Books + Comics

You Can Be Free: An Interview With Janet Mock

In which we talk about her feminist icons, how teenagers are way cooler than the media thinks, and why she identifies with Tracy Flick.

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 what 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. 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! 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 in 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 invisible, but I knew I wasn’t—I was so visible.

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8 Comments

  • spudzine May 26th, 2014 4:38 PM

    I freaking screamed when I saw Janet Mock’s name on the Rookie homepage. I love her SO. MUCH. She’s one of my role models :)

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • beansprout May 26th, 2014 5:06 PM

    this is a phenomenal interview and i absolutely adore janet mock. protect trans women of color at all costs and elevate their stories always !

  • caitmcqueen May 26th, 2014 5:48 PM

    Wow, I loved Janet Mock before, but I especially loved her comments on her advice to young people! So often when celebrities talk about their younger selves they become very condescending and kind of take away the agency of teenagers, but Janet PERFECTLY summed up how I feel everyday. She is too cool!

  • Nova May 26th, 2014 5:59 PM

    All these good feels from reading this! Rookie, I love you all. Julianne, congratulations on an amazing interview and mad love to Janet Mock for this. Inspirational and necessary! I shall be sharing this far and wide!

  • goodgodlemon May 26th, 2014 11:01 PM

    Yes! She is one of my heroes and this interview is excellent. For anyone interested in more Janet Mock badassery, here is a different sort of interview I liked a lot: http://www.advocate.com/politics/media/2014/04/29/watch-janet-mock-flips-script-cisgender-host

  • Bethany May 27th, 2014 8:58 AM

    Ahh perfect interview is perfect :’)

    And Janet, your friendship, your sisterhood, with Wendi is so lovely! I loved reading about it in Redefining Realness so much! Like there should totally be a ‘my so called life’ style TV show made about you two! Srsly can this actually happen tho?? <3

    much love

    Bethany

    xox

  • obeykid May 27th, 2014 12:55 PM

    This is great.

    The visibility that is talked about here is very important because it creates a stir and like all the different types of love relationships nowadays which seem to be the center of everything to be picked at, other parts of individuality are coming forth like what Janet talks about and lives with everyday.

    There needs to be more role models for people like Janet.

    https://www.etsy.com/shop/obeykid

  • Vlada May 27th, 2014 1:22 PM

    asdfghjkl This is THE interview! Julianne congrats on your work and also, Janet you are so amazing and your book is so helpful.
    You never cease to inspire me thank you

    PS: This is my blog http://speakingofvlada.blogspot.com.es/

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