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BOOKS Janet Mock paves way for LGBTQ storytellers
Extended for the online edition of Windy City Times
by Angelique Smith

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As a writer, advocate and in-demand public speaker, Janet Mock is a media powerhouse.

She is the founder of #GirlsLikeUs, which celebrates trans womanhood, and was recently named a contributing editor for Allure magazine where she also started a biweekly column around the idea of beauty culture being inclusive and affirming.

In her first book—the groundbreaking New York Times best-seller Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More—she provided a vivid look at her early life with a forthrightness that can only come with introspection, tenacity and power of self.

Mock spoke with Windy City Times about her new book, Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me.

Windy City Times: I'm excited to hear you speak at Printer's Row Lit Fest! Tell us about your new book.

Janet Mock: Surpassing Certainty is a continuation of Redefining Realness, which was centered around my childhood and girlhood. It was about my story of transition, with the unique lens of being a young person of color who grew up in low income communities. Surpassing Certainty picks up with me in college. With the whole medical and social transition behind me, I felt very embodied in my identity and my body. It's about grappling with living in this body as a young woman while doing all of the things that a lot of young people do: going to college, leaving home for the first time, grappling with super problematic and irritating roommates, moving to a new big city, getting jobs and bringing your identity to those spaces.

One of the unique things I think the book lends instead of other twentysomething narratives, is that it really centers a young trans woman of color's experience who is not necessarily open about being trans. I think there's an interesting, never-told-before perspective there and that's what led me to tell this deeply personal story.

WCT: Do you feel like the intent has changed from one book to the next in terms of why you're sharing your story or that your audience might be different now that you've had more exposure?

JM: I think the biggest difference for me was what I felt the culture needed. With Redefining Realness, our culture was not at the place of trans visibility it is now. I think that people now understand what trans, at least on a basic level, means. We have figures like Caitlyn Jenner, of course, and Laverne Cox. When I was working on Redefining Realness, you couldn't point to people out in media in that same way. This time I don't have to do a lot of the 101 work. There was a lot of explanatory commas in Redefining Realness, literally it was like, "Transgender, an umbrella term that…" I didn't do as many statistics or contextualizing this time. Surpassing Certainty really framed me as a writer to be able to center my personal narrative. It was about a young woman's journey to figuring herself out, so that was freeing in a sense.

WCT: In Redefining Realness, I found your explanation of using the term "passing," versus "being," profound.

JM: I don't really like the term "passing." It creates this relationship in which trans people are actively engaging in a process of trying to blend in or being seen as cisgender people, which creates this hierarchy in which cis people become the standard of what we say is "acceptable" or "authentic."

The way in which other people view our bodies or our identities based on their own shortcomings, mythologies or misconceptions … that's on them, it's not on us. And it's already a lot to just be ourselves and then to also be labeled as, "You're trying to pass yourself off as being real and you're not real." In actuality, we know we are real and we also know that we don't have to authenticate that for anyone. I've always tried to shift and challenge the senses around passing.

WCT: When you talked about your political awakening in your first book, I was struck by the sentence: "I was grateful for the invitation but unfulfilled by the company," when you were talking about the lack of representation and access for marginalized groups within the mainstream LGBT movement. Do you think the community is making progress in terms of being more intersectional?

JM: I'm not really too much concerned about larger, mainstream organizations. I think they do what they do and they do that well in terms of speaking to the masses about certain segments of "respectable" LGBT people. I am energized by grassroots organizations that are doing on the ground, day-to-day acts of work.

I think about the Trans Justice Funding Project, which gives out small grants to grassroots organizations; SNaP Coalition in Atlanta is doing so much on anti-violence, criminalization and intervention; Miss Major Griffin-Gracy's organization [the Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project], run by Janetta Johnson; the Silvia Rivera Law Project and Marsha's House; the TransLatin@ Coalition—all of these wonderful organizations which are underfunded and underutilized, yet so necessary in these particular times.

As someone who is often seen and heard on levels in which most people are not, I try to always speak the names and the work of people who are doing vital everyday work with trans communities around the country. There are great revolutionaries everywhere who need our support, dollars, voices and volunteering. I hope to continue to point people toward those who are centering folk who are often forgotten: LGBT people of color, LGBT youth, sex workers, the undocumented. ... For me, it's about concentrating my energies rather than trying to check and challenge the establishment of larger LGBT mainstream orgs.

WCT: So far in 2017, there have been more than 50 bills targeting the trans community and at least 11 trans people have been killed by violent means. Is there anything that brings you hope and light in the wake of these tragedies?

JM: I think the number-one thing is that trans folks—specifically trans and queer folk of color—have always resisted and organized; we've always done things that were never, ever funded.

We've created new possibilities and blueprints that were never there before we were there. I see trans folk on the frontline across so many different coalitions of resistance. I think of Elle Hearns; the folks who are uprising in North Carolina; the queer Black women who created the Black Lives Matter movement—Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza. Being able to talk to people in the community to support their work and vice versa. Going from a model of self-care to communal care is something that encourages me. In these trying times, where we have an administration that's constricting and shrinking who we say we will help and protect, I am encouraged by the revolutionary work of so many leaders in the movement. I concentrate there, I follow their lead and I try my best to link arms. That helps me to survive.

WCT: What's next for you?

JM: I'm working on a couple of television projects right now, one of which is a documentary series on gender around the world. I also launched a conversation series podcast called "Never Before," with Pineapple Street Media. My first episode just premiered with one of my heroes, Beyonce, with her mother, Mrs. Tina Knowles Lawson.

For me, it's continuing to tell stories to help shape, shift and challenge the conversations that we're having. I think what's important in this movement toward greater visibility and inclusion is not just seeing our bodies and seeing us as interviewees but us being the interviewers, having the microphone, writing the articles, producing the projects. It's continuing to do that storytelling and hopefully widen the space so that other folks feel confident enough to come in and blow the space up.

Janet Mock will be appearing at Printer's Row Lit Fest in Chicago on Saturday, June 10. Her book, Surpassing Certainty, will be available Tuesday, June 13.

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