Episode 119: Kenny Ethan-Jones, Dane Baptiste and Amandla Stenberg on Living Your Truth
This week we hear from Kenny Ethan Jones. Kenny is a model, entrepreneur and activist who has become one of the most outspoken voices on trans issues in the UK. Much of Kenny’s recent work has focused on issues around menstruation, as well as mental health, self-confidence and body image. Kenny explains the journey he went through as a young person, how he navigates the complexities of debating trans issues in the public sphere, and knowing when to step back from trying to educate others.
- How clothing and fashion can become routes to self-confidence
- How both personal experience and data shape his approach to activism
- How checking in with yourself and paying attention to your body is vital to being able to work effectively
- How choosing your battles and having strong boundaries is crucial in any form of activism
We also hear from comedian, writer and actor Dane Baptiste. Dane — who wrote the brilliant BBC sitcom Sunny D — tells us what he’s been reading during lockdown, and his battle to cut down on sugar after an unfortunate incident at the dentist.
Finally we hear from actor Amandla Stenberg, who you might know from films such as Colombiana, The Hunger Games, and The Hate U Give. Amandla talks about the importance of community, especially when it comes to having the confidence to stand up for yourself.
Welcome back to Wanna Be, the podcast that takes you from where you are now to where you want to be in 30 minutes or less. I’m Imriel Morgan, founder of Content is Queen, a podcast agency and club for ambitious podcasters with phenomenal taste, high expectations and a desire to sound as good as I do right now. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here. Wanna Be’s focus is to help you take consistent action to build a successful life and career in the creative and entertainment industry. Coming up are three phenomenal guests who are about to help you own your identity, find power in community, and why you should check in with your body before it’s too late. Let’s do this.
In today’s episode, I’m super pumped to bring you a soul-enriching conversation with Kenny Ethan Jones. Kenny is a model, entrepreneur and activist who focuses on menstruation, body politics, mental health and intimacy. Kenny’s goal is to start open and respectful conversations about all things trans in the hopes of attaining equality for all trans people. What a G! The focus of this interview is to help you make an impact through your work, and we talk about what it really takes to be an activist and an ally. Let’s get into it.
Imriel Morgan 1:21
Who did you want to be before you became who you are today, and why?
Kenny Ethan Jones 1:24
This is probably… it’s not a wrong answer, but it’s a weird one. Nobody.
Imriel Morgan 1:30
Kenny Ethan Jones 1:31
Just because I’ve never wholly idolised anybody. Just because I’ve always seen people as multiple-dimensional beings, and I don’t understand every aspect of their life, so how could I want to be them? I really liked Pharrell growing up, because I thought, ‘damn, that man has style’, and I loved his skin complexion and the way he stayed young. I idolised him for that, but never the way he treated his friends or any of those things. So I’ve never idolised somebody wholly, but I’ve taken aspects that I’ve liked of people and tried to incorporate them as a part of my kind of characteristics and identity.
Imriel Morgan 2:05
That’s really cool. What examples would you give of traits that maybe you got from Pharrell that you liked?
Kenny Ethan Jones 2:10
I started off as a model, and there was something about being well-dressed that linked to confidence for me. So I used Pharrell as inspiration of being like, ‘I want to dress better’, because I didn’t have a very good style growing up, I didn’t understand much about fashion. So Pharrell was helpful in that aspect. I think most of the other kind of qualities that I liked, and this came from multiple people, was confidence. And just this kind of ability to live in their truth was something I always admired. Because growing up feeling marginalised and feeling kind of like I’m fighting the world every day, I felt like I needed the confidence to be able to be myself, to not only somehow have a better transition, but just to become the truest version of myself and who I wanted to be as a person outside of my transness. So I just always knew that I was going to require a lot of confidence.
Imriel Morgan 2:57
That’s awesome. And yeah, I suppose that would be true, because that’s the key to life, the keys to success is like having the confidence and the belief system and the mindset that you can go forth and do and achieve the things that you want to achieve. And I really don’t know anyone that’s managed to reach great heights without at least some inner confidence, whether they express that outwardly or not. I’m really intrigued about this kind of idea of style, and being well-dressed being such a… it sounds like quite a significant contributor to your own personal confidence. Do you know where that comes from at all?
Kenny Ethan Jones 3:31
When I was growing up, my teenage years, a lot of my friends became models. And so I always used to uphold models for being confident. And so I also associated that with being well-dressed and presenting well. And it was obvious to me, I don’t know, this might seem very basic, but from the idea that you always used to see men in suits, and they used to walk around like they had the most confidence in the world. So it was just all this kind of knowledge that I had gone, ‘oh, wow. Well, being well-dressed will make you feel this way’. And so I just ended up putting a lot of effort at one point into being fashionable, which trickled out over the years, but I think it was just a part of my journey that was nice, and it was needed.
Imriel Morgan 4:08
Does that still feel true for you today? And what is the thing that contributes to your confidence today?
Kenny Ethan Jones 4:13
My knowledge. So just knowing whenever I come, especially when I’m arguing about transness or I’m in debates, it’s knowing my facts, knowing my shit, is what’s going to hold that confidence. Nothing artificial or anything else is going to do that. Yeah, they add to my confidence but it’s not what’s going to make me feel powerful in that conversation. Or, you know, on that challenge.
Imriel Morgan 4:34
That makes total sense. Knowledge is power, as they say. That’s really interesting. At what point did that kind of shift happen where you’re like, ‘actually, I want to feel more confident in my intelligence’. What was the process?
Kenny Ethan Jones 4:48
I think the best example is when basically I stepped into activism. And so when I first became an activist, a lot of what I was relying on was personal experience. So I was using that as a way to educate people, which was good, and it serves a purpose, and I think that to some extent, that humanises the situation, and people respond a lot better to personal experiences. But when I was getting in more political debates with people that were more right wing, data and facts were what spoke. And so as much as my personal experience was good and had got me so far in my activism, I felt like in order to take myself to that next level, I had to attach data in order to basically make myself come across as more professional, or to be listened to more.
And so it came to a point where I was being offered to go into TV and things of that form, and I was like, ‘I don’t know how to answer these questions outside of my personal experience’. And I just felt like they didn’t respect me as much. And so I invested a lot into actually learning the figures, the statistics around trans people, to basically help argue my case, essentially. And just to be more factual. I just think it’s a lot more powerful when you attach personal experience to data. And so yeah, I spent a lot of time kind of purposely investing into reading stories of trans people, looking at books that described the transphobia that we face. But yeah, it was definitely like, ‘I need to learn this, and I need to learn this now’. But obviously you can only read so many books in a day! So it still took a while to kind of gain the knowledge which I have today. But it’s always a process when it comes to knowledge.
Imriel Morgan 6:24
I completely agree. I am curious about this process though, because you said it was very much a case of it started when you felt like you had to step into activism, which is such a big decision to make. It’s really putting yourself on the front lines of arguably quite dangerous and sometimes unpleasant situations. I’m just curious about the mental health aspect, because if you’re consuming stats, facts, data, stories, personal experiences, arguably the reason that we need activists to advocate is because life is not very good. You know, these are not good situations, these are dangerous and harmful and oftentimes fatal for trans people in particular. How were you dealing with the consumption and your mental health? What was that process like?
Kenny Ethan Jones 7:07
That’s such a good question. And the honest answer is that I wasn’t. I wasn’t thinking about my mental health. I was thinking about being the best I could be. That was my primary focus and I came second to that, which looking back was not the right decision, but it was what I committed to. And for the most part, I destroyed my mental health. It got to a point which I found it very hard to find joy in my life, because I was so consumed by the negatives. But I think over time, I kind of found this balance with accepting that this is the world that we live in, and this is the kind of discrimination that trans people face. But also, I’m doing my best to make that not happen. But also I need to give myself a break within it and I can’t continue to live this way.
It was the same kind of process when I started to learn about racism as well. Being mixed race and where I sit in that conversation, and my privilege that I hold as someone who is Black, all of those things and trying to make sure that I’m doing the right thing for myself, as well as my community, it’s difficult, and I don’t think there’s any right answer in a way to take care of your mental health. But I would say what I would have done looking back would just be at some point in the day to decide to check in with myself. Just to be like, ‘how are you actually feeling?’. Pay attention to your body. I always felt stressed, I was always clenching my jaw. Just those things – I just felt heavy as a person. I wish looking back that I kind of took a minute to breathe, and just to kind of say to myself, ‘I’m doing the best that I can’, rather than trying to become the person that solves transphobia.
I don’t know why I set myself up for such a hard challenge. But yeah, I think it’s important to give yourself a break. And there’s other people within your community that are in this fight and knowing that sometimes when you take a step back, they take a step forward. And the best way in which I do that is like now, whenever it comes to picking my battles on the internet, basically, I pick it when I know I have the strongest argument.
So for instance, when JK Rowling came with all her transphobia, I was like, ‘I am the one! I am the person for this!’. I talk about gender equality all the time, it was in the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, I’m a person of colour. I felt like the perfect person to argue this case. And there’s other arguments that I see that I go, ‘you know what? Actually I know someone else who’s more educated to that, that’s going to come with a much stronger argument than I can’. And I know that they feel the same way. So I’m going to just leave it for a second. And so I think the most important thing is knowing when to pick your battles and knowing when to rest, and breathe.
Imriel Morgan 9:35
I love that! That’s such a great answer. What I really appreciated about your answer as well, was the fact that you spoke about the feelings you were feeling, like the clenching of your jaw, I feel that, like tenseness in your body, because it does. It’s not only like mental but that mental trickles down into the physical and that checking in with yourself is so important but it’s the easiest and quickest thing to go out the window. Like everyone forgets to do that. I really appreciate your honesty around the fact that it just wasn’t a priority in the beginning. And I’m glad that you have been able to find the balance.
We’ll get back to Kenny in just a minute. I want to share someone who has popped up on my radar for a little while now, comedian Dane Baptist, who has kept a lot of people laughing throughout these crazy times. He’s got something he’d like to share with you. Take it away Dane.
Dane Baptiste 10:24
Hi, I’m Dane Baptiste. I am a comedian, writer, occasional actor and podcaster from southeast London. I have been a comedian for about 10 years and some change, and through that time, I’ve been happy and lucky enough to do all of my favourites. So you might know me from Mock The Week or Live at the Apollo, or from my sitcom, which I wrote and starred in, which is called Sunny D on the BBC iPlayer, which was the first Black British sitcom to be shown on British TV in 20 years. And with that, I am also the first Black Briton to ever be nominated for an award in Edinburgh’s entire history.
So you know, I’ve done okay, and I’m always trying to do better, especially in a lockdown. So what have I been doing? I’ve been trying to improve, or to cut down, on processed sugar, because I’ve had to leave lockdown early to go to the dentist, and while it’s good to get out the house, having someone’s face and hands down my throat, while I can’t scream as they drill my face is not fun. I’ve been trying to do a lot more exercise as well, because it’s very easy to get carried away when you get all these offers from Deliveroo on your phone. So I’m trying to calm down on takeaways, cook for myself because it’s healthier, and the food is made with luurve.
In order to pass the time, I’ve been reading a lot of books. I have recently purchased a book called Guns, Germs and Steel, which is so far, so good. I’ve also procured a book which is called Behold The Pale Horse, because conspiracy theories have been going through the roof socially and globally on this planet and I want to find out why. So I like to research the world that I live in. And I’m also re-reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X because it’s a great book, and it began my start into comedy. So 10 years later, I’ve done a little retrospective. So these are things I’ve been doing.
Imriel Morgan 11:58
If you’re feeling the vibes, or even thinking ‘Dane is my kind of guy’, then be sure to follow him on twitter @DaneBaptweets, and Instagram @danesnaptiste. Now back to Kenny.
I would really like to get down into you today, because you’ve now done some really, really phenomenal projects and collaborations, your activism is really right up there, especially the stuff around menstruation. Talk to me about why that became one of the bigger talking points for you in particular.
Kenny Ethan Jones 12:29
Well, this is the part in which I say that I fell into it. It wasn’t my intention. I didn’t come to the space going, ‘right, I’m going to advocate for gender equality within the period space’. Like it wasn’t a thing. At the time I was a model. I kind of knew what activism was but I wouldn’t classify myself as an activist. I was always having conversations with trans men around just uplifting their confidence and making them believe in themselves, but it wasn’t on a public platform. And this is when MySpace existed. And so this was through DMs and stuff, so a long time ago now.
And then yeah, I got offered this job to be a part of a period campaign by my modelling agency, and I was like, ‘I think they got the wrong end of the stick here! Why have they messaged me to part of a period campaign? Something’s wrong’. And then they were like, ‘no Kenny, they basically want to represent all genders who bleed as part of this campaign and kind of just advocate for a better message and more inclusive message’. And so I was like, ‘okay, I need to go to on the phone today. I need to understand this’, because at that time, there weren’t conversations around trans men having periods. It just did not exist. And so, I went on the phone to them, and felt reassured that they had their hearts in the right place with the campaign and what they were trying to achieve.
And I had a decision to make, because at that point, a part of me — this is the mental process I was going through — I didn’t want to participate on the campaign, because biology has been used against trans people for years. And so I was very aware that if I step into the space of aligning our bodies with what classifies generally as the female body, I would be doing a disservice for trans people. So I was also highly aware of that. And so I didn’t know if I wanted to do it. But growing up, periods were probably one of the most traumatic experiences for me. It was where I suffered the most dysphoria. It was just such a hard part of my life growing up as a trans person. And so, why I did it was like, I don’t want any other person to go through that experience and feel isolated, and feel fractured in their identity, because you’re having a bodily experience that is only associated with women. I just didn’t want that for somebody else.
And so I decided to do it. And so I did it. I thought nothing would come of it. I just thought I’m gonna get a load of hate messages and that’ll be the end of it, but I feel like I’ve done my job. And then, it wasn’t that. It was a global campaign – it had over 200 features, 19 national stories, shortlisted for two PR awards, it just went like wildfire. And I found myself from being this little fish on Instagram that just basically posted selfies and sometimes spoke about transness to being seen like – ‘oh, wow, welcome to the period space. We’re so grateful you’re here’. And I was just like, ‘wow. Like this is really something’. That’s where my career as an activist started. I never knew what kind of response was going to come from that campaign. And I just think I was the right person at the right time. And I put myself out there. And that’s why I got that job and that’s why I am where I am today really.
Imriel Morgan 15:26
That’s so cool. Well done, congratulations on that. And truly just well done. Because that’s like the story of everyone that has these experiences that kind of feel normal to you, but you won’t know that until you open up and actually like, ‘this is an experience I have. Who can relate?’. I’m a cis-gendered Black woman, I never thought about it. It’s just never crossed my mind. And why would it? That’s not my personal experience, I don’t have trans friends in my immediate circle. It’s just mostly on my digital and online social circle that I kind of have actively sought out those voices, right? So for people who don’t know, the fact that it could go wider and beyond your own network, is just so impactful and so important. And in terms of the community that you’ve managed to build up, what’s the response been like in terms of people that may misunderstand what it could mean to be a trans man, what it means to use the term ‘people who menstruate’, and it’s coming from a genuine place of ignorance as opposed to a malicious place of trolling? How are you navigating those kinds of conversations? Because I think that’s really where the majority lies – they’re a silent majority, rather than the loud.
Kenny Ethan Jones 16:37
I’ve got to a point where I can kind of read a comment or a DM and know what the intentions of that person is. But that comes with time. So when I first was trying to feel out those conversations, I was spending a lot of time investing into people that were just against trans people, often leaving me feeling quite heartbroken, because they were coming to the conversation acting like they had the best of intentions, and then would take me down this road of basically just transphobic abuse. And so through those kinds of experiences, I learned that actually, there’s a different way that those two people come into a conversation. One comes in with kind of this acknowledgment that they don’t know nothing about trans people, or their knowledge is minimal, and that they’re just, they’re open to experience, but that they know that they’re ignorant, and so they’re willing to learn, and they’re not going to argue back with me about things that I’m saying. They just take it for fact, which is how it should be treated.
And then there’s the type of people that come to me with an argument, and then say that I’m sensitive, or tone policing, or they come with whatever they can come with. And so I focus on the first type of person. There’s lots of people that come into my DMs and on my comments underneath posts, basically saying, ‘I don’t really understand this. I want to, I don’t want to be rude, and I don’t want to offend, but I don’t really understand this’. And so sometimes it just takes that extra line of explanation, to kind of make them understand, rather than leaving that person, and them feeling like they can’t come to the space to be educated, and they leave. And they’re just like, ‘whatever, I don’t want to learn’. It’s a lot of responsibility on my behalf or activists because it’s like this consistent unpaid labour, of responding to people in order to gain your allyship. But I see that as a part of my job and so what I try to do now is, I take experiences that I have in my DMs that are like that, and I take it to my stories or my feed and I break down the conversation. So I use everything, all of my experiences as teaching moments for others.
Imriel Morgan 18:32
I think that’s really useful. Even in conversations about race, some people really just don’t want to learn and that’s not what they’re coming to you for. They’re just coming to debate your lived experience, and to debate your humanity. And who’s got time for that? I can’t argue with you if you can’t even get to the basic of human. I am a person. And I get that you don’t understand all of the layers and complexities of my identity. That’s fine. That happens. But what we’re not going to do is start off by debating whether those experiences are valid or not. You just can’t. You can’t start an argument in that place.
Kenny Ethan Jones 19:05
I’ve invested in setting boundaries for those conversations, and how much I’m willing to engage, even in educating people. Because at the end of the day, if I spend all of my energy invested into these small conversations, which I do think is important, but if I do that all the time, I don’t have enough energy to fight the big fights. I have a rule that sometimes if I get into a conversation with someone in DMs, I’ll only message them three times. And that conversation needs to be enough for me to feel like I’ve done the right thing, I’ve left them with enough education, but I can step back and reserve my energy.
Imriel Morgan 19:34
Yeah, that makes total sense. I’m a big advocate of people creating little reading lists and being like, ‘here’s where you need to go’. I am not your teacher. I appreciate that you came to me and you felt I was approachable enough to answer this for you and I definitely am, I’m willing to, but here’s some further reading, good luck and godspeed and come back with questions!
You said earlier in the conversation that there is a sense of responsibility sometimes around the work that you do and where you’ve positioned yourself that people are going to come to you for these things, and it feels important and necessary, because one mind can change a vote and a vote can change another vote and that’s having physical impact on life. So yeah, I can understand why that feels like a weight on your shoulders, but it is important to have those boundaries. Thank you so much.
Kenny was life. I loved, loved, loved talking to him! Be sure to follow Kenny on Instagram @kennyethanjones. I’ve been a fan for a hot minute and he never disappoints with his content and his generosity to educate others. So please go and follow this man!
Before we wrap up, actress Amandla Stenberg has something she’d like to share with you about the power of community. Take it away Amandla.
Amandla Stenberg 20:46
When I was in high school, I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up against microaggressions within my own community at school. That made me feel uncomfortable, because I don’t think I was ready to, but I also didn’t have the community around me to make me feel comfortable and supported in doing that. Now I do, you know. It took me some time to unlearn some internalised notions around myself, or how much space I’m allowed to take up or being too much or being too little. I had to talk it out with people that I love, and have those conversations and kind of process it and get out of my head and realise the way in which I had grown up and the life existence, you know, that I have as a Black woman has affected my feelings around what I deserve to be able to say or do. And I guess the advice that I would give is to seek out the help that you need. I feel like that is so important to getting rid of internalised notions and, and processing specific events within our communities, relying upon community and community building.
Imriel Morgan 22:08
That’s a wrap. Thank you so much for listening. I hope this half an hour has brought you inspiration, motivation, and more importantly, joy. I’d like to encourage you to think about one person who needs a little joy in their day and share this episode with them right now. If you’d like the extended interview with Kenny, all you have to do is screenshot and share this episode to your Instagram stories and tag @contentisqueenhq. Until next time, bye.