Outtakes: Janet Mock on her mission to amplify the voices of trans women

Author and Trans activist Janet Mock will speak at Portland State University for Trans Day of Remembrance. Photo by Aaron Tredwell.
By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

I had the pleasure of speaking with Janet Mock just two days after Hurricane Sandy left her, like so many New Yorkers, without power and with spotty cell reception. Still, Mock didn’t let that get in the way of our interview. Instead, the former People.com editor and trans activist hunkered down and chatted about her the journey she has been on since she invited the world into her life by sharing her teenage transition story with Marie Claire in June 2011.

The 29-year-old media professional has made intentional and powerful use of her voice in the last 18 months, touring the country to talk about issues affecting the trans community, and particularly trans women of color. That voice has been amplified by a hashtag Mock coined — #girlslikeus — that is poised to make an unlikely transition from the digital world to the physical one.

Mock is profiled in the November issue of PQ Monthly, but the 2102 Sylvia Rivera Activist Award winner had much more to say about what effective trans visibility looks like, and how she hopes to change the conversation, than would fit in print. So, as promised, I’m including the transcript of our interview below.

To hear it all for yourself, come out to the Trans Day of Remembrance event being put on by the Portland State University Queer Resource Center Nov. 20 (and consider stopping by the Mass of Healing afterward — organized by the Portland Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Basic Rights Oregon, and Q Center — at Metropolitan Community Church).

(And check out her It Gets Better video at the end.)

PQ Monthly: Why did you choose to come out when you did and why in Marie Claire?

Janet Mock: It was because I was an editor [and] I had connections at different magazines, kind of being a media insider, and Marie Claire was just one of the places I respected in terms of publications for women. It was very important to me to tell my story in a women’s publication because I needed to make it a point that trans women are women too and so our stories were women’s issues. And also because I knew a writer there that I knew I would be able to hand off my story to. So that’s why I chose Marie Claire. In terms of that time, I think it was just the right time for me personally with where I was in my life. I had been in my job [as an editor for People.com] for over 5 years at that point so I wasn’t fearful of needing to prove myself or anything. I knew my personal life – the journey that I took as I young person, who I was – wasn’t going to jeopardize my job or standing there at Time, Inc. In terms of the political atmosphere, it was mostly because of hearing all the headlines about [suicides] in fall 2010. I think the jumping off point was Tyler Clementi. Working in the media, we were reporting a lot on LGBT kids committing suicide and bullying. I don’t believe that was the first time it had ever happened, I just think the media was shifting their focus to kids killing themselves and the state of bullying in schools and all of these things being targeted. And so at that point I just felt as if no one was really talking about the things that trans women, specifically trans women of color, have been dealing with and I just felt it was time to tell a story as someone who transitioned as a young person who was living their life and maybe people didn’t know. That’s sort of where I was at that point in my life and why I wanted to tell my story.

PQ: Why do you think the nation was so captivated by these stories of mostly white and gay kids killing themselves and why did the murders of young trans women of color not get that same kind of attention?

Mock: I think women of color period, people of color period, don’t get any attention when it comes to the stresses in our community or when we’re targeted for violence or anything like that. I always think about Trayvon Martin, how long it took to have this young brown face be on the cover of something like People magazine; for that to even happen how much work his family had to do, and how he had to be the perfect “worthy” victim in order for America to even care at that point. It took a lot of background work for them to be able to get Trayvon on a cover and so we just continue to see stories of white middle class young girls, usually blonde, who when they get murdered, I think that’s just something that most of America, or at least media professionals, feel like will resonate with people to tell the story that’s gonna compel people to buy and feed into the frenzy of it all. I think that they feel as if it comes down to “worthy” and “unworthy” victims. And I think that when it comes down to specifically trans women of color, we already have the fact that we’re trans, and also that we’re of color, and then a lot of the times the sex worker element, [which] is something that our society just devalues period, so it’s as if we brought that [violence] onto ourselves. So I think it’s a lot of layers. And it’s not only mainstream press, it’s even LGBT press. They don’t pay much attention to it either. They don’t amplify campaigns that speak to the disparities within the community that lead to trans women of color being so vulnerable anyway.

PQ: What efforts to you see happening to increase that visibility?

Mock: I think D.C., with the campaign they’re doing by putting trans women and trans people on billboards and posting them up around the city in a place where the violence is so high there, I think that’s one thing, just raising the visibility to see these smiling faces of trans women saying, D.C. is their city too. For them to be visible, to be on billboards, I think that helps to gain exposure. I think that collective processes at organizations like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and FIERCE, and the Audre Lorde Project do a lot of work by empowering people – getting them the documents that they need, helping them through the legal process, and also just letting them know that they are a part of a community that’s there to uplift them – I think that helps out a lot. I think anything that would help with legal aid and trying to transform the system. I know sometimes it sounds idealistic, but I think that anytime I see a headline with a trans woman of color I’m also torn because it feels as if we’re only paid attention to in our death, when there are a lot of little deaths that happen before we even come to that point. The fact that a lot of us are kicked out of our homes and then when we go to a homeless shelter and they don’t respect our gender identity or if we’re arrested after being kicked out and trying to do survival sex, you know, all of these different things that lead up to that point that we’re so vulnerable that we’ll get into anyone’s car and then this anyone could then murder us, and then we get a headline for something. But the violence happens a long time before we even end up dead. So I think it’s just coming through this systematic process of how do we address [it] at the spark of this. Once this kid gets kicked out of the house, what are doing to then ensure that they can then go out in the world and find a job, and be ready for a job, and be equipped, and have a home, and all of these different things?

PQ: Do you feel like increased visibility leads to greater safety in society for trans folks?

Mock: I think visibility is only one part…. I do. I think that that is a point, but that visibility needs to reflect the people who are actually being hurt. I think that Chaz Bono is great, but I don’t think [he] reflects that part of the population that is the most vulnerable. I think that heightened resources would be the point that would actually be able to help young trans people of color, specifically, who are living at the intersections of many oppressions. So I think visibility helps for sure, but I think it is only one small part of the thing. The fact that there hasn’t really been many profiles of trans women of color within mainstream media period, you know, it’s hard. I don’t think that, when they live in a community of color, it’s going to help if it’s only white trans people, or even middle class trans people, who are given the microphone. Like me, I come from much privilege as well…. I had access to an education, I had parents, I worked as a professional somewhere.

PQ: In an ideal world, what kind of stories would you like to see in the media, LGBTQ and mainstream?

Mock: I think – more about the LGBT media – I think there’s so many online outlets, the stories are fine there. But when the LGBT issues come into mainstream they’re usually always about marriage and even immigration issues become about tying to families and marriage. So, what do you do for young trans LGBT queer people of color who are not in relationships? How do we communicate to the mainstream world, or everyone else, that they also have lives that are worthy that have nothing to do with being attached to another person? How do we address those issues? So, I would like to have it untethered to being in a relationship with someone, that would be great, and also just having a fuller idea of the fact that it’s not always about marriage. I feel like a lot of resources have been spent into that. Like once we get marriage it’s all going to trickle down and I don’t think that – I have friends who aren’t LGBT and all of these things and they’ll say, “Well, I’m all about being getting married,” but that’s not really a pressing issue for someone who’s 16 years old and trying to transition and being kicked out of their house, and now their living in a shelter that won’t respect their gender identity, and so they turn to the streets and do these things. I think there needs to be a rejiggering of leadership in some way, or smaller organizations being able to be funded, or something.

But in terms of stories I would like to see, I think that, the people who are actually doing the work in a lot of these places, I would like to see them gain visibility and be spoken to. I think of Reina Gossett at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, who I just love. I would love to see her be able to talk about the work that she does with community organizing and uplifting queer people of color and trans people of color in New York City. I guess I would just like to see it go beyond marriage. I just feel like whenever I see something in the mainstream it’s about being tethered to a relationship, being tethered to someone. It’s like only if we’re lovable in some way are we able to get the microphone.

PQ: You talk a lot about changing the narrative of the trans experience in the media. Why is it important to move away from the “born or trapped in the wrong body” narrative and what are the challenges inherent in that.

Mock: I just feel like these stories have been told forever, for 40-50-60 years now, I feel like that story has been told. It’s two fold, right? It’s not only the people who are telling the story, like the media professionals, them being able to say, “What are your pronouns,” all of these things that you’re obviously so far ahead of many people, [it’s also] coming from…“So, your transition happened, so now what does your life look like?” I feel like we don’t have much of “What does your life look like now?” We just have: “Do you have a compelling before and after story that we can tell?” I’d like to see it go beyond transition.

That whole “trapped in the wrong body” thing drives me crazy. It just feels like it’s the same story with different characters, a different protagonist in each story. And I wish that a lot of these protagonists were able to speak to the issues that went beyond their transition, they were able to talk about how, yeah, it was hard to transition but it was also hard for these other people who don’t have the resources to do so, this is how we can make it better.  So I think that sort of just comes with us coming with the information and the power and the self-worth to say we have something more to say in this interview. I recently saw one with a broadcast journalist in Denver, I think her name was Eden Lane, and she wouldn’t talk about her transition within the piece. And the piece became such a better piece. It was about how she worked, what was her career like, and how being trans wasn’t really an issue. She transitioned a long time ago and she had no interest in talking about that, but she had to tell that to the journalist because the journalist thought the only story that there is to tell about trans people is about our transition – that that’s the only that’s interesting thing about us, the fact that we transition. You know, my life has been infinitely more interesting after I transitioned. I was able to say, “Yes, I transitioned,” and now I get to use that personal experience to talk about real issues that are plaguing our community. So I think it’s two fold – it’s the person telling the story and it’s the person giving their story having the agency to say, “No, I don’t want to talk about that. That’s not the only thing that’s interesting about me.”

PQ: You’ve also written about unlearning the messages that the media perpetuates about trans folks and I was wondering, which have been most liberating to shed?

Mock: I think the “trapped in the wrong body” [message] was the big one for me. I heard all the same memes, the same sound bites, so any time I saw a trans person that was like, “[I was] trapped in the wrong body,” “I always knew I was this,” “I always knew I was that,” for me, I always knew that I was me. I didn’t know what that meant in the context of gender and all these things growing up and so that was a complicated thing. When I was very young, like 11 years old, I came out to my mom as gay because that was the only way I knew how to understand and articulate the fact that I liked boys. I didn’t know it was about my body or anything. And then eventually, I started dressing up and we called that drag – we wanted to be like RuPaul. And then I realized well no, I don’t actually want to be a drag queen, I want to be me and me means that I’m a girl and that’s what it is. Being able to complicate that a little bit, and say there are many different steps to get there, and not trying to say that if you never knew, then you’re not trans [has been liberating]. This “transiness” – there’s no such thing. You just transition or you don’t, or you kind of [do]. Just being able to get it out of that narrative structure, it doesn’t have to just be this one-way ticket road, yellow brick road of transitioning. It just is what it is. Some of us have penises, some of us don’t and no one should be able to ask about that. What I know is that even after I came out, my idea of what that is has expanded so much more and I have no interest – I hear this a lot within the community – of contracting what it means to be trans. I don’t care about the “transsexual vs. transgender” argument. That means nothing to me. Because for me it’s about expanding it. We’re all different. We all express our gender differently. I speak actively for trans women because that’s so close to my experience, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand that there are other issues going on within the trans community, period. Beyond the binary and all these other things. I think it’s opening my world up to that, that idea of what trans is.

PQ: Tell me about the growth and momentum of #girlslikeus.

Mock: Right now I just don’t, in my personal life, have the bandwidth to launch anything bigger than what it is on Twitter right now. In terms of raising visibility, I would like to create a website, I’d like to create some nonprofit arm of it. But I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet. I need to give myself the time to expand that and learn what needs to be done out there, where the gaps are.  I do think that we do need more for us by us organizations, we need more trans created organizations, instead of trying to be inclusive within the LGBT movement because I don’t think that that’s necessarily working to our greatest advantage. I hope that one day soon I can create an organization that’s for trans women and by us.

I think it was another media outlet that said it was for trans women of color – #girlslikeus has never just been for trans women of color, it’s just because I am a trans womean of color [that] it’s been pegged that way. But I can see how people are hungry for a trans woman of color to come forward and be Moses and lead us through everything, but that’s not me. I’m just one person who’s telling my story. Right now, for me I’m a writer first, that’s what I am. I’m writing my book right now and then after that I will definitely expand more and learn more and do it right, hopefully, and launch something for #girlslikeus. [I don’t know] whether it’s a camp or whether it’s some kind of resource thing, but I don’t want it to be a New York only thing. So it’s [about] just trying to develop that and see how we can get to girls who are in the South and vulnerable and have no resources and probably don’t want to leave their communities but end up having to move somewhere like New York in order to have resources. How do we reach them as well? I don’t know yet what it looks like in the future. Right now, I work in media so it’s media visibility. I’m trying to use anytime someone interviews me to talk about things that go beyond just me, because it’s not about me.

PQ: It seems like it’s taken on a life of its own.

Mock: It wasn’t a campaign, it was a hashtag. People were hungry for it and that’s why my eyes just opened up like, wow, this is something that is missing. I think that just being women, period, we’re not taught to come together. It’s like you want to be the only one because you want to be special. I think maybe also it’s trans women specifically, too – we don’t link up together. I came from a place that I don’t want to be a star, I want to get stuff done. How do we get stuff done? We do it by collecting and coming together. So, organically, when I came out I reached out to women who weren’t in New York City and I’ve made it a point to connect with them on a personal level and say, “What are you working on? How can I help you? How can you help me?” and just building coalitions. I didn’t want us to be these lone satellites, throwing information out into the world. I wanted to be able to connect to one another, to be able to say that this is how we can make each other better, by connecting to one another.  We don’t have to be the only one in an LGBT organization – let’s create something. So that’s where my thought process with this has started. When I tweeted out #girlslikeus I was surprised that it became this – thing. I was a little disappointing that it got labeled as a trans women of color only thing, because I think a lot of trans women, period, wanted it, so now I have to constantly explain to people that’s its never been just for trans women of color, it’s for all of us, meeting us all at our different intersections.

PQ: So what will you be speaking about at Portland State University for Trans Day of Remembrance?

I think I’ll obviously tell a bit about my personal story and how I think that connects with a lot of other trans women who grew up the way that I did. I’m going to talk about media portrayals a little bit, and then I’m going to bring up some of my heroes, people whose stories have really influenced me like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. I’ll talk about Gwen Araujo and Lawrence/Larry [Leticia] King, the kid in California who was murdered in his classroom in 2007/2008. I’m just gonna talk about those kinds of things – I’m going to talk about CeCe McDonald and some of the women who passed [away] in the past year who’ve had an effect on me. It’ll be like a 30 minute lecture with a half hour Q&A afterwards.

PQ: What does Trans Day of Remembrance mean to you?

Mock: I would like to take it away from celebrating our fallen. I think it’s very dangerous to constantly talk about death. It becomes something we come to expect. All of us are going to die, but I think that the early death sentence for trans women of color specifically is something we already know, and so to constantly talk about death, I think it chips away at us a little bit. And so Trans Day of Remembrance is, I think its a day to pause a little bit, and, I hope, to remember our struggles but also celebrate the triumphs we’ve made in the past year, because there have been [triumphs]. There’s heightened visibility and there’s people getting it a bit more. I think we have more allies and the more coalitions we can build with allies the greater I think our battles will be.

PQ: Tell me about your memoir and why you chose the title Fish Food.

Mock: Oh, Fish Food, that’s funny. My publishers asked me the same thing. I signed my book deal with Atria books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. They’re saying fall 2013 or spring 2014, so sometime late next year or early the year after. It will tell my story more completely, more fully, and it will also discuss my decision to invite the world into my life and how my life and advocacy have developed since taking that step forward. It’s a coming of age story, it’s about a teenager finding themselves and then deciding in adulthood to share that self with the world, I guess. [The name] is more of a wink to the community, to the trans women I grew up with. One of the things that was told to me that was encouraging to me growing up was, “Oh, you’re a fish.” Fish is this kind of slang within the community, “Oh you look like a girl, you’re fish.” So it’s just about all the things that fed me in my womanhood – it’s about my journey, all the good and the bad things that fed me. I fought hard to keep that title too.