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Nancy Chen

As a speaker, writer, and distinguished advocate for transgender rights, Janet Mock has already left a lasting impression on the world. In addition to her bestselling book, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, Mock has inspired millions through her appearances on CNN, The Colbert Report, HBO’s The OUT List, and HuffPost Live. Using her inspirational writing, speaking, and public appearances, Mock hopes to encourage self-definition and stand beside women of all identities. This week, The Eye’s editor-in-chief Dunni Oduyemi had the chance to talk with Mock about black feminism, Beyoncé, and her favorite places in New York City.  

What got you into journalism and pop culture?

I think my pop culture roots are just from growing up in front of the television, and just, you know, I was raised by two single parents meaning that they kind of shifted us between them, so the television was very much integral to my growing up and like coming of age and coming to identity. … I realized that I wanted to write—I think that was the first thing because I loved to read, and I wanted to write, I wanted to create. Then journalism became this space in which I felt I could practically be a writer, if that makes sense. I had dreams of writing books, but I was like, before that dream can actually happen, where can I go to actually make this writing thing into a profession?

What was it like working at People?

I didn’t work at the magazine, I worked at the dot-com, and so I started working at the dot-com in 2006, and I got to learn about the Internet—meaning writing for the Internet—in a way that was experimental. We still were deadline-driven and all that stuff, but it was a faster pace, we got to do fun things, we got to create fun galleries and get people clicking and talking. So that was exciting for me, and I think that that’s what enabled me to then bring all of that to my own work that I do as an advocate, as someone who believes in Twitter as a platform to connect people, believes in social media full-heartedly. Without the Internet, my book would never have become a bestseller. It’s purely because of the audience that I developed and communicated with on a daily basis.

But working with celebrity stuff, I think that I had a lot of fun with it the first three years—and I worked at People for more than five years—and so after a while I think I kind of outgrew that space, if that makes sense, and I wanted to do more “substantial” things to get out of celebrity stuff. And now that I’ve been able to do this work that I do now, for the past three years, I’m kind of ready to bring a balance of both—to kind of be in this middlebrow space of saying, “I have this social-justice background, this racial-justice background, this gender-justice, feminist background, but I also love pop culture, I also love media, and so how can I engage in both of those things and bring them together?”

I feel like your blog is a good space for that. I really loved the piece you wrote the other day about how Beyoncé helped you claim your feminism. What inspired you to write it?

 … The reason that I wanted to write about it was to say she’s been doing this work for a long time, in a very popular space that’s dismissed. That work isn’t seen as serious work, even though I know from my own personal life that I’ve gotten a lot of my empowerment from her words—what she’s writing in Destiny’s Child—and I didn’t get to say all of that in the piece, but basically I wanted to distill it and say how she has been impactful on me just as much as bell hooks has, just as much as Barbara Smith, and Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. So I wanted to bring her into that space and say that pop culture has such a reach, it’s so powerful, and that we shouldn’t dismiss it because it’s not in the grand world of letters and academia.

Which is kind of what I was going to ask you about—why are people so adamant that Beyoncé, Nicki, and Rihanna aren’t feminist? Do you think that people’s opinions on the forms that black feminism can take are changing?

I feel like black feminists have always been—well black women, period—have always been in the forefront, except that our work and existence has always been invisibilized and trivialized. It’s not until someone cosigns, like a white woman then writes about it and says it, and then it’s seen as something more substantial and real.

I think that even the term “feminist,” that’s what was so difficult to claim as my own. … It was always white, middle-class women centering their experiences and not really centering the experiences of black women, or women of color, or poor women, and definitely not trans women. … I’ve never gotten the amount of anger and frustration and vitriol as when I put up that photo of Beyoncé saying that she’s a feminist. There’s just something that angers so many people about her claiming that—like, “It’s not yours to say that,” and she’s just like, “No, it is mine, and I will continue to say it’s mine.” .... I think that’s what angers a lot of people, and at the same time, she claims a political stance, and we all know that when black women claim their bodies and then also claim their voice, and at the same time saying that “I have power,” I think that’s where it all comes from. Like, “How dare you do that? When we’re letting you be in this space, when we’re letting you be successful,” as if they gave that to her. As if she hasn’t been running around in heels since she was like seven years old.

And I feel like that whole idea of claiming your voice, that also really reminds me of Janet Jackson and “Control.”

Yeah. It’s always like, “How dare you? We let you be here and be successful, how dare you do this?” That’s why I love “Anaconda,” it’s more the Lil’ Kim model—the less respectable model. … Nicki’s being like, “No, I’m a young woman, and I’m gonna have my big ass, my beautiful, big ass, and I’m gonna make you all uncomfortable, and you’re gonna talk about my body, and I don’t give a fuck.” … I just love that there’s also a class at Rutgers, it’s called Politicizing Beyoncé, and his readings are from black feminists. He’s putting Beyoncé in the same canon as Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen, Kindred by Octavia Butler, and the weird thing for me is that Redefining Realness is on the required reading list as well.

When you went on the Melissa Harris-Perry show to talk about Scandal, you wrote about needing the space to be totally yourself and talk about more than just being a trans woman. Are you finding that space more and more?

Yeah, it’s interesting. I give so much props and credits to just Melissa’s own genius. That was my second TV appearance. So the first time I came on she definitely brought me on to be the trans woman of color at the table and have a voice, which is great, and I was appreciative of that, and I’m happy that I can do that work and speak about those very urgent and vital issues. But at the same time, I’m a person, and so for her to see me as a person and not as only a political figure and spokesperson, but to say, “I’m gonna have a Scandal panel, and I know that you love Scandal because I see you on Twitter, so why don’t you come in and be one of the black girls at the table talking about Scandal?” That’s why it’s so important to have us in media, as the creators, as the runners and the faces of our shows.

… So the challenge has been, how do I find other spaces? Or, the bigger challenge will be, how do I create my own space in television and then create the show that I want to be a part of so that I can give people a platform to then show up and be themselves and have conversations with me? I think that’s the point which I’m at now, because I realize that if I want anything to be as good as what Melissa Harris-Perry has built, I’ll have to build it myself.

Is there something that you wish you had read or done or listened to when you were younger? I only started reading bell hooks a year ago, and I wish I’d found her sooner. Is there a voice that you wish you’d found sooner?

That's so funny because I didn’t get introduced to bell hooks until I think my first semester of college as an undergrad, and I read—I think like everyone, which was required reading in Women’s Studies 101—“Feminism is for Everybody.” That was my introduction. I think the one book that I wish I would’ve been able to have access to was all of the books from Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, co-founded by Barbara Smith—who is one of my heroes, who’s a contemporary with Audre Lorde but who’s not as popularized, whose work is not as widely known because it was self-funded, because it was another space in which black women and women of color came together to say, “We need to have our voices and our work be substantiated, and only we can do this because they’re not gonna give us money to do it.”

Is there a myth about feminism that you wish you could debunk?

It goes back to that Beyoncé quote from British Vogue in the spring where she said something like, “I feel like the word is really extreme,” and then she says, “I believe in equality, but I’m happily married, and I love my husband.” So I think that the patriarchy in our society has sound-bited feminism as anti-man, anti-marriage, anti-homemaker, anti-lover, anti-anything that’s “traditional.” So you’re either going to be this respectable mother who loves her husband, or you’re going to be this man-hating, unlikable feminist. … So what I would say is that feminism, to me, is about enabling us to define ourselves, to have all of the choices that we want, and then to help one another have even more choices—whether that’s bodily autonomy, whether that’s choosing who you want to have sex with and who you want to be with, what you want to wear, how you want to present yourself, what your gender expression is, what your sexuality is—all of those things. This coalition of women, men, and nonbinary people, to figure out and create more and more spaces where we can all show up as ourselves and feel liberated and be liberated.

You live in New York—if you want to have a fun day or night where do you like to go?

It matters how I want to turn up. The lower level of turning up, for me, would probably be an afternoon at Housing Works bookstore on Crosby Street in SoHo. I love that space, I love buying super cheap books.

Do they have a copy of your book?

I don’t know if they do, they’re a used bookstore, so it’s all donated. It’s volunteer-run, so all the proceeds go to HIV/AIDS research and supporting people who live with HIV/AIDS. So you can spend your money there, feel good about yourself, go home with a book, so that’s great. I’ve kind of been into Soul Cycle—it sounds so trendy and kind of bougie a little bit, but that’s been working for me. They have Beyoncé classes and Rihanna classes, and you can go there and get your sweat on, and burn like 400 to 600 calories in a 45-minute class, and do choreography, and still get your life. I love Miss Lily’s, which is like a Caribbean jerk chicken joint with frozen Dark ‘n’ Stormies—everything. Jerk chicken wings—everything.

Janet Mock interview transgender beyonce journalism people magazine identity gender feminism
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