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Before she came out in the pages of Marie Claire last year, Janet Mock knew a thing or two about media and storytelling for mass consumption. The 29-year-old transgender woman and daughter of a Native-Hawaiian and African-American parents had been an editor for celebrity powerhouse People.com for years. But even she was taken aback by the warm embrace she received after telling her story, and the cross-sections of the Internet who came out to call her one of their own.
It hasn’t all been a warm-and-fuzzy journey though. Mock, who’s at work on a memoir due out next fall, has had some time now to experience the LGBT movement up close. She’ll be discussing gender and media at a plenary session during Facing Race 2012 in November, but we got a head start when I checked in with her this month.
How did that Marie Claire piece come about? How do you see that piece fitting into the larger cultural conversation on trans folks?
It’s funny because trans stories have been told since, what, Christine Jorgensen stepped off the plane from Europe and had her sex reassignment surgery. Trans issues have been a fascination forever. My thing was to add some color to it. [Laughs.] Because I feel that now, under the transgender umbrella the most famous trans person of color is RuPaul, and he identifies as a gay man who performs the art of drag. And so I feel like for me, what was important was to a) tell my story honestly and then to b) to have a woman of color in Marie Claire magazine in a positive light.
Before this all I saw and continue to see is that transwomen of color are being killed, which is an urgent issue. But at the same time I also feel that if we only talk about death, then all young women growing up are going to feel the only thing they have to look up to is to die. That’s a guarantee for us all, but it’s an urgent matter that chips away at our soul as a community, that all of our women are dying in their 20s. No one makes it past 35. As a 29-year-old I thought, well I have six years left. And so I never had someone I could look up to before coming out. As a transwoman I never had that. That wasn’t necessarily my goal but I knew how important having an image of someone who looked like me and went through the same kinds of struggles and journeys as me would have been, it would have meant so much more to my growing up. I can imagine if I could have seen a woman working, living her life.
There was something urgent about that fall of 2010, the political landscape of kids killing themselves. I think kids have been killing themselves for a long time. But there was some media at the time, where it was like, “Ooh let’s start paying attention to this.” Tyler Clementi jumping off the George Washington Bridge was something we could not ignore. He made the cover of People magazine and I just thought all of the kids, all the transwomen of color who are getting killed, who will never make it to the cover of People. So many things were going on. I felt so much for Tyler’s family, and for young LGBT kids. And I thought of young transwomen, and the women I grew up with and the things they had to do in order to transition, and that’s when I said, “Okay Kierna, let’s do this.” Because I worked for another magazine, I couldn’t write it but Kierna [Mayo] did. That was kind of a loophole. It’s no coincidence that it was a woman of color who ghostwrote the piece—Kierna created Honey magazine.
And what it did in terms of telling these stories, in terms of going away from the “born a man” narrative to born a boy. (Well, I was raised a boy.) No one is born a man; you’re born a baby. So it got the media out of that whole lazy narrative of “She was once a man!” “Born a boy” softened it and was closer to my truth.
You wrote a really thoughtful blog post recently about these sorts of turns of phrases and lines that become so embedded in the narrative around transgender issues. Can you say more about the limitations of those phrases, and the way they shape the conversation?
At the time when I told my story it was very personal and I’m always very clear that it’s my story. I have the microphone and most people don’t have the microphone so what I say will be taken as fact for all trans people, when it shouldn’t be taken that way at all. What seems normal to me in my life, even though I was raised a boy, whereas some transwomen reject that, and for them, the born a boy thing was offensive. So I always say: “I was born a boy.”
The piece you’re referring to was “trapped in the wrong body,” and these one-liners that are used so often, I even adopted to it. Hearing it so much, [English model] Tula Cassey was “a woman trapped in a man’s body” and it’s like, “Oh okay, I guess that’s how I’d describe my identity and struggles.” And then after a while, I’d notice that they’d always use that. What if someone doesn’t feel trapped but there are parts of their body they’re not okay with and they want to change? I think it was Hoda Kotb on “20/20” talking to a 6-year-old. [Kotb] asked, “Did you feel trapped in your body?” I thought it was so bizarre, instead of letting this child who probably understands her gender identity more than any adult, [Kotb]’s telling this to this child and she would probably say, “Yeah, I did feel trapped in the wrong body.”
Something felt weird to me, and that’s why I wanted to write it, because I felt like it came from a place of cisnormativity, where, well, you must have felt trapped in your body if you’re changing your body. Whereas I think that a lot of trans people—and that’s where it goes to the fairy tale of the bottom surgery of sex reassignment as the end goal of everything, and that’s what my piece was too because for me, that was the biggest part of my transition, was having bottom surgery—that’s not their issue. Just simply transitioning, period, is enough for them. And I don’t think the media gives enough nuance to that.
Can you say more about narratives that seek to humanize trans folks but end up flattening the story or raising problems of their own? What’s the solution here?
I think it’s diversity in the newsroom. I think it’s people who understand and know trans people and their stories and having trans people within [the newsroom]. This generation, when I speak to colleges and young people, they understand trans issues. All these queer kids who go to queer resource centers. But also LGBT people who I work with at red carpet events, younger people understand it more.
When I told my story I was coming at it as a media insider, so I understood how to communicate it so my story was told in the way that reflected me. But at the same time it still went to old tropes, it still got caught up in that because [the magazine] … had done trans stories before and that was how it was for the last one so that’s how it must be for you as well. So it’s also about having the inner confidence as a media subject to say: No, that’s not how you should tell it.
The first thing would be to further diversify newsrooms for people who have the pen. But I think it helps that there are all these transmen and transwomen creating their own blogs, and those continue to get picked up by people in the media. So it’s less of we’re going to throw this narrative onto you and more of, we’ll let you write your own narrative.
What kind of response to your Marie Claire piece were you bracing yourself for?
You know what’s so funny? I don’t think I calculated it as much but the response that was bigger to me was the women of color, period, who were so shocked to see someone like me in a mainstream magazine. I always that that it’d be this huge LGBT story, but that it would still be very niche. But it hit the Marie Claire audience. There are women of color who read this because it’s one of the few magazines that has international and women’s issues folded into it beyond the beauty and fashion. That shocked me, the way women of color clung to it.
My story was debated on Clutch magazine online, that then challenged what they thought of as womanhood. I thought it’d be kids who were bullied or a different reason people came to it. But I heard a lot of: She’s our sister too. And I felt this love and acceptance that, even me growing up the way that I did I always heard the trope of you’re never going to be the real thing, a real girl. That’s not who you are. So there’s a little bit of insecurity even though I’m nearly 30 now, but I felt that sense of validation and affirmation in the wider community of women and women of color embracing me.
Are there ways in which your political consciousness has expanded since your big public splash?
I think I learned more about what inclusion and diversity mean. When I saw the LGBT community from the outside I thought they were this big movement going together. I realized as I looked deeper and became embedded within the politics of it all, that it’s not so much of a community as it is a set of coalitions trying to work together. I think the bigger movement of it is still focused on the big talking points of marriage equality, and they added on bullying and helping LGBT youth. But there are so many other issues, like what LGBT youth of color and queer women of color deal with, homelessness, HIV/AIDS, murders, that are not being addressed at a wider scale by the movement. Even a story like Cece McDonald’s [a young black transwoman serving a 41-month prison sentence in a male prison after she accepted a plea bargain when she was charged with killing a white man who attacked her and her friends], didn’t go mainstream at all. Despite all of the anger and frustration within the community to fight for her and how to place her in all of these things. The wider movement didn’t really talk about it at all.
Whereas there’s someone like Jenna Talackova, [a Miss Universe Canada contestant who was booted from the contest after officials found out that she is transgender] who meets the beauty standards of America. She’s a beauty queen, and there’s a sex element to it, and she went on 20/20. She had a sit-down with Barbara Walters, which no one usually gets to do, and had a full on interview where she basically only talked about her body. Barbara Walters asked her: How does she have sex? When did she have her surgery? So it went straight to the old tropes instead of all the other things that are going on.
The biggest thing we’ve had in a long time was Chaz Bono or Jenna Talackova in the last two or three years. Anything involving transwomen of color gets pushed aside. But we’ll see next year with the release of my book!
And I’m guessing that’s what you’ve been up to this year?
The book will be out this time next year for a fall 2013 release. I’ve been working on it for about three years. I’m so happy that I told my story first, got to go back and learn more about the issues, be out and be active in the community before sending my story out into the world because I have a better idea of how issues in my own personal life are read in a political light. It’s a memoir, so all of it’s about me. It’s deeply personal. But I look at those experiences with a completely different lens today than if I wrote it two years ago. It’s been helpful for me to value my experience too. As a woman, period, as a woman of color and as a transwoman of color, all these layers of who I am, I didn’t value what my experience on these issues was.
My boyfriend always says, “You don’t have to do this, you get to do this.” And it’s true. I get to do this. I get to have the microphone and set the record straight on what my life has been so far.
Read our conversations with other Facing Race 2012 speakers: