Back to News & Commentary

A Conversation With Trans Rights Activist Janet Mock

Janet Mock, author and trans activist
Janet Mock, author and trans activist
Chase Strangio,
Deputy Director for Transgender Justice, ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project
Share This Page
February 28, 2014

In a 2011 Marie Claire article, successful editor Janet Mock, publicly told her story about growing up transgender. Though at the time she had only shared her transgender identity with a few people in New York, “stories about kids who have killed themselves because of the secrets they were forced to keep…shifted something in me,” she said in the article.

Today, Janet is leader in the movements for trans justice and gender self-determination and this month, she released her first book, Redefining Realness. In the book, she writes, “I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act.” This revolutionary act of storytelling has empowered so many trans people to voice their truths and we have seen a transformation in possibility for trans people.

“Redefining Realness was my opportunity to tell my story,” Janet writes on her blog, “now I want to hear yours. I want to hear the ‘untold thousands’ out there. I want to provide another outlet in which we — together — can banish the overbearing silence that haunts many of us.”

We were honored that Janet offered her insight to the ACLU on questions about trans narratives, racial justice and her vision for the future.

ACLU: It seems like so often the media tries to control the narratives of trans people’s lives. How does the media contribute to the violence that transgender people must navigate in the world? What can the media do to support trans people in telling their stories?

JANET MOCK: As someone who has worked in media, engages in conversations with media and consumes much media, I am invested in this conversation. What I’ve learned is that most media tends to focus on the sensational to entice viewers and readers, and trans people’s lives most often are framed this way. On the one hand it’s garnered us visibility, but on the other it’s spread much misunderstanding. When belittling punch lines and sensationalized objectification are a marginalized community’s only representation, it’s dangerous because it reinforces the idea that we’re not human and therefore worthy of mistreatment, exiling and violence. What leaves me hopeful, though, is that trans people are creating the media and the stories of their own lives, and this is the best way to combat this pervasive dehumanization of our lives.

ACLU: One of the key themes that emerges in your story is how the histories of racism and transphobia shaped the choices available to you growing up. What can the racial justice movement do to be inclusive of trans justice? What can the LGBT rights movement do to center racial and economic justice?

Note from Janet in response to question: I don’t know if I’d say my work engages much with “transphobia” as much as it engages in the intersectional lens of those of us who embody multiple identities. I do think anti-trans rhetoric and discrimination shapes my work but through my own experience, I wouldn’t call it “transphobia.”

JANET MOCK: I center my work around the multilayered experiences of young trans women and/or trans women of color. By doing so, I challenge the single-identity focus that plagues many movements that believe in simplicity or universality of experiences. I can never just speak about trans women because I am not just a trans women; I can never just speak about Black folk because I am not just a Black person. So for me, my work — particularly through my writing — must be muddied and complex because we live complex lives. I would challenge both movements to be intersectional in their approaches. Simply put, the racial justice movement must realize that many of their siblings are trans, and the LGBT movement must realize that centering their work around white middle-class cis folk leaves many of us who live under the weight of multiple oppressions behind.

ACLU: A few weeks ago we wrote about the murder of Larry King. There is so much to take on in the world for trans youth, particularly trans girls of color. In your book you write about how you have “heard parents say all they want is ‘the best’ for their children, but the best is subject and anchored by how they know and learned the world.” What is your vision and hope for the next generation of trans and gender non-conforming people?

JANET MOCK: My vision is that they are affirmed and validated, that they find people who will fiercely advocate for them in schools, medical establishments, governmental agencies and social services, that they are able to navigate the world safely and freely as their true selves and that they can be instilled with such possibility that provides them with an audacity to dream even bigger dreams.

ACLU: If you could pass along one message to young trans people who can’t imagine a future of possibility, what would it be?

JANET MOCK: I would tell them that their identity is real and valid and that nothing is wrong with them. I would tell them that life is a long journey and though it seems like becoming and revealing their true selves feels insurmountable that all they must concentrate on is ensuring they are safe and comfortable with themselves. I would advise them to cancel out all the noise from detractors, even from their parents, and seek out solace and affirmation from folks who truly hear and see you – as you know yourself to be. You deserve to be affirmed, you deserve to be seen, you deserve all the happiness, all the joy.

ACLU: As you mention in your book and regularly in media appearances, trans people, particularly trans women of color, are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system. What do you see as the most important steps that advocacy organizations can take to end mass incarceration and the overrepresentation of people of color in prison and jail?

JANET MOCK: The most important step would be for movement leaders to push this as a central issue, realizing that the weight of institutionalized and systemic oppressions on trans women, trans men and low-income, trans people of color makes them all the more vulnerable to criminalization. We need to do a better job at connecting the dots, at shedding light on the lived experiences of low-income trans folk, particularly those of color, who overwhelmingly exist in joblessness, who are grappling with not having enough funds to pay for shelter, to pay for food, to pay for the vital medical care they need. This need for funds pushes many to engage in underground economies like sex work that are heavily stigmatized and overly criminalized, leading so many of our siblings into prisons which are unsafe spaces for all of us. I think raising our political consciousness, whether through the work of organizations like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Black and Pink or the book Captive Genders, is a great start.

Learn more about transgender rights and other civil liberties issues: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.