Journalist and activist Janet Mock's new memoir, Surpassing Certainty, is a candid account of what is, for so many of us, the defining decade of our lives: our 20s. This is, after all, the time when we finally come into our own, when we often determine our career path, when we establish the friendships and romantic relationships which teach us new things and take us to new places. Whether or not we spend some or all (or none) of our 20s in pursuit of a formal education, there is no doubt that, one way or another, we will be learning some things.
Such was the case with Mock, who recounts this time in her life as being one of self-discovery, as she learned to navigate the world in a body she is now content with, following the sex reassignment surgery she had at 18. In many ways, Mock's highly personal story is universally applicable; we've all dealt with turbulent relationships, intimacy-related fears, and insecurity surrounding professional ambitions. But, of course, Mock's eventual ascension into her current role, as not only a highly respected journalist but also an advocate and activist for equality and inclusion, is uniquely her own and all the more singular for the fact that Mock has accomplished what she has as a trans woman of color in a world full of prejudice.
Below, I talk with Mock about why she wanted to write about this time in her life, what she thinks about our current political reality, and who some of her favorite writers are.
What is it about this period of your life that you felt like you wanted to unpack?
I think there was this overall misconception, in a sense, about my unique journey; I felt that there really was a gap in comprehension. The reason I was able to make the decision at 27 to be public about being trans was because I had this gap in my life, where I was able to focus on myself and what I wanted to do, and [think about] what I wanted to accomplish without necessarily having my gender identity and my transness lead the way for me. And I wasn’t really able to talk about that through the years, and I felt that it really needed to have a text, a record of sorts, that really shows the process I went through. In my first book, Redefining Realness, I largely talked about my coming of age as a trans girl, what it meant to struggle with my identity and my body through middle school and high school, and then, all of a sudden, I was this empowered woman who’s out here speaking and writing and doing all of the media, and I felt I needed to show the years that were kind of missing and untold. The years when it was really complicated, when I didn’t have answers and I wasn’t as confident in my story. I felt like I needed to really unpack those years and really show how a lot of us, as young people, are grappling.
I think revealing the process that went into creating the end goal, instead of just focusing on goals, is something that, in your work as a journalist and as an activist, you really emphasize. But it can be hard to continually put in work! What has helped you do that?
I think what has really always worked was the sense of, number one, recognizing how I am feeling and being completely confident in not knowing, in not having answers, in not having energy, in feeling like I even want to engage, and then, from there, coming from that space after I recognize it. For me, what has always helped was sitting down and writing. I think another thing that has helped was surrounding myself with people who don’t expect me to perform, who don’t expect me to produce, who don’t expect me to do anything but show up empty, and I think we need to make sure that, as we’re grappling with this time period specifically now—where I think that there’s a lot of chaos is going on, there’s a lot of stuff that makes us not want to engage, want to pull back, that make us feel overwhelmed—that we recognize the chaos, and that we surround ourselves in community. What has always helped me throughout my life is a sense of ensuring I pinpointed and found the people that I needed to rely on, because part of the goal of the chaotic time is for us to feel scattered, to separate us, to make us be fearful of speaking out, because if we use the wrong word or the wrong language, someone’s gonna call us out. What we really need to do is center ourselves and each other, and figure out how we can build commonality... and can advocate and defend one another in these times and not go to this myopic separatism. What has always helped me is recognizing where exactly I am, what I’m feeling, and then finding the right people to surround and help me when I need others to advocate for me. During my darkest times, that has enabled me to persevere and resist and to find my own sense of contentment, so that I could then contribute.
There is a lot of conversation right now about finding "balance" and not being biased in journalism and trying to find positive in the Trump administration. There’s a whole New York Times movement to "say something nice" about Trump, which is ridiculous and shows the inanity of trying to be unbiased in the face of hard facts. What do you think a journalist's responsibility is in this political climate?
I think, if anything, we need to shine more light on 45’s not so great qualities. I could talk about the amazingness of the vibrancy of his hair and skin color, but that’s not what I see. [laughs] I think what’s more vital is finding out the ways in which people have figured out very creative ways to organize, to resist, to come together in these times. There are many untold stories of folks in the South, of folks in these Bible Belt towns that are resisting as little blue, bitty, bitty, dots in super red states, who are trying to figure out ways to bring out the vote and trying to actively engage young people, who are trying to figure out ways to educate communities about their lives.
I think [covering] the work, for example, of someone like Miss Major Griffin-Gracey who lived in the Bay Area for a decade and left the organization she spearheaded, TGIJP [Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project]; she’s a black trans women, an elder who’s in her 70s, she was at Stonewall and all of that stuff. She left that and moved to the South to help people organize. That’s one of those stories that I feel is under-told, one about someone who was propelled to go and do work and community organize and give resources and lend her own experience, as someone who has been doing this work for more than five decades, to resist against this current administration that is so intent in constructing and constraining who we are going to protect, and who we say are Americans worthy of protection. For me, I’d rather spend [journalists'] energies doing that.
In terms of this sense of we need to be objective, I think just objectively looking at the facts of what has gone down in this short presidency, that feels like it’s been lifetimes, and reporting on the facts, is something that needs to happen more and more often, because we’re being thrown these random portraits of him signing things, making it look like he’s doing something, when all he’s doing is signing a memo. It’s not an act, it's not a bill, it’s not a proclamation. I think the greatest challenge is communicating to the folk that voted for him, the folks who look to him as their “savior,” as someone they put so much trust into, that he’s not centering and taking care of them, he’s only performing. So I think that’s the work of storytellers and journalists, as well as activists. It’s not for us to pretend that there’s a valid need that we tell two sides of the story. Balance means telling the truth, and being a truth teller as a journalist is showing things exactly as they are. And they’re complex, they’re nuanced, they’re difficult concepts. And it's important to get those concepts to make clear sense to people who are really really seeking guidance, who are seeking unfiltered information.
Telling two sides of the story doesn't make sense when one of the sides of a story is a lie; that's not being objective. In terms of people who are not progressive or liberal, how do you think we should work to educate those people who are not inclined to be accepting of all people?
So many people ask me what are some ways in which we can be better allies, ways in which we can be better comrades to, say, trans views, trans women of color, queer people of color: "How can we help?" And these questions often come from white cis people, whether they’re gay or straight. I think one of the greatest works that folks who have privilege can do is to use their voice and their resources to go and educate and get their people. I think there is this misconception that it’s the job of marginalized people to reach out to the other side and educate them about their experiences. What we kinda forget is that it’s labor and it takes away from marginalized people being able to work on their own liberation and organize themselves.
What we need to fill that gap is to have our comrades, our partners, our allies, go and reach across. They need to go to their kitchen table, their family reunions, their Thanksgiving and summer family getaways, and have those difficult conversations with the problematic uncle, with the father who is a conservative, with the well-meaning mother who’d never speak out on these issues even though she knows it's the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s in these intimate spaces of your own family, your hometown, that some of the most radical work can happen.
I think that me, Janet Mock, trying to go out and have these conversations is not going to be productive, right? Oftentimes we need someone who comes from the same space, someone who knows them, who knows the totality of them and their past, their experiences, to let them know that they’ve gone out in the world and realized that this is the way in which they’ve learned and shifted and evolved and adapted. We all need to figure out ways to make those spaces in conversation. I know, even in my own life, I have those conversations with people that I’m close with. Me and my father differ on so many issues; he doesn’t really think so much about my transness or transpolitics or the way my girlfriends have various and different experiences to me, but I educate him in personal conversations all the time, and that’s the work I feel that I’m supposed to do, reach out to my father and have these conversations. So I hope that everyone can reach into their own pockets or corners of this country and have those kind of difficult layered, complex, courageous conversations.
It is absolutely the responsibility of individual people to go to their communities and families. Are there any writers you look to for inspiration?
Some of my writing heroes would be Maya Angelou; I think I’ve read about four of her memoirs, and she’s someone who was able to segment and tell stories from slices of her life and periods of her life that have been inspirational to me. Audre Lorde is someone I’ve consistently returned to as a source of encouragement. Her words continue to speak about the things that I’ve been taught to be silent about. The work of Zora Neale Hurston has also been a pillar of mine.
And I also think I have so many contemporaries now doing amazing and beautiful work in the world. I think of Darnell Moore. I think about the work of Doreen St. Felix. I like Gabby Sidibe’s new book, and Barbara Smith has always been someone that I’ve loved so much. You get me talking about books, and I’ll list a million books!
You’re listing a bunch of really, really worthy writers though.
Sometimes I turn to... I don’t have this muscle, I’m not a poet, but I turn to poetry so many times. I think about Morgan Parker’s recent collection, There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé. I think about the Vivek Shraya; they have a collection called Even This Page Is White. And I love the work of Jenny Zhang, she has a book called Sour Heart coming out, that’s a collection of short stories that I loved and enjoyed so, so much.
I read Sour Heart recently, and it is amazing.
Isn’t it so good? It’s so, so good. She sent it to me to give a blurb. I was so excited, and I devoured it in a weekend. I was just like, “Oh my god, everyone needs to read this book!” So that makes me very excited that I could plug it in some way.
Surpassing Certainty is available for purchase now