Transgender rights activist Janet Mock advises: 'Listen to yourself'

October 28, 2015

When Janet Mock sat down to write her memoir, she initially thought she'd do it for an audience of one: herself. But during the writing process, Mock came out in Marie Claire magazine as a transgender woman. The disclosure turned her into an "instant activist and advocate," and not only expanded her audience but prompted her to use her personal story as a springboard for a wider conversation about trans issues.

Fans of Mock's work as advocate, host of the MSNBC digital program "So POPular!" and author of the bestseller "Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More" packed Jefferson 320 at Clark University for a spirited conversation about her life's journey. The book is her account of growing up multiracial, poor, and transgender in America. It offers vital insight into the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of a marginalized and misunderstood population, yet tells a coming-of-age story that taps into the universal human experience of making room for oneself in the world.

Mock sat onstage across from Amy Richter, professor of history and director of the Higgins School for Humanities, who posed questions to Mock, including some supplied by Clark students. Mock recalled how she'd set out to write a book that was strictly personal, but in collaboration with her editor she incorporated information that would enlighten and educate a general audience about the trans experience. "It was the book that needed to be written," she said.

Mock said a common fallacy is that LBGTQ constitutes a unified "community," when in fact it's a movement composed of numerous communities "advocating for the rights, protection and safety of sexually diverse" people. Asked about the creation of safe spaces for LBGTQ students on college campuses, Mock insisted it's also necessary for students to experience "discomfort and risk."

"I did not grow up in a world where I ever felt safe," she recalled. "People come in with different experiences and a lack of understanding, and this leads to complicated conversations. ... You shouldn't be afraid of [these] conversations."

Mock then fielded questions from audience members who queued up at microphones on either side of the room. Asked how she chose which life passages to include in her book, Mock said she selected "moments that were key to my understanding of self," ones that dealt with the "friction between what people were telling me I was supposed to be and what I felt I was supposed to be." She said prior to writing her memoir she talked to family members to get their recollections, and that while she didn't delve into the personal stories of her siblings she did explore her parents' troubled relationship.

It's common for the media to want her to represent all LBGTQ groups, Mock said, but she noted she's part of a "vast movement of communities" who have been doing advocacy work for a long time. Mock recalled that once she moved from her native Hawaii to New York City at the age of 26, she began to "unpack and unlearn the inherent shames and fears" associated with race, class and sexual identity that had made her feel "not worthy of being seen or heard."

Mock acknowledged her experience is a journey "that never quite ends."

"The best thing you can do is listen to yourself and shut out the voices that constantly try to rebut the truths you may be afraid to recognize," she said, drawing applause from the audience.

Mock's presentation was co-sponsored by the Higgins School of Humanities, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Office of the Provost, and the Women's and Gender Studies Program. It was part of the African American Intellectual Culture Series offered by the Higgins School.