By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter
For the second time in as many weeks, a high-profile transgender woman of color brought visibility and empowerment to Bay Area trans people while supporters urged allies to continue working to bring such voices to the community.
Fresh off an inspiring program by trans actress Laverne Cox, best-selling trans author Janet Mock found a packed audience eager to hear from her at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center last week.
Mock, founder of the #GirlsLikeUs project, kicked-off this year’s inaugural Bay Area Transgender Visibility Week by participating in a March 28 salon-style panel.
Over 300 people attended the event, which featured Mock reading a selection from her recently-released memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More; performances by transgender opera singer Breanna Elyce Sinclaire; and a book signing.
To applause and a standing ovation, Mock was welcomed on-stage by local transgender activist Cecilia Chung who, on behalf of Mayor Ed Lee’s office and the city, surprised Mock with a proclamation declaring March 28 “Janet Mock Day” in San Francisco.
“I was not expecting this,” Mock said accepting the honor. “Wow, thank you San Francisco. I am deeply humbled and honored and kind of speechless. Usually I’m very good with words but I’m kind of thrown by this big surprise.”
Chung, a senior adviser for the Transgender Law Center, and a health commissioner at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said the recognition was well deserved.
“Janet is accessing many different types of media through television, her memoir, and participating in events,” Chung told the Bay Area Reporter. “It helps the trans community realize we don’t have to look very far for a positive role model. We will continue to remember the names of those lost, but now our narrative is changing to also become about naming the names of people who are celebrating successes.”
Chung was referring to the purpose of Transgender Visibility Week, which was created in 2009 to recognize and celebrate transgender lives.
Ironically, Janet Mock Day coincided with the final episode of CNN’s three-year-old talk show Piers Morgan Live. The program’s ratings dropped in February from already dismal numbers when Morgan, the show’s host, invited Mock on twice and proceeded to, according to Mock, “sensationalize” her story, creating a loud backlash from the LGBT community and allies.
“We’re a community that wants to be heard,” Mock said at the event. “When someone approaches us with a [project], oftentimes it’s going to be a mess but we think we can make it better. Oftentimes, we can’t due to the power dynamic that you’re walking into.
“For me, that contributed to the Piers Morgan moment. I was naive enough to think that my accomplishments and the structures around me would protect me and that we were on equal footing. In actuality, we were not. So, it’s about controlling your own narrative. You have to be very intentional about the act that is a performance, a transaction. … They’re there to sensationalize and entice. The more cognizant you are of that exchange, that relationship, the better the outcome will be in terms of a media portrait,” Mock added.
For the panel and question and answer segments, Mock was joined by Chung; queer activist and Transgender Law Center board member Shawn Demmons, MPH, who also works for the UCSF Department of Psychiatry; Christina Quinonez of the Transitions Project; and Lexi Adsit, program intern at the Youth Leadership Institute in San Rafael, columnist for the Rainbow Hub, and organizing member of the International Trans Women of Color Network Gathering.
Facilitated by musician StormMiguel Florez, the discussion covered intersectional identity, particularly as it relates to trans women of color, transgender media visibility, the diversification of transgender narratives, LGBT economic empowerment, art as activism, resource accessibility, and allyship.
“It was hugely appropriate for Janet to kick-off Transgender Visibility Week,” Adsit, 23, a self-identified fierce fat femme trans Latina, said. “She talks a lot about honoring the dead and fighting like hell for the living. It’s been really great not just to have Janet this week but Laverne [Cox] here last week, too – trans women of color showing off their work and building community with leaders and trans women in the area. It’s inspiring to see how powerful those relationships can be.”
Adsit knows the power of connecting over shared identities well. She met Mock last April at Stanford University where Mock delivered the keynote speech opening the school’s Transgender Awareness Week. Mock instantly recognized Adsit and her friend, Lovemme Corazón, as transgender activists whose work she had seen on Tumblr. In October, Adsit visited New York and enjoyed a breakfast and shopping excursion with Mock where they bonded over similar experiences.
“It’s been one of the most inspiring validations to watch her be so successful,” Adsit said. “During our conversations, we’ve shared experiences of being tokenized and I think her realness is really refreshing.”
Between Cox’s March 19 event and Mock’s appearance, the importance of trans women and trans women of color telling their own stories cannot be understated. Allies, Chung emphasized, have a role to play in this movement, too.
“We’re seeing more allies from the greater queer community coming forward,” Chung told the B.A.R. “We’d really like them to help us create space so we can fill it with trans women of color, so we can really be the voice for our own community.”
The event was sponsored by TRANS: Thrive at the Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center, SHINE Study, the trans employment program at the LGBT Community Center, Transgender Law Center, Asia SF, and the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health.