Woman of the Year: Janet Mock Refuses to Be Invisible

                                                                                                                                                                          

When Time magazine announced Pope Francis as the "Person of the Year," we knew we had to take action. Since Time started what was first called "Man of the Year" in 1927, only four women have been chosen. In 1975, Time declared "American Women" as its person of the year to celebrate the changing roles and successes of American women. While we applaud this move, we still believe there is something inherently wrong with the fact that few women have even been considered throughout the 80-plus years. Just last year, only thirty percent of Time's finalists were women. So, we created our own list of contenders and gave our audience the chance to select VITAMIN Ws "Woman of the Year." Our list comprised women who did and continue to do great things. Our readers chose writer and activist Janet Mock, who won by a landslide. Here's why.

By Maggie Freleng

Writer and activist Janet Mock is unstoppable these days as she's raising the visibility of trans women, women of color, and who ever else has been left out of the discussion of equality and acceptance.

The transplant from Hawaii has been living her dream in New York City after receiving a scholarship to college. Since then she has done outstanding work encouraging trans women to live "visibility" with her #GirlsLikeUs movement and publicly speaks about her intersectional life.  When she found out she was picked as VITAMIN W's  “Woman of the Year,” she was shocked that she was included on a list with a Pakistani teenager who's showing the world the power of girls.  Malala Yousafzai was Mock's choice for "Woman of the Year."

“A trans woman of color on a site with Malala, Janelle Monae, and Michelle Obama? It puts me in as a contemporary in a bizarre way where I don't really feel like I should be there,” she says in an interview with VITAMIN W. “But to the community it is an affirmation of all of us...it is not just my success it is our success.”

Indeed, transgender folk have made huge strides in the past few years.

In 2007 and 2011 transgender inclusion in ENDA was introduced to the Senate. Pop-visibility was particularly huge with Laverne Cox playing a trans woman of color on the show “Orange is the New Black.” And handfuls of transgender teen girls were nominated as homecoming queens last year.

Yet, when Mock, one of the most visible trans women today, transitioned right out of middle school, she didn't have these positive trans role models to look to for inspiration. The trans women she knew were surrounded by stigma and violence, much of which she has also experienced in her life.

Growing up without a positive trans role model, she couldn't wait for the day someone came out as trans, living her life happy and fulfilled. She decided to write the story "she wanted to read.” 

“I wanted to create the portrait I didn't have growing up,” she recalls. “I want to offer a young woman that woman I didn't have growing up. That's what prompted me to share my story in 2011.”

Publicly coming out by sharing her transitioning journey in “Marie Claire” magazine, Mock has since become one of the most visible trans women today.

Her first memoir,“Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More,” comes out February 4.

But the story Mock shared with VITAMIN W is that of trans visibility--what it means to be so visible to the public and have transgender people in the spotlight more than ever before. Visibility can be a double-edged sword. With praise, comes criticism. With breaking down barriers, comes letting the world see your vulnerabilities, but it also reveals your strengths.

AN AUTHENTIC  WOMAN

When she first came out, much of the criticism Mock faced was the perception of  her “privilege” in the transgender community. She could “pass” as a cisgender woman.  

When asked how she reconciles with her "privilege," while many trans folk struggle for acceptance, Mock says, “I try to educate people that trans women whether they can 'pass' or not --they are still natural, real, and authentic' as any other woman that claims to be a woman.”

“I don't think it is something I have to reconcile. It is fact. I am often perceived in the world as a cisgender woman of color, a black woman, and that's how I operate in the world. That doesn't mean I don't experience the world as a trans woman.”

Mock explains that as herself and other  trans people gain more visibility and acceptance, along with that comes more bullying and harassment.

“I think visibility is a double-edged sword,” she says. “We have to be careful of what visibility means.”

For example, she recalls the trans homecoming queen Cassidy Lynn Campbell, who was nominated by her school and made national news. However, with such high visibility she broke down in a heartbreaking YouTube video after being harassed and bullied.

Mock adds that many women fear harassment just walking down the street, but experiencing this as a trans woman heightens that level of fear.

If she is “found out, there is this threat of real violence that could happen beyond just the verbal assaults.”

But on the brighter side of trans visibility, the more trans peoples' stories are told, those of people accomplishing “mundane goals” and teenage dreams help the world see trans people as exactly that: just people.

“We have this window for the next couple of years to push the agenda forward...and give people the space to determine who they are without our judgment or stigmas attached to  them."

LET THE VOICES BE HEARD

Another double-edged sword comes from the media, particularly women's media where trans women especially need their voices to be heard.

“Transgender women are women,” she says. “When we say all women, do we mean all women? Or cisgender women and transgender people?”

Mock says the best way to tell the stories of trans people is coming from trans people themselves otherwise there will still be judgment from an outsider's perspective.

“The best thing [women’s led media sites] can do is hire trans women, trans women of color, trans people period,” she says. “Let them tell their stories and stories of other trans people. That's how things change.”

BUILDING THE BRIDGE

Mock's visibility has often made her the bridge between cisgender women and trans women, and she recognizes her role as such.

“Right now I know being a bridge is necessary in the movement to get cis women to really see trans women as their sisters and really see them as women. I am committed to coalition-building and building those bridges.”

“What is so interesting and amazing to me is my biggest supporters are cisgendered women of color,” she said.

“Cis people are my family.”

Recalling the recent #fuckcispeople hash tag, where transgender people voiced their frustration with the cis community, Mock says, “I can't say fuck all cis people, that's not practical in my life because it is not how I feel. Some trans people have wronged me and I don't say fuck all trans people.”

She says these supporters are some of the most important as the transgender movement needs all kinds of people to support them in their progress.

“When we as a society care, and center the most oppressed and marginalized in our communities...we tend to be a stronger society.”

Thank you Janet for everything you have done and shared with the cis and transgender communities alike. We are honored to add you to the growing collective of stories about women.

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Maggie Freleng is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer focusing on social justice, gender, and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @dixiy89.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Tredwell