A Talk with Janet Mock

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The highlight of the LGBTQIA+ Health Forum, held on Feb. 24 on UCSF’s Mission Bay campus, was aptly entitled Redefining Realness and Surpassing Certainty.

Rather than a presentation or formal interview, we were audience to a conversation between Janet Mock, television and podcast host, producer, black trans activist, and author of bestselling memoirs, and Zoe Samudzi, Graduate Assistant at the UCSF LGBT Resource Center.

Refreshingly, neither felt the need to put on a pretension of formality or acknowledge the packed room of onlookers. The conversation may have been organized for us, but it was between them.

Though they discussed heavy subject material, the discourse took on a casual, comfortable air: Mock and Samudzi frequently joked with one another and used language common to the culture like “clocked,” “the tea,” and “slay”

They discussed the often-contentious relationship between trans and cis women. Mock noted how trans women do not exist in isolation – growing up in Hawaii, mostly everyone knew her story eventually, creating a tense dating scene.

Cis women, threatened by Mock’s ability to pull men that were “fine as fuck,” as she puts it, would “out” her as a form of retaliation. In this competitive space, cis women wielded Mock’s trans identity against her, pushing Mock to leave Hawaii to the continental United States where she could regain a sense of agency.

“TERFs,” she called them, “trans-exclusionary radical feminists.” These women may harbor solidarity with one another, but don’t consider trans women as sisters.

The subject of feminism resurfaced a few times during their conversation, though Mock seemed unconcerned with attempting to give scholarly definitions or serving up packaged interpretations for the masses. Early on, Samudzi asked her about her relationship to femininity as a black trans woman.

“I don’t think about that stuff,” Mock responded.

She just follows whatever gives her a “semblance of joy, semblance of slayage, gets me closer to Rihanna goals.”

Mock offered broad but wise strokes in describing what intersectional feminism looks like. In her eyes, it doesn’t involve policing, but does involve showing up and respectfully debating while listening; it involves self-awareness, knowing who are not your people and not engaging with those people.

“We also had the blueprints of this,” she said, in organizations like the Combahee River Collective and feminists like Barbara Smith.

She summarized it bluntly, “Shut up when you don’t have an answer.”

In a particular experience highlighting a lack of intersectional feminism, Mock recalled her time with the Women’s March, where she was called upon its policy table to help draft its Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles and to also give a speech.

Without consultation, she noticed that her line about standing in solidarity with sex workers was struck from the document at the behest of a white woman.

Disappointingly, despite the supposed principles of the march, the group initially accepted the revision (Mock was later able to fight for its reinclusion) because it came from a prominent white woman.

“Her voice mattered more,” Mock said. “[The incident] reminded me of why I was rooted to the stage.”

It gave her more passion to speak and share her experience and politics. Alluding to the importance of intersectional feminism, she emphasized how our liberations are inextricably linked.

As she quoted from her speech, “I am my sister’s keeper.”

In the later half of the conversation (and given the subject matter of the forum), Samudzi steered conversation towards health, asking Mock what well-being is to her.

“For me it looks like boundaries, boundaries help me feel safe,” Mock said. “The only safe space in the world is the space you make for yourself.”

Learning to say no without explanation was key to a healthy life.

But what does she consider revolutionary health? As an advocate and not a clinician, Mock’s answers were simple and personal.

“It’s not being afraid to go to the doctor,” she said.

She still considers the experience of seeing a physician to be deeply traumatizing and anxiety-inducing. And when a group is deterred from accessing healthcare, navigating resources becomes an extra hurdle along the way.

“When you grow up not being cared for, you don’t know what care looks like.”

The LGBTQIA+ Health Forum showed me that we’re making headway in understanding the unique needs of the community by recognizing humanity and identity first and adapting healthcare from there.

As Mock puts it, “it ain’t revolutionary yet,” but I believe we’ll get there.