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Janet Mock, Blood Orange
A still from Blood Orange’s “Jewelry” video

Janet Mock: ‘We need more transgender gatekeepers’

The writer and activist talks about producing Pose, collaborating with Dev Hynes, and what true diversity should look like in 2018

“My favourite images are the ones where someone who isn’t supposed to be there is in a space where they were not welcomed – yet we walk in and show all the way out.” These opening words of wisdom were penned by Janet Mock for the magnificent new Blood Orange “Jewelry” video. The interlude, like her recent work on FX’s hit drama Pose, is an ode to the fearlessness of the QTPOC community.

Mock’s made a habit of carving out a space for herself in places where there aren’t enough people like her. Her book Redefining Realness looked at the realities of trans womanhood, adding a different perspective to the white, cisgender world of publishing. Then, in June 2018, came Pose. Having already cemented itself as one of the most ambitious shows of the year, the series – created by Ryan Murphy but produced by Mock – is perhaps the only show on TV that’s truly representative of the transgender community. Over the course of the first series, over 50 transgender actors appeared. It has the highest number of transgender series regulars on TV – and, it broke another record when Mock became the first transgender woman of colour to write and direct a TV episode. “It takes people who have power, and who built industry power, to make that institutional change – to give folks who have never been given the chance an opportunity,” she tells me over the phone.

“Ryan and his co-creators, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, wanted to tell a story about how trans and gay people of colour, navigated not only a New York city that was rapidly shifting and changing, but also the HIV/Aids pandemic – and all without the resources,” she says. They had a helping hand as Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, and others who appear in Paris is Burning, acted as consultants to ensure they were “telling (the) story super authentically”. Murphy and Mock have made such a good team that they’ve been renewed for a second season – she also tells Dazed they’re collaborating on another project already.

We caught up to discuss the hit show, and her mission to make diversity more than just a buzzword.

A lot of the characters on Pose are quite young and in need of a strong support system. Is this reflective of your own experience growing up?

Janet Mock: Well, I was incredibly lucky that I grew up around a gang of trans girls in the middle of Hawaii. My best friend, who I went to school with, was a trans girl. I didn’t grow up in isolation, I had that structure of sisterhood and that structure helped raise me and infused into my work and writing that I do on Pose. A lot of the conversations that the women have on the show are conversations I have had with my girlfriends and best friends.

The show has broken records for LGBTQ representation, why is this still a big deal in 2018?

Janet Mock: I was incredibly excited, because for the first time we weren’t only gonna have trans women playing trans women, they were gonna be economically in power by being series regulars. That’s a huge deal. It’s a whole trickle down effect from the top of the organisation, which can only happen with someone who has as much cultural, creative, and industry power as Ryan Murphy.

“People in power are able to tell any story that they want to, whereas minorities often have to be invited in” – Janet Mock

Several episodes dealt with body image in the trans community; you even had scenes with backstreet butt shots and breast augmentations. Why is it important to show this reality on television?

Janet Mock: I’m a feminist, and I’m completely hoping that we don’t police other women’s bodies or their choices. But, one of the things that as trans people you struggle with is your own physicality and your own body. So, what are the internal or external struggles that influence that? How are the community policing or championing one another’s bodies? Our show is about competition, and a lot of the competition is about the way you look, and how you present to the world. Are you pretty, are you passable, are you real? I wanted to show the internal struggle of a person navigating that particular procedure that have limitations because of their economic disempowerment.  

People hate the phrase ‘role model’, but do you think it’s important that young trans people see people like them succeeding in mainstream spaces?

Janet Mock: I always struggle with the term role model. I’m one of many possibilities that people can base their paths and their dreams towards. I hope that I fill people with possibility and hope in showing that it’s possible to achieve your dreams. To go after what they want, to be filled with contentment, happiness, and purpose.

Why do you think it is we’re still getting into the situation where you guys can put on a show which is truly representative, yet elsewhere, you have people casting Scarlett Johansson to play trans roles?

Janet Mock: People in power are able to tell any story that they want to, whereas minorities often have to be invited in. I think that a lot of people are not doing that work because it is a lot of hard work to do, to look for undiscovered talent. A lot of our actors have never acted before, but we saw talent there and we pulled them in, and I think that’s what needs to be done if you want to tell these stories.

You were just in the Dev Hynes video – it’s amazing. How did that come about?

Janet Mock: We recorded that earlier this year. It was just me and Dev in the studio and me and my notebook. I just started writing down words and recorded them with him based on different themes that he had. Then he asked me to open the “Jewelry” video alongside my words. I just inherently trust him, he’s a dear friend, I love his work. I fell in love with him as a fan first and it grew into being a dear friend. I’d do anything to support him and the work that he’s doing.

How do all these projects fit together for you? How does narrating Dev Hynes’ album fit in with Pose, and fit in with your other writing on the trans experience as a journalist, etc?

Janet Mock:  I think it’s about being unapologetic about telling the truth. That’s the thread for me. It’s storytelling, all of it is about telling a story. For me I came into writing because I love words and I love stories. I was trained as a journalist, and after a while I realised telling other people’s stories wasn’t enough for me personally. It could all anchor around the foundation of telling my truth and growing out from there and helping to tell the truth of all these different characters and these different people; whether that be a theme of a song or an episode of television. At the end of that day it’s all about centering those that who have not been centered and to tell the truth.

You’ve had so many projects on the go, what else have you got coming up?

Janet Mock: I’m directing another project for Ryan Murphy, I’m heading to set for that now and there are a couple of other projects that I’m doing while I’m on hiatus. One being the feature adaptation of my first memoir Redefining Realness, which is a story of my coming of age as a trans girl, that I’ll be writing and directing. I’m not an actor. It’s also about a young trans girl so I need to find that young woman to play me (laughs).

Pose is groundbreaking, but what further change do we need to see across the industry?

Janet Mock: The gatekeepers and creators should actually be people from the community whose stories they are telling. I think we cannot underestimate how underemployed trans people are, and how little opportunities they have to tell their own stories.

Pose series two is set to air in 2019