Jackson Bird is a trans activist, YouTube star and waffle artisan. A fixture in the Harry Potter fan community, he’s a proud Gryffindor. In his memoir Sorted (Tiller Press), he tells the story of how he came to understand and accept his gender, and the journey that took him from Texas to NYU, from AFAB (assigned female at birth) to growing into the man he always was. Along the way he encountered love, friendship, some really awesome music and some really messy waffles. I had the pleasure of speaking with Jackson about his life and book.
From the inherently performative nature of gender to your YouTube career, you’re no stranger to performing. How was writing a book different, and would you consider the writing process to be an act of performance as well?
I would say writing is definitely an act of performance. I found it a lot more nerve-wracking just because, whether or not this book succeeds, there’s this feeling that a lot more people are going to be reading it than might be watching my YouTube videos. Even though probably if you run the numbers, more people will have watched my YouTube videos, it’s like this certain subset of strangers and young people, and somehow that’s not as intimidating to me as sharing to a broader audience of people that includes family and friends. So there were definitely a lot of fears of just, like, putting all these raw things into a memoir.
I think the performative nature of writing was kind of more relaxing—I had so much longer to do it than I do with the lead time of making a YouTube video. With YouTube it’s a very quick turnaround and you’re always churning things out. So to get to sit down and take some more time with what I wanted to say and think about, like really think about everything I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it and to not have any time restrictions or anything like that was actually a really refreshing feeling, and I like that this book will be there for me to sort of turn to if someone misunderstands something I’m saying or where I’m coming from, or they want to just sort of know more about my opinion about something. Like, I have a tangible thing that I can point them to now that is fairly comprehensive… even if a couple years from now I feel it’s a little bit out of date.
And, you know, I guess there’s definitely still a performative nature to it. For me, a lot of that often comes down to personal boundaries, so I was still very much aware of that as I was writing, even though I was trying to be as honest and authentic as possible, knowing that other people were going to read it. And so, thinking of the whole performative nature of writing like when I do journal entries in the morning when I’m just trying to get my thoughts out of my head so I can work the rest of the day, like some of those thoughts aren’t full sentences. That’s a little less performative, and I think that’s where the performative element comes in, in something like writing a book or anything where you know someone else’s eyes are going to be on it, there’s some level of performance, even if that performance is: I’m using grammar correctly; I’m trying to be slightly interesting. That’s some level of performance.
At what point during your YouTube career did you feel like you’d finally found your voice on the platform? Or did you know all along what your focus would be?
(Laughing) Oh, not at all. I started making videos in the early days of YouTube when nobody had a direction. Some people did, but for the most part it was just people turning on their camera and talking about whatever or just making whatever kind of funny videos they wanted to make. The idea that now people have channels with very specific goals and topics and themes and, like, trans people which is kind of mind-blowing to me and it’s something I’ve had to realize as I hang out with people who are creators who’ve become creators in the last two years; like wow, you look at this in such a different way than I did when I started. And I think a lot of that too is just being young, and it just being a stupid thing that I did a lot when I was in college. So in terms of direction and content, that was something that evolved very much over time, both as I grew up and as the platform evolved into being something where you did have a direction and a goal with your channel.
But I think in terms of just finding my voice, of just who that performative person is on camera… that took a little while. That’s something I talk about with a lot of people when I do online video consulting, if they’re wanting to start making a video series, doing vlogging, whatever, it’s going to take you a while to get comfortable on camera. I think finding that kind of personality and becoming comfortable with who you are is sort of the first step to finding your voice in terms of online videos. Starting to actually be aware of and critically think about how you are presenting yourself and how you might want to goal-change into that, and what’s working for you and what your goals are.
Switching gears for a second: you mention towards the end of the book, when you’re going home for your high school reunion, your surprise at seeing that your small hometown in Texas had grown significantly more progressive in recent years. Do you think that a blue wave is possible in Texas within the next few election cycles?
Well, on the one hand, I’ve been saying a blue wave in Texas is coming since 2008 when I think it was the overall state but certainly many districts in Texas for Obama’s presidential election were like 48, 52, and I was like “Oh my gosh, it’s happening. The blue wave is coming!” But we’ve kind of fluctuated since then, so I’m not as confident, but I think when you break it down by county you can kind of see, like, the entire border, and every urban/city place at this point in Texas is all blue. I would maybe be a little bit more confident in a blue wave if Beto O’Rourke were actually running in the Senate instead of for president right now. I love him, but I’m a little salty about that.
I think Texas has grown much more diverse and even, you know, like cis straight white folks whose families have lived there for generations, in the upcoming generations are becoming more progressive at least on some issues, but I think the problem is there are some issues where generationally you see more progress while at the same time you don’t on others. Like I think there are a lot of young conservatives who are pretty cool with LGBTQ equality pretty much across the board, and are maybe even cool with climate change policies, but still maybe have some varied economic or racial or immigration type opinions that I wouldn’t classify in any way as progressive—so I don’t know. It’s a tough call.
There were a lot of scenes in the book such as when you went with a group of transmasculine friends to a club and just danced all night that felt very cinematic, very coming-of-age movie. Do you think there’ll ever be a film adaptation of Sorted?
I mean, that would be pretty wild if there were. I mean sure, I guess I’d love to see that, and hopefully that’d be cool. I think it’s very much like the idea of writing a memoir, where for many years I sort of considered it. But I went back and forth for years because I was like, do I want this much of my personal life out there in the world? And I think if anyone were ever interested I might have to tackle a lot of those same feelings again of do I want this much of my life being put on such a large, public platform. But I think we need way more trans representation in media, definitely in Hollywood, and there’re a lot of really, really fantastic trans people working right now, both in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood, so if any of those screenwriters or producers were interested at all, I think it would be pretty cool to put it in their hands. I would feel safe doing that.
You include in the book a reading list of trans literature, but in terms of films, TV and just general media, do you have any recommendations?
Yeah! I can list some documentaries because I’m a boring person (laughs), but I don’t watch the fun stuff as much. I can’t say—I haven’t finished it all, but Pose is just incredible right now, and I’m looking forward to The L Word reboot coming up. I never watched the original, and I haven’t heard great things about—I think it was revolutionary at the time, but everyone’s sort of, you know, looking back—but there’s a writer I look up to a lot, his name is Thomas Page McBee, and he’s working on L Word. He’s a trans man, so I’m feeling a little confident that hopefully that’ll be really good with a lot of trans people working on it and actually active in it. So I’m very excited about The L Word and I’ve been meaning to check out Tales of the City on Netflix. I don’t watch enough fiction; I’m trying to think of any movies… well, another TV show that has some cool nonbinary representation is Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Have you watched that Sabrina reboot on Netflix?
You know, I have a really pedantic reason that I skipped it. I was mad that Salem doesn’t talk.
You know what, I almost stopped when that happened. I was pretty upset.
But there’s trans representation in Chilling Adventures?
Yeah, one of Sabrina’s friends is, the character is sorta like, figuring themselves out, so we don’t really know how they identify yet. Season 2 will get a lot more into it. But the character’s played by a nonbinary actor, Lachlan Watson, and I had like no idea going into it—I was just excited for a spooky Sabrina reboot. So it’s pretty cool. I think what I just love is that obviously we have so much further to grow, both in quality and quantity, but it’s fun that you can watch a show now and a trans character played by a trans actor can just pop up when you aren’t even expecting it. That’s pretty cool. I think a cool thing that’s kind of been happening on a couple of small projects this year is we’re getting more trans characters—or cis characters, played by trans actors—but it’s not a plot point at all. And that’s what we really need to get to.
You’re a pretty big Harry Potter fan, would that be accurate to say?
(Laughing) I was at a Harry and the Potters show last night, so… I guess so.
The Harry Potter community is very inclusive, perhaps more so than any other fandom. What would you say that community and the series itself represents to you?
Well, you know, for the past close to ten years that I’ve been an active player in the Harry Potter fan community, I’ve always known that it was important to me, just because I spent so much of my life in it. And I think a lot of it was that I discovered it right around the time that I was figuring out my gender. And because it was so much of like, an online thing, even though I was very fortunate, I got to go to a lot of in-person events early on and make a lot of friends IRL, so to speak, having those online friendships I think was really helpful for me when I was feeling very uncomfortable in my own body and with my identity and my physical appearance. But then at the same time, just to be surrounded by so many people who didn’t care about any of that… it’s just such a loving and inclusive community, like you said.
Being inspired by the values of the books, of just loving people no matter who they are and accepting people who are different from you. And not just accepting, but learning to understand them and defending them and protecting them. Standing up for them; standing up for each other. All of those values are so important and I think resonate with anyone who feels like they need another home or are working through things or maybe had some other type of challenge in life. It hits me that I’ve known these people longer than I was in high school. And high school felt so long, so it’s weird to see—I’ve seen people grow up; I’ve seen people get married; I’ve seen them have babies. It’s just wild how big a part of my life it’s been now… it’s something so far beyond a series or even a fandom, it’s an inextricable part of my life and I have those lifelong friends now.
If you were in the world of Harry Potter, and you were to cast a Patronus—this is a two-parter—first, what would your Patronus be, and what would be the happy memory you use to conjure it?
This feels like a question I should have an answer to… it’s something people talk about all the time, and I just never really had an answer. I think my Patronus might be maybe like some kind of dog or wolf or something. I’m not a huge animal person, so I don’t have a super favorite animal that resonates with me, but I like dogs a lot, so maybe something like that.
As far as happiest memory… I can’t think of one specific one, but I know there have been so many instances at LeakyCon or at wizard rock shows just surrounded by everyone in the fandom and we’re all just screaming out loud to, like, really emotional wizard rock songs and just that sort of feeling of being around so many people at shows, always having such a good time. One of those moments would definitely be my happy memory to cast a Patronus spell.
As readers may or may not know, you have a recurring YouTube series called “Will It Waffle?” where you put various foods into your trusty waffle iron. What was the most difficult food that you waffled?
Most difficult… people ask me always what’s your favorite, what tasted the best, but most difficult… to waffle. I get asked about what’s the most difficult to clean up, which is usually marshmallows or something. I’m trying to think—probably dragonfruit. Dragonfruit was pretty difficult because we just found this dragonfruit when we were at VidCon, and we were like “Let’s do a video. Let’s waffle this.” But neither of us had ever even held a dragonfruit before, so we didn’t know how we were supposed to cut it up or prepare it or anything. We had to watch a YouTube tutorial to figure it out. And then we were in a hotel so we didn’t have like a big chopping knife. I think we had to ask the hotel for, like, a butter knife and we tried to cut it in half because it was too big to put on a waffle iron as a whole. That was ridiculous. Probably second to that, shockingly, was a Kid Cuisine meal, like those frozen kid TV dinners. The only reason that was tough was because again I was in a hotel room and we had not thought about getting silverware or anything—and we were in a motel, so we couldn’t like, call room service and get a fork and knife, so we were literally like, holding up cardboard to try and cut up the Kid Cuisine. It was ridiculous.
Just one more question: if you could give one piece of advice to trans and nonbinary kids, what would it be?
I know all the cliché things to say. But I have one thought which is, there are so many resources out there online now. Just keep searching until you can find whatever resonates with you, because I can’t tell you how many times I hear people saying “Oh I didn’t know you could be this,” or “I didn’t know you could do this and still be trans,” and I think there’s a lot of internalized shame going out there because people just don’t have the resources to know that they can be who they are. So I guess the first part is, keep on searching because there’s stuff out there and you will find someone like you and see that you’re not alone and everything you’re feeling is valid. But also short of that, just remember that, like, everything you’re feeling is valid, even if you can’t find some other representation that shows you that. And you know, you matter and it’ll get a little easier as you go on.
Sorted is now available for purchase.
About Jackson Bird
Jackson Bird is a writer, internet creator, and LGBTQ+ advocate dedicated to demystifying the transgender experience by sharing his and others’ stories online. You can hear some of those stories on his podcast, Transmission, as well as on his YouTube channel, jackisnotabird. A TED Resident and Speaker, Jackson’s TED Talk “How to talk (and listen) to transgender people” has been viewed over a million times. Jackson was also a 2018 GLAAD Rising Star Digital Innovator, a YouTube NextUp Creator, and a LogoTV Social Trailblazer nominee. A proud member of FRESH Speakers, Jackson has shared his story and hosted workshops at conferences spanning from TED Women to San Diego Comic-Con as well as at private events at Oxfam, YouTube, MIT, and more. He is also known for his past work with the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), a nonprofit that activates online fan communities towards social action. Jackson lives in New York City and is a proud Gryffindor. You can follow him online @jackisnotabird.