What does it take to be the first? From the numerous interviews we’ve conducted with successful disruptors, there seems to be a formula of attributes, personality traits, and, yes, failures that pave the way for female pioneers, or as we like to call them, womaneers. By definition, she’s a woman who defies societal norms with heroism and tenacity to become a pioneering voice in her field. Each month, we will share a new womaneer’s story to uncover their vision, grit, persistence, grace, and drive to keep going despite the odds. The time of the womaneer is now.
Janet Mock made history this year when she became the first trans woman of color to write, direct, and produce an episode of TV. A force to be reckoned with, Mock is no stranger to advocacy through storytelling. In fact, she penned her first memoir, Redefining Realness, in 2014—an honest portrait of growing up multiracial, poor, and trans in America—in addition to her work as a journalist.
And now, she’s turned her talents to television, lending her unique and important perspective to the writers’ room for Pose. Mock’s contributions to the new FX series, which follows the lives of five trans women living in New York City during the ’80s, are not the only reason the show has been regarded as revolutionary. All five of the main characters are played by trans women, a seemingly obvious choice, but one that’s a large step forward in the fight for inclusion in Hollywood.
After overcoming adversity and sharing her stories and perspectives with the world, Mock is thankful for the opportunities that led her to where she is today. “I got here by simply just being a young woman who was brave enough and courageous enough to sit down and tell myself my own story,” she says. Ahead, the pioneer shares how she found the confidence to share her own story and why she’s using her voice to be an advocate for other marginalized people.
Tell us about what you do and how you broke into the field
Well, I think how I would describe what I do is I tell the truth. I do it through writing. I do it through multiple mediums, whether that is through essays, articles, magazines, online, my books (Redefining Realness and Surpassing Certainty), and most recently through my television series Pose, which I write, produce, and direct.
How I got here? I got here by simply just being a young woman who was brave enough and courageous enough to sit down and tell myself my own story. It really all just started from sitting down and speaking to myself and relaying all the things that had happened to me and the lessons that I learned from that.
Did you face any immediate challenges? What was the biggest barrier you had to overcome?
I think the biggest barrier I had to overcome was just a lack of opportunity. I think that for a lot of women, women of color, and LGBTQ+ women, there aren't many opportunities for us to shine. And that doesn't necessarily mean we don't have the talent, the skillset, the experience, the drive, or the desire. It's just that oftentimes the roles and the duties of positions of power that we want to engage in—we're not represented in those rooms, so we're often not invited into those rooms. I think the greatest thing we can do once we get to those rooms is to ensure that we're deepening and widening the bench, that we're bringing in other folks like us.
We're not the last. It's great to be the first, but we're not the last, and we're not the only for too long.
What advice do you have for other people who are transitioning?
I'm not one who likes to give advice, because transitioning is a process, and figuring out who you are and being able to live your truth is a deeply individual experience. And I think some things that go along with that are to be sure you're listening to yourself—that you surround yourself with people who listen to you, who affirm you, and who will advocate for you and to ensure that you have safety. And safety often comes with privilege and resources.
So I think that for a lot of trans folks, specifically trans folks of color, those resources do not exist, so that's why a lot of trans women of color end up having to deal with the harsh brunt of violence, harassment, and exile from their homes, from their schools, and from their places of worship. And they're not able to get employment to take care of themselves. So much of my work centers around ensuring that I speak about those issues and break them down in ways people can digest, whether that's through memoirs, on Pose where we use these groundbreaking characters—these women really shine a light on the hurdle that trans women face in our society whether that's in 1987 when Pose is set or today in 2018.
Tell us about your TV show Pose and how it came about? What was that pioneering moment for you?
Well, the idea for Pose really came from a script written by Steven Canals. He's from the Bronx, he's Afro Latina, he's a queer man, and while he was a graduate student in the UCLA screenwriting program, he wrote a pilot script that centered around a boy named Damien who was kicked out of his home for being gay who finds himself in New York City sleeping on a park bench who then meets Blanca, a young trans women who is just diagnosed with HIV, and she takes him into her new, budding house: the House of Evangelista.
That script got to Ryan Murphy—who everyone knows from Glee and American Horror Story and Feud—and he saw something in it and was like let's make the show, and I was hired to help deepen the characters as a writer in the writers' room. I became the first trans women of color to be hired in such a position, and then the first to write, direct, and produce an episode of television. And our show really just centers—it's a family drama—it centers on marginalized people who have never been at the center before.
So in that way, the fact that we have five trans women as our leads of the show—five of them who are actually trans women playing trans women, which seems so simple but is something that Hollywood has not often been able to do—makes the show revolutionary in that sense. And we just got picked up for Season 2. It's really exciting that we get to continue to tell these deeper stories in Season 2 and really just let these women and these people really shine.
What did it take personally to break through the glass ceiling and become the first trans woman of color to write, direct, and produce for a TV show?
Really, it was opportunity. I think what Ryan Murphy has done so well in his career is that he brought those who have never been invited to the party in. Whether that's through the characters that he chose to center on his shows, specifically with the groundbreaking nature of Glee, for example; that show centered outsiders and outcasts and everyone loved it.
Whether that's through the start of his HALF initiative, which was his commitment to ensuring women, minorities, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people direct 50% of every single episode of television he does. So he has created an entire infrastructure where he's insured that people who were never invited get a chance to shine.
And I was always prepared. I was ready to go. I just never thought that someone would invite me to come and write on a television series. I never thought I would be promoted during the pilot shoot of our show. I never thought I'd be invited to, and really pushed, to be a director on Episode 6, "Love is A Message." It really comes with opportunity and mentorship.
You know a lot of us, we love to tell the tales of the singular hero who goes and accomplishes all of these things on their own and there's a mythology to that that's really deeply inspiring, but it really comes through the community and mentorship and someone saying, "You know what, I see something in you, and I think that you just need to be given a shot." And Ryan did that.
So I think for me, of course preparing myself, of course going to graduate school, of course working as a journalist, of course writing two books has enabled me to be prepared for the moment, but I think that it also comes with being given an opportunity. So being prepared and meeting an opportunity that kind of comes your way was really a key to my own success in some way.
What does being a womaneer mean to you, and what qualities and attributes do you think it takes to be a womaneer?
You know, when I think about being a womaneer, I really just think back to the past. I think there's so much we need to learn from those who walked this earth before us, who plowed through, who used their machetes—symbolically—and slashed through the forests so that our way and our paths could be clearer—so that we could see a clearer, brighter day.
I think about someone like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth; for me, I also think about trans activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Sylvia Rivera, who plowed the way through. I think about women writers like Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou and Zora Neale Hurston, who have given me language to be able to see myself, to say that it's possible to write myself onto bookshelves across this country and the world and to say that I'm deserving of being seen, heard, and affirmed.
I hope my work as a womaneer inspires that next generation of young women and people who are looking for reflections of themselves, who are looking for mirrors, who want to be able to face a blank page, whether that's a script or a book or a poem or a song, and be able to say that I'm deserving of filling up this page, and I have enough in me to do that.
How do you shake off the fear and doubt to pursue your dreams and be yourself?
I think the number one thing is to really just recognize it, to know that fear is a natural emotion but to also know that, for me at least, I have all of the skills and the experience and the talent to tackle self-doubt, to tackle fear, to tackle any kind of trepidation that I may have when it comes to particularly doing something unknown, doing something I had never done before.
I know, for me, probably the last experience I had with true fear was when I was told I was going to direct my episode of Pose and I hadn't directed before. It was never a goal or something I was looking to do, so when Ryan Murphy said I'd be doing that, I was tackled with self-doubt and fear, but I had to quickly realize I had all of the stuff in me to do it. So it kind of built up my self-assuredness, but I didn't try to slough it off and pretend it wasn't there. I didn't want to fake it until I made it.
I really wanted to ensure that I recognized the self-doubt and fear because I'd never seen someone like me be given an opportunity. I'd never been told that not only a woman but a black woman, a black trans woman, is able to take the directors chair on a set, so I think a lot of our womaneers have had to tackle fear and self-doubt and naysayers. It's a part of growth, it's a part of conquering, it's a part of slashing through that forest again to pave that way. I think it's just something you have to recognize and push through in order to get to where you need to go.
If you could go back and change anything about your career trajectory, what would it be, and why?
I have to quote Maya Angelou here: "There's nothing I would take from my journey now." I think that if I would have taken something back or made a different turn or made a different decision, I would not have learned from that, which wouldn't have enabled me to grow and to do better moving forward. So for me every single mistake or every single shoulda-coulda-woulda just is not anything I ever really think about; it's just a part of what needed to happen in order for me to be exactly where I am at right now. So I don't think that there's a single thing I would take back.
What mistakes have you learned from, and even benefited from, in your career?
I remember the first piece that was ever written about me as I was working as an editor at People was my quote-unquote coming-out story publicly as a trans woman. You know, I grew up in Honolulu, I and transitioned throughout middle school and high school, and by the time that I got to college and grad school in New York City and was working as a journalist in New York, I wasn't open about being trans. I did that for my own survival, so I didn't have to take on an added burden of being not only seen as a woman and a young woman and a black young woman but then also a young black trans woman.
So when I decided to step forward and to share my story, I wish that I would have had the confidence in my own skills as a writer to write my own story instead of letting a journalist write my story. That's probably the only thing that I wish—that I would have felt more confident. But it taught me a great lesson on agency, on grabbing that pen and saying I'm the best person to tell my narrative and my community’s narrative, so it was really just one of those great building blocks for me that was based on maybe a mistake or whatnot.
What’s next for you in 2018/19?
I'm going to be spending this summer outlining and coming up with ideas for Season 2 of Pose. I'm also spending the summer directing another episode of television for Ryan Murphy—another show that he's doing. And I'm working on an adaptation for the screen for my first memoir, Redefining Realness, which was really my story of my coming of age as a young trans girl.
Are there any long-term goals you'll be working toward?
Most likely Janet Mock productions and building toward that and ensuring that I can help other underutilized talents and voices come to center stage.
For more inspiring stories about successful women who've forged their own career paths, take a look through MyDomaine's Womaneer archives.