Janet Mock, Writer, Producer & Director
Janet Mock is making her pen the most potent weapon in fighting for transgender rights. Her two bestselling memoirs shine a light on growing up transgender and as a writer for the TV series “Pose,” she’s bringing dimension to lives all too often stereotyped and sidelined.
Writer, Producer & Director
With two bestselling memoirs and as a writer on FX’s “Pose,” activist Janet Mock is writing trans lives back into the American story.
Janet Mock, Writer, Producer & Director
Lost in Labels: As a child growing up in Hawaii, Mock knew she was a girl, but the world insisted on telling her otherwise. As one of only a few black kids at her school, the labeling didn’t stop with binary bias. “There still was a social order in terms of race and racism that was ingrained in a lot of the students at the time. So I grappled with harassment, both for my race and my gender,” says Mock. “One of the first things that happened in school is that you're separated by gender. Girls on one side, boys on the other side. Girls go to this restroom, boys go to that restroom. And that was one of my first moments of being confronted with being labeled and being told who I was and what I could do.”
Owning It: For Mock, coming of age was also a time of coming out with the help of another trans student. “She represented all that I wanted to be in the world but was too afraid to embrace. And she just said, ‘I know who you are—stop pretending.’ And in calling me out, she brought me in, and offered me a safe space to just really figure out who I was.” Mock introduced herself to her classmates as Janet at the start of 10th grade.
Breaking Her Own News: Mock studied journalism at NYU and landed a dream job at People.com. But while she was covering celebrity stories, she was hiding her own. In 2010, after a wave of LGBT hate crimes, it was time to speak out. “I had a story to tell not only about growing up trans but also growing up as a black child in a world where poor people and LGBT people are not given the resources to truly be and to thrive in the world.”
Shifting Focus: In 2017, Mock made the switch from page to sound stage, becoming a writer for the FX series Pose, which centers around ballroom culture in the ’80s and features the largest cast of trans actors ever. “I was afraid of doing a job that I had never done before, but I just knew I should be in the writers’ room to write a series that centers on trans women not as sidekicks or as the martyrs who die to teach cisgender characters what it means to be brave and to be oneself,” says Mock. “They are the heroines I’ve been looking for.”
JANET MOCK: I've always known that I was a girl. I didn't have language to pinpoint why. But I just remember being labeled and being told who I was.
But my gender wasn't the only thing that was pointed out to me. I grappled with harassment, both for my race and also for my gender. For any trans person, one of the most pivotal times in your life is when you're in puberty and your body begins to change. And at that time I was just really lucky to cross paths with a young trans woman who was in my same grade. I remember Wendi kind of passing-- or really, not passing by me, but prancing by me at the playground. And she just kind of said, basically, I know who you are, and stop pretending.
And in calling me out, she brought me in and offered me a safe space to just really figure out who I was, and to do that in friendship and in sisterhood.
I learned pretty quickly that all we want to do is to be listened to and to be truly heard and to be seen. Listening to people's stories, and having the power to then frame those stories and contextualize them really became what I wanted to do in life. I started reading magazines. And it was through Wendi. She had subscriptions to "Teen People" and I got "Vibe". And those two magazines at the time meant everything to me.
"Vibe" was edited by this openly gay man, and he put Destiny's Child on the magazine. And Beyonce was framed as the Supremes, as Diana Ross, and it was so legendary. And I remember then being, like, wow, if I was an editor of the magazine, I would have made such a bold choice, too. Then it got into my brain that oh, not only do I want to write, but maybe there's a way for me to make a living out of this.
For so long, I think I hid behind popular culture and hid behind the stories of very famous people, in a way, to survive, and not on my own. In late 2010, there was these rash of LGBT suicides and bullying and harassment that became kind of like the story of the moment, that a lot of people were standing up and telling their stories about when they were young and when they were ostracized and when they were bullied.
And there was no adult trans people that I was seeing in media telling their stories. I had a story to tell, not only about growing up trans, but also growing up as a black child in a world where young people and poor people and LGBT people are not given the resources to truly thrive in the world.
I was afraid of doing the job that I had not ever done before. But I just knew that I should be in the writers' room to write a series that, for the first time, centers trans women not as the sidekicks or as the martyrs who died to teach the cis gender characters what it means to be brave and to be oneself. I do the work that I do so that girls everywhere growing up like I did not only see themselves, but realize that they, too, are deserving of an audience and deserving of being heard. They are the heroines. And they are the heroines that I've been looking for.
I was hired as a writer/researcher who wrote these pieces about celebrities' lives. And I remember when that position was transferring to become a permanent position, and I was hoping to really get it. And I believed that it was mine.
And when I went to my HR interview, the feedback that I got, that I heard, which I was not supposed to hear, was that I was framed as someone that could be a potential management problem, because I was seen as a diva. And I thought it was interesting the way in which assertive women, assertive black women are often framed as these tropes that Melissa Harris-Perry has talked about in her work-- navigating crooked rooms with Jezebels, and sapphires, and the angry black woman.
As a 22-year-old, I was already being framed like this within corporate America. And so it's really informed the ways in which I think about not only feminism, but what I think about when we say the term "woman." I think that oftentimes we're talking about a very specific woman, and we're not talking about black women, and disabled women, and largely women of color, who don't often fit the ideals of what we say is woman. And oftentimes too we're not talking about trans women. And so for me, all of those experiences are kind of what I bring to the work that I do.
JANET: I remember after the summer of my freshman year in high school, I finally began to socially and medically transition. And so I was going by Janet. I was taking hormones. I was living my life in my true identity and my true gender. And so when I returned to school in the 10th grade, we had a back to school kind of assembly for sophomores. And I remember, it was my turn to go on stage and I was finally confident in the way that I was presenting. I was wearing clothes that I chose with the name that I chose. And I stood on that stage and grabbed the microphone and reintroduced myself at 15 as Janet. I acknowledged to my classmates and to my peers that, I know that you all knew me in a certain way in the ninth grade, but this is who I am. And I'm one of your class leaders.
And that was probably the first time that I truly revealed who I was on a public stage and really just kind of owned who I was. When I look back, that kind of self-assuredness still kind of stuns me, because I couldn't imagine being a 15-year-old standing on such a stage going through these life experiences and this shift in my life and standing there and kind of telling people to follow my lead and to respect my name, my pronouns, and my gender.
- When Beyoncé released "Self-Titled" in 2013, I remember I was just on the verge of about to release my first book, "Redefining Realness." And like the world, I stopped, I listened, I watched, and I saw her not only embody what it meant to be a strong woman, but she added a term to herself. She embraced a label that I think that, for so often, specifically in popular culture, was seen as something that was not celebratory, that was something that was seen as frigid, as taken too seriously, or had a certain image. And for this powerful woman to say that I am a feminist and to then provide her listeners with a definition of what it meant to be a feminist was really powerful for me.
And it really pushed me to, for the first time, also embrace that term, because what she was saying, which was about the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, was something that I believe that I was already doing, but I was too afraid to embrace that label, another label, onto myself. And so I said, why not become a feminist activist, a feminist storyteller, a black feminist storyteller and activist? So I embraced that, and it really became, I think-- well, that album alone-- just became kind of this amazing body of work that, I think, has influenced the world and, of course, influenced me in my own political viewing of myself.