Hey, I’m Sander Jennings

Middle children have it best, or worst, depending on who you ask. While older and younger siblings may receive the lion’s share of parental attention, according to psychologists, middle kids make great leaders, are considered more empathetic, think outside the box, conform less to society, and develop their individuality and independence early. The latter is perhaps harder to achieve if you are also one-half of a shared identity. Just ask Sander Jennings. The TV personality, social media influencer and middle child of Greg and Jeannette Jennings is the younger brother to sister Ari, older brother to his famous sister Jazz and identical twin brother to Griffen. You may know them collectively from TLC’s award-winning reality TV show, I am Jazz, that chronicles Jazz’s life as perhaps the youngest publicly documented person to identify as transgender. 

Already in its 6th season, I am Jazz was groundbreaking for familiarizing the TV-viewing population to what it means to be transgender and how that reality affects the whole family. In a Time magazine story, writer James Poniewozik described the show this way, “I Am Jazz is an engaging story of a teen girl who has transitioned. But it is also the story of everyone else, transitioning.” While transgender people center the story of their journey toward affirming their gender, as they should, at times, lost is the story of how the family confronts and evolves with that change, even when there is familial support. Some 57 percent of transgender people face some level of family rejection upon coming out. Transgender youth are three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than cisgender youth. Transgender people are two times more likely to have suicidal ideation or attempts than cisgender lesbians and gays. That’s why having the love and approval of a family—even a chosen one—is critical. Fortunately, the Jennings family has been supportive of Jazz, who began identifying as a girl before she was 5 years old—none perhaps more vociferously and vocally as Sander.

“Putting yourself in the public eye is always scary,” said Sander. “We hope to show others that we are just an ordinary family, that supporting an LGBTQ+ family member doesn’t have to change the family dynamic or be a struggle, that our story has the ability to save so many lives. With unconditional love and acceptance, a family can overcome anything.” 

Sander is gregarious and exuberant, similar in spirit to a hypothetical love-child between Matthew McConaughey and Tony the Tiger, although better looking. Sander is also straight and a rabid defender of the LGBTQ community. When allyship for many is defined as ‘being a friend of someone LGBTQ,’ ‘going to annual Pride parades,’ or ‘making a donation to the LGBTQ community,’ Sander’s version consists of active advocacy. In fact, on his website, he states as his personal mission to “fight for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community because I believe all people deserve equal protection in society.” He has participated in social media campaigns like ‘We Are Here’ to bring awareness to the lack of federal employment protection for LGBTQ people or lending his celebrity to protest an anti-trans bill in his home state of Florida. Often wearing the Pride flag as a cape on his Instagram posts, he could be both an LGBTQ hype man and its superhero, if the queer community ever needed one.

Similar and, yet, different to Jazz, his identity was formulated by critical changes in fetal development in the womb. Besides being a twin, both he and Griffen were diagnosed with twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. This meant that they shared a common placenta and blood vessels with one twin starving the other of oxygen. The majority of twin-to-twin-transfusion-syndrome babies are born prematurely, as they were at 35 weeks. If left untreated, survival rates are a dismal 10 percent or less on average. Doctors gave the Jennings an 80 percent chance that they would lose one or both babies. The Jennings gave Sander and Griffen a fighting chance with a procedure in utero to sever the vascular connection between them, allowing them a healthy birth. 

In spite of this early separation in the womb, they, like nearly all identical twins, shared a common identity, existing almost as one entity throughout their childhood until each one could branch out and forge their own. It may be no mistake why Sander could particularly identify with LGBTQ folks not in the struggle for self and social acceptance or dealing with LGBTQ stigma but in the act of growing up different than most of the general population and being hyper aware of that uniqueness.

Although Sander would only make the connection later in life when he would become a volunteer at Miracle Network Dance Marathon, a non-profit organization that helps “miracle children” fighting pediatric illnesses or injuries, his fetal challenges, which he learned about throughout his childhood, would define his approach towards life. ‘Live life to the fullest’ is a mantra he often refers to that inspires his extemporaneous and zestful attitude and constant smile. 

This middle child has lived up to the stereotype, marching by the beat of his own drum, earning his bachelor’s degree in business and pre-law in three years, and is set to complete his two-year master’s program in digital strategy in one and a half. He wants to use his status as an influencer along with this marketing focus to change minds and hearts. He has an Instagram following of nearly 200,000 and a commitment, in his own words, “to spreading unconditional love, positivity, and motivation to all.”

We sat down with him to discuss his feel-good energy, his thoughts on allyship and his plans for the future.

There’s a theory that middle kids don’t get as much attention from their parents—not being the oldest nor the youngest—and having to question who they are. What was it like for you being a middle child?

Being the middle kid of my family never really felt like being the middle kid. My parents have always been really good at spreading love and support. If anything, I would say being a twin was always the harder part with outsiders and friends being like, “Oh, Sander and Griffen are a packaged deal.” I am very thankful to have an amazing family who was always supporting me. Each sibling supports each other, each parent supports us all. So, I’ve never really had a problem with being a middle child. 

These are traits commonly associated with middle children: they are often described as somewhat rebellious, that they thrive on friendships and have a large social circle, are go-with-the flow-types, all from having had to learn how to negotiate and compromise with younger siblings. How much of that do you identify with?

I’d say that I’m a super go-with-the-flow guy. So maybe that does fit in well with me as a middle child. I love to socialize. I love to make friends. I love to network, and I love to just live my life to the fullest. Everything I do is kind of on-the-flow. I don’t like planning things out. I just like to let life take me on its flow, wave, whatever you want to call it. 

You make it an effort to give back, such as your work with the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Why has it been important to you?

Before me and my twin brother Griffen were born, my parents were told that there was an 80% chance that they would lose at least one of the babies and even if we were both born alive that we likely have some sort of medical complication. Now, I’m healthy and happy and I had my twin brother to live life with. For the longest time, I didn’t really think about being a “miracle child” and how thankful I am to live. Just glad I’m here and I’m alive. But as I got older, and I interacted with some “miracle children,” I realized that I could have been one of them and so I got involved with an organization called “Dance Marathon” at my school during my sophomore year and it was kind of like last minute. I’ve always felt some sort of connection to this. I don’t know what it is. Once I got involved, I immediately clicked with the organization. I felt like this was what I’ve been looking for in college because I’ve always known that I’ve wanted to get involved in something bigger than myself and Dance Marathon was that. 

Then for the next two years, my junior and senior years, I got super involved with the organization. Every single Tuesday, I still FaceTime my friend Kinsey, who was a miracle child, even though I’m not really a part of the organization anymore because I graduated. I just feel like I could have been one of those miracle children. Over a three-year period, I helped raise over $20,000 and I raise tons of awareness through my large social platform. I feel like it’s super important to give back to the community in any way that you can, especially if you have a direct kind of relationship to the cause like I did the Dance Marathon. 

You are one of a set of twins, so you more than most would be more conscious about ideas of identity and individuality. Do you see this as one motivation for why you are such a strong proponent of people having the simple right to being and creating their own identity?

I don’t really think being a twin has really played that much of a factor into my advocacy and my allyship towards supporting love for all. I think in general, I just believe love is a human right and because of the way I was growing up and the things that I’ve seen, I’ve realized more than ever that everyone needs to follow that philosophy of love being a human right and that everyone deserves to be treated equally in society. So, I wouldn’t say being a twin and not having that kind of individualism when I was younger really played a part in that. I think as I matured and grew up, I was more open-minded to all these ideas when I really realized how important it was that I use my voice and begin spreading these ideas because they’re passions of mine. I’m passionate about creating change. I’m passionate about ensuring everyone has equal rights in society. 

You have said, “I have made it my mission to fight for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community because I believe all people deserve equal protection in society.” Of course, many people know about your sister Jazz, tell us why this is such an important cause for you?

Being supportive of the LGBTQ+ community began being an important cause because I wanted to be supportive of my sister. I felt as though that’s my sister, I need to support her. But growing up and starting to really see the realities of the hatred and the laws being put in place against the LGBTQ+ community made me realize how important my story was as well. A story of a sibling of an LGBTQ+ person; a sibling who is not afraid to talk about LGBTQ+.

When my sister Jazz Jennings came out and said, “I am transgender,” obviously me being her brother I wanted to be super supportive. And so that’s what I did. And for the longest time, that’s what I thought my role was. I thought my role was to just continue being super supportive of my sister. As time went on, I recognized the importance of my story as well and that for many LGBTQ+ people, there’s a sibling of the LGBTQ+ person. And 95.5% (sic), I think, is the number of the population is cisgender. 4.5% of the population is LGBTQ+. Therefore, there’s a 95% of people that need to be kind of reached and told “Hey, we need to support the LGBTQ+ community.” I realized that my story can really resonate with a lot of people and that me being an ally can resonate with them as well. I’m already amplifying the voice of my sister and the rest of the LGBTQ+ community. Now, I could share my story to show that love is a human right and that everyone deserves equality and that by trying to reach the people who could relate most to me who aren’t LGBTQ+, I’m hoping to normalize allyship for all.

What does it mean to you to be an ally?

I personally think being an ally is constantly advocating for human rights. For example, if you’re in a group of people, even if there’s no LGBTQ+ person there and they’re talking about LGBTQ+ people and either they say something wrong about LGBTQ+ people, or they say something right, you should be participating in that conversation and saying the right things. So, I think that’s one huge thing that you need to do as an ally. And I think it’s just always providing that acceptance, love and support to your LGBTQ+ friends, family and neighbors that makes you a good ally. 

Why did you participate in the ‘We Are Here’ Twitter campaign to bring awareness about LGBTQ+ workplace protection? How engaged are folks in your generation about these important matters that may not relate to them?

I participated in a campaign called “We Are Here” with Ms. Peppermint and a bunch of other influencers. The campaign aimed to raise awareness about the LGBTQ+ unemployment cases being discussed at the Supreme Court. When Ms. Peppermint reached out to me about getting involved in this campaign, I was super excited and I helped to come up with a digital strategy behind the campaign, because that’s what I studied.  And while completing the campaign, I would ask a lot of my college friends, “Do you know what’s going on in the Supreme Court?” They’d ask, “What are you working on Sander?” and I’d tell them. Most of my friends were clueless. And when I told them, they were so shocked that the Supreme Court was actually hearing a case such as this that would take away LGBTQ+ rights in the workforce. And even I was not as informed until Ms. Peppermint reached out to me. I started educating myself. I think a lot of people in my generation and younger are not paying attention to these issues because they don’t think they affect them. And in a way they don’t, but at the same time they affect your friends, they affect your family, they affect your neighbors. So, it’s super important that everyone is informed and speaking out about these issues. 

How do you get folks who may not be affected to care?

About four 4.5% of the population is LGBTQ+, but they are the 99% of the people talking about LGBTQ+ issues. If we, other people who are cisgender, heterosexual and not a part of the LGBTQ+ community, can normalize the idea of talking about these topics, then there’s a much stronger chance that a wide variety and more people will know about the topics and that’s how we create change.

Florida has a bill called the Vulnerable Child Protection Act, which would prevent medical professionals from providing certain therapies and procedures to trans children until they are 18 years old. As someone who has personally witnessed why these therapies are needed, what are your thoughts about the bill?

So, I actually went to Tallahassee to show support against bills that would take away treatment specifically for transgender individuals. I think that these laws, statutes, bills, whatever they are, are terrible and they’re very, very scary. As the proud, big brother of my transgender sister Jazz Jennings, I saw how blockers, all these different medical treatments saved her life. And I don’t think my sister would be here today, if it weren’t for these treatments. And so, when I see these bills that are trying to take away these treatments and say that it’s unlawful and that it’s dangerous, it shocks me, and it disgusts me. They’re lifesaving and we need to fight for the rights of LGBTQ+, specifically trans individuals, to make sure that they are given the proper treatments that they want that can help them be their authentic self. 

Given many of the causes that are dear to you, how are you thinking about leveraging your academic experience? What’s next for Sander Jennings?

I graduated from the University of Florida in three years with a bachelor’s in business, a specialization in pre-law and a minor in mass communications. I always thought I was going to go to law school—and I’m not counting out the idea of going to law school in the future—but as my time went on and I realized I was so close to graduating so fast, I was like I need to get a master’s degree. I was going to get another business degree, but then I was like, this is not what I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about using social media and digital media to create change. A lot of people are like, ‘Sander, you’re an influencer.’ And, sure, in a way I’m an influencer; I need to make money somehow; I try to get influencer campaigns. What I’m really focused on is using digital strategy to create change and helping other influencers use digital strategy to do the same. So, when I decided to become a digital strategist and study that for my master’s degree, a lot of it was focused on building my brand and helping other people use their voice to create change. 

Moreover, I’m getting involved with business ventures. I’m kind of a little bit of an entrepreneur and in the future, I’m just going to continue to get involved with different initiatives that allow me to help others and help myself use digital strategy to create change because the world is digital now. Especially with Covid-19, everything’s turning digital. I saw it happening and now it’s just happening faster because of Covid. Digital media is here to stay and it’s going to reshape everything, and it has the ability to really help marginalized individuals if they’re able to properly use digital strategies to get their messages out there. And that’s what I try to do with my platform. I try to use my platform and digital strategy to reach more people and get my message out to as many people as I can.

Why is it important for you to “live life to the fullest”?

You really have to live in the moment. And a lot of people always ask me, “Sander, how are you so positive?” There’s a lot of things in my life that are difficult: having to see my sister get a lot of hate and receiving so much hate online is tough and being in the public eye is tough. Sometimes it’s hard to remain positive. But I remain positive because I always know that every day is another day to get better. And so, you should live life to your fullest. I like to say this, “My life is a roller coaster” (and I really don’t like roller coasters), but I love my life because just like any mountain there’s always peaks, there’s valleys, there’s dips. But at the end, I feel like every single day is another learning experience and there’s always that peak at the end of the day, starting with the sunrise and ending with the sunset. I think everyone should just live life to the fullest and appreciate what they have.

Know a Freshfruit of the Week, send us your nominations and reasons why they should be selected to contact [at] freshfruitinc [dot] com with “FFOW Nominee” in the subject line.

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