Janet Mock is a memoirist, an activist, a journalist, a podcaster and a trans woman. Her second, most recent book, Surpassing Certainty, is about her twenties, written during her early thirties, which is unusual. But then, it was an eventful time. It covers her first marriage; working as a stripper; her college years and a rape; her move to NYC from her native Hawaii; the beginning of her career in journalism; and navigating life as a young trans woman of colour in a mostly un-woke world. It’s chick-lit meets coming-of-age-story meets self-help guide. It’s straight-talking, self-aware and sometimes wince-inducingly intimate.
Her first book, the New York Times bestseller Redefining Realness, covered her childhood growing up poor, her decision to be a girl while in high school, and engaging in sex work to pay for the gender-reassignment surgery she had in Thailand at 18. In 2011, when she was 26 years old, Mock came out as trans in a story for Marie Claire magazine while she was working as a staff editor at People magazine.
Besides her activism she has made a career out of her love of celebrity and pop culture. She hosts a weekly MSNBC digital series called So POPular! and a celebrity-packed podcast called Never Before; and she’s a contributing editor at Marie Claire and Allure magazines. She also produced the HBO documentary The Trans List. Time has named her “one of the most influential people on the internet” and one of “12 new faces of black leadership”. And she’s only 34 years old.
“I hope that with the writing I do I create space for other people to come forward and feel as confident and assured in themselves and their very complicated truths,” she says.
Broadsheet spoke to Janet Mock before her appearance on Sunday at the Sydney Opera House as part of Antidote, a festival of ideas, art and action.
On being called, and becoming, a “trans activist”
It was baby steps. It took my entire life to get to the point where I could say: “I’m here and I’m ready to contribute. Saying you have this certain experience, and you're not afraid of sharing it, is activism in and of itself.
For me, what’s difficult is people look to me to speak on behalf of other [trans] people. I’m more comfortable with “trans advocate” in the sense that I’m, hopefully, enabling people to learn more, to understand the complicated, interlocking, multilayered experiences of trans folk. But I’m also very conscious that because I’m seen and heard it silences a lot of people, because I become some people’s one example of a trans person in the world. So it’s really complicated for me. I’m not a representative of anyone but myself and my experiences. I like to see myself as a writer and as a journalist and as a storyteller.
On the visibility of trans people
For so long I’d remained silent. I was grappling with a lot of internalised shame. I chose not to lead with my trans-ness early on because I didn’t see examples of a young trans woman out in the world accomplishing her dreams. So I didn’t think it was possible for me to be out and open as my full self in the spaces that I entered and still be let in, to make a living. So choosing that was a way for me to survive.
Because I said something, and because I’ve said that I’m here, I’ve said that I matter and I deserve to be heard, I could link up to an entire community of people. So I’m not so alone anymore, I’m not isolated.
On her podcast Never Before and documentary The Trans List
There’s not much I have in common with Kris Jenner, or Lena Dunham [both guests on Mock’s podcast], but you find those commonalities by sitting down and saying: “Let’s be open enough to share with each other”. And I think that right now specifically, in the world, it’s important we have these difficult and courageous conversations with each other.
With The Trans List, I wanted to get out of the way. I wanted trans people, 12 of them, to sit in front of the camera and tell the world their stories.
I hope my work enables people who have never met a trans person to go, “Huh, I may want to know a little more. Now I know a trans person at a certain level, or have at least shared some of my space and heard words and experiences from them.”
Janet Mock will present Writing Myself Into Existence as part of Antidote at the Sydney Opera House on September 3 at 5pm. Tickets here.