Janet Mock Knows Trans Activism Is Not Her Only Legacy
And her latest memoir is just the beginning.
Photo by Logan Jackson
Janet Mock was sitting in a quiet bistro on Malcom X Boulevard, poking at a kale salad as clusters of teens breezed past the window. After 12 years of living in the East Village, she'd relocated to Harlem with her husband, Aaron, drawn to the area's deep African American roots. Before taking me on a tour of her new neighborhood, she was telling me about interviewing subjects for The Trans List, a 2016 HBO documentary featuring first-person testimonies from 11 transgender Americans, spanning diverse ages and economic and ethnic backgrounds.
For Mock, something that stood out about the project was the countless hours she got to spend with subjects like male porn star Buck Angel and 76-year-old trans rights activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, meandering into the nooks of their day-to-day lives. "It's trying to craft intimacy in a space," she said. "I mean, some kind of exchange that feels not so transactional, you know?"
Interviewing another journalist can be intimidating; even if she makes no indication of it, she's hyper-aware of the encounter as it unfolds and more privy than most to the reality that her every word and gesture are fair game. Mock knows this not only as a pop-culture reporter and television host but also as a subject. In 2011, following five years working as a staff editor for PEOPLE, an as-told-to with Marie Claire turned her into the first journalist in mainstream media to publicly open up about her identity as a trans woman. Since then, she has penned a best-selling memoir, helmed her own pop-culture show on MSNBC, and delivered a speech on intersectional feminism at the Women's March on Washington. She is the most visible advocate for trans issues in the media industry, while incarnating a paradox: The more prominent you become, the easier it can be for people to get your story wrong.
During a 2014 interview she did with CNN's Piers Morgan, Mock's face visibly tensed as the British television personality used phrases like "formerly a man" when referring to her. She had come on air mainly to promote her first memoir, Redefining Realness, but she ended up going back on the show after firing off some tweets pointing out his misgendering of her. Looking back, Mock said being thrust into the crazy theater of cable news taught her how hard it is to tell a story as complicated as hers in the press, where sound bites are everything and conversations too often revolve around voyeuristic particulars of trans bodies. "You can't communicate much in that space," she explained of major-network talk segments, "but that's largely the biggest space where these issues are talked about."
Redefining Realness was partly an attempt to correct that lack of nuance, a space to go long about her experiences growing up as a young trans person of color—half African American, half native Hawaiian and Portuguese—in a low-income family split between Oakland and Oahu. That book charts her journey from childhood to the age of 18, when, using funds she acquired during a stint as a sex worker, she traveled to Thailand to complete her medical transition. The narrative is intercut with statistics and theory relating her experiences to those of other trans people of color, whose lack of access to financial support, social services, and affordable medical care correlate with high rates of HIV/AIDS, homelessness, violent assault, and suicide.
But the book didn't tell of her dancing in a Hawaii strip club to pay her way through college, marrying her first husband at 21, or moving to New York for grad school and then scaling the corporate ladder at a publishing company. This month, she'll release her second memoir, Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me. The new book zeroes in on her experiences deciding whether to disclose her story to friends and romantic partners, many who assumed Mock was a cisgender female. The titular Audre Lorde quote foreshadows her conclusion: "And at last you'll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking."
Surpassing Certainty is also a candid look at what it's like navigating the media industry as someone with intersecting identities. "One of the reasons why I also made the decision not to be open about being trans when I moved to New York City was because I didn't need another thing to layer and complicate my experience publicly," she told me. Being a journalist of color was challenging enough—a reality that surfaces throughout the book, whether she's grappling with feelings of tokenism or working harder than her peers, for less pay, to get ahead in the corporate world. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, she interviews for a job as a staff writer at PEOPLE, where she's been freelancing for a year, only to be told by her boss, herself a person of color, that HR is widening the search. "What human resources assessed," Mock writes, "was that Thanh, an Asian American woman, one so often seen as a hard worker but submissive and not a natural leader, could not supervise—or control—a young black woman."
The book's intersectional focus is part of a larger project of hers: to complicate our understanding of what it means to be trans in America. At times, that work involves checking other journalists, as she did in a 2014 op-ed critiquing Katie Couric's invasive questions about "private parts" during an interview with Laverne Cox and Carmen Carerra. At others, it involves creating platforms like The Trans List, where members of the community tell their own stories, and where the participants' knowledge of her identity helped foster a more "even" kind of subject-journalist relationship.
Still, the stories that make the biggest impact aren't always the ones that most urgently need to be told. In February of this year—responding to the news that the Trump administration had rolled back guidelines requiring schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity—she penned an editorial for the New York Times relating her own experience of social isolation after a vice principal at her high school forced her to use a private bathroom in the nurse's office. Mock said the debate currently brewing around restroom access has important ramifications for trans people's ability to participate in public life, but she worries that it's distracting from issues that are harder to explain in 140 characters. "I wish as we talked about this, there was at least a sentence about, that in addition to access to public spaces, trans people are also underemployed, undereducated, and most severely grappling with being most at risk for HIV/AIDS, sexual abuse, and violence, for being targeted and murdered. This is not our only issue."
The media also has a way of turning charismatic individuals like Mock into spokespeople for entire communities. With her illustrious CV and glamorous good looks, it's not hard to see why she's an obvious, mainstream America-friendly choice for explaining these issues to the public. With that visibility comes enormous responsibility—not just to stand at the front lines of a national conversation, but to ensure that her story isn't mistaken for being representative of all trans lives, and to assert her right to a career that doesn't begin and end with advocacy. When I asked what advice she would offer Gavin Grimm, the 18-year-old transgender student from Virginia who became a focal point of the bathroom debate after his suit against his school was bumped up to the Supreme Court, then dismissed, she paused, then smiled. "I think what I would say to him is that, you don't know what your legacy's going to be, so don't think that this is going to be it."
Mock has other dreams to pursue beyond fighting for increased funding for LGBTQ nonprofits, helping trans folk secure access to medical care, and educating parents, teachers, and law enforcement on the specific needs of trans individuals. This year, Mock said she'll team with Lenny Letter to unveil a ten-episode podcast called Never Before; each installment will feature an hour of conversation with one of her favorite figures in entertainment. She also told me she has two TV projects in the works—one a scripted show, the other a documentary series that she says will take a "global view of gender."
Mock told me she's still finding her way in Harlem, but Harlem is finding its way too. After our interview, on a block of towering brownstones, we strolled past an abandoned community garden, then a lot buzzing with construction workers and suited men in headsets. A new hotel is going up, but Mock seemed mostly drawn to the area's past, to the knowledge that James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston used to walk these streets. Mock said she likes to visit the Schomburg Center, a research division of the New York Public Library housing archives from prominent black artists and intellectuals, and where anyone can go to see a first edition of her favorite book, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Then, almost in passing, she mentioned a call from the library's curator a few years ago: He wanted to know if she'd thought about beginning work on an archive of her own.
Janet Mock's memoir, Surpassing Certainty, is out June 13.