Think about a time when you met someone, someone you instantly clashed with, without a word being spoken…go ahead, I will wait…we have all had that happen. Now: think about someone that happened with, and then as time passed and you got to know them you discovered you were totally wrong about them, that your reaction had been all within you, and was unrelated to them completely. I am not going to wait on this one, for these sorts of endings are more rare…at least in my life they were. Sadly, far too often I just avoided the person and then lived…until I forgot about them, and went on in my cushy-comfy zone of complacency.
Wanna know the basic root of this phenomenon? I think it is Xenophobia: fear of the unknown. A person will look different, or act different, or some other factor about them is something unknown to us…so we clench up, clam up, and withdraw…and then make up all sorts of rationales to justify our low and venal rejection of a fellow creature made in Their image.
Generally, at least for me, dialogue precedes the change of heart and mind that I undergo when I have been in this boat. After talking with the person (not at, or over), I discover that we have so much more in common by virtue of our shared human experience and reality than we are different. Especially when I was firmly locked away in the christendom ghetto…I dared not talk with different people, unless I totally dominated the exchange in a monologue “devoted to evangelism”, but in truth designed to shield and protect myself from having to stretch and include someone in my world.
I think this is why so many so-called “evangelistic-efforts” end fruitless, and at times even exacerbate the divide between we who call ourselves “saved” and they whom we designate as “needing to be saved”.
Genuine dialogue bypasses all this. Trust me, if your faith is living and genuine, and you are in relationship with Jesus more than with His book, then you will not be able to miss the chances to give an account for the Hope that is in you…they will beg to hear why you seem different (you do seem different…don’t you???). You will find that connection…and begin to learn that the things you hid behind as reasons to not connect with people have become touchstones of punctuation in the quilt of common experience.
This is one of the main reasons I post essays on a lot of topics, and other people’s interviews of interesting people…and it is why I recommend reading the interview with Janet Mock that I post below. It originally appeared at http://www.rookiemag.com/2014/05/janet-mock-interview/ and it is a fabulous window into the existence of one of the most influential people in our times. Janet is uniquely positioned to touch a lot of spheres in life, and she is articulate enough to create that dialogue.
Dialogue is not something that is sorta like the old “I won’t hit you if you don’t hit me” game…that is stasis, and dead waters. No…dialogue is living, interesting, and often the very vessel They can get into to reach our hearts and minds.
Check out the interview…I am pretty sure you will be glad you did.
Love always, and Grace upon Grace…
Pardon the hyperbole, but Janet Mock may be the best person ever. I felt this way after reading her 2013 book, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, a beautiful, powerful memoir that follows Janet from her childhood in Hawaii, where she grew up as a transgender girl, to her current position as a high-profile (and still young!) writer and activist who inspires people everywhere to live exactly as they want to live.
She decided to come out as trans in a 2011 essay in Marie Claire magazine; since then, she has worked hard to increase the visibility of transgender people, including starting the hashtag #girlslikeus, which encourages trans people to share their stories on Twitter. (She is also very good at social media.)
My feelings about her greatness only intensified when I actually got to talk to her on the phone last month, when she’d just returned home to New York from one of her many college speaking gigs. You know how sometimes you’re talking to someone and they’re just so on it that their voice crackles with electricity? That’s how Janet was.
JULIANNE: So much of Redefining Realness is your very specific memories from your childhood, some of which are so wrenching! How did you remember all of that, and how were you able to get it all out in your writing?
JANET MOCK: I started by writing journal entries. I made a commitment to myself to write 500 to 1,000 words every morning—to just catalog every memory, even if it was just a fragment, on paper. Once I really got into that space and got disciplined, I was able to re-imagine what happened and to mine the feelings and the details of that time period. That’s why there are a lot of pop culture references, because I watched so much TV! I would try to remember certain things by asking myself, What song lyrics was I trying to memorize? What type of dance moves was I trying to learn?
But then you have to remember the pain, too, and that was the hardest part—the wrenching part, as you say—having to revisit that, not as an adult, but going back as a child and feeling it again as a young person who didn’t have much agency over their body and how it felt to go through those traumatic events. So I just had to be very kind to myself as a writer, but also kind to those who wronged me, kind about the mistakes people made and how they contributed to my pain.
As a fellow writer, I have found when you’re accessing those painful things, there is an instinct to lie to yourself, in order to protect yourself. How did you avoid that?
There are certain moments in the book where I call myself out for wanting to soften things or exclude things, and that was part of being transparent. I was committed to being transparent not just through the stories I chose to tell, but throughout my writing process. I talk about my mother’s suicide attempt, and about not wanting to [write about it] because I didn’t want to see her that way. Also, some of the details of the sex work I went through as a teenage girl—sometimes I wanted to erase those from the record of my life. But being honest about that actually helped me. It relieved me from my silence and shame, and hopefully it can help other people feel that sense of relief about something that may be heavy that they’ve been holding on to for a long time.
Was wanting to find that relief one of the reasons you started writing the book?
Yeah. At first I wasn’t writing with the intention of making a memoir—I just did it ’cause I wanted to have a record for myself. It was a selfish project—there was no sense of intersectionality or social-justice jargon or anything like that. It was just about me, this girl, and her story and her pain. I was trying to get it as raw as possible on the page so that I’d know that it was real.
But when I stepped forward publicly in Marie Claire, I was like, Wow, there’s a powerful story here that I think I’m supposed to tell. I don’t mean that in a boastful way—there just aren’t many books by young marginalized women like myself who did what I did, the way I did it.
Since that Marie Claire piece came out, social justice ideas and words like intersectionality have become way more widespread, especially for young people, partly because of Tumblr. Have you seen a shift?
Ooh, Tumblr’s powerful, yes. Those words are very powerful tools for describing this oppression. And it’s great that some people have access to them—but most people don’t. For me, it was super important to not use those terms in the book, because they exclude a lot of people who don’t have educational access, or who may not be engaged in social-justice stuff, but who want to be enlightened about things, to have their political consciousnesses raised a bit. I wanted to write the book for everyone—including that girl who I was in seventh grade who didn’t even know the term transgender. I wanted to give her a book so she could also feel like she was in the know, without being talked down to or made to feel like she has to aspire to something “higher” when she already has all the knowledge she needs to define her own experience. It’s not for me to define it for her. So I wanted to use words and language that she understands.
Your book has done a lot to help trans people be recognized in the larger culture. Did anything help you feel recognized that way? There aren’t that many books out there like your book.
My reflection of myself has always been a composite of many images and people that I have met along the way. I talk a lot about Beyoncé and Clair Huxtable and Toni Morrison, and I talk about the trans women who were in my life as a teenager, and the women around me when I was growing up, my father’s sisters, my grandmother, and my mother. I saw all of these women as mirrors, and made them into my own little mirrored mosaic.
But regarding the whole genre of “trans books”—I guess they would call them “transition stories” or “transition books”: So many of them do not have the intersection of youth, and that’s pretty important, because young people oftentimes don’t have much body agency in our culture. Like, your parents can literally pick you up and take you somewhere and put you wherever they want and tell you want clothes you can wear and what clothes they’re willing to buy you. All of these things are what make finding yourself and expressing yourself and your own authenticity difficult [when you’re young]. That’s one of the things I notice when I speak to young people, that sense of struggling with their lack of agency. I just tell them that, yes, you do have agency, despite your parents. Live your life on Twitter, put up some selfies! Reblog some things! That sense of self-representation is so important.
In terms of trans women, I’m happy that there are more of us visible in mainstream media. Platforms like Tumblr and YouTube allow people to create images that they don’t see in the mainstream media—and to also talk back to mainstream media when they fuck up. Rookie is a testament to that!
Thank you, we’re trying! You’ve talked about how reading the work of several female authors of color—like Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison—helped you get to a place where you could “just be.” As you were reading them, did you feel like you were being seen?
I think the first one I was exposed to was Maya Angelou, in probably eighth- or ninth-grade English class, when we read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Being the only black student in class I was like, Oh god, we have to read this? I knew everybody was gonna look at me and think this was my experience. But then I read it, and I was like, Oh my god, this is my experience! It was powerful to read—specifically the parts where she talks about sexual abuse as a child. That was something that I had never told anyone I had gone through, so seeing that someone had written it down in a book that we were reading in class, I was like, Oh my god—this exists in the world?
So that was one of those things where I was like, I need to go to the library and read more books. Because I also didn’t have access to books, unless it was school. (I always talk about my youth struggle of never being able to order anything from the Scholastic catalog that was passed around in class, and always yearning for those books delivered to me the following week!) [Reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings] prompted me to get a library card and just sit among those stacks and read books by women who looked like my self-image. That was important to me, because [those women] lived the life that I saw myself living one day, as a black woman. In my own reality, that didn’t exist for me yet. I was this trans girl who wasn’t out, who wasn’t revealing herself to the world or even to herself. It was so helpful to be able to look into those books and be like, Wow, this is what life could be like for me.
But the top one would be Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. For me, that book was everything. The idea of this woman on a quest to find herself and to find the right kind of love and fulfillment and identity and not being smashed into her community’s fantasies of her—that gave me so much agency. It pushed me to dream of greater possibilities for myself. It just blasted my mind open! You can be free!
What were you like as a teenager?
By the time I turned 13, I had met my best friend, Wendi. When you have a pivotal bestie, you kind of become the same person but you also complement each other. Wendi was so unabashedly unapologetic about who she was that no matter what I did—even when I started transitioning—I could never seem as “out there” as her. I was always slightly in her shadow, which gave me safety. From 12 years old all the way until we were 18, we were like close close close tight. So when you ask me what I was like, I can’t talk about my teenage self without talking about Wendi, because we’re so linked.
But I was very internal, if that makes sense. I think I was a deeper thinker than my best friend was. I enjoyed the library. I enjoyed quiet space, because I didn’t have that at home. But I also wanted attention, right? I was always kind of seen as a natural leader—people listened to me, and what I said mattered. So I never felt as though I was dismissed.
I loved school, and I was someone that people would ask for style advice. I always seemed like I was with it. I wasn’t a popular girl, but people liked me. I wasn’t ever going to be the prettiest girl in school, because I was a girl that wasn’t even supposed to exist. But I hung out with the popular girls, and they were my friends, so that gave me access points. It was almost like I was tolerated because I had these cool friends. So I always felt like I was internal, but I bet a lot of people from high school would remember me. I felt like I was invisible, but I knew I wasn’t, because I was so visible.
I think that once you’re out of high school, you start to understand that the way people see you does not necessarily line up with how you see yourself.
Mm-hmm. I had this sense of like…oh my god, I was such a victim. But then I realized that I’d internalized what people think trans people go through in high school. Like, it was tough, but high school was tough for a lot of people! I’m sure that my multiple layers of identities that I inhabit made it more difficult, but to be honest, I enjoyed high school. I wanted to go every day.
It wasn’t my peers who gave me problems—it was mostly teachers who didn’t understand how I could thrive, how I could be so liked, how I could be in marching band and debate club, how I could be captain of the volleyball team and be elected a student leader and become a peer mediator. They didn’t understand how a trans girl could do all those things, so it’s almost like they didn’t want it to be true.
When I was in the eighth grade, me and Wendi started a petition to get the intermediate school to allow us to wear makeup. [Laughs] I didn’t include this in my book because it’s something I forgot, but other people remembered us going around with a clipboard and some notebook paper and getting people to sign a petition so that we could wear makeup. In my memory [Wendi and I] just walked into school wearing makeup. I don’t remember ever getting in trouble for wearing makeup. I was that student, though, that’s who I was. When I watch Election, I’m like, Oh, I was soooo Reese Witherspoon!
Related, the times I’ve seen you speaking on TV, you seem to have so much grace and poise. Where do you learn those things?
In the mirror!
Do you think [poise is] something you can learn, or do you just embody it?
[Laughs] I feel like because I’ve had to juggle so much, that there’s not much that bothers me. There are a lot of high-pressure things that are stressful—especially live TV appearances! They’re so stressful, no matter what. Even if it’s a “safe” environment with a host that you really like, it’s still super stressful. What grounds me in this idea of having “good composure” or being eloquent or graceful is over-preparedness. Over-preparing puts me at ease and allows me to be present when I’m there. I can control how I act, how I react, how my face looks, how I sit, and what comes out of my mouth, which allows me to appear as though I’m totally at ease. It call comes from just growing up, juggling a lot at home, family dynamics, my own struggles with identity—wanting to be great, you know? Daring for greatness. Juggling all of these things was the boot camp. But preparedness is what grounds me. Knowing your environments so you can expect them, and even knowing the failings of your culture. Like, if you’re going into a racist, capitalist, sexist corporate environment, and you know what it is and its failings, then you can know how to operate around it. You kinda seem like #unbothered.
What do you do when you are suffering, and how do you help your friends when they are suffering?
The space of suffering, I struggle with, because I’m part of a community that’s so steeped in trauma. A lot of people talk about trans women of color and the violence that we deal with. But when we’re together, we don’t talk about that. Because the world will remind us of that. We know that when we walk in the world, we are under attack. We understand that. And so when we get together, we wanna talk about Beyoncé and have a couple cocktails, you know? Hang out and just be. Just be happy. Being happy together builds our sisterhood, but it also builds our resolve and it’s just like, This is revolutionary for us to be in this world and its suffering and to deal with suffering, but be fucking happy, too. We don’t need to sit in it all the time, because we exist in it.
Do you keep inspirational Post-it notes around your workspace?
Well, I do have one that my boyfriend, Aaron…he was listening to an audiobook about the I Love Lucy show—it’s random, but he loves inside-Hollywood stories. The head writer who helped them create that juggernaut of a television show said the two things that matter in Hollywood are ownership and perception. So I have a Post-it note that says ownership + perception.
The work that I do, it really informs me. I want to own the content I make—I don’t want to just be a subject on someone else’s show. I want to be leading those conversations. “Perception” is the idea of definition–I can create the image of myself that I allow others to see. And I can maintain my boundaries in a public world.
Also, I have a sticker on my planner that says It’s your turn to change the world.
Speaking of, I read that you work with Youngist, a platform for young people to do citizen journalism and have an amplified voice in mainstream media. What do you do there?
I mostly just giving editorial advice, but I think it’s so important for any silenced group of people, like young people, to have their own platforms. Everyone loves to talk about millennials—I guess that’s you guys!—but it’s important to give them power to have their own voice. Everyone always asks me, “What advice would you give young people?” and I’m always like, young people know exactly what they wanna do! If they want advice from me, that young person will come to me, you know? They know their experiences. They know what they’re going through. They know who they are. And my job is not to talk down to them, or to give them some aspirational message. It’s just to let them know that they have all the power to determine their own lives, to define them, and to declare them.
Youngist takes the political and pop culture news and really gives [millennials’] take on it, instead of older people always being like, “The millennials are taking selfies! They’re so absorbed with themselves!” It’s like, uh, no, look on YouTube, look at what they’re doing.
It’s nice to hear you say that—those selfie articles are so make-fun-able.
It’s always like, some 50-year-old cisgender white hetero man talking about young girls and what they’re doing. It’s like, this is so pervy, first of all! [Laughs] It’s these people who think all young people are the same. No, they’re not! It’s really simplistic and reductive, and I think young people can just, like, grab their computers and blow shit up. ♦