Transgender author Janet Mock discusses intersectionality at UC Davis

JORDAN KNOWLES / AGGIE FILE

Mock’s memoir chosen for Campus Community Book Project, inspires year of workshops, lectures, panels

On Feb. 5, Janet Mock delivered an hourlong talk at the Mondavi Center followed by both moderator and audience questions. Mock also took part in a Q&A panel alongside UC Davis and Yolo County LGBTQIA advocates earlier that same day at the Mondavi Center. “Redefining Realness: My Path To Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, Mock’s memoir, was chosen for UC Davis’ 2017-18 Campus Community Book Project.

The CCBP is an initiative started to promote dialogue through a book club with “related events, workshops, panels and lectures, exhibits, film screenings and book discussions exploring intersectional advocacy.” Workshops and discussions centered on “Redefining Realness” took place from September of 2017 through February of 2018.

Mock is a transgender activist, bestselling author, journalist and TV host. She was a former staff editor of “People” magazine online, is a contributing editor to “Marie Claire” magazine, has been profiled by The New York Times and produced the HBO documentary “The Trans List.

“Redefining Realness” addresses the intersecting topics of LGBTQIA and racial identities. Mock’s memoir discusses growing up non-cisgender; those who are non-cisgender have a gender identity that may not match their assigned birth sex, including transgender, non-binary and genderfluid.

Mock seeks to fight transphobia, sexism, racism, classism and ableism through interweaving the movements, not separating them. She discussed reframing mainstream feminist and gay activism around “black and brown trans, black and brown queer” and “indigenous queer” narratives, not just around the financially privileged, white and cisgender. According to Mock, society must dismantle the minimizing and discriminatory practices of trans-exclusionary radical feminist aspects of feminism, queer and women’s activism that promote transphobia, classism and racism.  

She also discussed the life and legacy of Sylvia Rivera — a seminal transgender Latinx protester who, in 1973, was nearly booed off a stage at New York City’s Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally. To Mock, this represented the ousting of transgender people from burgeoning gay rights and feminist movements.

“As I stand here on this stage as a black and Native Hawaiian trans woman, I know that I’m only standing here because of the work of those who put their bodies on the line to fight for self-determination,” Mock said. “I know that our movements must remove structural inequity prioritizing white bodies, cis bodies, able bodies, [and] deeply pocketed bodies over others. I also know too that, specifically for trans women of color, when they do see trans women of color, oftentimes its a celebrity or someone on a TV show. I always have to anchor it to folks who are not household names, and tell parts of their stories. That’s why I bring back Sylvia [Rivera] —  I’m not the first trans woman to be on a stage and talk.”

Mock spoke about her activism through the utilization of writing and communication, “wielding” her “pen like a weapon against racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism and the erasure of black and brown indigenous people.”

“I truly believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves, and then to one another, is a revolutionary act,” Mock said. “My activism began with me sitting down at my desk. You realize that the act of telling is not that simple. If it weren’t for writers like Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, I would not be here. If it weren’t for trans activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, I would not be here. I think so often, [for] all of us, specifically  marginalized folks, queer trans folk, people of color, everything is a struggle. Quite early, that’s one of the first messages I learned — be quiet, contain yourself, wait until you find a proper space that you can properly express who you really are.”

Mock returned to the message of the power in merging advocacy spaces so that transgender kids will not have to wait to find a proper space like she did. Intersectionality strives to streamline efforts of marginalized groups by creating an overlapping network of identity-based communities like ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and class. Mock explained how women of color can be erased from discussions of sexism and racism.

“In 1989, [Kimberlé] Crenshaw identified a long-standing problem,” Mock said. “Black women were not truly being seen. We were able to see black men, recognize the racism they face. We’re able to see white women and recognize the sexism they face, but we’re often unable to see black women and recognize the compounding effects of sexism and racism we face. Crenshaw used a simple analogy — a black woman is positioned in the middle of an intersection, exactly where the roads overlapped and met, impacted by both her gender and her race. She did not experience her race and gender separately — she experiences her race and gender simultaneously. Many of us are positioned similarly, impacted not just by our gender and race but our class, our ability, our size, our sexuality, [and] our religion. Intersectionality upholds our lived realities, how our identities complicate and create levels of systematic injustice and marginalization.”

Mock grew up in a culture that taught her the need for intersectional advocacy in navigating communities, where the fight for marginalized identities should be bridged and not at war with one another.

“I was born in the ’80s in Honolulu, Hawaii to a teen mother and two sisters who were teen mothers and a father who struggled with addiction,” Mock said. “I witnessed firsthand the plight of my neighbors: low income people of color. If growing up black, native and poor wasn’t enough, I also had my own identity struggles as a trans kid. As a young person, I struggled deeply and fought hard to be myself and reveal myself, and express myself, in a culture that mandates that if you’re born with certain body parts, you are not allowed to express who you truly are. Growing up, I had a series of battles with my parents from choosing to wear my hair long to having both of my ears pierced. I was acutely aware and uncomfortable of the fact that I was different, and I tried my best to appease my parents, family and peers by hiding deeper in myself.”

While growing up, Mock saw how someone in her community self-actualized their gender identity in a bold way which inspired Mock. The two are still best friends, Mock said.

“In the seventh grade, a gift came into my life,” Mock said. “The way I saw myself began to shift when I saw my best friend Wendi. She was a 12-year-old trans girl — Filipino, had a green bob, wore short shorts and pranced around schools as if she ruled them. Her boldness and her fearlessness to be fully herself, no matter the consequences, pushed me to to proclaim what I secretly knew about myself all along: that I was a girl.”

Mock discussed the struggle of family acceptance growing up both in her book and talk at UC Davis.

“I remember being adamant with my father about hearing my pronouns and him not being able to process it,” Mock said. “I wrote him that letter 18 years ago about calling me by my right pronouns and my name. And if [you] can’t do that, then don’t talk to me anymore. It’s been a journey.”

She was the first member of her family to attend college, and went to New York University for journalism. Mock talked about all of the “mini-compromises” she made when moving to New York City with regard to “passing” — being physically seen as your chosen gender identity through appearance — and choosing to keep her transness to herself. Transgender, nonbinary and gender-fluid folks must be focused on presentation, or presenting, in ways that cisgendered people are not, according to Mock. She said that she is now privileged through leveraging a passing presentation and financial capital.

“I’m super lucky to do the work that I do, but the irony of my success is that it often deludes many into believing that success is possible for all those growing up like I did,” Mock said. ”The reality is, it isn’t. Just because I made it doesn’t mean others are able to do the same. Many trans people, specifically those from low-income communities of color, are invisibilized and ignored. We need to begin to acknowledge that trans women, that black brown and native bodies, are worthy of our protection and care.”

Mock wrote her memoir with accessibility in mind, including definitions for terminology some may be unaware of. She wanted to “make sure that” she was able to be in “spaces where the aunties and the mothers of the girls that” she was fighting “alongside, and for, are watching.” Mock talked about her experience in an interview with Oprah. Oprah said she was “scared” of saying the wrong thing to Mock, and Mock replied: “What are you so afraid of? Ask me anything.”

Mock spoke of the double-edged sword of explanation, ridden with expectations of emotional labor. She has had to balance her willingness to educate and recognizes a well-intended naivety of ignorance with the fact that someone’s identity does not beg justification or teaching. There is often a question of who is forced to educate, and Mock said that she tackles this burden so those less privileged than her do not have to.

“It was a language thing,” Mock said. ”No one wants to say they don’t know, right? So it’s hard. For me, I oftentimes make myself vulnerable to say that I’m gonna take in this stuff so that my sisters and sibling don’t have to do that work. I can distill things and make it plain.”

In the audience question portion, Mock responded to a parent asking about parenting a seven-year-old transgender daughter in politically tumultuous times by telling them to reinforce the concept that their daughter’s “school is her school, [and] knowing that she is not a problem.”

“She is deserving and worthy, and I’d keep on chanting that over and over again,” Mock said.

Mock encouraged the audience to clap, snap and express emotions during the talk. One trans woman who asked a question during the audience Q&A took a moment to mention how a man “felt the need to get up and tell” her “to be a little more quiet.”
“As a trans woman, no — we are not going to be quiet, not now, not ever,” the woman said. ”Everyone that’s in here, you have a responsibility to carry this information forward and resist every single day.”

Hours earlier, a Q&A panel the forum discussion “Reimagining Home: Support Networks and LGBTQIA+ Communities” was held. Sitting on the panel were Mock, Anoosh Jorjorian of Yolo Rainbow Families, director of UC Davis Women’s Resources and Research Center Cecily Nelson-Alford, Community Coordinator for the LGBTQIA+ center Mat Talton, Office Coordinator for the LGBTQIA+ Resource Center Joanna Villegas and Director of the UC Davis Cross Cultural Center Bruce Smail. Smail, who acted as the moderator, asked the five panel members questions that had been previously submitted online by students and the public.

Jorjoria found comfort in her Davis community, which she says has provided an inclusive space for her gender-nonconforming child. Jorjorian said she likes to “check in with asking what kind of pronouns” they want to use “every once a while, not making a big deal out of it.”

“The really great thing now about the younger generations coming up is that my kids never questioned that two women can get married, for example, and it’s happening the same way with gender,” Jorjorian said. “As a parent of a gender-nonconforming kid, there was this really wonderful experience when we moved to Davis, and my younger child went to kindergarten. There was a sixth-grader who was one day helping with kids and the sixth-grader was like, ‘Is this kid a boy or a girl?’ The others were like, ‘Tavi’s both!’”

Jorjorian is also a member of Parents for Equity for Davis Teachers and the founder of Yolo Justice and Action Network. According to Jorjorian, family law in America can become problematic for non-cisgender kids with divorced parents.

“We have issues of children who want to express a certain gender identity, [and] if the parents are divorced, that can be quite contentious,” Jorjorian said. “We’re still trying to navigate how that works. The reassuring thing is that, here in Davis, in Yolo County, in Sacramento County, we have the resources of the Gender Health Center which is prepared to take on those issues and work on negotiating between partners. Even at the law school at UC Davis there are lawyers who can provide services.”

Regarding national political views on gender, Jorjorian expressed anxiety over the ability for non-cisgender kids and people to be themselves among the social enforcing of a gender binary.

“It is a really uncertain time for really young children who are gender non-conforming because of […] the Trump administration,” Jorjorian said. “For young kids who maybe don’t fall within the binary or haven’t expressed a crystalized gender yet, then the question is, ‘Do we change the birth certificate? Do we change the passport if we have to move to Canada because they’re coming after our kids? What kind of legal protections do we need to have in place for our kids?’”

The panel members talked about how their families, friends and support networks function as allies. They grappled with the concept of family, as did Mock in her keynote in her speech at the Mondavi Center later that night, explaining how chosen family differs from birth family and how traditional family can often breed toxic invalidation.

“Cultivating a home space and cultivating who’s invited into that homespace, and in turn is invited to know me more deeply, [is important],” Mock said. “I’ve chosen so many [members of my family], and I’ve been so lucky [that] I’ve been able to choose them and embrace them in my everyday. But, there definitely are people in my life, part of my growing up, who I set boundaries with or no longer engage in that way.”

Mock spoke about opening up the transgender narrative into a human narrative, where non-transgender based topics and themes should involve transgender folks. While accepting the harsh societal reality and danger of being transgender, Mock talked about wanting to explore the successes and triumphs of transgender folks, normalize them and form a narrative beyond the trauma. According to Mock, the fact that “we have to talk about violence all the time” to make people “realize how urgent things are” is problematic.

“People want to hear the statistics, that it’s sad, that we have a hard time — which is real!” Mock said. “But I know my people and myself to be so much more than just the tragedies that happened to us. We’ve always had these hard times, but we’ve also had great resilience and creativity, and we made new networks to take care of ourselves and each other. You can build communities of people who see you fully beyond just the tragedy porn.”

Nelson-Alford explored the power of intersectionality through sheer necessity. Segregating marginalized identities is a scary reality, according to Nelson-Alford.

“There wasn’t space for me to me black, and queer and poor,” Nelson-Alford said. “It was like, ‘Pick one!’ [That’s] one of those things you have to wrestle with when you sit in multiple fields of marginalization.”

Nelson-Alford explored the concept of straight passing, where she is afforded a “great privilege where” she is “not seen as queer.” According to Jororian, “stealth queer” is something that many women experience and opens up the question of societal presumptions of sexual orientation, appearance, presentation and passing.  

When the panelists were asked how they navigate self-care, Talton responded that they learned the best way to take care of themselves is “just to be myself.”

“When I was growing up, it was this narrative that you need to be the respectful black person, you have to do well in school, you have to talk a certain way, dress a certain way,” Talton said. “That restricted how I presented myself to [the] world. How I’ve learned to take care of myself is just to be myself. Wearing clothes I want. If I wanna dress masculine one day, that’s cool; if I wanna dress femme one day, that’s cool. That doesn’t change my gender.”

Talton talked about the role of agency in presentation in grappling academic and workspace settings as a non-cis person. Talton also discussed they/them pronouns and how it’s “always scary” because “there’s still people who say “that’s not a real thing, that’s plural.” Talton has combated this through self-acceptance.

“If they actually care about me, then they should be willing to hear what I have to say,” Talton said.

 

Written by: Aaron Liss — campus@theaggie.org