June 25, 2021
There are certain people who “change the game” for all who come after them, while impacting and influencing the world for the better. Trailblazers. To close out LGBTQ Pride month 2021, we introduce our first Talking Pediatrics Trailblazer episode, featuring Emmy award winning reporter Jana Shortal. Listen to how Jana came to break the unspoken dress code for on-air reporters, inspiring others, including many kids and teenagers, to lean into their authentic identities and show up exactly as they are. Jana talks about being publicly bullied for her appearance, and how she stood up for herself and so many others, by refusing to back down. She shares stories about young people who have reached out to her and gives advice for pediatric clinicians about creating welcoming environments for all kids.
This is Talking Pediatrics, a clinical podcast by Children’s Minnesota, where the complex is our every day. Each week, we bring you intriguing stories and relevant pediatric healthcare information. As we partner with you in the care of your patients, our guests, data, ideas, and practical tips will surprise, challenge, and perhaps change how you care for the most amazing people on earth, kids. Welcome to Talking Pediatrics. I’m your host, Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd. In my 15 years in pediatrics and at Children’s Minnesota, I’ve worked with and come across some pretty amazing human beings. Sometimes these folks are other clinicians, sometimes they’re community members, but the one thing they all have in common is the ability to inspire and impact change.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: This month, as part of our Talking Pediatrics Podcast, I’m launching a new series called Trailblazers, where I hope to interview some of these incredible folks and talk about how they’ve shaped pediatrics and the lives of kids and communities for the better. Today I’m thrilled to be interviewing our first trailblazer during LGBTQ pride month, Jana Shortal. Jana is an award-winning journalist and the host of Breaking the News on NBC’s KARE 11 News here in Minneapolis. She started as an on-air reporter 21 years ago and has received five regional Emmy Awards for her reporting and is a member of the National Association of LGBTQ Journalists. Jana, thank you for joining me today.
Jana Shortal: It’s a pleasure and honor. Thank you.
Dr. Goepferd: I want to start out by talking about kids. One thing I’ve noticed on your show is that you have a really cool connection with kids and seem to really enjoy bringing them into the story. I’d love to hear more about why you think hearing from kids is so important and how you incorporate them into the show.
Jana Shortal: Any way that is possible that I can get kids on the show that’s appropriate, I will, just because there is a through line to humanity through kids. It doesn’t matter what a kid says. It doesn’t seem to anyway. People will listen and they’ll be open to it. Somehow the adult ears don’t tune out to one thing, and that’s kids. They can tune out to almost anyone else, presidents, world leaders, CEOs, popular culture, athletes even, but kids breakthrough. If I’m being honest, they’re kind of the last segment of the population that is unabashedly honest.
Dr. Goepferd: I definitely feel that in my work in pediatrics. There’s nothing like being in a room with a kid who will just honestly tell you the truth to their parents’ embarrassment often.
Jana Shortal: I wonder how you manage that too, because I’m often in classrooms and the kids will say something to me, especially surrounding gender and not in any way that’s cruel, there’s no malicious intent. Their teacher will gasp or catch their breath. I want to telepathically tell the teacher, don’t do that. Make it safe for them to ask because I’m not offended in any way. We can talk about it if they want to, as far as we can go. But I find that even with kids, they cut right to the chase.
Dr. Goepferd: They do.
Jana Shortal: You know? I really like that. To be honest, I mean, completely, it’s selfish as well. It took me a long time to get the wings to fly. Now that I have them, I get a lot of creative license to do all kinds of things. Talking to kids was one thing that I was really passionate about. That’s how a young man got to be a part of my show named Obadiah that is really our most famous unpaid cast member. He’s now been on the show half of his life. He’s 12. He started when he was six. I think that once people saw those segments with kids in every way, shape, and form, including Obadiah, they couldn’t get enough. We’ve been through a pretty tumultuous five, six years, but it was still the one thing that no matter what was going on, they were open to hearing about it. It was everything from football to bullying, to race, to what does Black History Month mean? People would listen to kids talk about every topic.
Dr. Goepferd: Obadiah is one of our superstars here at Children’s Minnesota as well. It’s so fun watching him on your show. One thing that I’ve really admired about you is the way that you’ve really opened up a conversation locally, for sure, and nationally about showing up as your authentic self. I’ve really admired your advocacy by example for the LGBTQ community. I see that as a big part of what you do, but tell me a little bit about what you see as your purpose or joy, or what motivates you to do the things that you do?
Jana Shortal: I think it’s kind of a miracle that it all came down the funnel like this, because of course, every single one of us, everybody in this room, everybody in this hospital, everybody on this planet is trying to figure out who they are throughout life. As a kid, as a teen, as an adult. It’s never something that just kind of ends. You just try to be true to yourself as best you can. That was one lane of the highway. Then I was doing work, which was journalism, which I have huge passion for both hard journalism, sports journalism, quirky journalism, you name it, and just talking to people. I did it in a visual medium, which is ironic because I struggled so much with how to be myself on the outside.
I don’t know what kind of irony the world is working with on that but I was kind of the last to be let in on what this is going to mean at some point in my life. That’s what happened really five or six years ago, where the roads started to get closer together, where I just emotionally couldn’t put on a costume anymore to go do my job. I think a lot of people feel that way and it doesn’t matter your gender, your race, your age. You may be participating in something that just doesn’t feel right and you’re not quite sure yet. You just feel a little bit off. For me, it just happened by accident. I was off the air for a long time. People I worked with, while we were getting ready to do Breaking the News, was in rehearsals basically.
Because I wasn’t on the air, I was wearing what you’re looking at me wearing right now and my hair was the way you’re looking at it right now. Almost everyone that I worked with had never seen that side of me. I think I was able to be more creative or more relaxed. The night before the show started, there’s the last pep talk of what’s everybody afraid of kind of question. I, like everything made what I thought was a joke but it wasn’t a joke, which was, “Well, I’m afraid of going back into my old closet. I really don’t want to, to wear those clothes.” Somebody basically just said, “What if you didn’t?”
Dr. Goepferd: Here you are.
Jana Shortal: I didn’t. The next day I didn’t and nobody was in the parking lot to hurt me. Nobody said anything.
Dr. Goepferd: You’ve been very public about how important it was for you to be authentic in an industry in which that wasn’t the expectation. You were interviewed on The Today Show for what they called breaking the unspoken dress code for on-air reporters. I think, I’m not a reporter, I’m a doctor, but a lot of what I heard you talk about in that story really resonated for me. Because as I was coming up professionally in medical school and early in my pediatric career, I really struggled with expressing my authentic self through clothing and how I showed up in a profession in which someone assigned female at birth, there were some pretty strict expectations about what being “professional” looks like.
Jana Shortal: Sure.
Dr. Goepferd: I wonder for you, you mentioned it when you were talking just now how being able to be your authentic self opened things up for you and allowed you to be more you when the outside matches the inside. Can you just talk a little bit about what it’s been like for you since you’ve decided to just show up as Jana and not put on a costume?
Jana Shortal: Everything changed. I don’t want people to ever think listening to this that I knew all the answers then. It wasn’t like a big aha moment as Oprah used to say like, oh, this is it. This changes everything. I didn’t know it at the time. As you change as a human, it’s not something that you just flip and then you know what the next day. I started dressing a little bit more like myself. But even as I look back at tape six years ago, I’m like, it started to go that way. Something happened later that year that really brought it out. Ironically, the person that was my co-host was on vacation so I was by myself telling at that time one of the most important stories in Minnesota history. While I was doing that, I became the subject of a local gossip columnist about what I was wearing. That just stopped.
The story came out at like 5:45 PM, so about 20 minutes before I was supposed to go in the studio. I was only six months into that job. I was shaking like I am now. I was so scared. I was like, this is it. This is the end. I’ve been found out. Now that they’re talking about it, somebody is going to enforce the dress code. I did the show. I don’t really remember it. I drove home. I lived alone at the time in an apartment. I walked into my house and I started to get angry, not sad like I usually would get. Like, go in and hide. They won’t find you here, but I got mad too. I’m not proud of that. I don’t advocate anger.
That combination, I don’t know, led me to my laptop. I wrote something down on my Facebook page and I shut my laptop. I had my phone on. All of a sudden I started hearing all these pings. I was like, what is that? That’s the sound of going local viral, I guess. Then after that happened, I mean, I’d like to say my journalism was what brought everybody to me, but what brought everybody to me is that I was kind of pointed at to say, don’t do that. The world said, no, don’t you do that. I learned in that moment how important it was. People came for me and I’m going to stick up for them.
Dr. Goepferd: There was a post on your Instagram account that I read once that really resonated with me, and it’s about that showing up for people. As you’re telling me this story about the local reporter that came after you and shaking and going through that experience, many of us who are LGBTQ have had experiences, whether they were based on our relationships or our gender presentation where we felt really targeted for who we are. I think that there’s some commonality in that experience. What I find remarkable about you and your journey is that what you wrote on this Instagram post was that even though this is a painful story for you, you’ll always tell it when someone asks you.
The quote you have is, “Because it’s not about me anymore. It’s about every one of you who’s on this journey to your true self. My story is my applause of you, cheering you to keep going. Because you matter. Just exactly as you are.” That’s beautiful, Jana. Thank you for writing that. I wonder what that part of this journey has been like for you now that you are in the spotlight as this LGBTQ public figure and example to others, how’s that part of your journey been?
Jana Shortal: Incredibly humbling, enormous, beautiful. I feel like a student every day. Anytime I get frustrated with what everyone can identify with in this room, or that is listening is like the mundane parts of work and you just get mad and you’re like, I don’t want to do this anymore, somebody will wind up in my inbox or direct messages. Young, kids probably that you see or people my age or older. It always sounds like to me that line in Finding Nemo, just keep swimming, because it matters to people. Even if I’m doing the news that day about, you know, news that none of those people actually applies to them, or isn’t really interested in that part of it, the TV can be on mute for the entire time.
But they see somebody that reminds them that it’s possible, and you’re the exact same way. I hope you know that. That I can be a doctor. I can be anything. That’s important. I’ve met people that I’ll never meet and I’ve had more intimate conversations with people all over the world whose voice I’ve never heard. People just need somewhere to go. If that’s an email address, that’s okay. Most of the time, I don’t hear back after two or three exchanges. Many of the people that reach out are parents or grandparents or estranged family members from an LGBTQ kid or someone in their gender where they just don’t feel like they fit in and they want to know where they can find clothes. That’s a very common one too.
Dr. Goepferd: Your offer, and I see it often, you put your email address up for people to reach out to you if they’re struggling and don’t have anyone else to talk to, is a very generous one. I was going to ask you if people take you up on it. It’s nice to hear that people do. I wonder if when kids reach out to you, can you share with us any common themes or things that might help us as pediatric clinicians as we’re seeking to support kids? Things that kids are struggling with, the kids who reach out to you.
Jana Shortal: I think probably the kids that reach out to me find that pseudo anonymity safe. I’m not going to, even if I ask them a question, they don’t have to answer. If I hit reply, they don’t have to answer. It is this safe portal that they just write it down. I’ve been told by many therapists like write yourself a letter or something. It’s very similar to that. That actually runs the gamut of humanity because many people have reached out in their 40s, 50s, 60s. One person even in their 70s wrote this really long email. I was like, whoa. Then I responded and I never heard back, but they just wanted to be heard. Kids, I’ve noticed that some have sent me pictures, not of themselves, of things they’ve drawn. Or they ask me, “Do you like basketball? I like basketball. My mom said I could email you. This is their address. It’ll get to me if you respond.”
Then I’ll respond, they’ll never write back. Some do. The very first time I started posting that during pride. What can I do? Because I was that kid, but there was no social media. There wasn’t any internet either. What would it look like? That could be kids are digital. Maybe that’s a place they can go. I find that if I meet them like I’ve done several GSAs, and this year I’ve done them on Zoom calls. They hide their camera, but they talk to me in the chat. They’re just like, “What’s your favorite color?” I don’t know. They just want to know things like that. Maybe they want to know more, but that’s what they’re safe talking about. That’s cool.
Dr. Goepferd: It sounds like they’re looking for connection is what I hear. They’re really looking for connection. You and I have had conversations about how important representation is. Seeing you on TV, seeing me in the exam room, whatever it is, that representation really matters to kids. It sounds like often they’re just looking for a point of connection with someone who looks like them, feels like them as part of their community.
Jana Shortal: Part of the thing I’ve started to talk to people about more and more is that while I am a proud queer person, how I present doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with my sexual orientation. And so I want everyone to feel free in their presentation. They’re not synonymous for everybody. That’s been really freeing because at first, when I started dressing like myself or mentioning an unspoken dress code, I think cisgendered straight females were a little bit offended like, why are you calling us out? I’m like, I’m not. I’m just saying this is me and everything was that. There’s been defensiveness that comes up that I never even anticipated, but I empathize with completely. I’m like, oh, geez. Yeah, that would feel crummy. I guess I’ve never been in the majority so I didn’t know. It never occurred to me. My version of the rainbow, we talk about all kinds of things like that too.
Dr. Goepferd: I think that’s a really important point, that there’s no one way to be gay or be queer or present that way. I think to the point about representation, there’s so much overrepresentation of feminine cisgender women and overrepresentation of masculine cisgender men that it can feel hard when you don’t fit that mold. That is about gender presentation. It’s not about sexual orientation.
Jana Shortal: That’s a lonely heart. It’s a lonely place. It’s like, well, I’m not gay, but I don’t feel like this is my thing. That’s cool.
Dr. Goepferd: I always like to talk about it with kids and families is sexual orientation are the feelings that you have for another person as who you love. But the way that you show up in the world and who you want reflected back to you in the mirror is who you are. Those are two different things. Sometimes they get all mushed together, but they really are different. I think that’s a really important distinction. For the folks who are listening that are providing healthcare for kids and adolescents, I wonder what advice you would have for them if you can think back to what would you have wanted your pediatrician to say to you, or what would have been helpful to you as you are a young person growing up as part of the LGBTQ community?
Jana Shortal: Just to remember that you’re talking to kids, get to their level. Always ask open-ended questions and don’t start with what hurts. There was never any bedside manner that I remember. That only makes somebody that might turtle, turtle more. Any kid is going to be afraid of the doctor maybe. But if you’re also a kid with a secret, that secret just got double locked if you didn’t make me feel like I was important to you or that you really were going to listen or that you really wanted to know. Don’t rush kids. Explain it so I can understand something. I mean, I’m now in my mid-40s, and as a person who presents biologically female, I really would’ve liked to known how things work and why, and not to be told what not to do with them.
To be honest, I mean, that was just another ingredient that made me hate myself. These body parts, they have functions, they’re magical, but I just was told that, keep those hidden and keep that locked and don’t talk about it. That was really scary. I was made to be afraid of my body. I think a lot of kids are.
Dr. Goepferd: Sometimes, I’m sure you experienced this as an LGBTQ person, we’re asked to define our experiences as if they are special or unique from the rest of human beings. In some ways, they are, but in many ways they’re very universal. What you’re talking about, open-ended questions and getting to a child’s level and being really transparent with kids about bodies and how things work, that just benefits everybody. Whether you have an LGBTQ kid in your office or not, you’re going to make it a safer place for all kids.
Jana Shortal: Yeah. I didn’t know that when I was young. I didn’t come out until I was 26. I’m talking about all the doctors before that, I mean, obviously for science purposes, identifying things about your gender, but just explaining it in a way that doesn’t make you afraid and make you feel like what the kids called you. If you weren’t using these things the way you learned in health class, you got the F word, the freak word, and you believed it when you were young. Having a doctor explain it to you, you embrace it no matter who you turn out to be, would have been nice.
Dr. Goepferd: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate you coming in to have a conversation. On behalf of myself and I think really all of our listeners, thank you for blazing the trail and for being you and showing up for kids in particular and the way that you do in the world. We really appreciate it.
Jana Shortal: Thanks for doing the same.
Dr. Goepferd: Thank you for joining us for Talking Pediatrics. Come back each week for a new episode with our caregivers and experts in pediatric health. For more information and additional episodes, visit childrensmn.org/talkingpediatrics.