Janet Mock sat in front of a group of 50 students at a Breakfast Meet and Greet in the Goldstein Family Student-Athlete Development Center held in her honor on Wednesday, Oct. 16.
“Live and speak your truth. If you’re not able to do that, then you’re not living,” Mock, a best-selling author, television host, director, producer and transgender rights activist, said.
At Stony Brook University each year, a book is chosen for the incoming class to read as part of the First-Year Reading Program, in which freshmen are given the opportunity to further explore the book with their peers and instructors. This year’s first-read for students was Mock’s New York Times bestseller, “Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More.”
Before the annual Commons Day lecture discussing the book, a group of students were invited to hear Mock say a few words and participate in a Q&A session. During the session that quickly turned into an open group discussion, Mock told her remarkable story to students, emphasizing the importance of staying true to oneself.
The 36-year-old was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, as a boy named Charles. Around the age of 12, Mock realized that she was uncomfortable in her body and, with the help and support from her long-time best friend Wendi, she began to start to transition into the person she always felt like being.
“I got through the transitional journey by finding my chosen family, like my best friend Wendi,” she said. “Having a friend who was more courageous than I was, was so helpful.”
By the end of her freshman year in high school, Mock regularly wore women’s clothes to school and started taking hormone pills — given to her by Wendi, who had started her own transition a year before — without her mother’s knowledge. During Christmas break of her freshman year at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, 18-year-old Mock had gender reassignment surgery.
Although her best friend helped her with the transition, Mock didn’t immediately receive the same support from her Hawaiian mother and African American father. When she was a child, she was often scolded for feminine behavior.
During high school, she first came out to her mother when she realized she needed someone to monitor her progress as she started taking female hormone pills. She gained her mother’s support after her mother realized how desperately Mock wanted to make the physical changes to become a woman.
Mock’s experience coming out to her father was very different. She “ripped the band-aid off” with a letter, so that she could say what she “wanted to say without rebuttal.”
Even though her father policed her gender growing up, Mock explained she didn’t make her mother and father antagonists in her first book, but rather protagonists in their own stories. By doing this, Mock felt that readers were able to get the full portrait of her parents.
Mock’s parents eventually came to accept Mock for who she is.
After earning a Bachelor of Arts in Fashion Merchandising in 2004 and a Master of Arts in Journalism from New York University in 2006, Mock began working at People magazine, where she held the position of a staff editor for more than five years. During her time at People, she didn’t tell anybody that she was a trans person.
Growing up as a poor, black, trans woman, Mock said that she had to combat limited perspectives and biases against her. During high school, Mock was harassed so much, she had to transfer schools.
“I believe that experiences could’ve been eased if people were more open,” she said.
She said that part of growing up in a poor community of color meant having a lack of resources and care as a member of the LGBTQ community. Mock found help through advocates and realized that it wasn’t people who were failing her, but broken systems.
In both the Meet and Greet and the Commons Day lecture, Mock referred to the high number of transgender youth among the homeless population. According to the Williams Institute, 40% of the homeless youth served by agencies identify as LGBTQ+.
“The number of LGBT youth that make up the homeless population is so high because it’s an effect of them having spoken their truth and wanting to live their most authentic lives, which usually comes with great risk,” she said.
After realizing that she was in a broken system, she thought it was time to speak out. “I knew one day I was going to do more and there was more out there in the world for me,” she said.
Mock explained that she often saw little representation of people of color in the queer community, which was the main reason she decided to publicly come out.
“I wanted to put an image and a face to show that black trans women do exist,” she said.
As she was constantly searching for someone who looked like her in the media, at one point, she told herself, “B****, you gotta do it!”
In 2011, while working at People, Mock realized she needed to show herself and her identity more self-love. At the age of 27, she publicly came out as a trans woman in a Marie Claire article, written by Kierna Mayo using Mock’s voice.
“My way of approaching self-love was through writing, learning to confront and look through myself and giving myself affirmation,” Mock said.
She explained that writing is one of her favorite hobbies and offers her an outlet to express herself. One of the main reasons she entered the world of journalism and magazine publishing was because she loves storytelling.
“Through storytelling, I went through a transition from being a journalist to writing essays and telling my story,” she said. “I learned to be deeply faithful to your work.”
Mock said that stepping forward and telling her truth allowed her to reinvent herself. While speaking at various events and universities, she felt as if she brought more of herself to each space she went to.
“I learned to be who I am, to speak up and the idea of authenticity,” she said.
After the publication of her first book in 2014, Mock went on to win numerous accolades in the media world. In 2015, she was named one of the “Most 30 Influential People on the Internet” and one of “12 New Faces of Black Leadership” by Time magazine. That same year, Fast Company also included Mock as one of their “Most Creative People in Business.”
“I had no expectations about the vastness of it all,” she said. “It was the most impactful thing for me.”
Mock started a social media campaign called #GirlsLikeUs in 2012 to empower transgender women. She started a podcast called “Never Before” in 2015, produced the HBO documentary “The Trans List” in 2016 and created the Allure magazine column “Beauty Beyond Binaries” in 2017. Mock went on to publish a second book in 2017 called “Surpassing Certainty,” which focuses on what she learned in her twenties about herself and her purpose in life.
Throughout all of her projects, Mock said that her goal was to always center whatever she did around colored trans people because of the importance representation played in her life.
“It’s integral to my work and I hope it translates to people in everyday activism, to feel powered and moved enough to create change,” she said.
In 2018, Mock became the first transgender woman of color to write and direct an episode of television on Ryan Murphy’s FX series “Pose,” an LGBTQ+ drama set in New York City’s ballroom culture scene. She explained that the show relates to family and finding people who support your dreams and invest their time in you.
“I think about the bonds and connections it creates,” she said.
Mock finds the time she spends around other creative creators deeply impactful. Ryan Murphy is an “instrumental mentor” in her life at the moment.
“I thought it was powerful to me as a trans woman to take up space,” she said.
Six Emmy nominations later, she signed a three-year multimillion-dollar contract with Netflix earlier this year, making her the first openly transgender woman of color to sign a deal with a major content company.
“To see her real and in front of me was amazing. She exceeded my expectations,” Sae Zhang, a freshman psychology major, said. “I wanted to meet her in person because she emphasized that we don’t have to be caught up in pain from the past.”
Justin Mitselmakher, a freshman journalism major at SBU, was inspired by the way Mock spoke about staying true to herself.
“I loved that she spoke of not having the resources but still making it work. She found ways to become her true self, which I truly admire,” he said.