Janet Mock is the author of the best-selling book, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. The New York-based, Hawaii-born Mock came out as a trans woman in a 2011 Marie Claire article and since has dedicated her time to raising awareness around the issues facing trans women and girls, launching the #GirlsLikeUs movement on Twitter. In 2012 alone, she was nominated for a Glaad Media Award, named to OUT magazine’s Out 100 List and listed as one of The Grio’s 100 most influential African-Americans. She also keeps a pretty fantastic Instagram account.
Mock talked to me the other day about what it feels like to be made into a spokesperson for an entire community, her interview with Piers Morgan in which he focused almost entirely on her genitals, and the problem with the notion of “passing”.
JESSICA VALENTI: You’ve had a New York Times best-selling book, you’ve been raising awareness online and off of transgender issues, and you now have this incredible platform. What do you think you’ll use it for?
JANET MOCK: I’ll continue to tell stories. I am a writer and storyteller who believes wholeheartedly in the power of stories to transform and connect us to ourselves and one another. There are more books in me and more stories I’d like to write, but I’m also excited about using other mediums – like television – as a space to connect with people and have thought-provoking and transformative conversations about politics, pop culture, aesthetics and social justice issues.
Your book is memoir, and obviously very personal - did you expect it to resonate so broadly?
Redefining Realness is very much my story, a story about a young trans girl of color on her quest for wholeness. I guess I’m most surprised that my very specific story and my various interactions with identity, with my parents, with poverty, with media and pop culture and literature has resonated with all kinds of readers. I definitely set out to write a book that would allow trans girls to see themselves but am moved that women, men and readers from all walks of life have seen themselves as well. For me writing is about communicating truth, and its empowering that my truth can be universal.
What’s been your least favorite question from a reporter?
"Do you have any advice on how we should speak to trans people?" My answer is always, "As human beings." I think the question is well-meaning but also deeply dehumanizing.
How do you feel about being seen a spokesperson for transgender people, especially trans women? Obviously, there’s such a diversity of experience there – but the media loves a figurehead or a “representative” and it feels like you’re it. Are you ever concerned about that?
Of course, I’m concerned. It is why I open my book in both the Author’s Note and Introduction discussing my own experience with media representation and critiquing its limitations as well. None of us can represent anyone but ourselves, and when I write about my experiences I point out my own privilege, contextualize those experiences to offer a broader sociopolitical lens, and pay homage to the work of those who came before me and whom I work alongside as well. Yes the media loves a lone figurehead – but I resist that by speaking the names of my community members, showing I do none of this work alone.
There are so many false and damaging narratives about trans people that the media and pop culture propagate. Is there one that you find particularly harmful?
The most harmful is the myth that trans women are not “real” women or trans people are inauthentic and therefore our identities, experiences and bodies must be investigated and interrogated. The media commonly frames our narratives in this way and it’s harmful because it undermines trans people’s experiences and teaches others that they too should be skeptical about trans people’s lives – until trans people “prove” their realness.
You had what is now a pretty infamous interview with Piers Morgan. At what point did you realize this exchange had gone awry?
I was uncomfortable from the very beginning when he marveled at my appearance and said that the most fascinating thing about me was that he could not tell I was trans – rather than stating that it was fascinating that a young trans women of color overcame various obstacles to tell her own story in her own book.
Can you talk about the concept of “passing” and what it means for the trans community?
I have such a difficult time with the concept of “passing” because I feel it gives this idea that there’s some kind of deception or trickery involved in our identities. I am a woman, people perceive me as a woman, and when I walk on the street, I am not “passing” as anything. I am merely being myself. Often, my trans-ness does not lead the way when I walk into spaces and that allows me safety and anonymity. And because trans people are marked as illegitimate, our bodies and identities are often open to public dissection – and this is a major burden for many trans people, a burden that I often do not have to carry in every space I enter because of the way that I look. Our safety should not be based on the way that we look.