Janet Mock author of Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, and transgender woman of color, spoke to an overflow crowd last week at the Athenaeum.
In her introduction, Ath Fellow Shannon Miller characterized Mock as “a trailblazing public figure” in the midst of an important moment of discussions mainstream America is currently having on issues of race and gender identity, intersectionality and positive visibility for the trans community.
Nancy Williams, chemistry professor in the Keck Science Department and herself a transgender woman who came out to the CMC community in 2012 and began to live fulltime as a woman this past January, moderated the wide-ranging discussion which took the form of questions and answers from Prof. Williams and audience members and deviated from the usual format of speeches delivered at the lectern.
Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness, tells her story of growing up as a trans gender woman of color and illustrates the many obstacles she had to overcome on her journey to self-identity.
Describing herself, laughingly, as “a mess,” Mock said that self-determination and self-definition are vital and at the core of her work.
“Through her extensive presence online and in the media, Janet Mock uses her own experiences and her deft writing skills to bring about change,” Miller said. “And she has done a fantastic job of furthering many of the important discussions that CMC needs to start having here on campus.
“As we launch a new initiative devoted to personal and social responsibility,” Miller continued, “we must not exclude our responsibility to make our community not merely tolerant but welcoming to everyone regardless of gender identity, sexuality, race or class.”
Following are some questions and comments Mock fielded from Professor Williams and others.
Q: Ninety-nine percent of people are born cisgender where individuals' experiences of their own gender match the sex they were assigned at birth. As a transgender woman of color, do you have a term or pair of terms to identify yourself?
Mock: Transmen … transwomen … there are transpeople (those who do not identify with either binary) They are non-binary, transpeople. When we talk about breasts, to be more inclusive of all people, we should probably say chest, whether that’s a man, woman, transman, transwoman or transperson. So, I think that when we’re talking about language, we have to break ourselves apart from the way that we’ve learned gender; the way that everything is gender.
My boyfriend and I left our dog Cleo at home. People think our dog, by virtue of its name, is a girl. I say, “no!” Cleo’s a boy. Just imagine me as a transwoman who identifies within the binary. Being that I’m pretty much a feminine-presenting woman, I have an easier time, often, than a person who is non-binary who does not identify as either a man or a woman.
How then do we create language and policy and culture that is inclusive of all of those people? How do we expand ideas beyond the popular notion of someone being born a certain sex and transitioning to a different gender? What about those people who do not want to transition – who just want to be?
Q: In order to be an inclusive, respectful community in which everyone has a voice, we need to understand intersectionality – the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the idea that you cannot understand what it is to be a Latina-American just by understanding what it is just to be of Latina descent and what it is to be a woman. Or, that you can’t understand what it is to be a gay black man just by understanding what it is to be gay which, in our default, usually means a white person.
Mock: Often in my work, I fight against what we consider the default. In American society everything about the way that we describe color tends to center around whiteness, even the way that we describe LGBTs. So a lot of my work as a young, transwoman of color and being multicultural in the sense of dealing with class, race and gender and healthcare and all these different facets, I’m trying to take us beyond the default definition; take us beyond the basic.
How do we challenge ourselves to go beyond the basics? I was very much embraced when I came out in 2011 via the profile that was written about me in Marie Claire magazine. I was embraced by the mainstream LGBT establishment. I think most people don’t understand that there is a small segment, high echelon of people that control the LGBT movement which is largely been about marriage. Not all LGBT people want to get married, be in a relationship with one person or even a relationship, period! That’s only a small sector, but that small sector has a large voice. The “they” I’m speaking of is often cisgender, white men with privileged backgrounds who can afford buying houses together and leaving assets for the loved ones which is something we should be fighting for.
But there’s a whole bunch of other people who exist in the intersections of identities. There are people who are queer people of color. And so for me, the way I learned intersectionality is via a lot of the work and writings of Third World women – queer, women of color feminists – who were fighting for feminism, gay liberation, the women’s movement and racial justice. They didn’t find themselves in any of those spaces, so, instead, they got together to center themselves. And that’s what people who exist at the margins have to do; they have to bring the margins to the center.
Q: That’s what you do in your work.
Mock: Yes. I center low-income, young, transwomen because I think a lot of people don’t center them; say that they don’t matter or shouldn’t even exist because they are such a small minority of marginalized people that their lives should not be worthy of any kind of scholarship; any kind of analysis; any kind of care or resources. I was that girl who had no resources. I was a former sex worker as a teenager. That’s how I made the money I needed to pay for the medical care I needed. I can’t discuss my role to selfhood and identity without discussing the circumstances that brought me into this world. My father was an African-American man from Dallas, Texas. My mother was a native Hawaiian woman from Honolulu. She was a teen mother and had my two sisters before she had me. My two sisters were teen mothers. I was the middle of five children. My mother was a single mother. My father was addicted to crack-cocaine. Before I really knew that I was trans or Janet, I dealt with that stuff first.
When you talk about LGBT homelessness and 40 percent of our youth homelessness is LGBT youth, you notice that a lot of that is among LGBT youth of color. Children of color are disposable in America. And so when we add the idea of queerness or transness onto that or gender onto that, how are these kids taking care of themselves? Do they have shelter? What cities are they in?
That’s how I’ve used my own personal story to tell one example of someone who, as I’ve said, is a mess. But this mutt of a child who came into this world, how did she navigate this system not necessarily built for a young, transwoman of color aspiring to be a writer? How did she make it through to this night at a prestigious college having a chi-chi dinner at the head table, no less!
Q: You have really come to embrace feminism, and not long ago, you didn’t. Can you tell us about your journey to identify with that label?
Mock: The first feminists I met were my grandmother and my aunts on my father’s side who raised me. When I came to consciousness, my political awakening, around gender issues and feminism was through listening to them talking around the kitchen table.
The next level was through the writings of bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith. Do you know these women? Can you quote them as much as you can quote Gloria Steinem? When we talk about the default of what feminism is, we often picture a white, middle-class woman. But there are many permutations
For a long time I did not feel that feminism was for me because I was not centered in feminism. But when I started to think about feminism, I came to understand gender and gender violence and the ways in which we view people who are feminine, not in a way to perform for men but in a way to be feminine for ourselves. When I started reading their work, I started challenging myself and found that, you know what? Sojourner Truth was a feminist; Claire Huxtable was a feminist; Beyonce is a feminist. She’s 33 years old and sexy and rooted in her body. And this public space where women of color are told that their bodies are not theirs; that they were property to bear children for profit to build this country; seeing them embrace that was part of my coming of age. This label is mine because Sojourner said it is mine, bell hooks says it’s mine; Beyonce says it’s mine. That’s how I came to embrace the feminist label.
Q: How can we, as a community – the CMC campus as a whole -- make everyone feel centered in us?
Mock: I’ve never had that feeling of centered acceptance in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever had the luxury of feeling centered, ever. The only place I’ve ever felt completely centered is in my apartment with my boyfriend and my dog. In that sense I’m centered because I am the diva and that is my space! It is the space of my own creation, my own ideas. And sometimes in the writings of other women of color (Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou), I feel centered.
I walk on the street and I’m a target every day of harassment, people’s comments; just as a young woman of color walking around. How do you navigate a rape culture; a misogynistic, sexist world? I don’t know what the solution is to that.
Q: What does “realness” mean to you as a transwoman?
Mock: For me, realness is about authenticity. I wanted to redefine realness; take it to a 301 level instead of a 101 level. Realness is me walking into a space and being fully myself and saying that I’m a young transwoman writer of color and not feeling as if I need to hide any parts of myself – to feel as if I can talk about my ideas and be taken seriously in a short skirt and big hair and lipstick. Realness is how we come into public spaces and be our authentic selves and be respected and validated and affirmed.