Janet Mock On Global Poverty, Beyoncé & Texting Oprah

Photo: Aaron Tredwell.
It seems like Janet Mock can talk about anything. In a conversation last week, the MSNBC host and activist held forth about global poverty, Kanye at the VMAs, discrimination against trans teens at Souhern high schools, Celine Dion's response to Hurricane Katrina, and the veracity of Oprah Winfrey. We spoke for about 20 minutes.

The occasion for our chat was Mock's upcoming gig hosting the the Global Citizen Festival for MSNBC. The event, a concert in Central Park on September 26, features Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, and a ton of other stars, singing for a cause. The host group, Global Citizen, aims to end extreme poverty worldwide.

In her daily life, Mock hosts So Popular, a weekly pop culture show on MSNBC. She's also the author of the 2014 bestseller Redefining Realness, and one of the country’s most prominent advocates for transgender rights.

Here are highlights from our conversation.

Last week, when you were guest-hosting Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, you read out the names of the 17 trans women who have been murdered this year. Were you surprised at the response?

"Even though I primarily cover culture, I don’t ever want to forget the urgency that’s out there to use the platform that I’ve been granted to lift up the names and the voices and the experiences of the communities that I represent through all of my varying identities. So, it was a no-brainer.
"As to the reaction, I’m glad. I think that means that we amplified it to a whole other level. I hope...that it shows people that it’s time to [focus on] these urgent, state-of-emergency kinds of issues. [dog barking loudly]

"Sorry, that’s my dog. He’s responding! It’s a state of emergency!" [laughs]

You have such a politically engaged dog! [laughs] Often, when we talk about trans people, we’re talking about such poles — Caitlyn Jenner or murder. Does it ever feel like there’s a whole swath of regular life that’s being ignored?

"Yes. It’s disheartening at times. We talk about trans people, and particularly trans women, and it’s either, like, you’re working it on a red carpet — or you’re in a casket. We need to have something in between triumph and tragedy. What does it mean to just be a person who exists in this body, in this identity, in this world — without having to be the target of either extreme. What about people who just want to live?"

We need to have something in between triumph and tragedy.

How do we do make that change?

"When you look at what’s at the root of that, a lot of it’s linked to poverty. Within the trans community, 90% percent of trans people experience harassment or discrimination on the job, [and] 50% percent of trans people have been denied a promotion or job because of their identity. A fifth of trans people have been refused a home or an apartment, and another fifth have experienced homelessness at some point.

"These are all poverty issues. There’s no way for people to have access to their basic needs: health care, education, home. [If] you can’t have those three things, you can’t live your life. What’s happening a lot...is that that lack of access makes trans people a lot more vulnerable — vulnerable to underground economies, which makes them more criminalized, which leads them to the criminal justice system, to prison, and back to poverty. The cycle just continues over and over again.

"My goal with my presence on MSNBC and with the [Global Citizen] show is that these are issues I’m going to center on — just as much as I’m going to show my fan-girldom over Beyoncé."

Beyoncé's performing, right?

"Yes, I’m pretty excited about that. I am, like, a degree away, you know? I mean, we are in the same show. "

You’re practically best friends.

"Yes! [laughs] See, you get me."

The concert is in Central Park on September 26. What’s the goal?

"The concert’s about using popular culture to get people more socially engaged around Global Citizen’s goal of ending extreme poverty in the next 15 years — which is a super-ambitious goal, but I think we should be ambitious.

"I’ll just use Beyoncé as an example: She was a lightning rod for talking about gender equality. Standing in front of an emblazoned sign that says 'Feminism' taught a lot of young people who may not engage with [the] work [of someone] like bell hooks or Gloria Steinem to be like, Oh, what is this feminism thing? Maybe that will be a pathway to understanding more. I think using celebrity, using art, using culture works as a means to attract people to care about the deeper issues."

More than a hundred kids at a high school in Missouri walked out last week to protest their classmate, a teenage girl named Lila Perry, who’s trans, using the girl’s bathroom. Have you followed that story?

"I have. You know, I always marvel at any person, particularly when it’s a young person, who is so unjustly misunderstood and marginalized, who then stands up and says...'I belong here. This is my space; this is my school, too, and I won’t be silenced, despite all of these hundreds of people walking out and saying I don’t belong here — I belong here.’

"It speaks to the resiliency of trans women, who are told...you don’t belong, that who you know yourself to be is wrong, that you’re confused, that you’ll change your mind, that you’re a predator, that you’re this or you’re that.

"I think she’s already a role model and an example of what can happen when you really say, 'I’m going to center myself, and I’m not going to be pushed to be ashamed of who I am.'"

It's a sad story, but in a way, optimistic, right? A few years ago it would have been hard to imagine that we'd have a trans teen on local TV saying, "I'm a girl and I belong."

"Yes, but even when I’m applauding her resiliency, I’m wishing that we didn’t have to be so resilient. I’m wishing that wasn’t something we had to develop within ourselves because of the way that the culture has internalized and believed these myths around our identity.

"Where we’re at right now with this hyper-visibility around trans identity...I think that is where it kind of affects the people who are between trauma and triumph... They still have to deal with the communities that are largely uneducated about what it means to be a trans person, and the struggles that are inherent to living your life and living your truth."

When we look back on Kanye, we’ll compare him to other outspoken figures — specifically black men like Mohammed Ali — who were unpopular in their time but [are] viewed differently by history.

You're doing a show this week about Kanye and the VMAs. What did you make of his speech?

"When I was watching it live, I was confused. It wasn’t as if he was surprised — it’s a pre-planned award. So, in that live moment, when he was acting so unprepared, I was watching it with a furrowed brow. Then, I thought through it, and I think there were a lot of layers: He’s very complicated. I think when we look back on Kanye, we’ll compare him to other outspoken figures...specifically black men like Mohammed Ali, who were unpopular in their time but [are] viewed differently by history.

"Six years after Taylor Swift, he was coming to us as a maligned figure who went after a young girl, but also, years before that, he could say something that reflected our climate at the time. I mean, during Hurricane Katrina, when he said: 'George Bush doesn’t care about black people.'"

We just hit that 10-year anniversary.

"Yes, and Kanye was one of only two celebrities to speak out. The other was Celine Dion, going off on Larry King. She brought so much pain and anger, and I just remember how intense it was seeing someone who [was] clearly not born in America feeling so angry about these people not having water. It's worth watching."

Okay, before we go: You tweeted out something about Kanye during the VMAs, and Oprah responded "just texted you." Does Oprah really text you?

[Laughs] "I can neither confirm nor deny that. But, I’ll just say: Oprah never lies."

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