Speak unspoken truths’: Janet Mock at DePaul

One of the most prominent transgender icons in pop culture appeared at DePaul’s Student Center Monday. Writer and activist Janet Mock gave a presentation and short reading from her new landmark memoir, “Redefining Realness.”

Mock was the editor of People magazine when she agreed to be the subject of the sensational Marie Claire feature, “I Was Born a Boy.” Since coming out as a trans woman, Mock has been involved in various types of activism, founding the #girlslikeus twitter campaign for trans women to connect and empower one another.

She also serves as a board member for the Arcus Foundation, an LGBT advocacy group. Last week, Mock was interviewed by CNN host Piers Morgan. Though the exchange was amiable, she later took issue with statements made by Piers, namely a promotional tweet that misgendered her: “How would you feel if you found out the woman you are dating was formerly a man?”

After receiving some backlash from the trans community, Morgan invited her back to discuss what went wrong. Mock responded to Morgan’s exasperation unapologetically.

The large meeting room held more than 100 seated onlookers, while Mock commandingly took the stage with a PowerPoint presentation. She first introduced herself and detailed her background; she studied journalism at New York University and went on to a successful media career, until she chose to change direction. Mock drew attention to the struggles of trans youth: They are statistically at a high risk for homelessness, joblessness, mental health issues and involvement in the sex trade.

Uncomfortable with being glorified as a role model whose achievements are entirely possible for all people, she made a point to state that she only represented a possibility, and others may not have the opportunity to overcome trials as she had. She cited civil rights activist Audre Lorde’s assertion that “nothing neutralizes creativity quicker than tokenism, that false sense of security fed by a myth of individual solutions.” Mock feared others would use her success as a negation of systemic oppression.

She referenced the work of other radical women of color, including bell hooks and Marsha P. Johnson. Although there were technical difficulties, Mock played audio of Sylvia Rivera, a trans woman and activist from the early 1970s, confronting the cis gendered members of her LGBT community who were excluding trans people. Mock honored other trans women of color who “carry the movement on a grassroots level.”

She spoke of erased history: There is very little recorded about trans people. She expressed her hope that she could use her visibility to give a platform for the more disadvantaged to speak. Mock praised actress Laverne Cox (“Orange is the New Black”) and model Isis King (“America’s Next Top Model”) as trans women who offered the community other possibilities and positive representation. She promoted Cox’s new documentary project about incarcerated trans women.

Throughout her discussion of trans issues, Mock continually referenced the phrase “speak unspoken truths.” She emphasized the importance of voice, representation, and visibility, not for cis onlookers, but for trans youth.

Her relationship to the cause, while rooted in strong political analyses of systemic oppression, was intensely personal. Mock went on to give what she called a “light reading” from “Redefining Realness.”

The excerpts she selected related stories from her childhood, coming out as a woman in high school, and a deconstruction of her emotional connection to pop culture.

The audience was very engaged, enraptured by her earnest idolization of Beyonc’ÛΩ and self-deprecating quips. Then Mock opened the forum for questions. Audience members inquired about her current relationship with her father, what she thought of NYU (“I just know it was really expensive for no reason”), and what went wrong with Piers Morgan.

The third time Morgan was brought up, Mock exasperatedly asked, “Is this an insightful question? I’m really tired of talking about Piers Morgan.” When prompted about why she did not speak up during her first appearance on his show, she admitted: “I was scared. That was my mistake.”

One audience member asked how to deal with hostility from the community, to which Mock replied, “I don’t.” She explained the impact that creating her own community of extended family had on her well-being and advised the asker to look around. “I see people here smiling and nodding.

Those people are your community.” The session came to a reluctant end, and Mock began signing copies of her book. People filed out, buzzing with energy.

Arielle Amiri reflected on the event, “I thought her story was very provocative, her presence was very electric, her pride and self love was very inspiring. However, I do wish she went into the systematic nature of how structures are exclusionary to trans people and people of color.”

Janet Mock’s presentation at DePaul was informative while remaining informal and capturing the spirit of her conversational writing style. “Redefining Realness” is a landmark book in the way of transgender authors, and no amount of talk show controversy can steal the stage.