SRLP supporter Stephen Ira will be profiling the honorees for SRLP10, this profile of Janet Mock is the first in the series!
When Janet Mock talks about Sylvia Rivera on Twitter
By Stephen Ira
When Janet Mock talks about Sylvia Rivera on Twitter, people ask her who Rivera is. She doesn’t give them context, just a video link: Rivera speaking at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally. She’s fought her way onstage past the transphobes and racists seeking to silence her. Sylvia looks at the audience, takes back the mike stand from someone who tries to take it away, and shouts, “Y’all better quiet down!”
Now Janet quotes that to me, throwing herself back lightly in her chair. “’Y’all better quiet down!’ I say that to people all the time.” She laughs, then says it again. Janet’s joy at Rivera’s resistance is palpable and contagious. The same sense of joyful resistance is all over the space we’re in, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s Manhattan offices. I can tell you a little about what goes on here: Janet Mock eats a bagel. Clients pass through, talking in serious voices that remind me of what power is. Reina Gossett makes jokes about flowers. People smile widely in a way that makes you feel like you are seen and wanted.
SRLP will be honoring Janet this month in conjunction with #SRLP10, and she’s characteristically humble about it. When I ask her what her relationship to SRLP is like, she says, “I’m someone who wants to do more.” Maybe that’s one of the things a joyful resistance gives us: the knowledge that our work can be ever expanding. If you love it, even if it’s hard, why not do more? After all, Janet does a lot already, if not all in conjuntion with SRLP; I joke that one day I’ll wake up and find out she’s suddenly President.
As we talk about SRLP, we bond over our common ground in relation to the project, as two—what, exactly? Writers, sure. Media activists? Critics? Commentators? “Communicators,” she says. She “lives on Twitter,” where her online campaign for #girlslikeus amplifies the voices of trans women. Still, “I feel like I don’t get enough time for people,” Janet says. What a weird problem—all we do all day is talk to people, whether or not we can hear their answers. She tells me about the time she visited SRLP for Trans March, about how members wrote down names of women on their posters, women who were their pillars of strength, and that gets me thinking about the act of writing yourself down and carrying your written self out into the world.
Janet knows how to do that. She had “a strategic coming out,” in Marie Claire magazine, where she told her own story, her “unbelievable adventure.” Personal so that “no one felt I was speaking for them,” Janet explains, and she drinks her coffee and looks at me. She’s a trans person talking to another trans person. We’re having these conversations in public about our unbelievable adventures, living proof that trans people exist outside of the cis gaze.
The conversation needs to happen, but the conversation isn’t enough—we’ve got to have SRLP, doing what Janet says Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries once did, “taking care of the people who are actually here.” Legal assistance. Guiding folks through name changes. Guiding them through anti-discrimination suits. Trying to make them safe wherever they are: the Five Boroughs, prison, all places where it feels like no people are or ever have been “actually here.”
Or it’s impossible cleanly to separate the conversations Janet has from the direct action SRLP does. We have to respect their distinctions, but let’s not pretend that anything is a simple binary. That’s why SRLP honors Janet, “someone who wants to do more,” because she’s walking a thin line with grace. Janet is a visible trans woman of color who refuses to stand on “some gay red carpet”—she will not appear at an event so that a Black trans woman will be there as a silent body. If you bring her in, her voice is coming with her, composed, funny, and kind. Her voice will dispense basic education, and it will destabilize cisnormative narratives in subtle ways: “I grew up with trans people,” as she tells me at one point. As it turns out, we’re in all kinds of places, and children encounter trans people naturally, and not all children are cis! She can say a lot by saying a little, and she has a talent for speaking of horror steadily.
“Every time there’s a trans woman of color [in the media], she’s getting killed. It wrecks at our souls. It chips away.” She drinks her street vendor coffee and eats her bagel, horror clarifying her words rather than clouding them over. It is similar to the act of communication SRLP’s staff does when they sit down with a client and work out what they need. “It is a horror,” they’re saying, “that this system is violent. It wrecks at our souls. It chips away.” Then both Janet and the SRLP say, “Let’s see what we can do about this.”
“My favorite [picture of Sylvia Rivera] is one where she’s yelling, and she’s with Marcia P. Johnson, who’s laughing at her. The sloppiness of it all!” We don’t always speak of horror steadily, or of joy. Who can, and really, who wants to? I first came across the video of Sylvia Rivera at the Christopher Street rally when Reina Gossett, SRLP’s membership director, posted it to rebut the assertion that trans women must always refute cissexism in calm, steady voices. When Janet says, “Y’all better quiet down!” in public, you have to be tuned into her wavelength before you hear the sloppiness, the rawness. But she’s saying it, every time she says something like, “I grew up with trans people,” and every time she sends out that speech “with no context, just her yelling and screaming.”
Janet has gone from making anonymous donations to SRLP when she first arrived in New York, blending as cis, to making remarks at their tenth anniversary celebration. It’s a hell of a trajectory, the beginning as honorable as the end. As it turns out, being a trans activist involves more parties than one might assume it would. Ancestors left behind them an institutional memory of joy. “I’m still thinking about my remarks, what I want to say at the event,” says Janet Mock, and then unfolds a grin that could help a person survive. “And everyone says it’s an amazing party.”
Help SRLP raise $15,000 by November 8th! Visit our 10th Anniversary Indiegogo page to learn more.
Stephen Ira has published poetry and short fiction in Topside Press’s Collection, Spot Literary Magazine, the St. Sebastian Review, and other outlets. He has poems forthcoming in EOAGH’s feature on trans & genderqueer poets, ed. TC Colbert & Tim Trace Peterson. He goes to Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, NY, where he co-runs a trans student identity and activism group. Ira blogs on his own on WordPress as Super Mattachine, and for Original Plumbing on their website.