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Trans Activist Janet Mock Vows to Speak ‘Truth to Power’ in Trump Era

“It’s always been grassroots, it’s never been mainstream,” writer, media star says of the fight for trans rights.

It’s been six years since Janet Mock, writer and media star, came out as transgender in Marie Claire and became one of the nation’s loudest and most influential advocates for trans rights. Now 34, she has written two successful memoirs, hosted her own online pop culture news show for MSNBC, completed the first season of Never Before, a podcast produced by Lena Dunham, and rubbed elbows with the likes of Ava DuVernay, John Legend and Rep. Maxine Waters. She also married her longtime love, Aaron Tredwell, donning a strapless white gown for the ceremony in Hawaii, with pictures published in Brides magazine.

Mock’s popularity comes at a critical time. Identity politics were an important factor in the 2016 election, with candidates from both sides paying lip service to marginalised groups. But it was the alt-right who locked down the presidency for Donald Trump, a victory which emboldened hundreds of white supremacists, many of them armed, to show their faces at a violent rally in Charlottesville in August. “You will not replace us!” they shouted, the “you” referring to just about anyone who doesn’t identify as white, cisgender, Christian and heterosexual. Mock’s outspokenness about her many intersecting identities – “I’m a black Native Hawaiian trans woman who grew up low income” is more radical than ever now that the hoods are off.

“It created an urgency in me… [to be] even more exact, even more clear, even more conscious of speaking truth to power in the way that’s inclusive,” Mock tells Rolling Stone about the current political climate.

Her second memoir, Surpassing Certainty, was published in June, and she’s also begun writing a biweekly column for Allure called “Beauty Beyond Binaries,” which examines beauty through an intersectional feminist lens. One recent column tackled the topic of “pretty privilege,” particularly as it relates to her experience as a trans woman who can “pass.” Mock’s feminine features and slim frame mean her gender often goes unchecked by those who don’t perceive her as trans. This has given Mock access to traditionally heteronormative spaces without scrutiny or fears for her safety. “If I did not look the way I do, then I would not be on TV or on two book covers,” Mock writes. “This does not mean that I have not put in work and effort and done my job well, but my beauty is not something that I earned. I did not work for it, yet it has opened doors for me.”

Compared to the isolation many trans people experience, Mock was lucky; during her high school years in Honolulu, she joined a small but supportive group of young people who identified as queer. With her mother’s blessing, a local endocrinologist prescribed hormones, the first stage of her medical transition. Money was scarce and, determined to pay for gender confirmation surgery, Mock started doing “survival sex work.” Her freshman year of college, Mock hopped on a plane bound for Bangkok, Thailand, where the surgery was performed. By then, she was already going by the name Janet, in homage to Janet Jackson.

“[Trump] is someone who has not served in the military, who is once again pulling one his tricks. [His decision to ban trans people from military service] furthers the rhetoric that says trans people are not good for life and are not fit for public spaces.”

Mock moved to New York City over a decade ago, having developed a “fixation” thanks to shows like Felicity and Sex and the City. The latter inspired her career path as well: after earning her masters in journalism from NYU in 2006, Mock landed her “dream job” as an editor at People. “I swore with my cocktails and my curls and my heels that I was Carrie Bradshaw,” she told the Pitzer College Class of 2015 during a commencement address.

Her recent success has been accompanied by broader victories in the fight for trans rights. Trans visibility in media is at an all-time high, from Laverne Cox’s portrayal of a trans inmate on Orange Is the New Black to the popularity of Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s emoji-laden Twitter account. In the past few years, a litany of conservative bills barring trans people from using gender-specific public restrooms has been met with diverse crowds of protestors; while some of these bills have passed, others have been struck down or overturned by state courts.

She has called the increased media attention on trans issues and the positive response to trans stories in pop culture “encouraging.” The support of allies, Mock tells Rolling Stone, “frees those who are marginalised, who have less resources as it is, to just work on what they need to do next to actually liberate their people.”

There have also been major setbacks, like President Donald Trump’s recent announcement on Twitter that he was banning trans people from military service. “This is something that has been settled already,” Mock says, referring to the Obama’s administration’s 2016 decision to allow trans people to serve openly in the military. “[Trump] is someone who has not served in the military, who is the quote-unquote ‘Commander-in-Chief,’ who is once again pulling one his tricks. It furthers the rhetoric that says trans people are not good for life and are not fit for public spaces.”

But, Mock adds, trans activists hardly hung their hopes for progress on the results of the November election; the work would continue regardless. “We’ve always done this work under-resourced and underfunded,” Mock says. “It’s always been grassroots, it’s never been mainstream.”

This article is part of our Women of the Future series, featured in issue #793 (available now).