Author and trans advocate Janet Mock wrote an unflinching memoir about her quest for gender selfhood, “Redefining Realness,” still on the New York Times bestseller list. She will be keynote speaker during “Ways with Words: Exploring Language,” a March 3–4 conference at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
What Mock called a “fireside chat” includes discussant Moya Bailey, Dean’s Postdoctoral Fellow at Northeastern University and “a brilliant black queer feminist,” she said. The shifting world of gender identity, said Mock from her Manhattan office, “is wrapped up in language, and the limited binary thoughts we have around gender.”
What do you want people to understand about gender and language?
That’s it’s constantly evolving and it’s also utterly personal. As a writer and as a trans woman, I know the limitations of language. But we have to bring our lived experience to language.
In discussing gender and the trans world, what is the fate of the pronoun? What happens to “he,” “she,” “her,” “him”?
You need to create more space for people to declare and define themselves. Pronouns are one of the first personal labels we use to describe ourselves. In gender discourse spaces, people often start with ‘my name is such and such and these are my pronouns.’ That’s where we’re evolving.
It can seem like a really scary thing to have to shift our ideas around this. I tell people who are a little hesitant that all these different combinations of pronouns don’t threaten your pronouns.
A lot of people just say it’s going too far.
I don’t know what you mean by too far. Too far in the sense that were getting closer to people’s own reality?
Having been trained as a journalist myself, I try to work at getting the facts. If that (pronoun) is how they identify and how they describe their lives, (language) should reflect that. It shouldn’t reflect your own binary sense of what gender is.
How would you compare the trans experience with growing of up black?
There’s no way to compare them. I can’t separate my gender, my race, and my class. It just all exists in my body. That’s the way I navigated the world, living the life of multiplicities in a single experience.
A lot of people say marginalized people don’t have voices. We’ve always had voices, but now we have very simple tools (in social media) to amplify those voices.
You’ve been profiled widely in print, appeared all over on TV, and Time magazine listed you with the “30 Most Influential People on the Internet.” What’s it like in the trans limelight?
It’s difficult to be seen as a representative of a very diverse group. But what’s exciting now is that a lot of gender nonconforming and trans folk have taken back the microphone to have a larger conversation about true gender and identity.
Getting that microphone is good. But what dark influences can language can have?
Language is one of the first spaces in which a trans person is negated. It’s often someone saying, ‘No, no, no. You’re not a girl, you’re a boy.’ Or a teacher on an attendance sheet calling out someone’s given name, versus one they had given themselves.
This constant negation escalates to the point where young people hurt themselves. You have young people being pushed out of homes because parents won’t listen to them, won’t affirm them about the names and definitions they’ve given themselves.
There are imperatives to shift the way we treat gender in the language of social discourse and in the media. Is literature keeping up?
There’s tons of literature already here.
You mentioned Topside Press and “Yabo” by Alexis De Veaux, “George,” by Alex Gino, Imogen Binnie’s “Nevada, “ Casey Plett’s “A Safe Girl to Love,” and Ryka Aoki’s “He Mele A Hilo.”
There’s this undercurrent of trans people writing about the trans experience. That’s a more pure place for theses stories to come into consciousness.
Are non–trans novelists and poets writing about trans people?
They’ve always written about us.
“Ways with Words: Exploring Language and Gender” is free and open to the public, but to attend in person register online. For more, go to www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/event/2016-ways-with-words-conference.