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.

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 [for me], but I still 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 it. 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 naturally embody it?

[Laughs] I feel like because I’ve had to juggle so much, 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 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. 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 all 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. 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 create that juggernaut of a television show said that 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 give 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. 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. ♦

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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/