On 'Pose,' Janet Mock Tells The Stories She Craved As A Young Trans Person
The same ball culture Janet Mock saw in Paris is Burning would come up again in her career, decades later. After launching a career in journalism, writing two memoirs and becoming a trans activist, Mock made history as the first trans woman of color to write and direct an episode of TV when she joined the production of Ryan Murphy's series Pose.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Janet Mock, is a writer, director and producer for the FX series "Pose," whose characters are part of the gay and trans underground ballroom scene of the late '80s and early '90s, the culture that inspired Madonna's hit 1990 record "Vogue." The balls are celebratory, but it's the height of the AIDS epidemic, and a growing number of people in the community are dying.
With "Pose," Janet Mock became the first trans person of color to write and direct an episode of TV. She's drawn on some of her own experiences. The second season ends next Tuesday. "Pose" was created by Ryan Murphy, who also created "Glee," "American Horror Story" and "American Crime Story." Mock was a journalist and wrote two memoirs before working on "Pose."
Let's start with a clip that's set at one of the balls from an episode she wrote with Ryan Murphy. The balls are competitions in which the participants are judged on their costumes, dancing or poses. The competitions have an MC who announces the theme or category and offers commentary on the costumes and moves. In this episode, the category is a dance style called lofting. And one of the girls, Candy, is dancing wearing a pointy bra bodice and pinstriped suit inspired by one of Madonna's outfits.
Candy is a very unconvincing dancer. The MC, whose name is Pray Tell, mocks her in his commentary. Pray Tell is played by Billy Porter. Candy is played by Angelica Ross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POSE")
BILLY PORTER: (As Pray Tell) The category is called lofting. It is a dance category for actual dancers. We've been down this road before. You are not a dancer. You are not a voguer. And quite frankly, I'm concerned about your health. Breakdancing might burst that silicone. And you don't want to go back to that flat a** you used to have, now, do you?
ANGELICA ROSS: (As Candy Ferocity) Why you always reading me the riot act, Pray Tell? You go out of your way to put me down.
PORTER: (As Pray Tell) I don't have to put you down when you're always in the bottom.
ROSS: (As Candy Ferocity) You stood up there on your perch talking about it's our time, our time to be seen, to show the world what we got.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That's right.
ROSS: (As Candy Ferocity) But in this room, you the only one that refuse to see that I got something to contribute. I got heart. I got talent. I'm a star just like Madonna.
PORTER: (As Pray Tell) OK. Judges, your scores. Five, five, zero, six, five.
PORTER: (As Pray Tell) I don't know what to tell you, girl. The cards don't lie.
ROSS: (As Candy Ferocity) You going to regret your words. I'm a star. I know who I am.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes, you are.
ROSS: (As Candy Ferocity) I am somebody.
PORTER: (As Pray Tell) OK, you go on ahead and be somebody, Miss Jesse Jackson, just not on my floor.
PORTER: (As Pray Tell) Music, please.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE POWER")
SNAP!: (Singing) I've got the power.
PORTER: (As Pray Tell) Take a hike and don't ever come back.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE POWER")
SNAP!: (Singing) I've got the power.
GROSS: That's a scene from "Pose." Janet Mock, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to ask you first about that scene. You know, the people in this ball community, they're very tight-knit. They're kind of like family. But they're also in separate houses, you know, separate, like, divisions, separate teams, separate families, and they're all very competitive with each other. And as we heard, it can get really harsh (laughter). So what's it like to write those ball scenes where people are getting so judgmental and insulting each other?
JANET MOCK: It's always such a bittersweet thing to write. They're probably our most difficult scenes to write and to also shoot. I think they're so complicated because there's over 300 people in our set (laughter). And there's a lot of voices. There's a lot of performance.
In that clip we had, Billy Porter - his character's called Pray Tell, and he's the commentator. He's kind of the - I guess you'd call the masters of ceremony in that sense. And Pray Tell's job is to keep the festivities going, to offer commentary on people's looks, on their performance. And Candy, played by Angelica Ross, is one of our characters that's the most rambunctious. She's the biggest risk-taker. She's the one that storms the ballroom floor in categories that she's not supposed to walk in. For example, that one's a dance category, and she's often a runway walker or someone who serves face, as they call it in the scene.
And what's hard about those as well is the idea of it's a safe space. On our show, it really is the space in which the characters can live out their fantasies and oftentimes be mostly applauded for it, rewarded for it, seen for who they see themselves to be. But at times, when they transgress those lines and walk in categories they're not supposed to, Pray Tell can lay down the law.
GROSS: I'm going to ask you to describe the ball culture that's at the center of "Pose."
MOCK: Well, the ball culture is a space started in uptown Manhattan, in Harlem. It was created by a group of black trans women in drag queens who were tired of being pushed out of white drag spaces, where they kept on being upstaged and not given titles. And the titles were favored to white queens, white queens who embodied, you know, Western culture's idea of beauty and femininity more than the black and brown queens did. And so Crystal LaBeija created the scene.
And it has become this kind of community space, one where a lot of orphaned people, you know, homeless folk, trans and queer people gather together in houses where there is often a mother and a father who is the head of the household who takes in kids, takes in young people, takes in queer folk who've been rejected by their own families and takes care of them, offers them food, shelter, clothing, life experiences, advice.
And they go into a ballroom, which can be a gym, a recreational center, a YMCA, a theater that they rent out for an evening to compete in categories such as realness, such as runway, such as vogue. And they get to live out their fantasies with one another and celebrate one another.
GROSS: You said - so each house is kind of like a family of choice.
MOCK: Yeah, it's the idea of chosen family, which LGBTQ folk know all too well for their own survival.
GROSS: What's left of ball culture?
MOCK: Oh, it's still thriving. The ball scene is international now. You know, there's been so many choreographers and dancers and personalities and MCs who've traveled the world hosting balls. There's the Life Ball in Vienna. There's the Love Ball in New York City. There's houses in Paris and in Japan. There's vogue classes taught around the world.
GROSS: So have you ever been part of ball culture?
MOCK: I've never been a part of the ball culture. My first experience of the ball world was through Jennie Livingston's documentary "Paris Is Burning." I believe I was in the 10th grade. My friend had a VHS that she got from another friend. It was kind of like this little, you know, magical ticket that was passed down to a bunch of us. And I remember seeing it and just being agape, just in awe of the fact that this community existed and that someone was smart enough to pick up a camera and document their lives. I felt so seen for one of the very first times in my life.
GROSS: That's an important age to feel validated.
MOCK: It deeply is. And for me at that time period, I was just embarking on my own transition. I had already socially transitioned from the eighth grade onward. And between ninth and tenth grades, I was embarking on my medical transition in Hawaii. And in Hawaii, what was so great is that we had our own community of trans people and LGBTQ folk that I grew up around. But it was a whole nother (ph) thing to see people who were black and brown, who looked like me, travel the same roads that I was about to embark on.
GROSS: "Pose" is groundbreaking, not just because the characters are trans, but also because there's trans actors. You're trans as a writer, director and producer. And I'm wondering how it feels for you to have work in which you're not seen as different.
MOCK: It's a bizarre and strange universe (laughter) that we get to do this, you know, and be supported by a network and by a studio. The fact that I get to go on set and supervise production, write scripts, direct the Season Two episodes, including our Season Two finale, which had just wrapped on Monday, it's astounding. You know, I watch the monitors sometimes. And I'm realizing as I'm sitting there watching it, sometimes with tears in my eyes, realizing that these were the sort of stories that I was craving as a young person.
And there's no othering in it. There's no over explaining of our experiences. It's just welcome to our world. That's how it often feels. When we're doing those ball scenes and sequences, our choreographers are from the ballroom community. They're LGBTQ of color, people of color. There are hundreds of background actors who oftentimes are getting their first SAG cards because of being on our show, who are often getting their first experiences on a set, whose eyes I see widen, realizing, oh, wow, I belong in this space, and I'm welcomed. And maybe I can go off and do background work on other productions.
And I've seen them. And I've seen them in other productions, like "Tales Of The City." I've seen them in the background. And I'm like, wow, they got their start on our series. And it's such a strange experience. It's so surreal. But for me, it feels - though, it's oddly become the norm, I realize - at least in our world it's the norm - but I realize that it's a completely rare experience.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Janet Mock. And she is a writer, director and producer on the series "Pose." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Janet Mock. She's a writer, director and producer of the TV series "Pose" about the underground gay and trans ball culture of the late '80s and early '90s when the AIDS epidemic was decimating the community. And with "Pose," Mock made history as the first trans woman of color to write and direct an episode of TV.
So I want to get to a clip from that first episode that you both wrote and directed, which gave you a place in TV history as the first trans person of color to write and direct an episode of TV. So here's the setup to the clip. In the previous episode, Angel, one of the trans women, has been having an affair - well, throughout the series, she's been having an affair with a young married man. And she loves him. But after things get more serious, she breaks off the relationship because he's married.
His wife, Patty, figures out that he's been having an affair and tracks down Angel. She even goes to see her at one of the balls. Patty is pretty clueless about what's happening at the ball and, after it's over, asked Angel to talk. So at the beginning of your episode - the following episode - they meet in a restaurant. Angel is played by Indya Moore. Patty, the wife, is played by Kate Mara. She speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POSE")
KATE MARA: (As Patty) What were you doing in that big hall with all those gay men and drag queens?
INDYA MOORE: (As Angel) That's my home.
MARA: (As Patty) You live there?
MOORE: (As Angel) No, honey, my community, mi familia.
MARA: (As Patty) But how could a woman be a drag queen?
MOORE: (As Angel) I'm a transsexual (laughter).
MARA: (As Patty) No, I don't believe you.
MOORE: (As Angel) Why, thank you. That's a compliment, you know?
MARA: (As Patty) No, that's not possible. I mean, Stan would never - never do that. You're a woman.
MOORE: (As Angel) 100%.
MARA: (As Patty) Prove it.
MOORE: (As Angel) What? You want to see my [expletive]?
MARA: (As Patty) Yes.
MOORE: (As Angel) I'm sorry for what I did to you, and I'm here to talk. But I got boundaries. I'm not bothered by any part of who I am except that. Everything I can't have in this world is because of that thing down there. If you want to see who I am, that's the last place you should look.
GROSS: That's a scene from "Pose" written and directed by my guest, Janet Mock. So the last line in that scene - if you want to know who I am, that's the last place to look - did you write that line?
MOCK: I did. (Laughter) I did. It was one of those things that I've always wanted to say. You know...
GROSS: I was wondering if you ever actually said that to someone. It's a great line.
MOCK: (Laughter) Thank you. I - you know, having done this work, public work, for so long - and part of my public work is talking about my life experiences and what I've gone through. I've been very transparent about my struggles with my body and with a society that is constantly trying to contain me and label me and define me. I've spent my entire youth and life fighting against that.
And so one of the great gifts of writing for television and writing for these characters is all the things that I may not have been bold enough to say - say, in an interview or at a dinner party when someone finds out that I'm trans or, you know, I bring it up in my work. And they're astounded, and they start asking all of these strange, invasive questions. I may not have been bold to say that. I just want to get through the dinner party, have a glass of wine, you know, continue on with the meal.
But for Angel, she can say the things that I've always wanted to say, which is, you know, the things that I've had to do medically to my body don't define me. They're the least interesting things about me. And the fact that they're the most sensational things for you as a nontrans person, as a cis person, I think, says a lot about how we've framed trans people as these objects of dissection of modern-day freak shows, in a way, ever since we saw, you know, Christine Jorgensen get off of that plane in the 1960s and telling her story for the first time and it just being really about her struggle with her body and not so much about, you know, the ways in which our society continues to box us in and makes us have to fight and defend ourselves and our bodies and our identities.
GROSS: The first season of "Pose" is set in 1987, the second in 1990. And the AIDS epidemic is ravaging the gay and trans community. How much did the AIDS epidemic loom over sexuality when you were coming of age? - because you were - what? - around 5 or 6 or something when the first season in set in 1987.
MOCK: Yeah, and I remember, you know, growing up, there was always a consciousness for me. I remember, you know, my father was a huge sports fan. He watched basketball and football religiously. And I remember Magic Johnson's prominence before his announcement of having HIV and afterwards and seeing his transformation into an activist and an advocate and a public spokesperson to shine a light and bring a face to this community of people.
And I remember growing up and, you know, hearing about HIV tests. I remember when I was in high school and sexually active - I remember we had a group called Chrysalis, and it was initially started out of HIV/AIDS research and funding from the Life Foundation, which was a HIV/AIDS awareness and public testing space in Honolulu.
We were tested. I remember the first time I got tested was at 17. They took a swab from my mouth, and I remember that fear that came when we had to wait two weeks for the results to hear that I was negative. And for me, it was so fraught with fear. But it was always a part of my life as a LGBTQ person growing up - that a part of our stark reality was the fact that when we have sex, we could possibly contract HIV/AIDS.
And that's something that Pray Tell, our character played by Billy Porter, talks about often. It's a throughline in his journey. It's a huge centerpiece of episode 6 of the first season in which I directed. It's his fear about HIV/AIDS and about having contracted the virus and now having to help his partner, who is on his deathbed, go through that himself. So while he's mourning the loss of a love, he's also looking at his own future or his possible future of his immortality.
GROSS: You know, one of the things he says is that he's thinking back to 1980 when they were free to love without worrying you're going to die or kill someone. Did you grow up with that fear?
MOCK: I grew up with the consciousness of that fear. I grew up with the stories from the older trans women who were always clear with us about, you know, using condoms and getting tested and being safe and that you should value your body.
It's something that I put in Blanca's mouth, our main character played by Mj Rodriguez. I put in her mouth when she discloses that she has AIDS to her children in the House of Evangelista when she tells them for the first time, you know, I want you all to protect yourselves. Don't be like me. Don't make the mistakes that I made when I was younger, thinking that just because he was willing to have sex with me or a man was willing to hold me for a night - that that meant that I didn't need to protect myself, that that meant I had to give him my body, that I had to reward him for wanting to be with me, for desiring me in a world in which I'm never desired, where I'm never the object of love and affection. Those are some of the themes that we are constantly putting into the scripts because it makes for, truly, a more deeply told and impactful story.
GROSS: My guest is Janet Mock, a writer, producer and director of the FX series "Pose." Season 2 ends next Tuesday. After a break, we'll talk about an episode of "Pose" in which she drew on her own experiences as a sex worker when she was in her teens, trying to earn money for the surgery she needed. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POSE")
NAOMI SMALLS: (Singing) Hey, sweets. Let me introduce you to my friend. Her name's fashion, fashion, fashion. She's always my plus-one - fashion, fashion. And what...
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Janet Mock, a writer, director and producer for the FX series "Pose." The characters are part of the gay and trans ballroom scene of the late '80s and early '90s, the culture that inspired Madonna's hit 1990 record "Vogue." It's a period when the community is hard-hit by the AIDS epidemic. With "Pose," Janet Mock became the first trans person of color to write and direct an episode of TV. She's drawn on some of her own experiences.
Mock is the author of two memoirs. In the first, "Redefining Realness," she describes growing up poor in Oakland and Hawaii and growing up trans. Note to parents - in this part of the interview, we're going to talk about the period of Mock's life when she was a sex worker, earning the money she needed for her surgery. When we left off, she was telling us about coming of age with the guidance of some older trans women who urged her to value her body and protect herself by practicing safe sex.
There was a period when you were working as a sex worker because it was the only way you could get enough money for the surgery that you wanted for completion. So during that period, when you were doing sex work and making good money at it, how did you value your body while doing that work?
MOCK: You know, my experiences in the sex trades and in sex work is so deeply complicated. You know, I was introduced to it first just as a hangout spot. You know, Merchant Street is a street in Honolulu, Hawaii, in downtown Honolulu. And it was a space - when I was 15 years old, I went for the first time. I went dressed up with my friends. We hung out with older girls. And when I say older girls, I was 15, and some of them were 18 to 25. But they were light years ahead of us in terms of their identities and their own transitions, of their confidence in their bodies, of proclaiming themselves to themselves and to one another.
It was deeply a space of sisterhood and socializing for me. I remember when I went there the first time, I was like - I asked my friend Wendy (ph) - I was like, what are they doing? I was so naive. I went very much with my student government and National Honor Society hat on, thinking I could never do what these women are doing. I could never sell my body. I could never have sex with men in the backseats of their cars.
And I remember maybe a year later, a car pulled over for me. And this was - you know, I had been going to Merchant Street for a year at that time, had been there dozens of times, hung out with the girls, cackled and laughing and listening to their stories. And when a man pulled up for me - and one of my friends said, he wants to take you on a date. And I was like, what does he want me to do? And she was like, he will pay you $60 if I did a sexual act with him.
And all I thought was, $60, wow, what I could do with $60. I could pay for two months of my Premarin pills. I could buy myself clothes that my mom can't afford. I could buy, you know, Spam musubis in the morning from 7-Eleven. For a poor kid, a poor trans kid, a poor trans kid of color, that $60 was a great way of taking care of myself. And so I thought about it in survival. I thought, oh, I have an asset in this world. I have my identity, and I have my body. And I can use my body as an asset to take care of myself in this world.
I no longer felt as poor. I no longer felt as unwanting (ph). I no longer felt as if I had no resources. And so for me, at that time period, as that 16-year-old, it felt incredibly powerful. I felt empowered. As the 36-year-old woman 20 years removed from that, I look at it with great complication. I look at it with a deep sadness, a deep sadness that that was her only option to take care of herself. I look at it as a deep sadness that, you know, she had to do that, that she felt like it was the only thing she could do to take care of herself, that there were no - there weren't more resources in her struggling communities.
GROSS: You directed a scene - this is a flashback scene where a sex worker is beaten up in a car by the john. And when the police come, the john just says, oh, she tried to steal my wallet. And the police believe him and arrest the woman instead of arresting the john. And she's hurt. She's totally smashed up from the beating that he gave her.
And you write in your first memoir, when a trans woman is arrested and charged with an act of prostitution - a non-violent offense committed by consenting adults - and then placed in a cell with men because prisons are segregated by genitals, well, a trans woman in a men's prison or jail is vulnerable to sexual assault, contracting HIV and being without hormones and trans-inclusive health care. This is cruel and unusual punishment. Do you know people who that happened to?
MOCK: I know all too many people who've gone through that experience. You know, that scene with Euphoria in our second season was a scene from my own life. I didn't get arrested like Euphoria. But I remember, after a long night of sex work when I was 18, I had money in my purse, and I had gone on a date with a john. And at the end of the date, he attacked me. He grabbed my hair and pushed my face into the dashboard and slapped me repeatedly and grabbed my purse, and it was a tug of war. And I had about a thousand dollars in my purse - a whole weekend's amount of work.
And I remember, you know, when I actually freed myself from the car, and he sped away, I told - I screamed to the girls to get the license plate number and to call the police. And I remember one of the women looking at me - and, again, my naivete - she just was like, what do you think the police is going to do for you? And I remember just thinking. And I was like, well, they're going to - we had the license plate number. They're going to track the guy down, and they're going to get my money back.
And they're like, well, how did you get that money? And what were you doing in that car? And how will you defend yourself? You will be the one who's going to end up in jail. Do you want to go to jail? Do you want a record? And I remember just having to suck it up and realizing that to certain people and to certain systems, I will be nothing but a black and native Hawaiian trans hooker. That's all that I will be. And so the fact that I can know that reality - and I even had Euphoria, the character, say that to Dominique Jackson's character, Elektra, to say that for girls like us, there is no justice, and so we have to find creative ways of being resilient, of closing the ranks and taking care of one another in a world that does not take care of us.
GROSS: Did you go back to sex work after that? I mean, were you too afraid to do it after being beaten up and having your money stolen?
MOCK: I wish that I could say that it scared me straight; it did not. Survival was all too loud of a siren for me. At that point, I had just been a few thousand dollars away from saving for my sex reassignment. What I did do is that I no longer took risks. I no longer went in cars with new clients. I always made sure that I had references from other girls who had either worked with those clients before, and I double down on working with regulars only. And so in that way, I made sure that I took care of myself and took greater precautions.
And it's one of the reasons why it's so vital that we don't criminalize sex workers because all it does is pushes them to take greater risks. When there are no longer clients who they're safe to be with, when they no longer have that Rolodex, they have to take greater risks to be with clients who are not safe, who do drugs, who are violent. And so I think, for me, at that time period, I just - I buckled down, and I just tried to take greater precautions.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Janet Mock. She's a writer, director and producer of the TV series "Pose." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MGMT SONG, "ELECTRIC FEEL")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Janet Mock, a writer, director and producer of the TV series "Pose," about the underground gay and trans ball culture of the late '80s and early '90s, when the AIDS epidemic was decimating the community. And she made history as the first trans woman of color to write and direct an episode of TV. She's also the author of two memoirs.
When you were growing up - well, your parents separated when you were very young. You were born in Hawaii, spent your first few years there. Then you moved with your father to Oakland. And then I think when you were around 12, moved back to Hawaii to be with your mother.
MOCK: Mmm hmm.
GROSS: And when you were growing up with your father, he thought that you were a sissy and tried to, like, get you to, you know, be more brave about riding a bicycle and to like sports and stuff like that. What did he try to do to, like, get you to, like, you know, man up or boy up...
GROSS: ...When you were a kid, and what was your reaction to that?
MOCK: I - me and my father have a very complicated relationship, even to this day. My father took it upon himself, as a part of his duty, to toughen me up, to push me down purposely on the ground and make me get up and not cry. He put it upon himself to, you know, play baseball and basketball with me, to force me to play tackle football, to do all the things that traditionally boys are supposed to want to do, when all I wanted to do was, you know, play jacks and jump rope with my cousins and read books in the corner in a quiet space. But those things were seen as feminine things, as girl things to do in the world.
And, you know, my dad is a black man from the South, from Louisiana and Texas. He's the eldest of five. He was in the military. He was a womanizer (laughter). For him - he was so traditionally hypermasculine, hypermasculine to the point of toxicity, that, you know, for him to have a child - his firstborn son who was his namesake, - to walk around in the world with long curly hair and swishing hips and wanting to giggle and laugh and skip around with his girl cousins - to him, it was a great insult.
And I think, also, because he loved me, because I was his child, I think he thought that he was protecting me; he was protecting me from a world in which I was already black, so why would I want to add on other labels and marginalized selves, like being gay? And at that point for him, he had no consciousness of trans-ness. Why would I want to add that onto my struggle and my burden?
GROSS: He asked you at one point if you were gay, and it was a hard question to answer because he saw you as a boy; you saw herself as a girl. You were attracted to boys, but if you're a girl attracted to boys, you're not gay. So it was a complicated question. And your father, of course, was clueless about how complicated it really was. What went through your mind when he asked you that, if you don't mind me asking you?
MOCK: Well, the first thing I thought was, how am I going to get out of this?
MOCK: Like, as any kid, you know that you're in trouble. And I also saw, even at that age - you know, as a memoirist, you can write about the immediacy of being in that car as your young self with your father, and then you can editorialize it with time and look back, you know, decades removed. And even at that time, in that car with my dad, I felt his vulnerability. I felt his fear for me. I felt his deep love for me. But I also felt, as a child, that I needed to lie to him, in a sense. I needed to assuage his fears. I needed him to know that things would be OK.
And though I didn't, in the time period, feel like I was lying because to say that I was gay was not an identity that I felt that a lot of the things that I was going through weren't necessarily about my sexuality; they were about my gender. I didn't have those terms at that time. I didn't know that gender identity is who you go to bed as, versus sexual orientation is who you go to bed with. But at that time period, I just knew that my dad wanted the answer to be, no, Dad, I'm not gay. And so I just lived in that truth of that at that time period.
And even though I answered that way, I still went home and got punished. He buzzed off all of my hair, which, for me, at that point, was my only expression of my femininity that I had control of. He let my hair grow long, and he wanted to strip that away of me. He wanted to show that I was a boy. He wanted to prove that to himself, to me and to the world around him.
GROSS: Do you remember the first time you went outside, fully expressing yourself as a woman?
MOCK: I was in the seventh grade. I was dressed up in a (laughter) black-and-white checkered halter top and bell-bottoms, platform heels that I borrowed from my best friend Wendy - who was also a trans girl that I grew up with - and her short Toni Braxton bobbed wig. I felt so pretty to go to a middle school party. We performed as the Spice Girls, of course.
MOCK: Because I was the only black girl, I was Scary Spice, which, to this day, I'm like, what a gift, because she's my favorite Spice Girl. And I just remember us being applauded and being celebrated. And for me, those are the things that I wish I had more of growing up. I wish that when I walked down the halls in my high school, that I wasn't always just gawked at and jeered at, that I was cheered on, that teachers called me by my chosen name, that they didn't misgender me, that they didn't send me to the principal's office when I wore a skirt, that instead I was allowed to just sit in the room like another student and learn.
But instead, oftentimes my identity became a barrier for people to see that I was just a student, that I was just a young person, that I was just trying to make a way for myself and to claim space.
GROSS: When you were able to express yourself as a woman in the outside world, you write that it put you in the sharp focus of the male gaze, and you were subjected to catcalls and whistles, objectification and sexism. So what impact did that have on you? Because you were finally able to, like, express yourself as a woman; at the same time, it had a downside in terms of how people reacted to you.
MOCK: I knew all too well, or I was learning firsthand at least, what it meant to be a young woman in this body and to be desired. On one hand, I loved being desirable. I loved the fact that a man would take a second look, and that felt affirming. I felt attractive. I felt pretty, which, in this society, tells us that that's all that women should be is pretty and attractive (laughter) and to be able to attract a man.
But on the other hand, that also came with a sense of danger because the more eyes that are lured to me, the more vulnerable I am - vulnerable, of course, to harassment and to catcalling and to street harassment, but also vulnerable on the next level of my trans womanhood, which tells a man that, if he's attracted to me, that he needs to eliminate that attraction, therefore he needs to yell at me. He needs to call me out of my name.
It could escalate to violence, that sort of violence that leads to trans women being attacked. We see videos all the time going viral on social media of a trans woman, say, on public transportation, minding her own business, a headphone on her head, reading a book, and some man screaming, that's a man. Oh, my God, you guys, that's a man. That's a man. You're a bleeping man. You're a tranny (ph). You're a this; you're a that.
And then seeing that escalate to violence, to actual people hitting, throwing things, spitting, stomping on them, hurting them - hurting them to the point that we have over 15 trans women of color killed this year alone, and we're not even all the way through the year. And so I knew the complicatedness firsthand of my blackness, of my womanhood and of my transness and the dangers and the vulnerability of that embodying in my one body.
GROSS: Well, I'll tell you what - let's take a short break here, and then there's plenty more to talk about when we come back. If you're just joining us, my guest is Janet Mock, and she is a writer, director and producer on the TV series "Pose." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Janet Mock. She's a writer, director and producer of the TV series "Pose," about the underground gay and trans ball culture of the late '80s and early '90s, when the AIDS epidemic was at its peak. And with "Pose," Mock made history as the first trans woman of color to write and direct an episode of TV.
Are you kind of amazed to see the difference in understanding in our culture about what it means to be trans now compared to when you were a child? And I'm not saying things are great or easy, but I think there's been a lot of progress.
MOCK: There's so much progress. You know, growing up in Hawaii, trans people were part of my everyday. And so I'm so happy that now we're kind of seeing with, you know, visible figures like Laverne Cox and Isis King, who was just in Ava DuVernay's "When They See Us"- I'm seeing...
GROSS: And you.
MOCK: Yeah, and me and the cast of "Pose" and Hunter Schafer on "Euphoria" on HBO - that there's so many more representations of trans folk existing in the everyday on people's televisions. And we know how intimate of a space television is. It's a space in which we invite people into our homes with a click of buttons.
And so in that sense, I'm astounded that this representation exists. And I just hope that this continues to evolve, that our visibility leads to progress, leads to better laws, leads to more protection and leads to a world in which we no longer have to continue to say the names of trans women who are slain for simply being themselves and existing in their communities.
GROSS: You have a very busy schedule ahead of you. You're going to continue writing, directing and producing episodes of "Pose." You also have a Netflix deal to develop shows. And you're going to be working on a new Ryan Murphy show called "Hollywood," about which I know nothing yet, but I know it's going to be a lot of work for you.
So clearly, you're a person with a lot of energy and focus. I'm kind of interested - how did you use all that energy and focus before you were able to use it for, you know, this kind of directed work that is work you're so dedicated to doing? And it's such a positive force in your life, in addition to, I'm sure, also being exhausting and stressful.
I guess what I'm thinking in a way - you probably always had a lot of focus. You knew you were trans. You knew you wanted surgery. You knew you had to make money to get it. You figured out a way to get the money. It was through being a sex worker. But you got through it. And you got what you needed. You got what you knew you needed to be yourself and function fully in the world. And you did that when you were very young. I mean, you had to have a lot of focus then. It's not like - I mean, you were poor - it's not like your parents were helping you in any way.
MOCK: No. Yeah, you know, I think for me, my first project or production of sorts was myself. I had to work hard and sacrifice a lot to be able to be who I am. And that was one of the biggest and probably the biggest obstacle that I had to overcome. And I overcame that at 16 years old.
And by 18, I had achieved my goal of medical transition, which to me at that time was the first thing I knew I needed in order to move on - to move on from my issues with my body, to move on with issues with my gender, to move on with issues with my community and my family and, you know, a whole society and culture that was telling me that I did not belong and who I was was wrong.
And so once I told myself that, I was able - once I was able to conquer that, I was then able to do the next steps, which was to move beyond myself and to figure out what I actually wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to tell the truth. I wanted to tell stories.
And so for me, the first story I had to tell after being properly credentialed, which was, you know, going to NYU for a master's degree, working at some of the top publishing houses there was and then to get a book deal to tell my story - I was the first trans woman of color to have a mainstream book deal to tell the perspective of a transition from a young people's point of view.
And once I conquered that, you know, my story was out in the world. And some people took it. You know, I was able to sit next to Oprah on SuperSoul Sunday and have her ask me questions about my life, which I never thought that I would be able to have. I was able to step onstage at the Women's March on Washington to resist an administration - an incoming administration that was looking to silence us. I was able to have my book reach the hands of my dear friend and mentor now Ryan Murphy, who has enabled me to tell stories on a bigger platform. And now with this Netflix deal, I'm just energized. I'm energized to continue to tell stories that matter to me.
GROSS: Janet Mock, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
MOCK: Thank you so much, Terry. I'm such a huge fan and listener of FRESH AIR, and so it's such an honor to be on the other side of your questions and your insightful, such sensitive narrative. Thank you.
GROSS: Janet Mock is a writer, director and producer for the FX series "Pose." The season 2 finale will air next Tuesday.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...
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HANNAH SHAW: It's OK. I'm estimating that this little guy is probably about five days old.
GROSS: ...My guest will be Hannah Shaw, aka Kitten Lady. Her mission is rescuing orphaned, neonatal and older kittens and teaching people how to care for them. She created a kitten nursery in her home. She has a new book called "Tiny But Mighty: Kitten Lady's Guide To Saving The Most Vulnerable Felines." I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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MADONNA: (Singing) Vogue - beauty's where you find it. Vogue to the music. Vogue - beauty's where you find it. Go with the flow. Greta Garbo and Monroe, Dietrich and DiMaggio... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.