There was excited chatter in the Chapel as students, professors, and guests alike sat in anticipation for S.H.O.U.T. keynote speaker Janet Mock. The trans activist known for her book Redefining Realness spoke last Wednesday to kick off S.H.O.U.T. week.
Mock, looking sleek and put together, took the stage to tumultuous applause. She jumped right in, discussing her poor background in Honolulu, HI and her identity issues. She expressed difficulty with rigid statements that confined her growth and freedom. “If you’re born with certain body parts, your body limits you, and you’re not allowed to express who you truly are if it doesn’t go with cultural norms,” Mock said. She discussed the most difficult parts of growing up between rigid gender binaries and cultures that “demean and devalue feminine folk.”
The Pugh Community Board (PCB) organizes S.H.O.U.T. week every year and chose Writing Revolutions as the theme for 2017. The theme “focuses on the power of writing in social movements, and exploring how writing continues to be an act of social defiance in our personal lives and community,” said Jasmyn Davis ’17, Chair of PCB.
PCB asked Mock to be the keynote for the annual event because of the powerful way she models the Writing Revolutions theme. “Mock represents the way in which words can grow beyond the page to start radical change,” said Esther Mathieu ’17, the Vice Chair of PCB. “In the midst of hatred and violence, it is easy to lose hope in our own power. More than ever it is time to recognize the strength in our voices and to build community. Writing allows us to narrate our own stories and disrupt the status quo,” said Mathieu.
Her talk was inspirational, despite the admission that she doesn’t like giving speeches and only came up to Maine for the paycheck. Her manner was at once personal and empathetic, as she charted her own life and those who inspired her. Mock spoke about her Marie Claire article with the tag “Janet Mock has an enviable career, a supportive man, and a fabulous head of hair. But she’s also got a remarkable secret that she’s kept from almost everyone she knows. Now, she breaks her silence”, citing it as the beginning of her decision to live her life free of secrets.
Mock spoke about living through daily ridicule when she wore skirts to school, finally embracing who she really was. When she received gender reassignment surgery at the age of 18, she felt reborn, this time in the right body. While attending graduate school at New York University, Mock said she “made the decision at 22 years old to not lead with the fact that I was trans, and it was liberating for me to be another girl in the crowd discovering who I was beyond the gender identity stuff.” As she landed a job at People magazine, however, she discussed her privilege, and how there were many people who did not have the same education, healthcare, and presentation.
Mock was passionate and pedagogical, opening up about intimate aspects of herself and turning them into teaching moments. She discussed her idols like Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, saying that they show her how to “transform [her] silence into language and action.” While speaking about her book, Mock said she wanted to write a story that was unavailable to her while she was growing up; she wanted to, while drawing inspiration from her idols, become an inspirational voice herself.
She shared a video of Sylvia Rivera, a trans woman taking the stage during the 1975 Gay Rights Movement in New York. While Rivera shouted herself hoarse in the black and white video, Mock stood respectfully to the side, her profile strong and her eyes closed. She says her work is less about what cis people might say looking at trans people, but more what trans people say to each other in support and solidarity. She produced an HBO documentary called The Trans List and showed a quick trailer during her speech. She emphasized the epidemic of trans people being killed in hate crimes across the country and a recent triple killing of trans women in New Orleans.
Her extensive work and productions were not the accomplishments of a vain woman. All of Mock’s work is created with the intent to support and create a community for trans people to turn. She uses writing as a way to include people and act against oppressive forces.
Speaking both as an activist and a teacher, Mock educated the audience about LGBTQIA rights and threats to their wellbeing. She looked into the audience and said that there could be people going through the same struggles as she did, and she expressed her absolute support and love.