'Surpassing Certainty': Janet Mock talks race, transgender rights and her new memoir

BySeamus Kirst

Janet Mock is a renaissance woman: Ever since she publicly came out as trans in a 2011 Marie Claire article, the former editor of People has used her platform to advocate for transgender rights and to elevate trans voices in the media, which had previously been largely ignored. Shortly after her announcement, Mock launched her #GirlsLikeUs social media campaign to create an internet space "by and for trans women."

But that was only the beginning. In 2014, Mock continued to practice storytelling as a means of speaking truth to power when she published her New York Times bestselling memoir, Redefining Realness, which focuses on her growing up trans, multiracial and low income. In January, she spoke at the Women’s March, and on May 30, she launched her new podcast, Never Before, where she and guests like Miss Tina Knowles-Lawson share their insights and experiences as they get to the core of who they are. On June 13, Mock continued her support for transgender rights with the release of her second book, Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me, which relays her journey of learning to love herself as she forged her path in the media.

Mic recently spoke with Mock over the phone about Surpassing Certainty, Never Before, the importance of elevating the voices of people of color — particularly trans people of color — in both the media and entertainment, and how much media coverage of pop culture, social justice and politics has been merging recently in the U.S. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Janet Mock

Mic: What was your experience like writing Surpassing Certainty after having already written the deeply personal Redefining Realness?

Janet Mock: My first book was very accessible in the sense that it gave people the language and the critical intersectional lens to read a transition memoir. It was great to be able to have that work already out there, and to be able to free myself up and just be able focus on my own young woman's journey of trying to figure out who I was. It was really liberating to be able to center my personal narrative without having to constantly offer people language, understanding or explanations about my "marginalized experience."

What do you find most challenging in writing about intersectionality while blending your personal narrative with greater sociological points?

JM: Because I'm writing in a genre like memoir, it is kind of challenging to center myself and my narrative while also bringing all of my people and my communities in with me as I'm telling my very personal story.

For me, it's always about trying to communicate nuance and complication, and the fact that none of us are just one thing. We are all many things, and we experience all of those things and those identities and those facets of ourselves simultaneously, not separately. When I talk about race, I have to also talk about class and gender. I cannot leave race or gender or class behind. I am always trying to ensure that I am complicating even my own personal narrative. It's always a challenge to get across that nuance of one person’s journey.

What can the media do as an industry to elevate the voices of historically underrepresented people?

JM: I am in a community with hundreds of trans folk of color, so I know that those voices are there, and all we have to do is follow their lead.

Oftentimes the hurdles are too high — especially when we're talking about a media landscape — for underrepresented folks to be able to be heard and seen, or to have their pieces published, or shows created or podcasts produced.

One of the things I've been noticing is an important shift — when there is a piece or topic that is trans-related, I'm seeing more and more trans writers being the voices in terms of doing the reporting or writing the personal essays. Now I would like to see more of those voices also be voices of color.

If we're talking about the violence that is facing trans folk of color, specifically trans women of color, I think that it's essential we include the voices of activists on the ground who are doing the work to combat that violence. Simultaneously, we also need to uplift trans journalists and emerging media makers as well so that they can actually helm those pieces and not only be seen as sources.

Your new podcast Never Before was released at almost the same time as your new book. What do you see as the strengths of storytelling through each of those mediums?

JM: It's all about the thread of storytelling and using storytelling as a way of making people feel and think differently. Through all of my storytelling mediums I aim to complicate and challenge the way people learned about the world. I hope to leave people with a semblance of some kind of commonality, and if they don't have a commonality, to at least give them a sense as to why they should be tethered to the liberation of others.

Though I do center myself in a lot of my writing and the content I create, my podcast Never Before is more about me listening and asking questions.

That's why I really love Never Before as a podcast. I get to sit there and bear testimony, but I also get to bear witness to another person's testimony. Though there are so many differences between my guests and me on so many levels, there are always commonalities. We are sitting together in this intimate space and sharing ourselves in a safe, affirming and overall inclusive environment that I hope becomes a model for other media makers. There is an authentic power in the way you frame your own story and also tell other people's stories.

I hope young trans and queer people are able to see there is a young trans woman of color journalist who is creating her own content and sharing space with some of the world's most famous people. I want them to think, "Oh, I can go out and do all of the things I want to do in the world, too." When I was growing up, I didn't have that someone who was out in the world accomplishing and being seen and heard in a really humane, but also nuanced and not controlled, way.

You talk in the book about having to choose between hard, political news and cultural coverage when you were in journalism school. How has that rigid separation changed?

JM: I think entertainment and news media are merging now more than ever before because we have an audience that is so deeply engaged in a conversation with mainstream media. People write essays that are using large pop culture moments to tell even larger stories about what these cultural living artifacts are saying about the times we live in, how we think and how we need to expand representation.

You now have actresses in Hollywood who are talking about reproductive rights, who are fighting back in terms of resisting the current administration or who are fighting against the wage gap and the fact they aren't being paid as much as male counterparts. At the end of day, it's complicated, intersectional people who are creating content, so it gives us a larger jumping point to have these deeper, national conversations.

You write about mental health and therapy in the book. Why was this so important to you?

JM: I know how essential it is to have mental health resources. Therapy was a resource that I didn't even know existed, as no one in my family had access to that type of mental health care. For me to have had access really saved me from a time in which I was overwhelmed and feeling like there was no way out.

A lot of my work is about just releasing stigma through storytelling, so I felt therapy was important to write about especially for communities of color where we are often told you can just pray it away or that therapy is white people stuff. With all that's going on in the world, and all of the historical trauma and familial trauma in under-resourced communities, especially of color, we need to know that these resources are available. We need to know that people who look like us have also tapped into these resources as a way to take care of themselves. Writing about therapy shows people this is one possible way to take care of yourself in a world that is often trying to push us away or say we should not exist or thrive.

Are the stakes different for Surpassing Certainty than Redefining Realness in the sense of the latter coming out during the President Donald Trump-era of U.S. politics?

JM: My book was done by the time Trump was elected, so he was not a thought to me in terms of the writing of my own story. A lot of Surpassing Certainty is also framed in my 20s when our president was George W. Bush. So, in that sense, it's more about my own political consciousness having come of age in a time when 9/11 happened. I was a freshman in college for 9/11, so I grappled with seeing my friends and peers being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and that really shaped my consciousness in a way I kind of write about in the book.

I have lived through three administrations in my adult consciousness. I don't think the way I tell stories has shifted or changed because of an administration, but I do feel a greater sense of urgency to ensure I am politically active and vocal today. I need to ensure I am uplifting the voices and experiences of those who are on the ground doing the work, whether that's through political action, community organizing, grassroots nonprofits or trans organizations. I always try to include them in the work I am doing to show that I am not doing this work in a silo. I do this work with a lot of comrades are who struggling and resisting in this current political atmosphere.

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