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.
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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.
If you can’t leave your home, you can’t go get your ID changed, you can’t go apply for a job. It can even go beyond silencing. I have seen women on the street be told, “Well, she looks like a dude anyway.” When engaged in street harassment and the woman does not respond, a way to cut her down or get a reaction from her would be to say something as outlandish as that to invalidate her identity as a woman. It’s one of the tools of patriarchy.
TR: Now that Redefining Realness exists, do you think it might help to change some of the issues with trans-misogyny, erasure and isolation facing trans women of color?
JM: I hope so. It opens doors to say that people are hungry for these stories and they want to read them. My fear is that they will say it was a fluke. That it was an accident. That it wasn’t because of my hard work and my great writing. It was because “some white man paid attention to her and argued with her on TV, that’s why her book succeeded; that’s all it was.”
My community showed up for me. Black women, women of color, trans women, queer people who have been following my work and read my essays said, “You know, I want to hear what Janet has to say about her experience and her story. This is something I want to invest my $20 in.”
The next level is: Do I—as Janet Mock—have the freedom to write what I want to write next? Will that get published and received in the same way? Or are people going to want me to be trapped by my “trans-ness” and only talk about that?
TR: What is the nugget that you want to share from your book that says, “You’ll get through it, it’ll be OK. It’s hard, it’s tough, but you’ll get through it”?
JM: I wrote this book for the seventh-grade girl that I was who didn’t see reflections of herself anywhere in the library. She didn’t have a complete mirror. She had composites, this mosaic, that then showed her herself. It mostly came from black women writers’ work. I saw them as the image of myself one day.
The isolation is real. The isolation can make you feel captive and like you have nothing else to do. The book has always been to let girls see themselves and to feel liberated in that sense of not being alone anymore.
Jenn M. Jackson is a writer, mother of three, educator, politics scholar and recovering misanthrope. Follow her on Twitter and read more at jennmjackson.com.