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Activist Janet Mock: Please Respect Transgender Teens


We first spoke with writer and editor Janet Mock back in 2011, when she first wrote about her experiences as a transgender woman, for the magazine Marie Claire. For many people, that article was the first exposure they had had to an in-depth discussion of the life of a transgender person. Since then, a lot has happen in the realm of transgender rights and activism, including the disclosure of the transgender identities of a number of celebrity children. So we thought this would be a good time to bring Janet Mock back. She authored a memoir, earlier this year, called "Redefining Realness." And she is with us now from New York. Janet, thanks so much for joining us, once again.

JANET MOCK: Thanks for having me back.

MARTIN: Since we spoke with you, back in 2011, as I mentioned, a number of people have come out and come to the fore in public consciousness. I mean, recently the actress, Laverne Cox, has been put on the cover of Time magazine - has made a big splash with the Netflix Original Series "Orange Is The New Black." And you, of course, for people who may not remember this, there was a lot of discussion around an interview you did with a former CNN host named Piers Morgan, around the publication of your book, where you felt that you were asked some questions that were just way more personal than you felt would have been asked of someone of a different background or identity. When you look at this altogether, how do you feel the conversation around transgender identity is going? Do feel encouraged by it? Are you discouraged by it?

MOCK: I'm completely encouraged. I think that when we have uncomfortable discourse, oftentimes, that means that we're moving forward. We're all learning. We're trying to develop language. We're try to teach each other. And I think that particular instance, with me on CNN, was one point, in which, I think, for one of the first times that a trans person in a space, in a public media space, pushed back and said that, the way that you've been covering our lives for the past 60 years is no longer really advancing the conversation. And so how can we come to a space to speak across difference? How can we learn to not dehumanize trans-people by talking about their body parts or their medical history? And so I'm completely encouraged by the conversation. I think, it's one in which we're kind of having it on a national level. So it can kind of be a little scary for a lot of people. But I hope that it doesn't discourage people from wanting to be a part of the conversation.

MARTIN: One of the stories that we wanted to talk to you about is that it has been reported that Jay Kelly, who is one of the children of the R&B star, R. Kelly, has come out as transgender. And now, you know, R. Kelly is very controversial and polarizing figure. He's been prosecuted for having inappropriate relationships with underage girls. He was acquitted for that. But Jay Kelly, it's now been reported, has come out as a transgender boy. And this has become a very controversial issue social media, in part, because Jay Kelly's only 13 years old. And this information was gleaned from, apparently, his social media sites. So the first question I have for you is, what's your top of the mind, you know, reaction to this story?

MOCK: I'm - I'm just so icky talking about a 13-year-old, you know, that's how I kind of how I feel. And I think that the way that we - as someone, who worked in media, as you said, as a pop culture editor, I understand that sometimes children are fair game. But there's a part of me that feels a bit of a ickyness and uncomfortability around the media kind of, in a sense, stalking or looking at this young person social media accounts, then reporting on it just because their father is a celebrity, right? And a father that apparently has very little connection with Jay's life. But, you know, now that he is kind of a public figure, because his father's public figure. I think it teaches us a lot of lessons about the ignorance some - some media outlets have, in terms of reporting on trans-people's lives.

MARTIN: I do want to mention, by the way, that this was not reported in, you know, the New York Times, for example.

MOCK: (Laughing) I know.

MARTIN: This was a blog that specializes in not just celebrity coverage, but also a lot of dysfunctional behavior among regular people. I just have to say, I mean, I just - you know what I mean? There's a lot - it's not - this is not a major media outlet, but it has gotten the attention of other outlets, in part, because other bloggers criticize the discussion. So the first thing you're comfortable with this is the fact of the reporting itself. And then, what else?

MOCK: And then, you know, just I think just the sense of agency, right? And how do we report on trans-people's lives? And so this is a coming-out story for a young transgender boy. Things that, I think, we can learn and maybe take away from this, is the idea that we need to respect people's names and pronouns. And that includes like not calling Jay Kelly, R. Kelly's daughter, but calling them are Kelly's child. And there are different gender-neutral terms that we can use. I think that also the idea of seeing trans, as not so much a condition, or a sickness, or a choice or lifestyle, but seeing as part of our grander diversity as people. Now, I also think at another level, too, the medical history and procedures. I think I saw a lot of coverage the talked about Jay's own medical transition to say, right?

MARTIN: Or was speculating about whether the transition.

MOCK: Yes. Yes and I think that what I find so fascinating about Jay is - is his own handling of this situation, in such a public way, as such a young person. And I think like a lot of young trans-people, that I interact with online, he's choosing to live visibly through his Ask.fm account, where he allows people to ask him questions about being trans. And he's also using his parent's spotlight to educate people. And I saw him discussing policy on his Ask.fm account, telling other young people that, you know, he uses the nurse's office, as a locker room and as a restroom at school. And he also shows how family, and how his family in particular, has been very supportive of him. And I saw him - he states something about, you know, we need to use correct pronounce and names. And that his parents ask him about - or his mother, who's very supportive, supposedly, ask him what clothes he wants to buy for himself. And he just says that he's appreciative of his family. And I think this is a great way to model powerful behavior on supporting and affirming young trans-people.

MARTIN: Do you feel that, the mere fact that this reporting exists, says something about interest in or something about how the transgender experience is viewed? Do you see what I'm saying? Do you feel that...

MOCK: Yeah, I do. I think, there is something titillating about the idea of reporting that someone is transgender, right? And so I think, transgender stories have always been framed in this very sensational way. And only some people come in to want to educate themselves and learn about the trans experience. And others just want to gawk and gaze. And we often know that gazing and curiosity doesn't really lead to much transformation of our culture and society. And what I love about this story, particularly, is that there is an African-American mother, who is supportive of her LGBT child, her transgender child. And I think that we need more modeling of that within communities of color.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, we last spoke in 2011. And a lot has happened since then. I'm just more interested in a final kind of thought from you, about where you think is going. If we get together three years from now, what do you think we'll be talking about?

MOCK: I think, we'll be talking about that time when - you remember when our nation was talking about pronouns? And we couldn't get over pronouns and what to call transgender people? I think that that's the space that we'll be in, in three years, because we'll realize that we need to just let - all of us need to have the power to determine and declare and define ourselves for ourselves and for everyone around us to respect our own definitions of self. And that's all that we're talking about here with trans-people and identities. A lot of these things are big deals, because - around pronoun usage and around names, because for trans-people it's such a big deal for themselves. But I think, overall, if we just respect people and call them by what they want to be called, we wouldn't have all - a lot of these big old dustups, I think, that we're having. And so I think that we'll hopefully advance in our language, in a way that we can speak across difference and, hopefully, be more embracing of one another.

MARTIN: Janet Mock is a writer and a transgender activist. Her book "Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love, And So Much More" debuted on the New York Times Bestsellers List, earlier this year. And she was kind enough to join us, from our bureau in New York. Janet Mock, thanks so much for coming in.

MOCK: Thanks so much, you all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.