On March 22 and 23, the Anna Julia Cooper Center hosted the second biannual Know Her Truths Conference. The conference was centered around raising awareness about the plight of women and girls of color, particularly those in the LGBTQ+ community, and featured a discussion with activist Janet Mock.
The emotional discussion with Mock, a transgender black woman, was held by conference leader Melissa Harris-Perry, and focused on the idea of “forming our own truths,” an idea central to Mock’s two memoirs, Redefining Realness and Surpassing Certainty. In the introduction for Mock, Harris-Perry described the memoirs, particularly the latter, as “brave, clear and startling,” and praised Mock for the care and caution with which she tells the story of her struggles as a transgender woman.
In particular, Harris-Perry and Mock discussed one of Mock’s unsettling experiences in Surpassing Certainty that is likely similar to many experiences shared by transgender women of color. Harris-Perry notes that the book starts so simply, with talk of Mock’s reverse halter, and quickly transitions to danger. In the story, Mock dances with a man in a bar when she comes across a woman from high school familiar with her transition. The woman decides to intervene in Mock’s interaction with this man, stepping in to alert the man that Mock is, in fact, transgender.
Mock and Harris-Perry discussed this unsettling anecdote as an example of someone stripping another individual of the ability to tell their own truth. This anecdote is one of many that depicts the provocation of danger faced by so many transgender individuals, one that can only be understood with sadness and anger.
Another issue Mock and Harris-Perry discussed is the relationships that many transgender women have with men. Mock recounts that men often struggle with the idea of being attracted to a transgender woman, as they believe it calls their masculinity into question. As a result, these men often tend be violent and overbearing. For the transgender community, violence and danger like this lurks in many situations.
Mock later talked about the idea of privilege. She preached that all those who possess some form of privilege should use it as a platform for activism. Although she is a transgender woman of color, she still recognizes that she has some privileges; she is often seen as not “too dark”, she can “pass as a cisgender woman”, and she has an enormous platform with which she can tell her story.
“How do you sit with privilege?” Harris-Perry asked. “You use it for activism.”
Finally, Mock concluded by discussing the #MeToo movement, which was started by a woman of color but became something of a “tag line” in Hollywood. Mock discussed the fact that the movement, which may seem inclusive, is still targeted towards society’s “perfect victim.” The movement ignores those who are seen to be in “wrong virtue,” for example, those who found themselves in a position where they had to use their bodies to survive. According to senior Bobby Jacowleff, the tendency for these trends to become widespread in places like Hollywood somewhat “delegitimizes the entire movement for everybody, as it loses focus on the people actually affected.”
Mock admits that she, too, was once in a position wherein she had to engage in sex work in order to survive; something that makes her in no way in “bad virtue” but still may cause her to be overlooked by the #MeToo movement.
Just like there is a struggle for those who do not fit into society’s perception of a “perfect victim,” Mock and Harris-Perry discussed a struggle for those who do not fit into the typical LGBTQ+ stereotype. For example, they discussed the difficulty for men and women of color to integrate into the LGBTQ+ community based on stereotypes that many people have about people of color being “homophobic.”
The discussion between Harris-Perry and Mock was emotionally-charged, honest and raw. Many members of the audience was clearly moved by the stories told, and were filled with questions. In particular, Abby Castaldi, a senior who attended the talk, was moved by the discussion of how to use caution when discussing issues with transgender people of color.
“I think that the best way to discuss issues such as those faced by trans people of color is to listen to their experiences,” Cataldi stated. “It is important to give marginalized groups of people the platform to allow their voices and stories to be heard.”
When asked “What’s next?” Mock told the audience that she will contine to work on her “Never Before” podcasts, engaging in conversation with society’s wide range of cultural leaders. When asked for advice for young black storytellers, Mock emphasized the importance of “start writing what you know,” and then “move beyond what you know to surprise yourself.”