes the adventure is awesome, but it’s always...

Justin: But it's an adventure.

Jena: That sort of mindset of, we're always learning, and sometimes we're not getting it right, but that's not the point. It can be difficult and it can be not what you anticipated and still fabulous. 

Or it can absolutely suck... Some of the things, some of the trips that I learned the most on have been the ones that were absolutely terrible from a accomplishing-my-goals perspective. 

Audra: Right. 

Jena: The first time I did a research trip in India, I remember. I don't remember the time I decided I became a mom. I remember the time promising my higher power that if it got me out of India, I would never return again... Right. Of course. That research trip broke me, it sucked, I did everything wrong. I didn’t go back for four years. But I learned so much from that trip, and the reason it broke me was because I was doing everything wrong. 

Justin: Oh my gosh. So Jena, when you said trip at first and I was like, “Oh, Jena's kinda talking about psychedelic trips now. Alright, cool.” But it's funny because I do follow the research, so there's now real clinical trials on psychedelic therapy, and so I follow this, I'm super interested in it, and the researchers. I've heard this several times, 'cause they're asked on news shows like, “Well, what about the bad trips?” And they say, “Well, actually, people often will get the most healing and most benefit from what we think of as a bad trip.” And so, this goes in just exactly with what you're saying.

Jena: Right. Sometimes life gives you what you need instead of what you want.

Audra: Yeah, beautifully said. 

Jena: Again, sometimes right? Because sometimes people say that to me and I'm just like, “Ahhhh, I do not need this flat tire this morning on the freeway.”

Audra: Well, yes, there's a difference between someone else saying that to you and you saying it to yourself. Right?

Justin: Right, yeah.

Audra: I had the experience of a very, for me, it was a very difficult loss of a baby at 20 weeks.  She had trisomy 18. It was very difficult. And I definitely had people in my life who were like, “You'll see, it's for the best.” I was like, “Oh, I'll see?”

Justin: Or it was part of a plan or whatever. Alright, so Jena, you alluded to this when you said that had your brother not passed, you probably wouldn't have gone to grad school, and so this is a part of your professional life. It really goes back to that. So can you tell us a little bit about how you even got into researching and teaching Gender and Sexuality?

Jena: Sure... So the first thing I think that's super important to note, because this is, I think for parents to help them think about how to do this and how to have these conversations with children, and think about these topics with regard to children. My parents botched the sex talk. And I was destined to be a sex professor, so it was a real mismatch. 

Again, Irish Catholic family, and when I was seven, my dad caught me reading his Playboys, because again, from my earliest memories, how would you not wanna look at pictures of naked people? It’s obviously fascinating. I stand by that as a 51-and-a-half-year-old. It just makes sense. And so, in this very strict Catholic family that I had, nobody had the resources or skills to sit down and have conversations with me about why this is inappropriate or why it's okay for adults but not for a seven-year-old, or why children shouldn't go into their parents’ bedroom without permission. 

Like there's so many ways that conversation could have happened, except my parents just didn't have those skills. So what they did instead is they got a whole bunch of books about puberty and sexuality, and they gave them to their seven-year-old.  

Justin: Jena, just go get a PhD in this so that we don't have to have this discussion. 

Jena: That is exactly what happened. And so, one of the things I talk about when I talk to parents about how you teach them about sex, is that it's sort of like teaching kids about smoking. There's what you say and there's what you do, right? 

Before you have a conversation with your kids about their tobacco use, they have learned a thousand lessons about it from watching their uncles, people on the subway, right? It's not that if you don't talk to them, they're not learning. And it's not that if you say, “Don't ever smoke,” but you have two packs a day and a pack of the glove compartment and one stashed everywhere that you're not teaching them two separate sets of messages.

But my parents didn't—so in terms of the talk, they did everything exactly wrong. They froze, and the thing that they taught me was, is that sex is so fascinating and horrifying, both, that you can't talk to people you know about it, you can only read about it in books. 

Justin: Wow. 

Jena: I became a great reader. I learned to read everything. But at the same time, they sent that message, my parents are in their seventies and they're still really in love with each other. And they really care about each other, and they're each other's best friends, and they taught us that no matter what we did, we were always gonna be loved. And they taught us that we owned our bodies and that nobody was allowed to mess with us, and if there's somebody’s gonna mess with your brother or your sister, you were allowed to fight them. Like you were your own person and nobody could hurt you. They taught me all the great stuff that I needed to know, they just bombed the sex talk.

Justin: And so you're like, “Screw this, I'm getting a PhD and I'm gonna go and talk about this in front of thousands and thousands of people.” 

Jena: Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. And the way, actually, what happened in the background of all that, so I'm secretly hoarding all the sex books I can find. And this is the ‘70s, and the ‘80s, so there is no internet, there is no, it's really like stealing Uncle Bob’s Playboy from the closet... It’s only the way to get it ‘cause Victoria's catalogs are not even a thing yet. This is... You know, we talk about food deserts, this is a porn desert. In rural New York state. 

But still, there are enough books and stuff, and I’m learning stuff, and then my kid brother, who has hemophilia, which has just been sort of in the background of our family, he got like super confident... Like my dad is a former MP, he's a police chief, we are the “Get it done, make a plan, work the plan” family. My brother, who has hemophilia, gets HIV and then AIDs. And so, this is in, we find out he’s infected in 1985. But, for historical context for folks who don’t know about this, 1985 was a really scary time, in terms of HIV. It was our first global pandemic. And people were pretty hysterical. Kids with hemophilia who had AIDS—Ryan White was the most famous. Kids were being kicked out of their schools, there were three brothers in Florida with hemophilia whose houses were burned down when they tried to go to school. So my family, in this tiny little town of 2,000 people and one traffic light in Cooperstown says, “We're just not gonna tell anyone, right?”

Audra: Right. 

Jena: They started taking my brother to New York City for AIDS care, because there's nothing in our area, and to bring him to the local hospital would be an equivalent to out him. And so that is what we do. 

So for my entire high school career, I knew that my brother had hemophilia and had HIV, and nobody knew what that meant. But we could also never talk about it. And I went off to college and that’s how it was. I was pre-law, I wanted to be the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. We still don't have one by the way.

Audra: Right. 

Jena: 35 years later. Still not there. This was 1987. I wanted to be the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Yeah, I'm still waiting too, Audra. 

Audra: We’re still waiting for you. 

Jena: Life called me in a different direction. I went to college to do that, I was gonna be pre-law, I was gonna be a lawyer, I was gonna be a justice, I was gonna fight for, you know. And my brother stayed home in high school, junior high, at that point. And then later in high school, hiding the fact he was HIV-positive until he got too sick. And when he was a senior in high school, he got his first case-defining illness, we used to do that... remember HIV-positive, and then case-defining illness, and then you were full-blown AIDS, like, right? Yeah, the way we label disease is really...maybe a whole other talk.  

Audra: Yes, yeah. For sure.

Jena: Right, yeah, so many. He was full-blown and once he was full-blown, it was one to two years. [That] was the diagnosis. It just was November of his senior year in high school, he had just started. So don't bother to apply to college. I dropped out of college, I came home, he was like, decided that keeping it a secret didn't make any sense. Like you had to. Being mad at him...it wasn't the worst thing in the world anymore. Losing friends wasn't... So he was a Boy Scout and decided to do this Eagle Scout project talking about AIDS. And I was his big sister so I was like, “I'm a college dropout, I can tag along and talk about AIDS.” And we started speaking together. And so by the time that you and I met, or we met, ‘cause Justin was in grad school too with you, I had been doing that for almost a decade. And my brother had just died, like, I think he died the May I started grad school.

Audra: I didn't know it was that recent to you starting grad school. 

Jena: I look back on those years and think, “Wow, that's amazing,” because I remember just barely holding it together. Like in having a sense of myself as sober... Okay, really just overwhelming grief and we need to hold this together.

Audra: It strikes me too, and you say that I'm really impacted because I hear that in you from the beginning, from childhood to some degree, and that you've been holding so much together throughout your life. That's what brings you to plan a marriage at 22 and plan it out and plan exactly how the kids are gonna go, you know, it's... 

Justin: I think when tragedy strikes like this, we can hold it together by avoiding and repressing and ignoring, and “I'm just gonna hold it together, I don't wanna break,” you know? Or I can hold it together by diving straight into this thing, by walking straight towards it, and I feel like that's what we've done with childhood cancer, I'm just like... And that's exactly what you did is like... I'm going straight into that fire. Yeah, that's powerful. 

Audra: Yeah, that is my memory of meeting you is, I think that that was one thing that was so impactful to me is that your openness, vulnerability, presence, being able to speak about your experience, being able to speak about Henry, being able... It wasn't a secret part of your life. It was a part of your life that felt very incorporated in your life and in who you are, and still very much does. It's a really, really powerful journey. 

So when your brother was diagnosed, he must have been very young, initially with hemophilia. Is that something that's typically diagnosed early in childhood? 

Jena: Well. This is again... Now, it would be, almost definitely. This was 1973. So actually the first eminent diagnosis was leukemia, 'cause he presented the toddler-crawling with bruising and bleeding gums...

Audra: Right. 

Jena: Lumps... And so we had to go, my parents were in the service in Fort Gordon, Georgia, and there was nobody there who could diagnose this little toddler who's bleeding. So they sent us to the CDC in Atlanta. My parents brought us there... I remember—this is one of my earliest memories, 'cause my brother was one-and-a-half and I was about five-and-a-half. And they brought us to the CDC, and they had ruled it down to leukemia, which was terrible because this was 1974. 

Justin: Right.

Audra: It's terminal at that point.

Justin: It’s a death sentence.

Jena: Toddlers with leukemia. And my parents are not educated, they're—I’m five—they're 25-year-old kids in the service.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: So what they know is their kid’s probably got leukemia, and if he’s got leukemia he's gonna die. And instead, it turns out it's not leukemia, it's this other thing, hemophilia, which we have never heard of and we know nothing about. And it turns out it's just this blood disease, and if the kid gets hurt, you can give them lots of other people's blood and they'll stop bleeding.

Audra: Transfusions. And at this point, there's no Facebook support groups, no online chats, there's none of this. Your parents are going it alone with a kid with a rare diagnosis that seems to be treatable...if you have access to blood transfusions.

Jena: You dive in and teach yourself everything you can. It isn't an accident I decided I could plan a marriage at 22. 

Audra: Yes. 

Jena: As a child, I was taught how to do IV blood transfusions at age 10, because at 10, again we were Catholic, and seven was old enough to get your ears pierced 'cause that was like First Communion, so 10 seemed like good enough for IV therapy.

Audra: Yes, of course. Yeah.

Justin: The math works out.

Jena: You are a woman, now, here's the IV— 

Audra: And caregiver. 

Justin: Yeah, yeah. So Jena, to bring us up to the present, how would you describe the work you do right now? You're at a dinner party, like... How do you describe it?

Jena: It depends. If I come to your dinner party, I would tell people that I teach Gender and Sexuality. That I do research about gender and sexuality typically on stigmatized or minoritized groups or sexualities. So I can do a lot of work with sexual violence with women around the world, I do a lot of stuff with the LGBTQ+ community. That's what I do.

Justin: But if it's a really bad dinner party... What do you say?

Jena: Right. If it's my uber-conservative cousin's dinner party, I’m a health professor.

Justin: Yeah.

Jena: I teach people how to be healthy.

Justin: Yeah, got it.

Jena: Mostly with women's health around the world. Lately, I have been working a lot in Haiti and in India and—oooh, look at the time.

Justin: Exactly, exactly. Alright, so this is the part in the conversation where I wanna start getting into stuff where I think a lot of listeners, parent listeners can start to put some things into action. How to talk to our kids about gender and sexuality, how to think about these things. But before we do, I'm imagining that there are some parents out there who come from families like mine, where... Yeah, the whole sex talk, it was just this awkward, terrible thing, and the less we can talk about this, the better. Let's just... Just ignore it. How can we kind of lower the temperature before we get into talking about these things?

Jena: That is the perfect question, because think about how we frame this, like “the talk,” which conveys to people, think about this, some time in your childhood, we're gonna have a conversation in which I will tell you everything you need to know, about emotional aspects of sex and intimacy.

Justin: And there's an idea of a forbidden knowledge too, right?

Jena: We will never speak of this again. Can you imagine if you approach table manners like that? There’s a dinner in sixth grade, and we will teach you all the silverware and how to use your wine glass, and if you don't get it, you're gonna be a social failure forever because you don’t know what a shrimp fork does.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: In reality, we start teaching our kids about sexuality—and table manners—in infancy, right? As soon as our kids start eating solid food, we say, “Oh no, you don't spit it back at mommy, that's not nice.” When we change our kids’ diapers, when we label body parts. When we say, “Oh no, you don't take stuff from your diaper and you don't touch your…” And we give that thing a name. We are... So again, getting back to my family where we didn't talk about this, the names that we had for things that were covered by diapers or underpants was bottom, front or back, boy or girl, it was all your bottom. You did not touch your bottom, you kept your bottom covered, nobody got to see your bottom except you or your doctor. Or if someone was giving you a bath... Right, that sends a really significant message in a family where everything else has a name. 

Justin: So, what I'm hearing is that we can lower the temperature by just understanding that whether we like it or not, we've been having the talk ever since the beginning.

Jena: A less risky example: when I was in junior high, all my friends started wearing makeup, and I really, really wanted to wear makeup. I didn't go to my mom and say, “Hey, Mom, what do you think about me as a seventh-grader wearing make-up?” Because in seventh grade, I knew exactly what my mom thought about that...right? I had had 12 years watching her in the mall go, “I don't know who that person thinks she is, but she just looked so much prettier if she'd wash all that gunk off her face.”

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: I had heard that a thousand times before I ever considered having the makeup conversation with my mom, so... Right, so I just bought friends’, I borrowed friends' make-up and hid it in my lunch bag 'cause I d know that she would say the wrong thing. I didn’t have to ask what she thought. She had already told me what she thought over and over, and it's okay for her to do that. 

It is okay for us as parents to have our values around things like what makeup is appropriate or what clothes are appropriate or what age kids should be allowed to do certain things with their friends. That's why we got elected parents, not only are we allowed to do that, it's our responsibility. But ideally, we communicate with our kids about what those rules are and what our expectations are explicitly, rather than just letting them guess based on how they see our behavior.

Audra: Yeah, it's such an amazing point. They're picking up on everything, from all the conversations we're having that are indirect, that we don't realize that we're having, all of the sharing within the family unit and without, and all of our judgments, everything that we're sharing, and then very often just never having a direct conversation.

Jena: Right, and again, I think as parents, one of the things I hate most about talking about the talk is if I'm a parent who's nervous or anxious about that, right. I don't wanna get just...which most parents are, right? I am sometimes nervous about important talks I have with my kids, 'cause they’re high-stakes and I love my kids, and I don't wanna mess it up. 

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: That's so important, but if I'm nervous about it, and I think it's one talk and it's... I'm the one teaching my kids about sex, I can put it off because I allow myself to believe that everybody else isn't teaching my kids about sex. 

So my oldest kid, Tory, came out to us pretty early, in junior high...actually, in middle school, in sixth grade. I suspected for most of Tory’s life that Tory liked girls. Tory had a crush on this adorable little girl in kindergarten, I just always knew. But when Tory entered middle school, Tory hadn't had a conversation about that with us. So I got this book, a fantasy book, Mercedes Lackey, it's the Valdemar series—she still writes them—and it has same-sex characters in it, just part of the canon… It's not a sexual book but it's just a fantasy series where sometimes boys have boyfriends and sometimes girls have girlfriends while they're riding magic horses and saving the world. 

Audra: Right, yeah. 

Jena: And so in Tory was at that age in middle school, she's reading a lot of fantasy, I just say, “Hey, here's this really good series I'm reading,” 'cause I wanna give a positive role model to my kid who I'm pretty sure is queer. But she's not bringing up the conversation and at this point in my life, I don't feel like I can say, “Hey, just wanna remind you, even if you were gay, but no matter what, I'm always gonna love you.” I'm telling her that enough anyway. Right, Tory reads the first book, loves it, decides in her 11-year-old brain that I can't possibly know what is actually in this book.

Justin: Oh wow.

Jena: This is when we were living in Bancroft Hall, we knew you guys at this point, remember?

Audra and Justin: Yeah!

Jena: Tory sneaks on the subway by herself, down to the Barnes and Noble at 70th Street to buy the second book in the series because she doesn't wanna ask for it 'cause she's afraid we might read it and find out there are gay characters.

Justin: Oh my gosh.

Jena: Because, despite the fact that I am studying what I do— 

Justin: Do you know what I do every day? 

Jena: All of her friends and everybody else around her and all the messages she's getting from society are, “You can’t let your parents know you might be gay because they hate you.”

Audra: Right, right. So no matter how open you are and supportive you've been, those messages and narratives just present in society, in our culture are so oppressive. 

Jena: Yeah, people are talking to your kids…about sex and gender every day.

Justin: So you just used some terms that I think we all think we know what they mean, but maybe we don't. So maybe we can get some 101 Gender and Sexuality from Jena Curtis here. So what do these terms mean? So I wanna know about gender, I wanna know about sex, and I wanna know about sexuality. Are they the same thing, are they different? 

Jena: Okay, so I love the way that you said that most of us think we know. And I think I know too, and I'm gonna give you the best definition that I have today. I've been doing this work now for 30 years. So the way that I have defined those terms has changed really radically in that time, because our understanding of what those things are have changed. So it would make sense that this would be new information for lots of folks, and it's okay not to know. They change and sometimes I have to ask, tell me what that is. 

So sex is our biology, it is a combination of our hormones, our chromosomes, and our physical bodies. And in the US, people start talking about our sex, typically before were born, right? To point through a pregnancy— 

Justin: Not just talking, but sometimes exploding things in blue and pink colors.

Jena: In the US, because we have lots of technology, at some point in a pregnancy, so typically somebody will look at the fetus’ genitals and say, “Do you wanna know the baby’s sex?” And the people have talked it over and they decided they do, or they talk it over right there, and they consult and they decide or they don't. But even if they decide, then...it's interesting because people are like, “No. We wanna be surprised.” You're gonna have to find out eventually, right?

Justin: You’re gonna know sometime.

Jena: You’re gonna know sometime and might still be surprised. So at some point in the pregnancy or when the baby is born, somebody who is a medical provider for that person and the baby is gonna say, “Congratulations, it's a boy or a girl.” Those are the two choices we give everybody: boy or girl.

Justin: We've seen the hardware, we can tell you what the sex is. 

Jena: Exactly. It is based on a quick check of genitalia. Yup, that looks like a penis. Yeah, that's a vulva. The only two choices. And here's the good news: in the past, I would say that 90-95% of the time that we have gotten that right. And what I mean by getting it right is that up till now, and I'll talk about how now is different in a second, but up till now, about 90% of the time when we say “Congratulations, you've got a baby boy!” Or “congratulations, she's a little girl!” We've been correct. That human has grown up and become a man or become a woman, just as we predicted the day they were born. 

Sometimes, and this is pretty rare, probably less than 2% of all births, and some people would say as rare as one in a 1,000, there are babies born with what we call intersex. And that means that their genitalia are somewhat ambiguous. It's hard to tell if it's a baby girl or a baby boy sometimes. Or sometimes babies are born intersex, and their genitalia look exactly the way we think that penises and vulvas should, but what's inside is different. Right?

Depending on the reason that happened, sometimes babies are born intersex because of hormones that they're exposed to while they’re fetuses, that they're not gonna be exposed to anymore, so we just need time for their bodies to change and their own hormones to take over. Sometimes those babies need surgery to bring their genitals into line with what their brains and their hormones are going to do. And sometimes those babies need to be left to grow into humans that have genitals that look different than what most people think penises or vulvas should look like. But that's a process of working with the child and their doctors and the parents to figure out what's best.

Justin : So sex is mostly about this perceived biological reality, but you've alluded to the fact that there is more there...

Jena: There is gender there, and gender is someone's own sense of themselves as male or female, or something else. So again, when we talk about sex, we have two choices, typically is what most people think of: we have male or female. And now I've introduced this third option that we don't normally talk about is intersex, someone who has the chromosomes, the hormones, or the physical genitals of both male and female sex. So that’s sex. There's really three things that people can be in regard to sex. Most people only know about two. 

With gender, there's an entire spectrum. We used to think that people could either be boys or girls, and that sex—our physicality, our biology—had to correspond with our gender. Our sense of ourselves as men or women or something else. Now, we understand that sex and gender are separate. For most people, they are aligned. Ninety percent of people will grow up—who have already been born—will grow up feeling in their head like exactly what the doctor or midwife said that morning they slapped them on the butt. “Congratulations, you’re a little baby girl. You're a little baby boy.” 

Five to 10% of people have a sense of themselves as something other than that. Some of them have a very clear sense, “No, I'm not a little girl, I'm a boy.” “No, I'm not a man, I'm a woman.” Other people don't feel like those, what we call “gender boxes” maybe, that box of “Here’s all the things that men should be” and “Here’s all the things women should be...” Fit them. 

Actually, lots of people feel that way. Some people feel that their gender box or their gender label is such a bad fit that they want something else. But the other gender label isn't a better fit, people in this non-binary state—not female, not male—are still creating language to talk about that. Some people call that gender queer, some people call that non-binary. So what we do when we talk about people whose sense of themselves, whose gender is different than the sex that was assigned to them at birth based on their genitals, we call those people transgender, or people who are non-binary. TGNB for short. I have to type it out a lot. 

We call everyone else, the 90% of the people whose sex assigned at birth corresponds with or matches their gender identity, their sense of themselves as male or female—cisgender, meaning same-gender.

Audra: Can I just observe for a moment that that was just the most succinct, beautiful, simplified, educational opportunity I've had to explore sex and gender, maybe ever. And Jena, one thing I love, love, love that you said is speaking of how things are changing and have changed. Because of course, things change. And we learn and we grow, we change, and one of the worst things that we see anyway, working in health and wellness and healthcare is when someone comes up with a theory in 1965 and because they did, they gotta stick to it. I mean, it's really destructive. 

And so to be, to honor the movement in change and growth and learning, it's such a beautiful thing. I think it's probably hard to do in academia because we wanna stick with, 'cause it's naturally pretty conservative. We wanna stick with the things that were written before.

Jena: And before we do anything, we have to form a committee to explore it, so now that we've gotten the glacier here, you're saying you wanna turn it and move it where?

Justin: Right, well, so there's a historical change, but I'm wondering if you can talk briefly what I've learned is that there's also just super individual factors. So learning, as teaching on a university campus, you have to ask somebody, how would you like to be... How would you like to be addressed? And so can you speak about that aspect?

Jena: So when I started my explanation, I said, so, before people who are already born? Right, and I talked about how when we're talking about people who are born in the past, probably 90-95% of the time, we got sex assigned at birth correct. Most people were the gender, the same gender as their sex assigned at birth. For reasons that we're not exactly sure that we completely understand, there are many more transgender and genderqueer people below the age of 30-40, then there are above it. Probably twice as many. 

Justin: Oh wow, I didn't know the numbers. Okay. 

Jena: So now on your campus and my campus, we have twice as many students, probably if we reflect national trends, I know my campus does, we have twice as many students who identify as trans or genderqueer than we have before, and we don't think we're capturing the true picture of that because one: our population is still figuring themselves out; and two: we think that the way that students are starting to think about talking about gender identity is different. 

So let me add a fourth term, so we talked about sex, we talked about gender. We'll get to sexuality, I promise, but now I wanna talk about gender identity and gender expression. So gender is somebody's a male or a female, and our identity is how we think of ourselves that way. Do I think of myself as a girly girl, or do I think of myself as a strong woman? Do I think of myself as a hard guy who can cry and separate? Like that’s all gender identity, how do we think of ourselves and our gender. Right, I think of myself as a smart, strong woman. And in that context, smart and strong have a feminine flavor to them. I am smart, the way that women are smart, there's some strategy and there's a social skill involved there, and it's not just about blinding ego. And I'm strong, the way that women are strong. Again, getting allies… So that's all gender identity, and that's our sense of ourselves in our head, that develops over the course of our lives. What kind of man or woman or person are we relating to our gender? 

Our gender expression is how we portray that on the outside. Am I wearing a dress? Am I wearing makeup? Because we're doing this call, I put on makeup, I put on foundation.

Audra: Justin keeps forgetting to tell people that we're not. 

Justin: Well, yeah, so we are not necessarily using the video, but we may use clips. 

Audra: Okay, alright, alright.

Jena: You haven’t seen me in 15 years, I said to Todd, “If you saw this face, would you be like, ‘Wow, Jena’s really let herself go...’”

So my foundation, my mascara, the lipstick, the hair, is all part of my gender expression. How I portray myself as a woman on the outside world. Yesterday I was in sweat pants and a ponytail: my gender identity wasn't the same. I was still the same, smart, strong woman today that I was yesterday. Today, I'm just femming it up a little bit to impress you guys, right? 

We don't know if our students’ gender is changing or their gender expression, their willingness to be seen as androgynous or gender queer, their willingness to demand—as you suggested, Justin—that we ask them about their pronouns, because some of our students or some of our children, instead of just wanting to be he or she, or to be pronouned based on the sex that they were assigned at birth, want to be able to tell you what their pronouns are. “No, my pronouns are she, even though you think I'm a boy,” or “No my pronouns are they, even though you think I look like a girl.” Right? 

Again, people who are transgender and genderqueer are still evolving their own language around this, so there are also what we call neo-pronouns, people are coming up with other pronouns like xe, xyr or xem,... instead of she, her, or hers.

Justin: So there's this historical change and then I'm visually seeing like, then there's just this individual context.

Jena: And we're still figuring that out, and that's why five years from now when we have the...the anniversary of this, I'll be able to have a much better sense of why we have more transgender and genderqueer adolescents and young adults than ever before, and are we gonna continue to see that? 

My guess is that we're gonna see something in over the next 10 years, very similar to what we saw after the gay rights movement in the ‘60s through the ‘70s and ‘80s It's not probably that more people have same sex attraction now then did before. It's probably that now that we have marriage equity, now that we have civil rights, people who experience that, feel comfortable marrying the person they love, because they're not gonna risk getting fired from their job or losing their... Right?

We have throughout history, if you talk to Civil War experts, they will tell you stories of soldiers who are killed, and then when they bury them, we discover they were really secretly women pretending to be men. Although maybe 'cause that's the language we had back then, but maybe there were people who experience themselves as men, who went off to fight for their country, even though they had vulvas. 

We always had people whose gender identity has been outside the binary, in all cultures that we've studied around the world. We have always had people whose sexual attraction was outside the “you should be attracted to someone of the other sex.”

Justin: Jena, real quick, do you have any statistics on the rise in transgender parents. Has this tracked as well for parents?

Jena: We are just now starting to ask questions about gender identity related to respondents in surveys. And there were huge fights around the census and all of these things, and it's really fascinating for me as a health educator because we're always fighting in all these national data collection efforts, because people are saying that our data collections for sexual health matters are too sexually explicit...

Audra: Too sexually explicit?

Justin: It's too much knowledge.

Jena: So for instance, we only have data about kids and specific sexual behaviors for very recently, because before we would only ask children if they were sexually active, but we wouldn't define what that meant.

Audra: Okay. Yes.  

Jena: Right, that’s... 

Audra: To plant a seed, is that what the problem is? 

Jena: That's what they thought.

Justin: So the census made me do it.

Jena: Like walking into your house and saying…

Justin: Right, right. 

Jena: Did you eat any of the cookies that I said were for dessert?

Audra: And then on the other side of the coin, you likely have people saying, “Well, you don't have data.” 

Jena: Exactly, so when we talk about queer families is that we have more people identifing as LGBTQ+ as parents than ever before, and the willingness of physicians to work with these families…

Justin: Oh wow. 

Jena: ...around fertility and other needs related to queer and genderqueer parenting, so... So there's another word I use the word “queer.” 

Justin: Yes. Define that. 

Jena:  Which, yes, in that LGBT... Let me talk about that too. L is lesbian. We think of lesbian as people, women, who are attracted to other women. And sexual attraction, when we talk about the sexual attraction, is about gender. So it doesn't matter if one of the women who's attracted to another woman has a penis, it is all about, do they identify as women. So lesbians are women who are attracted to women, bisexual people. And we're gonna have to change this alphabet, 'cause again, this is... Things are exploding in the sexuality world right now. We invented the term bisexual and really popularized it in the ‘70s with the idea that there were two sexes and some people were attracted to both of them. Now that we understand that there are more than two genders that people can be attracted to. We think of bisexual people and as people who can be two or more genders.

Audra: More fluid.

Jena: So L is lesbian, G is gay, men who are attracted to other men. B is bisexual, people who are attracted to ..., and T is transgender, somebody who's gender identity doesn't meet their sex or match their sex assignment. 

Now because people do, I just said, I think myself as a strong, smart woman, I've created my own identity label. People have done the same thing for their sexual orientation, intersex people have said, “Hey, we wanna be included in the LGBT umbrella.” LGBT, okay we’ll put an I in there, right. Two spirited people—in native traditions, people whose gender wasn't in the binary, were sometimes identified as having two spirits.

Audra: I didn’t know that.

Jena: Two-spirited people said, “Hey, we wanna be in the umbrella.” Transgender people were already there, so, we already have a T. Pansexual people, people said, “Well, I used to think I was bisexual, but now I know that I'm attracted to men and women, and sort of femmy boys, and sort of really strong women with short crew cut hairs, and I had, I’m pansexual.” So now we have LGBTQ, A, for asexual people who said, “I don't really feel like I'm attracted to anybody very much regardless of their gender.” P for pansexual, and Q for the word queer, which we use in two ways. Some people have queer as an identity, and they say, “I'm not straight, but I'm not…none of those other labels really work for me. I'm queer, I'm beyond the typical binary of how we think about sexuality.”

Justin: So, queer is another way of saying, like, “Don't box me in?”

Jena: So queer is when, there's two things. So one appears as an identity label. So people whose sexual orientation or gender identity doesn't align with any of the labels they have, often identify as queer. Maybe somebody, a woman who is largely attracted to other women, but occasionally will date a man. Or a man who is attracted to men and trans women. Right? So queer is sort of outside... So another way, if we're talking about kinky sex, maybe someday, we'll launch that podcast.

Justin: Oh yeah, we’re gonna have you back on. 

Audra: It's gotta be recurring. 

Jena: Or when you talk about kink with people, people will talk about kink versus vanilla sex. And vanilla is sort of the missionary, in the dark, with the lights on and the blankets up to your chin, the way we imagine our grandparents have sex. That is not how they had sex. But that’s what we want we think. 

Justin: That's what I prefer to think. 

Audra: Yes.

Jena: That changes everything that's not vanilla. And then whether it's spanking or role play, it's just not the vanilla missionary-style. Queer is like that for sexual orientation and gender identity, it's this big umbrella as an identity, and a signifier that someone's sexual orientation or gender identity isn't the regular old vanilla, no offence to anybody who's listening, I believe that whatever someone sexual orientation or gender identity is that's awesome. But it isn't the regular old vanilla straight-versus-gender. So people will use queer as an identity.

Those of us who study and research sexuality and gender, use queer as a descriptor for those studies, like queer studies and gender studies, studies of sexuality and sexual orientation. We also, and here's one of my favorite ways to use this word, use the word queer as a verb, to talk about ways that we can kind of subvert the standard narrative, especially around sex or gender or race. 

So for instance, one of the things I suggest to my students when I'm talking to them about their sexual behaviors is they queer the dating narrative that they think about who's supposed to do what, where, and think about, how they would construct a date if they didn't have these rules in their head about what it's supposed to be? What would you do if you didn't think that because you're the boy, you have to do these things, or what would you do if you didn't think that because you're the girl you have to sit and wait to see what the boy wants to do?

Audra: Oh my gosh, I love it. I wish I had your class. 

Justin: Yeah, right, well, and that's why we have Jena on the show, and so we can get a little piece of this magic. 

Audra: We need to keep it going. It’s really amazing.

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Alright, so I imagine new parents, let's say I'm a new parent, we just had a brand new baby. And do I need to know about this stuff yet, or can I just push this off till puberty? Can I come back to you in 12 or 13 years?

Jena: So I'm gonna tell you the same thing your pediatrician is gonna tell you as a new parent. Listen to your baby. I remember when I was a new parent, I was so... I was 23 as a new parent. I had my first kid two weeks before my 24th birthday. That plan we made 22, we just stuck to it. Right? And I was so scared I was gonna mess it up. 

How will I know if the baby's hungry, how do I do the baby needs to be... And the pediatrician said listen to your baby. When your baby cries, pick him up and see if he needs to be fed, see if the baby wants to be changed. As a new parent, you can absolutely bring your baby home, have the gender reveal party, if that's what you need to do. If that is your family's tradition and your parents or godparents or whatever, are going to be heartbroken if it doesn't happen. It will not make people in the trans community happy, and for the sake of family harmony, do what you need to do. Please just don't put it in everybody's Facebook. 

It's okay, because 90% of the time your pediatrician, your obstetrician is gonna be right. If when that child is two or three and they say, “Mommy, I'm not a boy, I'm a girl,” listen to them. I don't need you to come out and get them hormones or do anything else. You might mention it to the pediatrician, because lots of kids will do that. Most of them will still be cisgender 90% of the time, we get it right. But right now, 5-10% percent of kids, will say they’re one gender and they’re not. And what I'm saying sounds really revolutionary, except that it's not. Right? 

We indulge our kids and our toddlers all the time. So, Zach, who you just saw, I think this was before you met him, but when Zach was three, the movie “Babe” the pig movie came out. Zach wanted to be Babe the pig. He didn’t want to be the farmer, he wanted to grow up to be a piglet. He watched the movie every day. And for about a year when he was three, any time I would say, “Oh, you're such a good little boy,” he would say, “I'm not a boy, Mommy, I’m a pig.” And so I got in the habit of saying, “Ok come on piggy, it’s time for bed. Okay, little pig, I love you so much.” 

Right, I remember one time in the grocery store, I got this bizarre look from a woman because she heard me saying to my toddler, “You’re the best little piggy ever.” But I didn’t say you can't be a pig because humans can only grow into humans. And here's the thing, my little boy cannot grow up to be a pig. He could possibly some day be my daughter. Probably not, most kids are not trans, but when kids are, we don't get to know that they are until they tell us. And when they tell us we need to listen to them, because here is the…

And I think it goes back to that conversation in the beginning about this is not the journey I plan to be on... Like, you did not sign up to be cancer parents, right? You did not say, “We feel really great, really confident in our family and our marriage, in our parenting, and we are ready for this journey.” This was the journey you were put on, you get to step up and do what you're doing, or you get to not, but this is gonna still be your journey, you have to get on this ride...

Justin: As we said at the beginning, you aren't gonna know what to do, but if you step forth in love and authenticity and honesty, you're gonna be going in the right direction. 

Audra: You could just use that response. 

Jena: Right, and I would argue that for lots of parents, for parents whose children have critical illnesses, often we don't have good evidence as to what the best course action is... Right? 

One of the horrible things I experienced, one of my children was critically ill during their childhood often, and those hard choices you have to make as a parent where a year from now, or five years from now, or maybe when the kid’s grown, you're gonna have an answer...if it’s the right choice. But now you just have to listen to the experts or listen to your faith, or listen to and make that choice. 

For a transgender parents, for the parents of trans and genderqueer kids, we have overwhelming evidence that listening to your child, allowing your child to express themselves as their gender identity is life-saving.

Audra: It's incredible. So there's a road map. 

Jena: There is a road map, and it doesn't, but I can't tell you, take the highway or take the country roads. I can tell you, you need to get to a place where your child feels loved and accepted for who they are.

Justin: So Jena, this is like all parenting for everything, always.

Jena: And how you accept that and how we, right, your kid picks a person that you’re not...is not your favorite or you want them to study to be a doctor, right? Being a parent is finding a way to be. 

But here's the thing, if you force your kid to be a doctor, they might be a miserable doctor and they might write novels on the side. We have a whole bunch of best selling authors who are actually doctors—Michael Crichton has his MD, right?

If your kid tells you that they are trans and you don't believe them and you make them pretend to not be trans, you are threatening their life. Being transgender is not a disease, it is not an illness, it is not a life threat, being a trans kid and trying to pretend you're not is life-threatening... You know, I teach this as suicide prevention.

Justin: God, yeah.

Audra: That is incredible. I think we need to really put a pin in that and make a note that not supporting your child in being who they are, expressing who they are and being able to live their lives as who they are and who they wanna be, is life-threatening.

Jena: And the hard thing about parenting is we all have visions of who we want our kids to be. I have had kids date people I didn't like, I have had kids dropout of college, I have had kids make all sorts of choices that I would not have voted for in their adolescent and adult lives. 

And I have their entire lives to help them grow into the kind of person they're meant to be, and to push towards the kind of person I'd like them to be. Things that will protect them, things that will keep them here, things that will keep that dialogue open, so I can keep giving them guidance, that's what I prioritize. 

Justin: Beautiful.

Audra: So what I'm hearing is that it's not going to be damaging to put the girl... She's born, we identify as a girl in birth, you put her in pink clothes, you put the boy in blue clothes, that's not going to be necessarily the most damaging thing ever. You're sending a message certainly, and there is communication happening here, but it's not the end of the world. What we need to do is, 'cause one thing that I thought was really powerful, you're acknowledging family dynamics and culture and all of the other rich things going on. But when the child expresses who they are, you listen and take that seriously.

Jena: Yes, the same way that if my child said, “Mom…” Actually, Tory did. My oldest kid went to college at 16 and super bright, and was getting a lot of college notices and my college really heavily recruited Tory. And I was kind of gently like, “Wouldn’t that be so cool? We could commute together.” And finally Tory turned to me and said, “Mom, every time you talk about me going to your college, I throw up a little bit in the back of my throat.” Tory is not a beat-around-the-bush kid… “Mom, this is not my path. Listen!”

Justin: Yeah. 

Jena: It would be great, we could have lunch together every day for four years. Was not Tory’s path.

Justin: No. Alright, so we are coming up against time here, so what is coming up for me first is that we absolutely have to have you back on because there's like five questions that I absolutely want answered, and so we're gonna have to have you back.

Jena: The kink section. 

Justin: Oh my god, it's like, Come on. It's gonna be awesome. So we're gonna have you back, but one question before I get into the three quick ones that we throw everybody, 'cause it's just standing out to me, maybe because we have a teenager. Dating... How early is too early?

Jena: Okay, so Justin, this is the price of admission, right here. This is the same answer for anything your kid tells you about sex and relationships. My kid comes to me and says, in kindergarten, and says, “Mom, Mahogany at and I are dating,” right? I say, “Tory, what does that look like?” Right? 'Cause here's the thing I know. My kid thought, Tory thought that Tory and Mahogany were dating in kindergarten. And kindergarten dating is “I sit next to you on the school bus, and we sit together at lunch.” Right? And the reason I wanna know what is…

First of all, it's contextual, but then the other thing that that question gives me, is it allows me that there is a red flag there for me as a parent, I can just say, “Wait a minute about this part, right?” So when Tory says, “I'm dating Mahogany,” and I say, “What does dating look like?” Tory says, “We sit together on the bus every day, and Mahogany’s not allowed to talk to anybody else.” 

I will just say, “I love that you guys are sitting on the bus today, I love sitting next to your dad on the bus. That's one of my favorite things. And I think not letting the person you're dating talk to anyone is sad.” So if my kid comes and says, “Mom, I'm going all the way…” Let's talk about that. What does that look like? One of my kids, adult kids, just came to me with really serious relationship news… “Awesome, congratulations. What do you think that's gonna look like? You and your person, you've obviously talked about this, you've thought about this. Well, what does that look like for you? How's your relationship gonna be now, what do you think this means?” 

So your teenage kid comes and says, “Dad I’m dating my best friend.” This kid has been in your house for dinner a million times, and you didn't even know they were checking your kid out, like that's some messed up stuff right there, right? Like all potential dates should have to claim their intentions, you start looking at your kid’s best friends, like… Your kid comes and says, “Dad, I'm dating this person. Yeah, that's awesome. What does that look like for you? Now you guys are friends, and how does the friendship different.” Or “Oh, that's great. This isn't somebody we've met before, talk to me about your connection with them.”

Jena: Oh, I love it. This opening Jena, it's just like this beautiful, beautiful, powerful opening and an open invitation to connect and converse as opposed to the typical closing, clamping, and controlling.

Jena: “Over my dead body,” right? And then the other one I use a lot with, I use a lot with my adolescents and still my kids say, “You make great choices.” 

I know your kids make great choices, I see on social media, all the fabulous things they do. Think about how much better your conversations with your adolescent kids go around dating and all those things, if they know that you think they make good choices and you respect their choices, and they know your family values. 

People think that because I do this work, and people who know me and know my politics and everything else think I’m this uber-liberal mother. Yeah, I sat down with both of my kids when they were in high school and told them that I'd rather they weren't sexually active in high school. 

Because in my experience, people who have sex in high school often do it really bad reasons, in adulthood, they look back on it and they regret it. Right? I said, “I think most high school students probably are, and in most high school relationships probably aren't ready for sex. And no matter what, I'm always gonna love you, I'm always gonna support you, and as your mom, here's what I want for you.”

Justin: Ohhh, gosh, so this opens up so many other questions for me. Alright, so we definitely have to have you back on because I wanna dig into this because there's so much, we're like, Okay, well then what if they're like, “Thanks for the advice, mom. But this is what I wanna do.”

Jena: I did not tell you, Justin, that either of my children followed my advice. But here’s the thing... And I don't talk about my kids sexual behaviors publicly anywhere that I want my own, but over the course of... I've got a, almost 30-year-old and a 25-year-old now, over the course of their adult lives and relationships, they have done things that I have disagreed with.

They did not always follow my firm guidelines or parental rules, and every time they have gotten into trouble where they have had a question or a relationship problem, or a pregnancy scare, all the sorts of things that happen around sexuality, I have been one of the first people that they had called to. Because I'm the expert, but also because I’m their parent.

Justin: Yeah, the communication was open. It was always open.

Jena: And they knew that I would disagree sometimes. I have my own values and high expectations for my kids, but I'm never gonna shame them, and I'm never going to tell them that they're not allowed as young adults or adults to make their own choices in their lives. 

I'll respectfully tell them that I disagree sometimes with choices. But they get to... Zach when he turned 18, told us that he was now thinking of us as an advisory… Neither of my children have a hard time telling me what they actually think.

Justin: Yes, yes, but the relationship is...

Audra: Okay, you know what, I just... I have to reflect to a couple of things, I'm really, really struck by, I think what I feel like I'm hearing and getting a feel for, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I wanna check in on this, is that when you talk about your family values, I have to think respect as a core one.

Jena: Very much so. 

Audra: I feel it. 

Jena: Yes, so we are friends and you get to have your own life. My children are adults, we get to live their own life, that’s all respect. And honesty is, as someone who cares for you and loves you, I also have an obligation to give you my best feedback and my best advice, even if I don't agree. So the respect can sometimes be hand-off, I think with honesty it's sort of yes, 'cause with parenting too, or sometimes with friends. I don't go...as a relationship person, I have such a rule about not offering unsolicited relationship advice anymore... And I think the honesty part is something that gets negotiated in relationships and close friendships and family, because you do have an obligation. But especially with your kids as they’re young adults and I was [able to] help them navigate this really complicated thing.

Justin: Beautiful. Alright.

Audra: So, one more thing before the three things, please. I know, I'm so sorry, I know we're getting on a time and we are going to talk. I think we have to talk with you at least 10 more times. I don't know, Jena, it's gotta be just a continuing thing. It is, like, it is so uplifting of my heart and spirit, I've learned so much, and I just wanted to express thanks to you for going into academia, going into research, for digging in and doing this work because I do... weren’t you and your brother on the “Today Show?”

Jena: I often... Again, the way I describe my job, the close friends, versus the way I describe it more formally and appropriately. The appropriate way I would describe my early twenties is I spent a lot of time offering myself to various media venues.

Audra: Yes, you were on the world stage. And you’re definitely a voice and a beautiful, passionate, articulate voice; something that is deeply needed in the world. And I get the sense you could have continued on that path. You could have continued on the advocacy path and in very many ways you're still on the advocacy path, but to be able to decide that you're gonna dig deeper and dig in and stay really involved with the research and be a part of this evolution of knowledge and sharing is really, really powerful. And I just wanted to appreciate that because I'm getting just a huge sense of gratitude for you and your work.

Justin: Heck yeah, me too. Yeah. Alright, so the intention is set. We're gonna have you back on 10 more times. 

So the final three questions we ask everybody, if you could put a big post-it note on every parent's fridge tomorrow morning, they wake up, go to the kitchen, it’s right there... What is it gonna say? 

Jena: “There is no test.” I, so often, especially early in my parenting career, I saw parenting as a series of challenges or tests, that are either pass or fail. Childbirth was a test, and there was good ways to have birth, and there were bad ways to have birth. 

Parenting is this huge, long marathon. Maybe decades after you have finished, you are able to look back and see, but there's not a task like you show up and you do it the best you can, and you get it right 60-80% of the time, depending on the day, and you try and keep the major screw ups down to a couple...

Justin: Beautiful… And a quote that has changed the way you think or feel lately.

Jena: Oh my gosh, I have this poster over my desk at work, so when I look up—anyone walking into my office is the first thing I see. Audra will remember it. “When I dare to be powerful, use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Audra: Oh, it's an amazing quote. It's one of my favorites.

Jena: I, 'cause... Here's the thing, we talk about, like, well, you can't sit and do nothing else, and you have to do something, and we don't know the way forward, so you quit... You really could. There are days where you can absolutely just sit in bed with your head under the covers and eat chocolate and sob because there is so much freaking suck. And there isn't a single good solution, and it's overwhelming to get around. The stakes are so high sometimes. It’s so easy to be afraid and to be overwhelmed, and so that one helps me remember that I don't ever have to be brave on my own behalf. I can use that power and harness it for something else and not have to be scared for myself.

Justin: Beautiful. 

Audra: Yeah, you strike me as someone who makes your decisions out of hope, not out of fear. And not to say you don't wrestle with fear like we all do, but you don't track me as a fear-based decision-maker.

Jena: I am the, “We’re standing at the lake edge on February…” I am the “I have to jump in because otherwise I will stand and analyze it forever,” so I'm constantly leaping because this right here doesn't have a chance or good judgment rather— 

Audra: Oh interesting. So just jump so that you don't have to overthink it or the fear set in? 

Jena: Exactly that... Judgment hardly ever sets in.

Justin: That's a great strategy. Alright, this last question is about kids, because for most parents and you’re way past this, but for parents of young kids, there's an exhaustion and like oh god, kids... It's just draining. But they're also wonderful, so we wanna celebrate kids, so what is your favorite thing about kids? 

Jena: So many things, I could go on about how amazing my kids are...for hours. But I think my favorite thing about kids is how many chances they give us... You can be snappy with your kids, you can be short with your kids, you can be distracted with your kids, they still think you’re one of the coolest humans on the planet. They still keep showing up. And for years or weeks. I wrote an entire dissertation and I'm pretty sure that my kids did not see me for weeks on end. And when I got done and came up for air, they were there with me. 

Audra: Oh, it's beautiful, it's beautiful. So that is an incredible reflection. I feel like how many chances they give us, or make mistakes over and over and over again. How forgiving they are. 

Justin: Yeah, yeah. Just continue to show up. Yeah.

Jena: Yeah, and the cool thing, I can tell you as somebody who's in a very different parenting place, I have the adult kids who are thinking about their own kids… They will look back and reminisce on ridiculous things that were not important as pivotal and wonderful...or fabulous. You know the stupid bodega on the corner of Amsterdam, and my kids loved, and they loved stopping here. And the fact that I stop there on the way home from school every afternoon is one of the reasons I'm the best mom ever, when really it was just I couldn't walk 12 blocks without diet Dr Pepper. Right? So moving and so willing to give us the chance to get this right.

Audra: It speaks to love and authenticity again, that children are living and often leading with love and authenticity, and so there is that open-heartedness. And it's one thing that we'll continue to talk about because we are super interested in talking about traumas and Justin is really deep into the work of emotional processing and things like this, and I feel like this reminder of the resilience and love and authenticity and the forgiving nature of kids, like kids showing up in love is like... “You haven't—Mom, Dad, you haven't ruined it.”

Jena: Right, right.

Audra: It is one thing to argue about tonight or something.

Jena: Yeah, think about the expectation of perfection that sets in at some point in all of our lives around different things. There's something that I just absolutely have to show up and nail. Like public speaking, this stuff. And then there's stuff that I'm allowed to be shitty at, softball, right? 

And then there's imposter syndrome, and you think about kids like they don’t have that... What age does imposter syndrome set in? Like middle school, maybe later, depending on the kid and their environment...but...little kids will try shit. They'll get it wrong, they don't expect you to be good. And they don’t expect us… Yeah, kids are cool people. 

Justin: I love it. 

Audra: I'm gonna be sitting in that space for a while. I'm really, really enjoying thinking about little kids through that lens, through the, like, so authentic. There is no onset of impostor syndrome at that point, it's delayed or later.

Jena: Yeah, you could grow up to be a pig. If nobody tells you at three, that you can’t... You can plan your whole pig life at that point...

Audra: Right. What are we so afraid of? 

Justin: Hey, thanks for listening to The Family Thrive Podcast. If you like what you heard, please subscribe. Tell two friends and head on over to Apple Podcast, or anywhere you listen to podcasts, and give us a review. We're so grateful you've chosen to join us on this Family Thrive Journey.




Justin: You remember when one or both of your parents gave you ‘the talk?’ How awful that was, and now as a parent, you need to give the talk to your kids. And today things are way more complicated, it's not just sex we need to talk about, but gender, sexuality, identity, consent, and a lot more. 

Well, parents, we got your back. In this episode, we're talking with the professor of Gender and Sexuality, Jena Curtis PhD. It is an amazing episode where we talk about everything from how to have the talk to when it's okay to start dating, to why it's so damn important to talk openly with our kids about gender, sexuality, and identity. A quick note, Dr. Curtis' sound was not great in this episode, but the energy she brings and the amazing wisdom she shares is too important to toss, so we're going with it. But I promise if you stick with it, you're gonna be super happy you did.

Jena: There is a road map, and I can’t tell you, take the highway or take the country roads. I can tell you, you need to get to a place where your child feels loved and accepted for who they are. Listening to your child, allowing your child to express themselves as their gender identity is life-saving.

Justin: We are so thrilled to present this episode with Dr. Jena Curtis, she holds a Doctorate in Education from Columbia University and is a professor of Gender and Sexuality at SUNY Cortland. She started her adult life as a community AIDS educator in 1987, when she was just out of high school. She ended up delivering hundreds of HIV/AIDS presentation programs and workshops to high school kids, college students, and community audiences all before finishing her undergraduate degree. 

So what would cause a kid just out of high school and rural upstate New York to travel around the world educating people on AIDS in 1987? Well, you're gonna need to listen to find out. Enjoy this awesome episode with Dr. Jena Curtis. 

So we can just dive right in. So the first thing we were gonna talk about was like, how far back we go, and so we started to touch on this, it's been 15, almost 16 years since we've seen Jena.

Audra: 'Cause we were in grad school together, and she was completing a doctoral degree, and I was completing a master's degree, and we worked together in family housing, and I remember being the one without kids. And I remember that kind of being a little bit of a thing. It's like, I remember struggling and being like, “But I have a family...but I know it's not the same thing. I’m not one of those people who assumes that I know what it's like.” But I remember you being our first parenting mentors.

Justin: Yeah, I remember watching how you guys parented... 

Audra: There was an apple thing. I don't know if you remember, but you told me the story about apples and how you would keep apples in the fridge and you tell the kids they can't have them because they're treats... I totally use that, I stored that away to file. And I was like, that is really good. That's good and I've been using it ever since. Now, Maesie will eat two flats of strawberries, I'd be like, “I don't know... I don't know if you should, is that…” 

So did you accept the position at Cortland right after grad school? 

Jena: Right out of grad school. As it happens in grad school, my dissertation advisor was like, “Jena, you should interview at Cortland,” ‘cause that's where he went, and I was like, “Yeah, sure, so I go to California where it's warm…” But, he was my advisor, so I interviewed at Cortland and I fell in love with it. I went from hoping they won’t make me an offer, and I have to deal with that, to  please let them make me an offer… and I’ve been here ever since. 

Justin: Oh, that's awesome. All right, so before we get into your professional work, I just wanna rewind to the personal stuff. And so when did you first know that you wanted to be a mom? Was there a moment where you're like, “Oh, dang.”

Jena: No, no, I actually talk about this when I teach about gender…  I never made a decision to be a parent. From my earliest memories, I grew up in this huge Irish Catholic family, where there were aunts and uncles and cousins everywhere, where any adult could grab you by the scruff of the neck and say, “Straighten up.” Right? Like that was my family. 

Everybody said to me, my entire childhood “Well when you will have children” or “You might not like this now, but when you have children, you will understand.” It was just part of the... It was like when you become an adult. It was just one of those things that you did. But I never regret having children, but now I have students, and I work with young adults, who are really thinking about, do they want to have families. 

Justin: Oh Jena, this is great. So you experience part of what I think of as the old way of parenting, which is, it's just part of life. It's like you grow up, you have kids, you retire and you die.

Jena: You retire, you get to do what you want, but the having kids and supporting your family is work.

Justin: So was there a moment when as a parent, you realize like, this is something more, like this is, this is a life project, like this is part of some, you know, deeper there... There's a deeper meaning here in my relationship with my kids and... Did it ever hit like that?

Jena: Yeah, absolutely. It's interesting 'cause now both of my children are adults and with their people and talking about starting their own families, not maybe right now, but in the foreseeable…within a five year plan, that's something that's certainly gonna come up. 

And Tory, my oldest, asked before the wedding, “What about kids?” And I said, “Here's the thing about kids.” And I had this conversation, I don't remember ever deciding I'm gonna be a mom as opposed to not being a mom. Like anything else, it was just always part of my identity of who I would be the same way that I would be an adult. And I would grow up to be a mom, 'cause that's what women did.

But within that, I also very much in my family, was instilled that was the best thing that you could do. It was very much like Hillary Clinton, no matter what other great things you do with your life, if you don't do a great job raising your kids like you have not nailed it. It was the most important, most crucial work you're gonna do. 

And so when I was talking to Tory about this, I said, the thing about that is, it's right. The happiest, best things that have ever happened in my life—almost all of them are tied to my kids. My proudest moment, the things that I reflect on. And some of my hardest too, like hands-down, are plenty of work, it is nothing compared to your kid is in trouble and you can’t help.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: And to Tory I said, I can't imagine my life being as happy as it is if I hadn’t had kids. And for as long as you have children, you are... It's harder to be happier than your saddest kid, or the most troubled kid. So it's sort of this incredible leap of faith to trust in this process that you see from everyone around you does not always end well and often makes parents really miserable. But brings such incredible joy.

Justin: I guess that's what makes parenting, for me at least, this almost spiritual life project, because it's not like a just totally enjoyable hobby. Like I like to surf or bike, and it's like, no, no, no. This is something different. This is, for me, yeah, as close to a spiritual project as possible because it will reveal every unprocessed wound from childhood that I have, every issue, every hang-up. And then, of course, as you alluded to, all the joy and the pain that just goes with seeing your kids struggle or go through stuff that you wish they didn't have to.

Audra: So, Jena, I'm interested because getting to know you as a parent, as parents, so you and Todd, we met. You’re parents. I didn't know you before. And you are such incredible examples to us, and we're soaking it up from you. This has been your life's work, and this is something that you went into because it's a part of a life trajectory that was passed on to you. 

And so at what point did you, or was there a point when you said, “Hey, this is something that I'm not just sort of floating through and biding my time until they're 18.” Was there a point for you where you start to really lean into that? 'Cause you're really good at it, and so I'd love to know where that kind of came to or how they came together for you.

Jena: So, this is gonna sound odd, but one of the things that was really pivotal, and really helpful for my parenting, was that my brother got sick when I was a teenager. And so Todd, who was my high school boyfriend, and I had lots of conversations about that. And he had AIDs back when AIDs was pretty, immediately fatal. And so for my entire relationship with Todd, in the beginning, I had a critically ill, we would say terminally ill brother, and family stuff was super important and super intense and super accelerated because we had that thing that lots of families with diagnoses have of you gotta get it all in. 

Audra: Yup. 

Jena: So Todd and I were high school sweethearts who got married at 22.  Because my brother had just been diagnosed with AIDS and they said he’d gonna live for a year or two. And I went to him and I said, “I love you and we’re gonna get married at some point, but if we don't get married before my brother dies, I'm gonna be too sad to get married, so we need to do it now.” 

And then kids was the same thing. Like, “Let's have kids.” But because of that, but I think maybe because of who I am, 'cause I knew I was putting it—I was fast-tracking it, right? It was also really important to me to sit down and sort of talk to him about what would that look like. “We're gonna get married anyway, but if we get married soon, how does that change our relationship from what it is now, right? And we're gonna have kids. We always knew we were gonna have kids. But if we have kids now, what does that mean for work? And what does it mean for this?” 

And so we had these really intentional conversations, I think in part because I was really aware of the fact that we were incredibly young and making it up while we were going along. And I didn't wanna half-ass it. Like, I didn't know what I was doing and I knew that. So we got to have these conversations about like, “What do you think about spanking on them, I think we should never hit our kids, do you... What do you think about religion, what—” 

Justin: Wow.

Audra: You brought this intentionality into it.

Justin: Yeah, and like, really building the boat as you're sailing across the ocean.

Jena: We’ve got three months to decide what a good marriage looks like, go!

Justin: Oh, I love it. Oh my god, that is why I feel like you have so much wisdom. Even back then, we would watch you guys and it really felt intentional, like you guys were not half-assing it and that these decisions were intentional. Yeah, they were done kind of on fly and kind of quickly, but it was intentional. I love that. Yeah, yeah. 

Audra: The other thing I wanted to reflect on too, speaking of your brother, is, and I'd love to talk a bit more about this because it's something that has just...there has been continued resonance for me, in reflection, looking back. 

You, in sharing with us along the way. You brought us to your home, you bought us into your lives and you shared with us, and then we end up years later with a son diagnosed with a brain tumor, and there's something there that... I don't know how to describe it, but I felt you there because you introduced us in a way, to this world that we just ended up in. And it's been very powerful for me. And you as a sibling, I see in my daughter. And a lot of that journey, I feel like you gave us… I don't know, you gave us some sort of advanced comfort in some way of just being able to be with you, and so you see, she’s surviving and thriving and making this give, and making something out of this... This is just incredibly inspiring. I think it's been, for me, it's been a huge part of my inspiration knowing that it's possible. 

Jena: Oh wow, I notice I'm feeling choked up. I teach students how to talk about things like this, and I say, “When you feel you’re alone just own it.” Yeah, I think... Yeah, one of the gifts that we had being one of the early AIDs families, and one of the gifts I got getting married so early, was the sense of there wasn't a right way to do it, there wasn't a handbook, you make it up as you go along. Because there isn't anything else to do. 

And I see so much of that in the work that you and Justin have done with MaxLove. Of sort of, there has to be a path, and we don't know what it is, but we know that there must be one and we have to build it, and sometimes veer the wrong way occasionally to get there, we will do it.

Audra: Build a ship as we sail. It's the same thing, right? 

Justin: I think the commonalities are like this, the only rules that we know we have to follow are love and authenticity. If we can just follow these two rules, we'll get somewhere.

Jena: We don’t have to stay here and hurt, we have to do something with this. Doing nothing isn’t an option. So even though you aren't sure... The good thing is we're gonna try with love and authenticity then in that moment...

Audra: Yeah, it's like what I notice in this, and I was coming up for me in this conversation, is that we oftentimes, many of us are unaware that the pursuit of the perfect life is something that we've just consented to by default because the expectation is that you do this right. Do the things perfectly and build a perfect, happy life. And when you go through what your family's been through, when you go through what we've been through, in our whole community of families, that whole notion of perfect life is destroyed. 

And out of that, you do have a choice. You can, I think there's grief that goes along with that for everybody, and there's something that it can be, and I've seen a lot of families in more of a state of disempowerment from that, like it is completely shattering. For us, we took it as an opportunity to build, at that point, and it's like, well, that's out the window.

Jena: Right. 

Audra: And now we're free in a sense. We're free to do us, to be us, and to figure out what our purpose is and what we really feel like we're gonna be good at, and so, we can make some good things happen in the world. What's it gonna be? And it was, in a sense, liberating, and it's hard to say that to people who have been through something like this or a diagnosis like this, because you know what I'm saying. I'm not trying to say that I'm grateful for my son's cancer diagnosis. That’s not the point. That’s not what I'm saying. 

Jena: Thank goodness my brother died of AIDs because I never would have gone to grad school without that... 

Justin: Right, right. 

Jena: Yeah, and that's why the language that works for me mostly—except when it doesn't...of being willing to get it wrong, because what is right is a moving thing…  One of the gifts that this gave me, like you can go on a really... And Todd does this, my husband, who was still my favorite person in the world.

Justin: Aww, after all these years, high school sweethearts.

Jena: Todd does a whole bunch of international travel and often with people who haven't done it, and he says from the time you leave your house with your bag until you get home, it's an adventure. Sometimes the adventure sucks, and sometimes the adventure is awesome, but it’s always...

Justin: But it's an adventure.

Jena: That sort of mindset of, we're always learning, and sometimes we're not getting it right, but that's not the point. It can be difficult and it can be not what you anticipated and still fabulous. 

Or it can absolutely suck... Some of the things, some of the trips that I learned the most on have been the ones that were absolutely terrible from a accomplishing-my-goals perspective. 

Audra: Right. 

Jena: The first time I did a research trip in India, I remember. I don't remember the time I decided I became a mom. I remember the time promising my higher power that if it got me out of India, I would never return again... Right. Of course. That research trip broke me, it sucked, I did everything wrong. I didn’t go back for four years. But I learned so much from that trip, and the reason it broke me was because I was doing everything wrong. 

Justin: Oh my gosh. So Jena, when you said trip at first and I was like, “Oh, Jena's kinda talking about psychedelic trips now. Alright, cool.” But it's funny because I do follow the research, so there's now real clinical trials on psychedelic therapy, and so I follow this, I'm super interested in it, and the researchers. I've heard this several times, 'cause they're asked on news shows like, “Well, what about the bad trips?” And they say, “Well, actually, people often will get the most healing and most benefit from what we think of as a bad trip.” And so, this goes in just exactly with what you're saying.

Jena: Right. Sometimes life gives you what you need instead of what you want.

Audra: Yeah, beautifully said. 

Jena: Again, sometimes right? Because sometimes people say that to me and I'm just like, “Ahhhh, I do not need this flat tire this morning on the freeway.”

Audra: Well, yes, there's a difference between someone else saying that to you and you saying it to yourself. Right?

Justin: Right, yeah.

Audra: I had the experience of a very, for me, it was a very difficult loss of a baby at 20 weeks.  She had trisomy 18. It was very difficult. And I definitely had people in my life who were like, “You'll see, it's for the best.” I was like, “Oh, I'll see?”

Justin: Or it was part of a plan or whatever. Alright, so Jena, you alluded to this when you said that had your brother not passed, you probably wouldn't have gone to grad school, and so this is a part of your professional life. It really goes back to that. So can you tell us a little bit about how you even got into researching and teaching Gender and Sexuality?

Jena: Sure... So the first thing I think that's super important to note, because this is, I think for parents to help them think about how to do this and how to have these conversations with children, and think about these topics with regard to children. My parents botched the sex talk. And I was destined to be a sex professor, so it was a real mismatch. 

Again, Irish Catholic family, and when I was seven, my dad caught me reading his Playboys, because again, from my earliest memories, how would you not wanna look at pictures of naked people? It’s obviously fascinating. I stand by that as a 51-and-a-half-year-old. It just makes sense. And so, in this very strict Catholic family that I had, nobody had the resources or skills to sit down and have conversations with me about why this is inappropriate or why it's okay for adults but not for a seven-year-old, or why children shouldn't go into their parents’ bedroom without permission. 

Like there's so many ways that conversation could have happened, except my parents just didn't have those skills. So what they did instead is they got a whole bunch of books about puberty and sexuality, and they gave them to their seven-year-old.  

Justin: Jena, just go get a PhD in this so that we don't have to have this discussion. 

Jena: That is exactly what happened. And so, one of the things I talk about when I talk to parents about how you teach them about sex, is that it's sort of like teaching kids about smoking. There's what you say and there's what you do, right? 

Before you have a conversation with your kids about their tobacco use, they have learned a thousand lessons about it from watching their uncles, people on the subway, right? It's not that if you don't talk to them, they're not learning. And it's not that if you say, “Don't ever smoke,” but you have two packs a day and a pack of the glove compartment and one stashed everywhere that you're not teaching them two separate sets of messages.

But my parents didn't—so in terms of the talk, they did everything exactly wrong. They froze, and the thing that they taught me was, is that sex is so fascinating and horrifying, both, that you can't talk to people you know about it, you can only read about it in books. 

Justin: Wow. 

Jena: I became a great reader. I learned to read everything. But at the same time, they sent that message, my parents are in their seventies and they're still really in love with each other. And they really care about each other, and they're each other's best friends, and they taught us that no matter what we did, we were always gonna be loved. And they taught us that we owned our bodies and that nobody was allowed to mess with us, and if there's somebody’s gonna mess with your brother or your sister, you were allowed to fight them. Like you were your own person and nobody could hurt you. They taught me all the great stuff that I needed to know, they just bombed the sex talk.

Justin: And so you're like, “Screw this, I'm getting a PhD and I'm gonna go and talk about this in front of thousands and thousands of people.” 

Jena: Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. And the way, actually, what happened in the background of all that, so I'm secretly hoarding all the sex books I can find. And this is the ‘70s, and the ‘80s, so there is no internet, there is no, it's really like stealing Uncle Bob’s Playboy from the closet... It’s only the way to get it ‘cause Victoria's catalogs are not even a thing yet. This is... You know, we talk about food deserts, this is a porn desert. In rural New York state. 

But still, there are enough books and stuff, and I’m learning stuff, and then my kid brother, who has hemophilia, which has just been sort of in the background of our family, he got like super confident... Like my dad is a former MP, he's a police chief, we are the “Get it done, make a plan, work the plan” family. My brother, who has hemophilia, gets HIV and then AIDs. And so, this is in, we find out he’s infected in 1985. But, for historical context for folks who don’t know about this, 1985 was a really scary time, in terms of HIV. It was our first global pandemic. And people were pretty hysterical. Kids with hemophilia who had AIDS—Ryan White was the most famous. Kids were being kicked out of their schools, there were three brothers in Florida with hemophilia whose houses were burned down when they tried to go to school. So my family, in this tiny little town of 2,000 people and one traffic light in Cooperstown says, “We're just not gonna tell anyone, right?”

Audra: Right. 

Jena: They started taking my brother to New York City for AIDS care, because there's nothing in our area, and to bring him to the local hospital would be an equivalent to out him. And so that is what we do. 

So for my entire high school career, I knew that my brother had hemophilia and had HIV, and nobody knew what that meant. But we could also never talk about it. And I went off to college and that’s how it was. I was pre-law, I wanted to be the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. We still don't have one by the way.

Audra: Right. 

Jena: 35 years later. Still not there. This was 1987. I wanted to be the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Yeah, I'm still waiting too, Audra. 

Audra: We’re still waiting for you. 

Jena: Life called me in a different direction. I went to college to do that, I was gonna be pre-law, I was gonna be a lawyer, I was gonna be a justice, I was gonna fight for, you know. And my brother stayed home in high school, junior high, at that point. And then later in high school, hiding the fact he was HIV-positive until he got too sick. And when he was a senior in high school, he got his first case-defining illness, we used to do that... remember HIV-positive, and then case-defining illness, and then you were full-blown AIDS, like, right? Yeah, the way we label disease is really...maybe a whole other talk.  

Audra: Yes, yeah. For sure.

Jena: Right, yeah, so many. He was full-blown and once he was full-blown, it was one to two years. [That] was the diagnosis. It just was November of his senior year in high school, he had just started. So don't bother to apply to college. I dropped out of college, I came home, he was like, decided that keeping it a secret didn't make any sense. Like you had to. Being mad at him...it wasn't the worst thing in the world anymore. Losing friends wasn't... So he was a Boy Scout and decided to do this Eagle Scout project talking about AIDS. And I was his big sister so I was like, “I'm a college dropout, I can tag along and talk about AIDS.” And we started speaking together. And so by the time that you and I met, or we met, ‘cause Justin was in grad school too with you, I had been doing that for almost a decade. And my brother had just died, like, I think he died the May I started grad school.

Audra: I didn't know it was that recent to you starting grad school. 

Jena: I look back on those years and think, “Wow, that's amazing,” because I remember just barely holding it together. Like in having a sense of myself as sober... Okay, really just overwhelming grief and we need to hold this together.

Audra: It strikes me too, and you say that I'm really impacted because I hear that in you from the beginning, from childhood to some degree, and that you've been holding so much together throughout your life. That's what brings you to plan a marriage at 22 and plan it out and plan exactly how the kids are gonna go, you know, it's... 

Justin: I think when tragedy strikes like this, we can hold it together by avoiding and repressing and ignoring, and “I'm just gonna hold it together, I don't wanna break,” you know? Or I can hold it together by diving straight into this thing, by walking straight towards it, and I feel like that's what we've done with childhood cancer, I'm just like... And that's exactly what you did is like... I'm going straight into that fire. Yeah, that's powerful. 

Audra: Yeah, that is my memory of meeting you is, I think that that was one thing that was so impactful to me is that your openness, vulnerability, presence, being able to speak about your experience, being able to speak about Henry, being able... It wasn't a secret part of your life. It was a part of your life that felt very incorporated in your life and in who you are, and still very much does. It's a really, really powerful journey. 

So when your brother was diagnosed, he must have been very young, initially with hemophilia. Is that something that's typically diagnosed early in childhood? 

Jena: Well. This is again... Now, it would be, almost definitely. This was 1973. So actually the first eminent diagnosis was leukemia, 'cause he presented the toddler-crawling with bruising and bleeding gums...

Audra: Right. 

Jena: Lumps... And so we had to go, my parents were in the service in Fort Gordon, Georgia, and there was nobody there who could diagnose this little toddler who's bleeding. So they sent us to the CDC in Atlanta. My parents brought us there... I remember—this is one of my earliest memories, 'cause my brother was one-and-a-half and I was about five-and-a-half. And they brought us to the CDC, and they had ruled it down to leukemia, which was terrible because this was 1974. 

Justin: Right.

Audra: It's terminal at that point.

Justin: It’s a death sentence.

Jena: Toddlers with leukemia. And my parents are not educated, they're—I’m five—they're 25-year-old kids in the service.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: So what they know is their kid’s probably got leukemia, and if he’s got leukemia he's gonna die. And instead, it turns out it's not leukemia, it's this other thing, hemophilia, which we have never heard of and we know nothing about. And it turns out it's just this blood disease, and if the kid gets hurt, you can give them lots of other people's blood and they'll stop bleeding.

Audra: Transfusions. And at this point, there's no Facebook support groups, no online chats, there's none of this. Your parents are going it alone with a kid with a rare diagnosis that seems to be treatable...if you have access to blood transfusions.

Jena: You dive in and teach yourself everything you can. It isn't an accident I decided I could plan a marriage at 22. 

Audra: Yes. 

Jena: As a child, I was taught how to do IV blood transfusions at age 10, because at 10, again we were Catholic, and seven was old enough to get your ears pierced 'cause that was like First Communion, so 10 seemed like good enough for IV therapy.

Audra: Yes, of course. Yeah.

Justin: The math works out.

Jena: You are a woman, now, here's the IV— 

Audra: And caregiver. 

Justin: Yeah, yeah. So Jena, to bring us up to the present, how would you describe the work you do right now? You're at a dinner party, like... How do you describe it?

Jena: It depends. If I come to your dinner party, I would tell people that I teach Gender and Sexuality. That I do research about gender and sexuality typically on stigmatized or minoritized groups or sexualities. So I can do a lot of work with sexual violence with women around the world, I do a lot of stuff with the LGBTQ+ community. That's what I do.

Justin: But if it's a really bad dinner party... What do you say?

Jena: Right. If it's my uber-conservative cousin's dinner party, I’m a health professor.

Justin: Yeah.

Jena: I teach people how to be healthy.

Justin: Yeah, got it.

Jena: Mostly with women's health around the world. Lately, I have been working a lot in Haiti and in India and—oooh, look at the time.

Justin: Exactly, exactly. Alright, so this is the part in the conversation where I wanna start getting into stuff where I think a lot of listeners, parent listeners can start to put some things into action. How to talk to our kids about gender and sexuality, how to think about these things. But before we do, I'm imagining that there are some parents out there who come from families like mine, where... Yeah, the whole sex talk, it was just this awkward, terrible thing, and the less we can talk about this, the better. Let's just... Just ignore it. How can we kind of lower the temperature before we get into talking about these things?

Jena: That is the perfect question, because think about how we frame this, like “the talk,” which conveys to people, think about this, some time in your childhood, we're gonna have a conversation in which I will tell you everything you need to know, about emotional aspects of sex and intimacy.

Justin: And there's an idea of a forbidden knowledge too, right?

Jena: We will never speak of this again. Can you imagine if you approach table manners like that? There’s a dinner in sixth grade, and we will teach you all the silverware and how to use your wine glass, and if you don't get it, you're gonna be a social failure forever because you don’t know what a shrimp fork does.

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: In reality, we start teaching our kids about sexuality—and table manners—in infancy, right? As soon as our kids start eating solid food, we say, “Oh no, you don't spit it back at mommy, that's not nice.” When we change our kids’ diapers, when we label body parts. When we say, “Oh no, you don't take stuff from your diaper and you don't touch your…” And we give that thing a name. We are... So again, getting back to my family where we didn't talk about this, the names that we had for things that were covered by diapers or underpants was bottom, front or back, boy or girl, it was all your bottom. You did not touch your bottom, you kept your bottom covered, nobody got to see your bottom except you or your doctor. Or if someone was giving you a bath... Right, that sends a really significant message in a family where everything else has a name. 

Justin: So, what I'm hearing is that we can lower the temperature by just understanding that whether we like it or not, we've been having the talk ever since the beginning.

Jena: A less risky example: when I was in junior high, all my friends started wearing makeup, and I really, really wanted to wear makeup. I didn't go to my mom and say, “Hey, Mom, what do you think about me as a seventh-grader wearing make-up?” Because in seventh grade, I knew exactly what my mom thought about that...right? I had had 12 years watching her in the mall go, “I don't know who that person thinks she is, but she just looked so much prettier if she'd wash all that gunk off her face.”

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: I had heard that a thousand times before I ever considered having the makeup conversation with my mom, so... Right, so I just bought friends’, I borrowed friends' make-up and hid it in my lunch bag 'cause I d know that she would say the wrong thing. I didn’t have to ask what she thought. She had already told me what she thought over and over, and it's okay for her to do that. 

It is okay for us as parents to have our values around things like what makeup is appropriate or what clothes are appropriate or what age kids should be allowed to do certain things with their friends. That's why we got elected parents, not only are we allowed to do that, it's our responsibility. But ideally, we communicate with our kids about what those rules are and what our expectations are explicitly, rather than just letting them guess based on how they see our behavior.

Audra: Yeah, it's such an amazing point. They're picking up on everything, from all the conversations we're having that are indirect, that we don't realize that we're having, all of the sharing within the family unit and without, and all of our judgments, everything that we're sharing, and then very often just never having a direct conversation.

Jena: Right, and again, I think as parents, one of the things I hate most about talking about the talk is if I'm a parent who's nervous or anxious about that, right. I don't wanna get just...which most parents are, right? I am sometimes nervous about important talks I have with my kids, 'cause they’re high-stakes and I love my kids, and I don't wanna mess it up. 

Audra: Right, right. 

Jena: That's so important, but if I'm nervous about it, and I think it's one talk and it's... I'm the one teaching my kids about sex, I can put it off because I allow myself to believe that everybody else isn't teaching my kids about sex. 

So my oldest kid, Tory, came out to us pretty early, in junior high...actually, in middle school, in sixth grade. I suspected for most of Tory’s life that Tory liked girls. Tory had a crush on this adorable little girl in kindergarten, I just always knew. But when Tory entered middle school, Tory hadn't had a conversation about that with us. So I got this book, a fantasy book, Mercedes Lackey, it's the Valdemar series—she still writes them—and it has same-sex characters in it, just part of the canon… It's not a sexual book but it's just a fantasy series where sometimes boys have boyfriends and sometimes girls have girlfriends while they're riding magic horses and saving the world. 

Audra: Right, yeah. 

Jena: And so in Tory was at that age in middle school, she's reading a lot of fantasy, I just say, “Hey, here's this really good series I'm reading,” 'cause I wanna give a positive role model to my kid who I'm pretty sure is queer. But she's not bringing up the conversation and at this point in my life, I don't feel like I can say, “Hey, just wanna remind you, even if you were gay, but no matter what, I'm always gonna love you.” I'm telling her that enough anyway. Right, Tory reads the first book, loves it, decides in her 11-year-old brain that I can't possibly know what is actually in this book.

Justin: Oh wow.

Jena: This is when we were living in Bancroft Hall, we knew you guys at this point, remember?

Audra and Justin: Yeah!

Jena: Tory sneaks on the subway by herself, down to the Barnes and Noble at 70th Street to buy the second book in the series because she doesn't wanna ask for it 'cause she's afraid we might read it and find out there are gay characters.

Justin: Oh my gosh.

Jena: Because, despite the fact that I am studying what I do— 

Justin: Do you know what I do every day? 

Jena: All of her friends and everybody else around her and all the messages she's getting from society are, “You can’t let your parents know you might be gay because they hate you.”

Audra: Right, right. So no matter how open you are and supportive you've been, those messages and narratives just present in society, in our culture are so oppressive. 

Jena: Yeah, people are talking to your kids…about sex and gender every day.

Justin: So you just used some terms that I think we all think we know what they mean, but maybe we don't. So maybe we can get some 101 Gender and Sexuality from Jena Curtis here. So what do these terms mean? So I wanna know about gender, I wanna know about sex, and I wanna know about sexuality. Are they the same thing, are they different? 

Jena: Okay, so I love the way that you said that most of us think we know. And I think I know too, and I'm gonna give you the best definition that I have today. I've been doing this work now for 30 years. So the way that I have defined those terms has changed really radically in that time, because our understanding of what those things are have changed. So it would make sense that this would be new information for lots of folks, and it's okay not to know. They change and sometimes I have to ask, tell me what that is. 

So sex is our biology, it is a combination of our hormones, our chromosomes, and our physical bodies. And in the US, people start talking about our sex, typically before were born, right? To point through a pregnancy— 

Justin: Not just talking, but sometimes exploding things in blue and pink colors.

Jena: In the US, because we have lots of technology, at some point in a pregnancy, so typically somebody will look at the fetus’ genitals and say, “Do you wanna know the baby’s sex?” And the people have talked it over and they decided they do, or they talk it over right there, and they consult and they decide or they don't. But even if they decide, then...it's interesting because people are like, “No. We wanna be surprised.” You're gonna have to find out eventually, right?

Justin: You’re gonna know sometime.

Jena: You’re gonna know sometime and might still be surprised. So at some point in the pregnancy or when the baby is born, somebody who is a medical provider for that person and the baby is gonna say, “Congratulations, it's a boy or a girl.” Those are the two choices we give everybody: boy or girl.

Justin: We've seen the hardware, we can tell you what the sex is. 

Jena: Exactly. It is based on a quick check of genitalia. Yup, that looks like a penis. Yeah, that's a vulva. The only two choices. And here's the good news: in the past, I would say that 90-95% of the time that we have gotten that right. And what I mean by getting it right is that up till now, and I'll talk about how now is different in a second, but up till now, about 90% of the time when we say “Congratulations, you've got a baby boy!” Or “congratulations, she's a little girl!” We've been correct. That human has grown up and become a man or become a woman, just as we predicted the day they were born. 

Sometimes, and this is pretty rare, probably less than 2% of all births, and some people would say as rare as one in a 1,000, there are babies born with what we call intersex. And that means that their genitalia are somewhat ambiguous. It's hard to tell if it's a baby girl or a baby boy sometimes. Or sometimes babies are born intersex, and their genitalia look exactly the way we think that penises and vulvas should, but what's inside is different. Right?

Depending on the reason that happened, sometimes babies are born intersex because of hormones that they're exposed to while they’re fetuses, that they're not gonna be exposed to anymore, so we just need time for their bodies to change and their own hormones to take over. Sometimes those babies need surgery to bring their genitals into line with what their brains and their hormones are going to do. And sometimes those babies need to be left to grow into humans that have genitals that look different than what most people think penises or vulvas should look like. But that's a process of working with the child and their doctors and the parents to figure out what's best.

Justin : So sex is mostly about this perceived biological reality, but you've alluded to the fact that there is more there...

Jena: There is gender there, and gender is someone's own sense of themselves as male or female, or something else. So again, when we talk about sex, we have two choices, typically is what most people think of: we have male or female. And now I've introduced this third option that we don't normally talk about is intersex, someone who has the chromosomes, the hormones, or the physical genitals of both male and female sex. So that’s sex. There's really three things that people can be in regard to sex. Most people only know about two. 

With gender, there's an entire spectrum. We used to think that people could either be boys or girls, and that sex—our physicality, our biology—had to correspond with our gender. Our sense of ourselves as men or women or something else. Now, we understand that sex and gender are separate. For most people, they are aligned. Ninety percent of people will grow up—who have already been born—will grow up feeling in their head like exactly what the doctor or midwife said that morning they slapped them on the butt. “Congratulations, you’re a little baby girl. You're a little baby boy.” 

Five to 10% of people have a sense of themselves as something other than that. Some of them have a very clear sense, “No, I'm not a little girl, I'm a boy.” “No, I'm not a man, I'm a woman.” Other people don't feel like those, what we call “gender boxes” maybe, that box of “Here’s all the things that men should be” and “Here’s all the things women should be...” Fit them. 

Actually, lots of people feel that way. Some people feel that their gender box or their gender label is such a bad fit that they want something else. But the other gender label isn't a better fit, people in this non-binary state—not female, not male—are still creating language to talk about that. Some people call that gender queer, some people call that non-binary. So what we do when we talk about people whose sense of themselves, whose gender is different than the sex that was assigned to them at birth based on their genitals, we call those people transgender, or people who are non-binary. TGNB for short. I have to type it out a lot. 

We call everyone else, the 90% of the people whose sex assigned at birth corresponds with or matches their gender identity, their sense of themselves as male or female—cisgender, meaning same-gender.

Audra: Can I just observe for a moment that that was just the most succinct, beautiful, simplified, educational opportunity I've had to explore sex and gender, maybe ever. And Jena, one thing I love, love, love that you said is speaking of how things are changing and have changed. Because of course, things change. And we learn and we grow, we change, and one of the worst things that we see anyway, working in health and wellness and healthcare is when someone comes up with a theory in 1965 and because they did, they gotta stick to it. I mean, it's really destructive. 

And so to be, to honor the movement in change and growth and learning, it's such a beautiful thing. I think it's probably hard to do in academia because we wanna stick with, 'cause it's naturally pretty conservative. We wanna stick with the things that were written before.

Jena: And before we do anything, we have to form a committee to explore it, so now that we've gotten the glacier here, you're saying you wanna turn it and move it where?

Justin: Right, well, so there's a historical change, but I'm wondering if you can talk briefly what I've learned is that there's also just super individual factors. So learning, as teaching on a university campus, you have to ask somebody, how would you like to be... How would you like to be addressed? And so can you speak about that aspect?

Jena: So when I started my explanation, I said, so, before people who are already born? Right, and I talked about how when we're talking about people who are born in the past, probably 90-95% of the time, we got sex assigned at birth correct. Most people were the gender, the same gender as their sex assigned at birth. For reasons that we're not exactly sure that we completely understand, there are many more transgender and genderqueer people below the age of 30-40, then there are above it. Probably twice as many. 

Justin: Oh wow, I didn't know the numbers. Okay. 

Jena: So now on your campus and my campus, we have twice as many students, probably if we reflect national trends, I know my campus does, we have twice as many students who identify as trans or genderqueer than we have before, and we don't think we're capturing the true picture of that because one: our population is still figuring themselves out; and two: we think that the way that students are starting to think about talking about gender identity is different. 

So let me add a fourth term, so we talked about sex, we talked about gender. We'll get to sexuality, I promise, but now I wanna talk about gender identity and gender expression. So gender is somebody's a male or a female, and our identity is how we think of ourselves that way. Do I think of myself as a girly girl, or do I think of myself as a strong woman? Do I think of myself as a hard guy who can cry and separate? Like that’s all gender identity, how do we think of ourselves and our gender. Right, I think of myself as a smart, strong woman. And in that context, smart and strong have a feminine flavor to them. I am smart, the way that women are smart, there's some strategy and there's a social skill involved there, and it's not just about blinding ego. And I'm strong, the way that women are strong. Again, getting allies… So that's all gender identity, and that's our sense of ourselves in our head, that develops over the course of our lives. What kind of man or woman or person are we relating to our gender? 

Our gender expression is how we portray that on the outside. Am I wearing a dress? Am I wearing makeup? Because we're doing this call, I put on makeup, I put on foundation.

Audra: Justin keeps forgetting to tell people that we're not. 

Justin: Well, yeah, so we are not necessarily using the video, but we may use clips. 

Audra: Okay, alright, alright.

Jena: You haven’t seen me in 15 years, I said to Todd, “If you saw this face, would you be like, ‘Wow, Jena’s really let herself go...’”

So my foundation, my mascara, the lipstick, the hair, is all part of my gender expression. How I portray myself as a woman on the outside world. Yesterday I was in sweat pants and a ponytail: my gender identity wasn't the same. I was still the same, smart, strong woman today that I was yesterday. Today, I'm just femming it up a little bit to impress you guys, right? 

We don't know if our students’ gender is changing or their gender expression, their willingness to be seen as androgynous or gender queer, their willingness to demand—as you suggested, Justin—that we ask them about their pronouns, because some of our students or some of our children, instead of just wanting to be he or she, or to be pronouned based on the sex that they were assigned at birth, want to be able to tell you what their pronouns are. “No, my pronouns are she, even though you think I'm a boy,” or “No my pronouns are they, even though you think I look like a girl.” Right? 

Again, people who are transgender and genderqueer are still evolving their own language around this, so there are also what we call neo-pronouns, people are coming up with other pronouns like xe, xyr or xem,... instead of she, her, or hers.

Justin: So there's this historical change and then I'm visually seeing like, then there's just this individual context.

Jena: And we're still figuring that out, and that's why five years from now when we have the...the anniversary of this, I'll be able to have a much better sense of why we have more transgender and genderqueer adolescents and young adults than ever before, and are we gonna continue to see that? 

My guess is that we're gonna see something in over the next 10 years, very similar to what we saw after the gay rights movement in the ‘60s through the ‘70s and ‘80s It's not probably that more people have same sex attraction now then did before. It's probably that now that we have marriage equity, now that we have civil rights, people who experience that, feel comfortable marrying the person they love, because they're not gonna risk getting fired from their job or losing their... Right?

We have throughout history, if you talk to Civil War experts, they will tell you stories of soldiers who are killed, and then when they bury them, we discover they were really secretly women pretending to be men. Although maybe 'cause that's the language we had back then, but maybe there were people who experience themselves as men, who went off to fight for their country, even though they had vulvas. 

We always had people whose gender identity has been outside the binary, in all cultures that we've studied around the world. We have always had people whose sexual attraction was outside the “you should be attracted to someone of the other sex.”

Justin: Jena, real quick, do you have any statistics on the rise in transgender parents. Has this tracked as well for parents?

Jena: We are just now starting to ask questions about gender identity related to respondents in surveys. And there were huge fights around the census and all of these things, and it's really fascinating for me as a health educator because we're always fighting in all these national data collection efforts, because people are saying that our data collections for sexual health matters are too sexually explicit...

Audra: Too sexually explicit?

Justin: It's too much knowledge.

Jena: So for instance, we only have data about kids and specific sexual behaviors for very recently, because before we would only ask children if they were sexually active, but we wouldn't define what that meant.

Audra: Okay. Yes.  

Jena: Right, that’s... 

Audra: To plant a seed, is that what the problem is? 

Jena: That's what they thought.

Justin: So the census made me do it.

Jena: Like walking into your house and saying…

Justin: Right, right. 

Jena: Did you eat any of the cookies that I said were for dessert?

Audra: And then on the other side of the coin, you likely have people saying, “Well, you don't have data.” 

Jena: Exactly, so when we talk about queer families is that we have more people identifing as LGBTQ+ as parents than ever before, and the willingness of physicians to work with these families…

Justin: Oh wow. 

Jena: ...around fertility and other needs related to queer and genderqueer parenting, so... So there's another word I use the word “queer.” 

Justin: Yes. Define that. 

Jena:  Which, yes, in that LGBT... Let me talk about that too. L is lesbian. We think of lesbian as people, women, who are attracted to other women. And sexual attraction, when we talk about the sexual attraction, is about gender. So it doesn't matter if one of the women who's attracted to another woman has a penis, it is all about, do they identify as women. So lesbians are women who are attracted to women, bisexual people. And we're gonna have to change this alphabet, 'cause again, this is... Things are exploding in the sexuality world right now. We invented the term bisexual and really popularized it in the ‘70s with the idea that there were two sexes and some people were attracted to both of them. Now that we understand that there are more than two genders that people can be attracted to. We think of bisexual people and as people who can be two or more genders.

Audra: More fluid.

Jena: So L is lesbian, G is gay, men who are attracted to other men. B is bisexual, people who are attracted to ..., and T is transgender, somebody who's gender identity doesn't meet their sex or match their sex assignment. 

Now because people do, I just said, I think myself as a strong, smart woman, I've created my own identity label. People have done the same thing for their sexual orientation, intersex people have said, “Hey, we wanna be included in the LGBT umbrella.” LGBT, okay we’ll put an I in there, right. Two spirited people—in native traditions, people whose gender wasn't in the binary, were sometimes identified as having two spirits.

Audra: I didn’t know that.

Jena: Two-spirited people said, “Hey, we wanna be in the umbrella.” Transgender people were already there, so, we already have a T. Pansexual people, people said, “Well, I used to think I was bisexual, but now I know that I'm attracted to men and women, and sort of femmy boys, and sort of really strong women with short crew cut hairs, and I had, I’m pansexual.” So now we have LGBTQ, A, for asexual people who said, “I don't really feel like I'm attracted to anybody very much regardless of their gender.” P for pansexual, and Q for the word queer, which we use in two ways. Some people have queer as an identity, and they say, “I'm not straight, but I'm not…none of those other labels really work for me. I'm queer, I'm beyond the typical binary of how we think about sexuality.”

Justin: So, queer is another way of saying, like, “Don't box me in?”

Jena: So queer is when, there's two things. So one appears as an identity label. So people whose sexual orientation or gender identity doesn't align with any of the labels they have, often identify as queer. Maybe somebody, a woman who is largely attracted to other women, but occasionally will date a man. Or a man who is attracted to men and trans women. Right? So queer is sort of outside... So another way, if we're talking about kinky sex, maybe someday, we'll launch that podcast.

Justin: Oh yeah, we’re gonna have you back on. 

Audra: It's gotta be recurring. 

Jena: Or when you talk about kink with people, people will talk about kink versus vanilla sex. And vanilla is sort of the missionary, in the dark, with the lights on and the blankets up to your chin, the way we imagine our grandparents have sex. That is not how they had sex. But that’s what we want we think. 

Justin: That's what I prefer to think. 

Audra: Yes.

Jena: That changes everything that's not vanilla. And then whether it's spanking or role play, it's just not the vanilla missionary-style. Queer is like that for sexual orientation and gender identity, it's this big umbrella as an identity, and a signifier that someone's sexual orientation or gender identity isn't the regular old vanilla, no offence to anybody who's listening, I believe that whatever someone sexual orientation or gender identity is that's awesome. But it isn't the regular old vanilla straight-versus-gender. So people will use queer as an identity.

Those of us who study and research sexuality and gender, use queer as a descriptor for those studies, like queer studies and gender studies, studies of sexuality and sexual orientation. We also, and here's one of my favorite ways to use this word, use the word queer as a verb, to talk about ways that we can kind of subvert the standard narrative, especially around sex or gender or race. 

So for instance, one of the things I suggest to my students when I'm talking to them about their sexual behaviors is they queer the dating narrative that they think about who's supposed to do what, where, and think about, how they would construct a date if they didn't have these rules in their head about what it's supposed to be? What would you do if you didn't think that because you're the boy, you have to do these things, or what would you do if you didn't think that because you're the girl you have to sit and wait to see what the boy wants to do?

Audra: Oh my gosh, I love it. I wish I had your class. 

Justin: Yeah, right, well, and that's why we have Jena on the show, and so we can get a little piece of this magic. 

Audra: We need to keep it going. It’s really amazing.

Justin: Hey, you like what you've heard so far? This podcast is just one of the many ways we're supporting your family's Thrive Journey. Head over to thefamilythrive.com and sign up for our email list so you can learn all about The Daily Thrive Community app we're launching soon. 

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Alright, so I imagine new parents, let's say I'm a new parent, we just had a brand new baby. And do I need to know about this stuff yet, or can I just push this off till puberty? Can I come back to you in 12 or 13 years?

Jena: So I'm gonna tell you the same thing your pediatrician is gonna tell you as a new parent. Listen to your baby. I remember when I was a new parent, I was so... I was 23 as a new parent. I had my first kid two weeks before my 24th birthday. That plan we made 22, we just stuck to it. Right? And I was so scared I was gonna mess it up. 

How will I know if the baby's hungry, how do I do the baby needs to be... And the pediatrician said listen to your baby. When your baby cries, pick him up and see if he needs to be fed, see if the baby wants to be changed. As a new parent, you can absolutely bring your baby home, have the gender reveal party, if that's what you need to do. If that is your family's tradition and your parents or godparents or whatever, are going to be heartbroken if it doesn't happen. It will not make people in the trans community happy, and for the sake of family harmony, do what you need to do. Please just don't put it in everybody's Facebook. 

It's okay, because 90% of the time your pediatrician, your obstetrician is gonna be right. If when that child is two or three and they say, “Mommy, I'm not a boy, I'm a girl,” listen to them. I don't need you to come out and get them hormones or do anything else. You might mention it to the pediatrician, because lots of kids will do that. Most of them will still be cisgender 90% of the time, we get it right. But right now, 5-10% percent of kids, will say they’re one gender and they’re not. And what I'm saying sounds really revolutionary, except that it's not. Right? 

We indulge our kids and our toddlers all the time. So, Zach, who you just saw, I think this was before you met him, but when Zach was three, the movie “Babe” the pig movie came out. Zach wanted to be Babe the pig. He didn’t want to be the farmer, he wanted to grow up to be a piglet. He watched the movie every day. And for about a year when he was three, any time I would say, “Oh, you're such a good little boy,” he would say, “I'm not a boy, Mommy, I’m a pig.” And so I got in the habit of saying, “Ok come on piggy, it’s time for bed. Okay, little pig, I love you so much.” 

Right, I remember one time in the grocery store, I got this bizarre look from a woman because she heard me saying to my toddler, “You’re the best little piggy ever.” But I didn’t say you can't be a pig because humans can only grow into humans. And here's the thing, my little boy cannot grow up to be a pig. He could possibly some day be my daughter. Probably not, most kids are not trans, but when kids are, we don't get to know that they are until they tell us. And when they tell us we need to listen to them, because here is the…

And I think it goes back to that conversation in the beginning about this is not the journey I plan to be on... Like, you did not sign up to be cancer parents, right? You did not say, “We feel really great, really confident in our family and our marriage, in our parenting, and we are ready for this journey.” This was the journey you were put on, you get to step up and do what you're doing, or you get to not, but this is gonna still be your journey, you have to get on this ride...

Justin: As we said at the beginning, you aren't gonna know what to do, but if you step forth in love and authenticity and honesty, you're gonna be going in the right direction. 

Audra: You could just use that response. 

Jena: Right, and I would argue that for lots of parents, for parents whose children have critical illnesses, often we don't have good evidence as to what the best course action is... Right? 

One of the horrible things I experienced, one of my children was critically ill during their childhood often, and those hard choices you have to make as a parent where a year from now, or five years from now, or maybe when the kid’s grown, you're gonna have an answer...if it’s the right choice. But now you just have to listen to the experts or listen to your faith, or listen to and make that choice. 

For a transgender parents, for the parents of trans and genderqueer kids, we have overwhelming evidence that listening to your child, allowing your child to express themselves as their gender identity is life-saving.

Audra: It's incredible. So there's a road map. 

Jena: There is a road map, and it doesn't, but I can't tell you, take the highway or take the country roads. I can tell you, you need to get to a place where your child feels loved and accepted for who they are.

Justin: So Jena, this is like all parenting for everything, always.

Jena: And how you accept that and how we, right, your kid picks a person that you’re not...is not your favorite or you want them to study to be a doctor, right? Being a parent is finding a way to be. 

But here's the thing, if you force your kid to be a doctor, they might be a miserable doctor and they might write novels on the side. We have a whole bunch of best selling authors who are actually doctors—Michael Crichton has his MD, right?

If your kid tells you that they are trans and you don't believe them and you make them pretend to not be trans, you are threatening their life. Being transgender is not a disease, it is not an illness, it is not a life threat, being a trans kid and trying to pretend you're not is life-threatening... You know, I teach this as suicide prevention.

Justin: God, yeah.

Audra: That is incredible. I think we need to really put a pin in that and make a note that not supporting your child in being who they are, expressing who they are and being able to live their lives as who they are and who they wanna be, is life-threatening.

Jena: And the hard thing about parenting is we all have visions of who we want our kids to be. I have had kids date people I didn't like, I have had kids dropout of college, I have had kids make all sorts of choices that I would not have voted for in their adolescent and adult lives. 

And I have their entire lives to help them grow into the kind of person they're meant to be, and to push towards the kind of person I'd like them to be. Things that will protect them, things that will keep them here, things that will keep that dialogue open, so I can keep giving them guidance, that's what I prioritize. 

Justin: Beautiful.

Audra: So what I'm hearing is that it's not going to be damaging to put the girl... She's born, we identify as a girl in birth, you put her in pink clothes, you put the boy in blue clothes, that's not going to be necessarily the most damaging thing ever. You're sending a message certainly, and there is communication happening here, but it's not the end of the world. What we need to do is, 'cause one thing that I thought was really powerful, you're acknowledging family dynamics and culture and all of the other rich things going on. But when the child expresses who they are, you listen and take that seriously.

Jena: Yes, the same way that if my child said, “Mom…” Actually, Tory did. My oldest kid went to college at 16 and super bright, and was getting a lot of college notices and my college really heavily recruited Tory. And I was kind of gently like, “Wouldn’t that be so cool? We could commute together.” And finally Tory turned to me and said, “Mom, every time you talk about me going to your college, I throw up a little bit in the back of my throat.” Tory is not a beat-around-the-bush kid… “Mom, this is not my path. Listen!”

Justin: Yeah. 

Jena: It would be great, we could have lunch together every day for four years. Was not Tory’s path.

Justin: No. Alright, so we are coming up against time here, so what is coming up for me first is that we absolutely have to have you back on because there's like five questions that I absolutely want answered, and so we're gonna have to have you back.

Jena: The kink section. 

Justin: Oh my god, it's like, Come on. It's gonna be awesome. So we're gonna have you back, but one question before I get into the three quick ones that we throw everybody, 'cause it's just standing out to me, maybe because we have a teenager. Dating... How early is too early?

Jena: Okay, so Justin, this is the price of admission, right here. This is the same answer for anything your kid tells you about sex and relationships. My kid comes to me and says, in kindergarten, and says, “Mom, Mahogany at and I are dating,” right? I say, “Tory, what does that look like?” Right? 'Cause here's the thing I know. My kid thought, Tory thought that Tory and Mahogany were dating in kindergarten. And kindergarten dating is “I sit next to you on the school bus, and we sit together at lunch.” Right? And the reason I wanna know what is…

First of all, it's contextual, but then the other thing that that question gives me, is it allows me that there is a red flag there for me as a parent, I can just say, “Wait a minute about this part, right?” So when Tory says, “I'm dating Mahogany,” and I say, “What does dating look like?” Tory says, “We sit together on the bus every day, and Mahogany’s not allowed to talk to anybody else.” 

I will just say, “I love that you guys are sitting on the bus today, I love sitting next to your dad on the bus. That's one of my favorite things. And I think not letting the person you're dating talk to anyone is sad.” So if my kid comes and says, “Mom, I'm going all the way…” Let's talk about that. What does that look like? One of my kids, adult kids, just came to me with really serious relationship news… “Awesome, congratulations. What do you think that's gonna look like? You and your person, you've obviously talked about this, you've thought about this. Well, what does that look like for you? How's your relationship gonna be now, what do you think this means?” 

So your teenage kid comes and says, “Dad I’m dating my best friend.” This kid has been in your house for dinner a million times, and you didn't even know they were checking your kid out, like that's some messed up stuff right there, right? Like all potential dates should have to claim their intentions, you start looking at your kid’s best friends, like… Your kid comes and says, “Dad, I'm dating this person. Yeah, that's awesome. What does that look like for you? Now you guys are friends, and how does the friendship different.” Or “Oh, that's great. This isn't somebody we've met before, talk to me about your connection with them.”

Jena: Oh, I love it. This opening Jena, it's just like this beautiful, beautiful, powerful opening and an open invitation to connect and converse as opposed to the typical closing, clamping, and controlling.

Jena: “Over my dead body,” right? And then the other one I use a lot with, I use a lot with my adolescents and still my kids say, “You make great choices.” 

I know your kids make great choices, I see on social media, all the fabulous things they do. Think about how much better your conversations with your adolescent kids go around dating and all those things, if they know that you think they make good choices and you respect their choices, and they know your family values. 

People think that because I do this work, and people who know me and know my politics and everything else think I’m this uber-liberal mother. Yeah, I sat down with both of my kids when they were in high school and told them that I'd rather they weren't sexually active in high school. 

Because in my experience, people who have sex in high school often do it really bad reasons, in adulthood, they look back on it and they regret it. Right? I said, “I think most high school students probably are, and in most high school relationships probably aren't ready for sex. And no matter what, I'm always gonna love you, I'm always gonna support you, and as your mom, here's what I want for you.”

Justin: Ohhh, gosh, so this opens up so many other questions for me. Alright, so we definitely have to have you back on because I wanna dig into this because there's so much, we're like, Okay, well then what if they're like, “Thanks for the advice, mom. But this is what I wanna do.”

Jena: I did not tell you, Justin, that either of my children followed my advice. But here’s the thing... And I don't talk about my kids sexual behaviors publicly anywhere that I want my own, but over the course of... I've got a, almost 30-year-old and a 25-year-old now, over the course of their adult lives and relationships, they have done things that I have disagreed with.

They did not always follow my firm guidelines or parental rules, and every time they have gotten into trouble where they have had a question or a relationship problem, or a pregnancy scare, all the sorts of things that happen around sexuality, I have been one of the first people that they had called to. Because I'm the expert, but also because I’m their parent.

Justin: Yeah, the communication was open. It was always open.

Jena: And they knew that I would disagree sometimes. I have my own values and high expectations for my kids, but I'm never gonna shame them, and I'm never going to tell them that they're not allowed as young adults or adults to make their own choices in their lives. 

I'll respectfully tell them that I disagree sometimes with choices. But they get to... Zach when he turned 18, told us that he was now thinking of us as an advisory… Neither of my children have a hard time telling me what they actually think.

Justin: Yes, yes, but the relationship is...

Audra: Okay, you know what, I just... I have to reflect to a couple of things, I'm really, really struck by, I think what I feel like I'm hearing and getting a feel for, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I wanna check in on this, is that when you talk about your family values, I have to think respect as a core one.

Jena: Very much so. 

Audra: I feel it. 

Jena: Yes, so we are friends and you get to have your own life. My children are adults, we get to live their own life, that’s all respect. And honesty is, as someone who cares for you and loves you, I also have an obligation to give you my best feedback and my best advice, even if I don't agree. So the respect can sometimes be hand-off, I think with honesty it's sort of yes, 'cause with parenting too, or sometimes with friends. I don't go...as a relationship person, I have such a rule about not offering unsolicited relationship advice anymore... And I think the honesty part is something that gets negotiated in relationships and close friendships and family, because you do have an obligation. But especially with your kids as they’re young adults and I was [able to] help them navigate this really complicated thing.

Justin: Beautiful. Alright.

Audra: So, one more thing before the three things, please. I know, I'm so sorry, I know we're getting on a time and we are going to talk. I think we have to talk with you at least 10 more times. I don't know, Jena, it's gotta be just a continuing thing. It is, like, it is so uplifting of my heart and spirit, I've learned so much, and I just wanted to express thanks to you for going into academia, going into research, for digging in and doing this work because I do... weren’t you and your brother on the “Today Show?”

Jena: I often... Again, the way I describe my job, the close friends, versus the way I describe it more formally and appropriately. The appropriate way I would describe my early twenties is I spent a lot of time offering myself to various media venues.

Audra: Yes, you were on the world stage. And you’re definitely a voice and a beautiful, passionate, articulate voice; something that is deeply needed in the world. And I get the sense you could have continued on that path. You could have continued on the advocacy path and in very many ways you're still on the advocacy path, but to be able to decide that you're gonna dig deeper and dig in and stay really involved with the research and be a part of this evolution of knowledge and sharing is really, really powerful. And I just wanted to appreciate that because I'm getting just a huge sense of gratitude for you and your work.

Justin: Heck yeah, me too. Yeah. Alright, so the intention is set. We're gonna have you back on 10 more times. 

So the final three questions we ask everybody, if you could put a big post-it note on every parent's fridge tomorrow morning, they wake up, go to the kitchen, it’s right there... What is it gonna say? 

Jena: “There is no test.” I, so often, especially early in my parenting career, I saw parenting as a series of challenges or tests, that are either pass or fail. Childbirth was a test, and there was good ways to have birth, and there were bad ways to have birth. 

Parenting is this huge, long marathon. Maybe decades after you have finished, you are able to look back and see, but there's not a task like you show up and you do it the best you can, and you get it right 60-80% of the time, depending on the day, and you try and keep the major screw ups down to a couple...

Justin: Beautiful… And a quote that has changed the way you think or feel lately.

Jena: Oh my gosh, I have this poster over my desk at work, so when I look up—anyone walking into my office is the first thing I see. Audra will remember it. “When I dare to be powerful, use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Audra: Oh, it's an amazing quote. It's one of my favorites.

Jena: I, 'cause... Here's the thing, we talk about, like, well, you can't sit and do nothing else, and you have to do something, and we don't know the way forward, so you quit... You really could. There are days where you can absolutely just sit in bed with your head under the covers and eat chocolate and sob because there is so much freaking suck. And there isn't a single good solution, and it's overwhelming to get around. The stakes are so high sometimes. It’s so easy to be afraid and to be overwhelmed, and so that one helps me remember that I don't ever have to be brave on my own behalf. I can use that power and harness it for something else and not have to be scared for myself.

Justin: Beautiful. 

Audra: Yeah, you strike me as someone who makes your decisions out of hope, not out of fear. And not to say you don't wrestle with fear like we all do, but you don't track me as a fear-based decision-maker.

Jena: I am the, “We’re standing at the lake edge on February…” I am the “I have to jump in because otherwise I will stand and analyze it forever,” so I'm constantly leaping because this right here doesn't have a chance or good judgment rather— 

Audra: Oh interesting. So just jump so that you don't have to overthink it or the fear set in? 

Jena: Exactly that... Judgment hardly ever sets in.

Justin: That's a great strategy. Alright, this last question is about kids, because for most parents and you’re way past this, but for parents of young kids, there's an exhaustion and like oh god, kids... It's just draining. But they're also wonderful, so we wanna celebrate kids, so what is your favorite thing about kids? 

Jena: So many things, I could go on about how amazing my kids are...for hours. But I think my favorite thing about kids is how many chances they give us... You can be snappy with your kids, you can be short with your kids, you can be distracted with your kids, they still think you’re one of the coolest humans on the planet. They still keep showing up. And for years or weeks. I wrote an entire dissertation and I'm pretty sure that my kids did not see me for weeks on end. And when I got done and came up for air, they were there with me. 

Audra: Oh, it's beautiful, it's beautiful. So that is an incredible reflection. I feel like how many chances they give us, or make mistakes over and over and over again. How forgiving they are. 

Justin: Yeah, yeah. Just continue to show up. Yeah.

Jena: Yeah, and the cool thing, I can tell you as somebody who's in a very different parenting place, I have the adult kids who are thinking about their own kids… They will look back and reminisce on ridiculous things that were not important as pivotal and wonderful...or fabulous. You know the stupid bodega on the corner of Amsterdam, and my kids loved, and they loved stopping here. And the fact that I stop there on the way home from school every afternoon is one of the reasons I'm the best mom ever, when really it was just I couldn't walk 12 blocks without diet Dr Pepper. Right? So moving and so willing to give us the chance to get this right.

Audra: It speaks to love and authenticity again, that children are living and often leading with love and authenticity, and so there is that open-heartedness. And it's one thing that we'll continue to talk about because we are super interested in talking about traumas and Justin is really deep into the work of emotional processing and things like this, and I feel like this reminder of the resilience and love and authenticity and the forgiving nature of kids, like kids showing up in love is like... “You haven't—Mom, Dad, you haven't ruined it.”

Jena: Right, right.

Audra: It is one thing to argue about tonight or something.

Jena: Yeah, think about the expectation of perfection that sets in at some point in all of our lives around different things. There's something that I just absolutely have to show up and nail. Like public speaking, this stuff. And then there's stuff that I'm allowed to be shitty at, softball, right? 

And then there's imposter syndrome, and you think about kids like they don’t have that... What age does imposter syndrome set in? Like middle school, maybe later, depending on the kid and their environment...but...little kids will try shit. They'll get it wrong, they don't expect you to be good. And they don’t expect us… Yeah, kids are cool people. 

Justin: I love it. 

Audra: I'm gonna be sitting in that space for a while. I'm really, really enjoying thinking about little kids through that lens, through the, like, so authentic. There is no onset of impostor syndrome at that point, it's delayed or later.

Jena: Yeah, you could grow up to be a pig. If nobody tells you at three, that you can’t... You can plan your whole pig life at that point...

Audra: Right. What are we so afraid of? 

Justin: Hey, thanks for listening to The Family Thrive Podcast. If you like what you heard, please subscribe. Tell two friends and head on over to Apple Podcast, or anywhere you listen to podcasts, and give us a review. We're so grateful you've chosen to join us on this Family Thrive Journey.



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