Janet Mock Breaks Through the Isolation for Transgender Women of Color

In a Q&A with The Root, Mock talks about being a trailblazer, why “passing” is a gift and for whom she wrote her book.

Janet Mock speaks onstage at the AdColor Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sept. 21, 2013, in Beverly Hills, Calif.  
Janet Mock speaks onstage at the AdColor Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sept. 21, 2013, in Beverly Hills, Calif.   Mike Windle/Getty Images for AdColor

I recently added a new name to my list of inspirational writers: Janet Mock. Her best-selling memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More, is a beautiful—at times bumpy—journey through girlhood. Reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston’s iconic Their Eyes Were Watching God, it is a touching story of self-realization and self-love.

For many it was Mock’s early 2014 interview on CNN with Piers Morgan that drew attention to this young woman’s story. But she is so much more than one interview. Mock publicly proclaimed her identity as a transgender woman in 2011. She has continued working in her community to advocate for women and girls like herself. She has commanded a social media presence through the #GirlsLikeUs hashtag, encouraging transgender women to live freely.

After her many successful years as a staff editor at People.com, writing and advocacy have continued to be her main motivation. Most important, Mock has challenged us all to question our perceptions of challenges facing transgender girls and women of color. She spoke with The Root about her work and how words empower isolated communities.

The Root: Isolated communities of color have been on the forefront of awareness when it comes to issues of gender identity; everyone else seems to be lagging behind. Do you think these communities will lead the social charge for trans people of color—people of color in general—when it comes to differences from the mainstream?

Janet Mock: All of our forebearers—when you think about queer and trans people of color—have always been at the forefront of movements of resistance. I think about Marcia P. Johnson, I think about Audre Lorde. These people have been a part of intersecting movements for so long because they have never had a place. When you never have a place in movements that are supposedly about you, you tend to look at them from an outsider’s perspective. You can tell people about themselves in a way that is powerful and also transformative.

TR: Has “passing” hurt or helped you as an advocate for trans women of color? Can it ever be a useful survival tool to help you with your cause, with your work and with your writing, or is it all negative?

JM: I had always been conflicted about it when I was younger, but not so much anymore, because I feel like it’s just one of the “safety gifts” I have been given in order to do the work that I do—the specific work that I do as a young trans woman of color.

Yes, some of us have made it, but the majority of our sisters and siblings have not made it. Some of them can “pass.” They’re still poor. They’re still black. A lot of the complications for me have always been around the idea that “Oh, she passes as cis or she’s perceived to be a cis woman, so her life is easy.” I don’t know how many black women’s lives are easy.

TR: There were teachers and family members who would intentionally mis-gender you. Is it sometimes used to silence, to force conformity, or is it that people need to unlearn the gender normativity they have been socialized with?

JM: Yes, I would definitely say [it is used] to silence people, to make them feel as if they don’t have a voice. It is invalidating people. If someone doesn’t feel as if they are valid or as if they belong here, they don’t tend to exert themselves or feel safe enough to even go outside their homes.