After watching the film I was struck by the undeniable power of testimony, the collective narrative of being unapologetically yourself and the fact that despite the unifying acronym there is not one LGBT experience. And that’s a good thing. Yet, I did feel lonely being the only trans person in the documentary, which is poignantly representative of the movement’s current focus that tends to see trans people as an afterthought, a gesture of inclusivity.
One person cannot represent anyone but themselves. The burden of representation is too heavy for one to carry. My journey isn’t reflective of all trans women, men and people’s lives (for example I say “fully transitioned” in the film, which varies for all trans people, and refer to my relationship with my body as “the wrong equipment” – some feel theirs is in fact “right”). The number of people of color featured is wonderful and so is the fabulousness of drag legend Lady Bunny (who adamantly points out drag queens’ and street people’s – let’s not forget about trans women’s – presence at the Stonewall Riots) and Twiggy Pucci Garcon (who represented the ball community and mentioned my legendary sisters there) – all of which helps diversify the portrait of race and gender.
I still find myself struck by the fact that I, this brown trans girl from Kalihi, a low-income, resilient town in Honolulu, was sharing cinematic space with groundbreakers, from Ellen DeGeneres and Wanda Sykes to Larry Kramer and Lupe Valdez. It dawned on me as I sat down in that dark theater that my life, my story, a snapshot of my existence will forever be archived as part of our movement.
A little girl growing up like I did will be able to see herself in this film. She will not have to hunt down the footage, like my dear sister Reina Gossett had to when she sought and uncovered footage of Sylvia Rivera at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally. This will be on HBO, not hidden in archives or blazed into the faulty memory bank of witnesses.
Personal stories are vital to culture change and I believe that this film will be pivotal to changing people’s perceptions about the LGBT community, but personal narratives are not everything. True progress occurs when we’re able to contextualize our personal experiences and come to the realization that we are part of a movement of people struggling with similar and dissimilar systemic oppressions.
As reported in Vanity Fair, the fight for marriage was a major catalyst for the creation of this project. And it’s with a note of bittersweetness that I celebrate the premiere of this film and the striking down of DOMA. The freedom to marry is important (it took decades of organizing, movement resources and millions of dollars), as I said on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry (clip embedded below) on Saturday, but so are daily access issues that low-income, homeless, incarcerated, HIV-living, immigrant, jobless and LGBT communities of color face, which frankly are not sexy issues that make passersby feel all warm and fuzzy inside. And these issues don’t garner the same resources and media focus as marriage.
I posted this on FB and thought I’d share publicly:
The burden of living in a “time on two crosses” (Bayard Rustin)…Some of us are dealing with bittersweet complexities today as trans and queer people of color, whom applaud the monumental victory of DOMA being struck down yet go home to communities of color who must continue to deal with the blatant racism of our voting process, upheld by the SCOTUS ruling against the Voting Rights Act.
I can’t even begin to state how much I adore this week’s Crush, Janet Mock, and how much I loved interviewing her!
While I calm my happy ass on down, please check out the first half of the interview at the main blog, then come back for this second part, in which Janet and I talk about socio-racial politics in Hawaii, what she’s planning to avoid this summer, and her love for Mad Men.
You’re from Hawaii. And you’ve seen how some conservatives constructed Hawaii as practically a foreign country in regards to demanding POTUS Obama’s birth certificate from the state. What other images/stereotypes do “mainlanders” have about Hawaii that’s divisive to progressive politics?
Like the people of the “mainland,” the people of Hawaii are not a monolith (we don’t all surf, we don’t all dance hula and we are not all Asian) and have a rich history with their land. And this may be getting way too deep, but my mother’s mother was Native Hawaiian (meaning indigenous Polynesian people of the Hawaiian Islands) and her father is Portuguese, and if it weren’t for the U.S. military’s occupation of Oahu, my mother would not have met my dad – a Naval officer and black man from the South – and I would not be here. To be part Native Hawaiian and part black, I am a product of Hawaii and the mainland – which shapes my existence and political perspective and relationship to my homeland. When I think of Hawaii, I think about how missionaries came to Hawaii feeling that they were going to “do good,” forcing their religion and western values to an indigenous people they wrongly viewed as savage and ended up doing quite well instead, making major money in industries like sugar and pineapple and of course tourism. For Native Hawaiians (kanaka maoli) in the Hawaiian sovereign movement, they do feel Hawaii is separate and was colonized and stolen. The U.S. history of the Hawaiian islands is a revisionist telling of the story of our statehood, and like most indigenous people, Native Hawaiians have been displaced on their own land and would actually love for Hawaii to be its own sovereign “foreign” land again, as wrongly appropriated by the conservatives who wish to dismiss President Obama as “un-American” or “foreign.”
How/why did you move to New York City? Along those lines, what are you into outside of your incredible activism? Hobbies? Books you’re reading? Music you’re into? Movies you can’t wait to see?
I moved to Manhattan to study journalism at New York University and get a job as a magazine editor. Luckily, after earning my masters, I landed at People.com, where I worked for more than five years writing and editing stories, creating fun pun-filled photo galleries and of course developed my voice in social media. Right now I’m into everything, from following my dear sister in this movement Reina Gossett’s active archiving and retelling of the activist roots of trans women of color like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. I’m also into Instagram selfies, sharing curly hair photos and every bright lip color I find. I’m into books that critique and expand ideas of womanhood and blackness. I thoroughly enjoyed Sister Citizenand Iconicas well as Black Cooland How To Be Blackand Seasonal Velocities, and read This Bridge Called My Backtwice in one month. I also have a summer reading list of women of color writers’ classic and new works, like Salvage the Bones, Kindred, The Summer We Got Free, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,and Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.Oh, and I want to read the Katharine Hepburn (she’s my fave movie star) style book Rebel Chic,as well as Nevadafrom Imogen Binnie. As for music, my tastes are pretty mainstream, not original at all – though I have been listening to Diana Ross‘“Home”from The Wizon loop while writing. It soothes me and inspires me to own my space in this world. As for films, it’s about to be summer movie season so I am boycotting Hollywood, though I will see Free Angela Davis & All Political Prisoners.I’m more of a TV girl anyway, live-tweeting Mad Men, Scandal, The Mindy Projectand eyeroll-inducing escapism like The Real Housewives of Atlantaand Beverly Hills.
Anything else you want to add?
I just want to thank you for finding me crush-worthy and sharing your first-ever #nerdland appearance with me. I love that we got the chance to discuss Scandal in such a giddy and hopefully impactful way. For me, it was just amazing to be embraced as another woman who has something to say. Not dismissed as a trans woman, but embraced as a fellow sister. Often I fell I must put my pop culture passions at bay to discuss more pressing trans issues in mainstream media so it was awesome to show my other intersections, as a woman of color, as a visible trans woman, and yes, as a pop culture lover!
Ma’am, since you’re a Mad Men lover, we may have to recruit you for our Mad Men roundtable!
As a trans woman, there’s rarely a time when I’ve been able to applaud the portrayal or someone’s commentary on a woman like myself in mainstream media. As a fan of many shows, entertainers and writers who’ve belittled “my people,” I have a bittersweet relationship with what I consume. If I wrote off every famous person or show that offended me, I would have nothing to watch. And for some this is an effortless protest. For me, it is not. That’s why I’m a critical fan.
There are many things that I choose not to offer my commentary on because I just want it to go away and I don’t want to be bombarded by the stans who will surely say that I am “too sensitive,” that it was “just a joke,” that “tranny” is not a slur because “my friend’s cousin is a transgender and she uses it all the time.”
Being a critical fan means that you love a famous human being, knowing fully well they are flawed and can make mistakes due to their privilege-blindness or outright ignorance (whether knowingly or unknowingly practicing misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, racism, etc.). When they f*ck up, it is your duty as a critical fan to make them better, call them out and educate them. Your job is not to create excuses and adamantly defend their mistakes because they are so fierce in your eyes.
I know Banks will not be the last famous person to say something foul and Hilton will not be the last person to receive it. What I know for sure though is that we will not heal until we learn to love ourselves, embrace each other’s differences and push one another to be better, especially when we –- the famous ones and the ones covering and following the famous ones — make mistakes.
It hasn’t all been a warm-and-fuzzy journey though. Mock, who’s at work on a memoir due out next fall, has had some time now to experience the LGBT movement up close. She’ll be discussing gender and media at a plenary session during Facing Race 2012 in November, but we got a head start when I checked in with her this month.
How did that Marie Claire piece come about? How do you see that piece fitting into the larger cultural conversation on trans folks?
It’s funny because trans stories have been told since, what, Christine Jorgensen stepped off the plane from Europe and had her sex reassignment surgery. Trans issues have been a fascination forever. My thing was to add some color to it. [Laughs.] Because I feel that now, under the transgender umbrella the most famous trans person of color is RuPaul, and he identifies as a gay man who performs the art of drag. And so I feel like for me, what was important was to a) tell my story honestly and then to b) to have a woman of color in Marie Claire magazine in a positive light.
Before this all I saw and continue to see is that transwomen of color are being killed, which is an urgent issue. But at the same time I also feel that if we only talk about death, then all young women growing up are going to feel the only thing they have to look up to is to die. That’s a guarantee for us all, but it’s an urgent matter that chips away at our soul as a community, that all of our women are dying in their 20s. No one makes it past 35. As a 29-year-old I thought, well I have six years left. And so I never had someone I could look up to before coming out. As a transwoman I never had that. That wasn’t necessarily my goal but I knew how important having an image of someone who looked like me and went through the same kinds of struggles and journeys as me would have been, it would have meant so much more to my growing up. I can imagine if I could have seen a woman working, living her life.
There was something urgent about that fall of 2010, the political landscape of kids killing themselves. I think kids have been killing themselves for a long time. But there was some media at the time, where it was like, “Ooh let’s start paying attention to this.” Tyler Clementi jumping off the George Washington Bridge was something we could not ignore. He made the cover of People magazine and I just thought all of the kids, all the transwomen of color who are getting killed, who will never make it to the cover of People. So many things were going on. I felt so much for Tyler’s family, and for young LGBT kids. And I thought of young transwomen, and the women I grew up with and the things they had to do in order to transition, and that’s when I said, “Okay Kierna, let’s do this.” Because I worked for another magazine, I couldn’t write it but Kierna [Mayo] did. That was kind of a loophole. It’s no coincidence that it was a woman of color who ghostwrote the piece—Kierna created Honey magazine.
And what it did in terms of telling these stories, in terms of going away from the “born a man” narrative to born a boy. (Well, I was raised a boy.) No one is born a man; you’re born a baby. So it got the media out of that whole lazy narrative of “She was once a man!” “Born a boy” softened it and was closer to my truth.
What kind of response to your Marie Claire piece were you bracing yourself for?
You know what’s so funny? I don’t think I calculated it as much but the response that was bigger to me was the women of color, period, who were so shocked to see someone like me in a mainstream magazine. I always that that it’d be this huge LGBT story, but that it would still be very niche. But it hit the Marie Claire audience. There are women of color who read this because it’s one of the few magazines that has international and women’s issues folded into it beyond the beauty and fashion. That shocked me, the way women of color clung to it.
My story was debated on Clutch magazine online, that then challenged what they thought of as womanhood. I thought it’d be kids who were bullied or a different reason people came to it. But I heard a lot of: She’s our sister too. And I felt this love and acceptance that, even me growing up the way that I did I always heard the trope of you’re never going to be the real thing, a real girl. That’s not who you are. So there’s a little bit of insecurity even though I’m nearly 30 now, but I felt that sense of validation and affirmation in the wider community of women and women of color embracing me.