Define yourself, Janet Mock said Tuesday night, because if you don’t, other people will define you—and they will “chew you up and spit you out.”
In a wide-ranging discussion with about 200 students, faculty and community members at Carnegie Mellon University, Mock said her strong sense of self has helped her endure her time in the media spotlight—including hostility from people such as Piers Morgan.
The discussion was moderated by Suzie Silver, an associate professor of art at CMU, and Shanara Reid-Brinkley, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Pittsburgh. But most of the questions Mock answered came from the audience—including the question, how does Mock stay calm and centered under pressure?
“I try to never internalize other people’s ‘stuff,'” said Mock, whose new memoir, Redefining Realness, has become a New York Times bestseller. “Their interactions with me have nothing to do with me, and have everything to do with them. Even when people say really awful stuff to me, it doesn’t phase me.”
When all else fails, she said, “I unplug for a while.”
A journalist and former editor at People.com, Mock came out as a transwoman in an article for Marie Claire in 2011 and since then has become a somewhat-reluctant spokeswoman for a younger, more vocal generation of transgender people.
“I’m a little bit uncomfortable with this being held up on a pedestal, as if there’s only one kind of trans person,” Mock said. “It’s something that I’m kind of grappling with right now.”
Although the media has tended to define her in terms of her “transness,” Mock said her interactions with the world as a person of color have been at least as important, if not more important.
After Morgan, on his now-canceled CNN talk show, asked Mock questions that seemed ill-informed, if not openly transphobic, Mock said it was women of color who rallied to her side—not, by and large, the LGBTQ community.
“A lot of prominent black women reached out to me, but not many (white) trans women reached out to me,” Mock said. And, she said, some of the things written on LGBTQ blogs about the Morgan interview carried a whiff of casual racism, blaming Mock for the way she answered Morgan’s questions, and not Morgan for the way he asked them.
There is a class and racial divide between poorer LGBTQ people and wealthier, middle-class LGBTQ people, she said. “When the (Defense of Marriage Act) was struck down, I saw a (cisgender) white male quoted saying, ‘Discrimination is over!’ and I just thought—’Whoa, really?'” Mock said. “People have all sorts of blinders on.”
Queer black people “are engaged in conversations” about race and class, Mock said, “but I feel like the ‘coalition building’ (with the white queer community) hasn’t really happened yet.”
Developing her strong sense of self was a survival mechanism for Mock, who was identified as male at birth but strongly identified as female from a young age. “Trans and queer people learn very early on to be silent about our sense of self, our desires, our attractions,” Mock said. “Silence sort of reinforces a sense of shame. Voicing who I was unlocked and unpacked a lot of my shame.”
By the age of 15, Mock had told her family and friends she would no longer answer to “Charles.” She took the name “Janet” in honor of Janet Jackson, whose 1997 album The Velvet Rope was a kind of soundtrack to Mock’s childhood.
“There is power in naming yourself—in proclaiming to the world that this is who you are,” she said,
Growing up in Hawaii, it was the writing of women of color, such as Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou, that spoke to Mock, who remembers spending many hours in the library.
“I can count on maybe one hand books that have been written by trans women of color,” Mock said, “so that wasn’t where I found my reflection. I found my reflection in these women that I envisioned being myself.”
Developing a strong sense of self-worth is especially important for trans people, who are often accused of being artificial or false. “We should all have the opportunity to define what is authentic and real for ourselves,” Mock said.
One student asked Mock about the recent controversy involving the Logo TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” One episode of the show featured a contest called “Female or Shemale,” in which panelists had to look at a photo of a body part and decide whether the person was a genetic female or a male-bodied person.
“Shemale” is a word most often associated with pornography. Although the lines between drag and transgender are sometimes blurred, Mock said, the drag world has a history of “taking on these terms that are not being used derogatorily toward drag queens, but they are used derogatorily—often violently—toward transwomen.”
Mock said RuPaul was an important inspiration for her as a child, but that his attitudes were reflective of a gay male sensibility—not a transgender sensibility.
“I don’t understand why it’s a controversy now,” Mock said, “because RuPaul has been doing this for years, and most of the fans of his shows tend to be gay, (non-trans) people, who are not speaking out about it.”
Speaking out is important, Mock said, especially for people who have been given opportunities. Mock said she is uncomfortable being called an “advocate” or an “activist” for trans people, but she did write her book to try to educate people about transgender issues.
“Progress isn’t just about being the first, and walking through a door,” she said. “Progress is about holding that door open for others to follow.”