After sitting with Oprah Winfrey to discuss Redefining Realness on Super Soul Sunday, I was honored to be asked to speak at her new live event, “Super Soul Sessions” in September which brought authors, thinkers and spiritual leaders together for a day of inspirational talks. For my talk — which basically served as the opening act for Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey! — I wanted to ensure I honed in on what has enabled me to thrive as a writer, advocate, TV host and a young woman. My pillar has always been realness and my compass is authenticity.
Here is my full talk where I discuss the importance of listening to yourself, living your truth and never aiming for what society deems as normal …. because “Normal is so basic.” Oh, and there are a few tears. Get ready for the ugly cry!
OPRAH: Last year, I interviewed Janet Mock for…*audience claps and shout*…I feel that way too…about her. I interview Janet Mock for Super Soul Sunday and you know, it was so interesting because I learned so much. I mean, she taught me so much about the spectrum and then I went and told everybody else I knew, “You know there’s a spectrum, not just for sexuality but for gender also.” So Janet told me at the time that she often thinks about Harriet Tubman and what it must have taken for a person to actually go and get their own freedom and then to come back and show people the way. Well, that’s just what she’s doing. Janet is here to show us the path to authenticity and embracing the otherness. Janet Mock.”
JANET: Standing on this stage is improbable considering the world that I come from. I was born in a pink hospital on the top of a hill in Honolulu, Hawaii to a mother who was a teen mother, with two sisters who were teen mothers, and a father addicted to crack cocaine. I grew up affected by my family’s homelessness and joblessness. We struggled for resources in communities ravaged by poverty.
And if that wasn’t enough, I also had my own identity struggles. I was welcomed into the world as my parents’ firstborn son. They named me after my dad. They dressed me in football team onesies. They expressed my gender for me. And from a young age, I struggled deeply and fought hard to be myself and reveal myself and express myself in a culture that mandates that if you’re born with certain body parts, you are not allowed to express who you truly are if that expression does not align with what those around you deem normal. And by the age of 5, I turned out different than the boy my parents expected me to be. I ran around the playground with limp wrists. I had a sort of wiggle in my hips. I spent hours playing jacks and jump rope with kids on my block. And this was in complete contrast with my brother Chad, who was a year younger than me, who’d come home with scraped knees and bruises from playing football and basketball with the boys on our block.
One of the stories that my siblings love to tell about me involves a hideous, hibiscus covered muumuu. Those big flowery dresses that women in the islands wear. I was 6 years old, and my friend dared me to put on her grandmother’s dress and run across the playground. And I remember the thrill of snatching that dress off that clothesline and putting it on my body. Running across that playground in that hideous dress, I felt free. Because I finally was able to express the girl that I knew myself to be.
But then my fierce grandmother spotted me and she smacked me right across my butt. The muumuu story is a story that my sister Kori loves to tell at Thanksgiving: Ho, you rememba da time Grandma caught you in the dress? We all laugh. But when I was 5, it wasn’t funny to me because it was the first time that the me that I knew myself to be was not right. I learned at five years old that living my truth was wrong. I learned at five years old to hide, to hide who I really was – and we all do this. We all put up fronts to protect our unspoken and unexpressed selves.
Sometimes it is easiest to conceal our truths by blending in – think about Holly Golightly (in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) hiding behind her party girl exterior to hide the reality of Lulamae Barnes, and the Great and powerful Wizard of Oz who turns out to not be all that great and powerful. He’s just an ordinary guy with a bag of tricks. We all feel less than, and we all fear that if we live our truth that we will be shamed and deemed unworthy of being seen and heard and loved.
This myth, this myth pushed me to hide deeper into myself as a young person. I was so practiced and so rehearsed and so careful. I was so insecure around my father who thought that I was too feminine and too soft. And everyone around me backed him up — through a furrowed brow or a shake of a head or the smack of a hand. I was acutely aware of my difference and tried my best to appease my parents anxiety about me. We’d have battles growing up about the length of my hair and the tight fit of my jeans and the way I’d love to just sit in the corner and quietly read. Nothing I could do was right. I couldn’t perform in the way that I was supposed to perform. And I was uncomfortable being different.
But then a girl turned 12 and she went to a new school and she began owning her difference. And it was all because of a flamboyant queen named Wendi. Now, if Wendi were here, she’d say, “No girl, I am more of a goddess than a queen.” But this is my version of our story. When I met Wendi, she had a green bob and she wore short shorts with knee-high socks. And she pranced around that school as if she ruled it. Her fearlessness to be fully herself as a transgender girl emboldened me but it also frightened me because I was too afraid to say out loud what I secretly knew: that I, I too, was a girl.
And my life changed when she walked up to me at recess and said, “Mary, you mahu?!” I was clocked, as the girls say. I was found out and discovered. Wendi’s statement lingered between us. And I was defensive at first because I only knew the term mahu pejoratively, as a term that bullies would call any boy that acted like a sissy. But in Hawaiian, it was a term to discuss this place in the middle. It loosely translates to transgender – but it’s more than that. It’s about going beyond male and female, beyond gender. It’s about embodying a space in the middle, a space of your own creation. This exchange with Wendi, meant nothing to her. She was just stating the obvious. To me, it meant everything because someone saw me.
And we crossed paths again. And this time, she asked if I wanted to play volleyball after school and I nodded. And that nod led to lunches together and afterschool prancing and sleepovers. And it was on her grandmother’s plastic-covered couch, where I laid my head on her lap, and she tweezed my eyebrows for the first time. And now I’m bald. This selfless grooming, this tweezing, was my first experience of intimacy with another person. Wendi and I would stay up late talking about everything and nothing. I had butterflies in my stomach about having found someone like me whom I didn’t have to explain anything to. Wendi and I didn’t have terms like transgender or trans. We were too busy living our lives to sit around defining it. And when I think about this time with Wendi, I think about the power of been seen. She was the first person to tweeze my eyebrows. The first person to send me to 7th grade homeroom in silver eye shadow that she swore was natural. The first person to tell me I could be whoever I wanted to be without anyone’s permission.
Wendi pushed me to ask myself one of the most vital questions. A question that we should all ask ourselves whether we are 12 or 20 or in the twilight of our lives. Who am I? Who am I to me? That’s the question. How do we better listen to ourselves? How do we stop shutting out the truths that we are afraid to recognize and start shutting out the voices that rebut us? We must have the audacity to turn up the frequency of our truths. As Dorothy learned from Glinda – we have always had the power. It is the world’s limitations and the myths that we internalize about ourselves that pushes us to diminish our power and ignore it. Asking myself, “Who am I to me?” led me to answers that emboldened me. Those answers are the foundation onto which I stand here today assured and affirmed in my truth.
And that truth led me to prance in my first day of school, in my sophomore year, in a crop top like this and a tight pair of jeans and reintroduce myself to my classmates as Janet. For me, authenticity was my pathway – it was my yellowbrick road. Living my truth, living my truth was the first step to any kind of success in my life. And I look back on that 15 year old girl and I marvel at her. I marvel at her unwavering sense of self. She never let anyone’s perceptions about her make her question or doubt who she knew she was. So many of my classmates didn’t get me, but I think that in a space like high school — in a period of our lives where we are figuring out who we are or blending in and being something that we are not in order to fit in–they respected me. They respected the fact that I was bold enough to stand out and be myself. And that self-assuredness was the key to my success in school: I was captain of the volleyball team. I was in student government. I played tuba in the marching band. The most feminine instrument in the world. I earned our school’s only scholarship to college, becoming the first person in my family to go college.
And it was at the University of Hawaii where I discovered my love of writing through the school paper. I spent my undergrad asking people questions, listening to their stories, giving them space to tell their truths. And as a student reporter, I learned that we all want to be heard, and we all yearn to be seen for who we really are – no matter our path. That’s a universal truth. Telling our stories allows us to connect with one another, but most importantly it allows us to connect with ourselves. And I knew that telling stories was what I wanted to do for a living. So I moved to New York City to attend graduate school. And New York for me was the “city of final destination, the city that is a goal,” as EB White wrote. I “came to New York in quest of something” – and my quest was voice and purpose and self. And after years of standing out, from middle school and high school and college, I chose to keep the fact that I was trans to myself. And it was liberating. It was liberating to be seen as “normal” – as another girl in the crowd, another 22-year-old discovering who I was beyond the gender stuff. And with that privilege of unmarked existence, the privilege of “normalcy,” I gained access and I was let in. I learned about storytelling from some of our nation’s best journalists, I got internships at magazines that I read in my bed growing up, I earned my masters degree and landed my dream job as an editor for People magazine. I swore, as this outfit shows, that I was the second-coming of Carrie Bradshaw.
And this was the dream. This was the American dream: I was someone who came from nothing. Someone who made something out of nothing. And I became someone. And in the world I came from, I was told that in order to be seen and welcomed, I had to be twice as good and work twice as hard. That’s why I had advanced degrees, that’s why I didn’t speak my grandmother’s Hawaiian Pidgin English, that’s why I shed my otherness. I had to fit. I had to blend. So I put myself in a box. And my box was my armor. It was my way of protecting myself. And it was shiny and it was stunning and it was perfect… and it was a lie. And it was a lie because I had to shut off parts of myself in order to fit. I kept quiet about my journey because I didn’t want to be bothered. I felt that I was less than. I felt that being trans, that being brown, that being a different kind of woman made me less than. I felt that maybe I wasn’t worth being seen and heard because I saw no one like me on my TV or on my bookshelves. And then Toni Morrison spoke to me. And Maya Angelou spoke to me. And Alice Walker spoke to me. And it was Toni who said, “’If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you [baby] must write it.”
So in 2011, I stepped out of the comfort of my box. I took off that armor and I allowed myself to be seen. Sharing my story has been part one of a long process–let me get this beat right–a long process of transition. A girl’s gotta look good. As me and Oprah said, ‘Pretty privilege is real.’ I’m not trying to lose my privilege because of these tears. But telling my story has been step one of a long process of transition. And when I say transition, I’m not talking about hormones and surgeries and before and after photos. I’m talking about something far more universal. Something that transcends the body. It’s that voice within us, the one that we so often ignore, the one that grows into a resounding roar telling us that it is time for change and courage. Only in listening to that voice and living our truths are we able to come out renewed. And I’ve been successful at my mission so far: I’ve been able to shift conversations and evolve and expand the way that we look at people beyond labels. I’ve written a New York Times bestseller…I know Rachel Roy is here and I wore that dress on the cover of my book. Yes, girl. Thank you…I even ate grilled cheese with Oprah. And I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish but most importantly I am proud that I can be a mirror for young girls – a mirror that I didn’t have growing up.
But I can’t ignore the fact that my experience and my success is way outside the norm. Many of my sisters are grappling with homelessness and joblessness, and a lack of access to healthcare and education…and this deep space of lack pushes them out of hostile homes and intolerant schools, and into the streets and prisons and deeper into poverty. And we, as a society, often ignore them because we are afraid of difference, so we push those who are unlike us away, we push “the others” out of our scope of vision, away from our reality. And instead what we do is we create and hold up tokens – rare examples of marginalized people who have made it, who we applaud, who alleviate us of our guilt and our shame and our burden. And I know first hand of what it means to be a token, to be reduced to one aspect of my identity – and never fully seen. That’s all we want, right? Is to be fully seen. The great irony of my success is that it deludes many into believing that my success is possible for all those girls – and the reality is: it is not. Just because I clicked my heels and I made it out of Oz, doesn’t mean everyone can.
Growing up othered, I was told that normal was the pathway to success and contentment. But I’ve learned that none of us should reach for normal. Normal is so basic. Owning who we are is power. We gotta dare to stand out. We have to be different. We have to, as Miss Oprah said, embrace the other. There is such power in unapologetically embracing ourselves, cradling that part of our identities and experiences that we were taught to be silent about and ashamed of. There is power in saying, I will no longer be ashamed. I am mine. For each of us to own ourselves is key. There can be no equality, there can be no love, there can be no justice, until we embrace ourselves and one another.
So today, my hope is that in hearing my story you are propelled to excavate that part of yourself that you have been hiding and allow others to see you, just as you are right here without doubt, without shame, without apology. My hope is that you go out into the world centering that part that you’ve been holding at the margins and celebrate – and recognize — those parts in others. My hope is that you step outside of the comfort of your boxes and wholly and boldly be your truest, fiercest self.