From the classroom to cable TV
Social worker and faculty member Kryss Shane talks about finding balance, transgender advocacy and her role on TLC’s ‘I Am Jazz.’
Like many children of the late 1980s and early ’90s, Kryss Shane, Ph.D., grew up watching television shows such as “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Family Matters” and “especially ‘The Golden Girls.’”
“I wanted to reach through the screen and become part of those families,” said the clinical social worker and affiliate faculty member in Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Social Work. “Little did I know I’d end up on TV with a Chosen Family (a term for a support system within the LGBT+ community) and now have viewers reaching out to me saying they wish they could do the same.”
Shane, who specializes in LGBT+ advocacy, is a cast member on the seventh season of TLC’s “I Am Jazz.” The reality show follows the life of 21-year-old Jazz Jennings, who was assigned to the male gender at birth and as a child was one of the youngest people to publicly identify as transgender.
An activist and media personality, Jennings first rose to acclaim in a 2007 Barbara Walters interview. Interviews and a documentary with Oprah Winfrey followed, along with appearances in Time magazine and numerous advocacy efforts, such as NOH8 and the Human Rights Campaign.
Premiering in 2015 and nominated for Outstanding Reality Program in the 2022 GLAAD Media Awards, “I Am Jazz” documents the Jennings family’s experience in a lighthearted yet illustrative way, Shane said.
“You’re seeing (Jazz) navigate these everyday situations for a young person – dating, homework, friends – in addition to the process of gender affirmation and working with different medical specialists along the way,” she said.
Shane, who has been part of Jennings’ support network for more than 15 years, was contacted by TLC last summer as a subject-matter expert to explore the seventh season’s themes of mental health and self-care. Although filming was in the midst of Shane’s finishing a doctoral dissertation looking at marginalized identities and pedagogical modalities, she didn’t hesitate.
“It was hard but important to be mindful and find balance… That practice extends from the TV show to meeting students where they are in the most beneficial way for their educational journey,” said Shane, who also teaches online courses for Columbia University, Fordham University, National Louis University and the University of Massachusetts, in addition to MSU Denver.
Another element she noted was the augmented presentation of reality, given the distillation of each episode’s 60-80 hours of raw footage down to a 44-minute episode.
“It’s a weird world. A two-hour conversation may be condensed into less than a minute or left out altogether,” Shane said. “Also, the social-work field focuses on inclusion – the natural inclination is to want to talk to the person behind the camera, so you have to retrain your brain to not focus on that.”
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The process has had its challenges, as Shane detailed members of the show’s production facing online harassment by those choosing to harm rather than support. Yet the very nature of inclusion and advocacy to which she’s committed strengthens her resolve as a social worker, whether in the (virtual) classroom, in a clinical setting or on cable television with her longtime compatriots.
You could even say it’s her way of saying “Thank you for being a friend.”
“All of those moments with clients and colleagues create the landscape of our profession,” Shane said. “It’s so fun to watch everything play out, living those moments and memories.”
Season 7’s finale of “I Am Jazz” airs at 7 p.m. MST on TLC – check local listings.
For more information and support, connect with MSU Denver’s LGBTQ+ Student Resource Center.