Janet Mock at ComNet19
Janet Mock, writer, director and executive producer of the critically acclaimed FX series Pose, who made history with her landmark overall Netflix deal (introduced by Bryan Simmons of the Arcus Foundation) addresses ComNet19. Mock spoke passionately about mentorship, identity, POSE, storytelling, and the role of allyship.
Bryan Simmons: So why am I still up here? Right? I actually have a job to do, an important one. I’d want to point out that Lady Gaga said she wrote the song we just performed as she was thinking about #MeToo—and because she wanted to write a song about communication, about people in authentic dialogue, having curiosity about each other’s thoughts and feelings, a conversation, a debate free of masks. And as Stefan said, the power of unmasked communication is tremendous. And in the realm of change communications, we know that the possibilities are limitless, but only if you can match the courage and the candor with the mastery of storytelling. And no one embodies that mastery, that power, that possibility better than our keynote speaker this morning, Janet Mock, who will be joined in a moment by our longtime friend Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post and MSNBC.
Assigned male gender at birth, and knowing she was not the person she was perceived by others to be, Janet Mock found the will, the courage, and the skill to communicate to her family, her community, and the world who it is that she is. Many of us have watched her as she dived into the deep end, telling the truth about herself and the world around her. She’s crashed to the surface to a place all too uncommon, of all too uncommon authenticity, pointing the way towards realness, as she calls it. First for thousands, and now for millions of people. She’s been an advocate and inspiration to others in the LGBTQ and larger human rights movement, and beyond, making her mark and critical contributions through her work as an editor at People.
Her launch of “The Girls Like Us” Twitter campaign that raised awareness of trans people and the challenges facing them. Two best-selling memoirs about her journey as a trans woman. Her writing, direction and, otherwise, collaboration on Ryan Murphy’s Pose, The Politician, in Hollywood. Her Golden Globe and Emmy nominations. Her Peabody and AFI awards. Her starring role in a fashion campaign for Valentino. Her interviews by Oprah, Ellen, and Wendy. And she recently made history with her landmark creative deal with Netflix. We don’t have time for me to enumerate all the honors that she has received. But I do want to point out that Janet defies categorization. She’s an author, a journalist, a producer, a director, a model, and an advocate.
But if you don’t know her yet, you’ll see in a moment that she’s much more than the sum of the parts. I’m lucky to know Janet as a board member of the Arcus Foundation, where I lead communications and where she’s been tremendously helpful to us while we work toward a world where people live free to self-define and share who they are, knowing that they will be recognized by others as part of nature, and make the critical connection between social justice and environmental justice. Let me leave you with this quote from Melissa Harris Perry, who commented on Janet’s autobiography by saying, “Janet does what only great writers of autobiography accomplish.” She tells the story of self, which turns out to be a reflection of all humanity. We couldn’t be more fortunate to have this opportunity to welcome Janet into the network’s living room. No doubt we’re in for something transformational, since Janet’s life and work so far amount to nothing less than a sermon. So let’s go to church.
Jonathan Capehart: I am. Here I am. So before we begin, don’t even think that we are going to try to even compete with Bryan and Stefan.
Janet Mock: How do you get upstaged with your own keynote?
I know, insane. That was so good. I’m also …
I thought I was directing the episode of Pose or something.
Also, if you don’t already know, it’s Sean Gibbons’ birthday, so happy birthday Sean.
And also one more thing. Sean already mentioned that he’s here, but I couldn’t be on this stage and not mention Dr. Clarence P. Jones, who is not only a national hero and national treasure, but he’s a dear, dear friend and mentor. I’d met him a long time ago, and we reunited at the White House in the good old days of the Obama administration, and we hadn’t seen each other in a while. He comes up to me, and he says, “I don’t know if you remember me?” But I was like, “Sir, please, I remember you? Of course, I do.” So Dr. Jones, it’s so wonderful to see you. Janet, welcome to Austin.
And it’s my first time here.
And, well, did you get a chance to see anything?
No, you know how this is.
Yeah. I do. All right. Well, let’s dive right on into this. You’ve written as was mentioned in your introduction, two best-selling books. The first one was Redefining Realness in 2014. And the second was Surpassing Certainty in 2017. You’ve been telling your story—that first book you were in your 20s, right? Different aspects of your story, what are you trying to achieve by taking us on your journey with you?
I guess it’s kind of hard because it’s like thinking, I know it was only like five years ago my first book came out. But the landscape was so different. It was a pre-Pose world; it was a pre-transparent world. It was long before everyone was kind of even I think talking about the T in LGBT. And so for me at that time period in 2011, when I first decided to start telling my story, there was a lot of … like a rash of kind of LGBT youth suicides and bullying. I was working at People magazine at the time, and I remember, we had a cover story on Tyler Clement, the Rutgers student who committed suicide after kind of being bullied by a roommate. And I remember there was the “It Gets Better” campaign, and all these communications that were going out into the world, directly from queer adults speaking to young people.
And there was kind of a gap in representation, from people of color speaking to queer youth of color, from trans people speaking to other trans youth. So for me, I felt as if it’s like, I wonder when they’re going to kind of tell a story about possibly a young person, someone who’s relatively young, actually talking to another young person. And at that time, I was 25—I think 25, 26—and I was kind of waiting for her. And then I was like, “Bitch, you need to do it.” And so, yeah.
Was it hard convincing publishers to publish your story?
And did you …
I got a laughable amount of money for my first book. It is laughable. So I’m glad now because I get all of my residual checks. But yeah, it was. It’s different.
Did you … just trying to understand the process. Did you write what you wanted to write and then try to sell it? Or did someone approach you and say, “Hey, Janet, you need to be the person to write this book,” and that’s what jump-started it for you?
Well, in 2011, I decided to tell my story in a magazine article. And I had already been at work on my memoir, my first one. And so I was hoping to use that piece to then entice an agent, a literary agent, which I didn’t have at the time, and to then have that person become the one that would go out into the world—and it took us a full year for me to even get a book deal. Thank God for Sarah Bradham, who was my editor at Atria, and she just was like this bleeding heart from Waco, Texas. And she was just like, “I just love your story, and I feel like the world needs to hear it.” And so what was great was that I found a great home for it. So, that year was worth it But in order to get publishers, number one, there was no book like it before.
At that point, the biggest prominent figure in trends and culture would be Chaz Bono. And this was someone that America had gone on a transition with, if you think about the fact that their presence as a kid on TV with their parents, Sonny and Cher, who then transitioned as an adult. That was kind of the first transformation, I think, for America to kind of get used to this idea of trans-ness. And so I was kind of launching off of that and wanting to bring a younger perspective. I was someone who transitioned as a teenager, a person of color, a person who grew up in a low-income community. And so those points were important to me, but there was no proven track record for success for it. And so because it’s commerce, it was just kind of like, yeah. I guess we just kind of give it a try, and then it became this big thing.
But was it difficult to get … given all those things you just enumerated—person of color, trans, humble beginnings—was it a difficult one to get publishers to see that this is a story that not only needs to be told, but that would resonate with a huge community of people that they’re not recognizing?
Yeah, it made it more difficult, which is so strange because I think that with my intersectional identities, I speak to more people. But because my identities are not seen as the default in narratives, in literature, in television, in new stories, there was a lack of … I think at most times with most publishers that I talked to … a lack of imagination about what was possible and the fact that there were audiences waiting to hear for themselves, and to see themselves.
…I think that with my intersectional identities, I speak to more people. But because my identities are not seen as the default in narratives, in literature, in television, in new stories, there was a lack of … I think at most times with most publishers that I talked to … a lack of imagination about what was possible and the fact that there were audiences waiting to hear for themselves, and to see themselves.
And speaking of cis[gender], did those publishers, and did those folks you met with, did they see you? Did they understand what you were trying to do, and what you were trying to say, and who you were trying to talk to? How much education did you have to do in order to get them to publish your book?
Well, what was funny when I first wrote the first draft of Redefining Realness … that book is so interesting because on one hand, there is my personal story. But then my personal story and me as the author, I had to kind of take it from a journalistic standpoint and have to kind of explain. There was a lot of one-on-one, a lot of definitions, a lot of broadening the scope beyond my story. So if I talked about my own experience with transitioning, medical transitioning as a 15-, 16-year-old, I had to then bring in the history of how trans people have been medicalized and what that looks like in people’s access and health care and all this stuff. And so there was a … that was all my editor’s doing.
So the one person that I didn’t meet who got it, she also understood that the landscape … that there needed to be context in this book even though it was a deeply personal story. And so that was her recognizing her own lack of information, lack of knowledge. She knew that she was filling in the heart to want to know more about me and my story, but at the same time, she knew that we needed to use my story in order to educate people. And that was something I was very resistant about. My story.
I was just about to ask you, does it get annoying? Was it annoying to you to have to educate people?
Yeah, so that came in the second draft. It was, but then I … also I was a little younger then, and so it was kind of, I don’t know what it was, but I just had a … I have a … I still am tortured about it a little bit because I always feel like it’s on the shoulders of marginalized people having to educate the majority about our experiences. And so in that sense, it was like, I felt as if like, girl, I know my life, and if you don’t have the tools to go to your computer or phone and look up definitions … but at the same time, the work is necessary because it kind of just force-fed it to people. And that way no one can have an excuse. I’ve heard so many trans folk be able to say, “Your book enabled me to connect with my parents because I didn’t have to do that work.”
And so in that sense, the service piece of the work that I didn’t really set out to do, it felt like it was a service. And so in that sense, I freed, right? A lot of trans folks from having to do that one-on-one work by putting it in a book that was in front of bookstores, by putting it in a book that was on national television, by centering myself and not only centering myself, but centering my communities and giving cis folks the one-on-one that they needed.
For the people in the audience who might be part of a marginalized community, to my ear, and I relate to a lot of what you just said, in terms of being an ambassador, being that one person in the room who everyone turns to when they have a question about a fill-in-the-blank part of my identity.
Which you don’t get paid for. Yeah.
Right, exactly. Which you don’t get paid for. What advice would you give to folks in this room who are unwittingly, maybe even unwillingly, an ambassador for their identities in the workplace, or even in their communities, more broadly speaking?
I think for me, it’s always about investment. Right? What is your investment in the space and in the conversation? There’s not, when I’m … say, for example, the reason why I said you don’t get paid—because I think about the times when I’m at dinner parties. Many people may not know my work if you’re not in the circles of my worlds. And so you’re being introduced to someone, and then they’re like, “Oh, what do you do?” And I’m like, “I’m a writer.” “Oh, OK, what do you write about?” Because I don’t lie about my life and my work, I’m just like, “I write about my life, my communities—I’m a trans woman,” and then it becomes this whole other conversation.
What is your investment in the space and in the conversation?
And then that’s the point in which I feel like mostly every other trans person who’s not known and who can’t really be shielded by privacy in a safe space. And so, even going to the spaces that I think are safe, with these liberal people, there’s still these strange questions that are asked of trans people. But I’m like, “I’m brought right back again.” You’re just like, “Oh, my God, what was …” strange things, like “What was your name before?” Or what have … “When did you know?” And just all of these things where you just like, “Girl, I’m just trying to have some steak.” Right? I’m not trying to have a deeply engaged moment with you right now. And so that means we’re going back to your question. What is your investment in this space and in the conversation? So for me, I’ll just … sometimes I’ll just pave it, and I’ll say, “Here are some resources, maybe if you want to go deeper into your knowledge of knowing.”
Then other times, I’ll go on a deeper dive. And I’ve done that sometimes in media. I think about the time when I did The Breakfast Club interview in New York City, upon the release of my second book, and I felt that that space, which is a hip-hop radio show, probably one of the top that there is. And the reach of that audience, with echo chambers, right? I know that queer people, and LGBT people, are there. I know that black women and black queer men will be there, and I know that they’re listening, but then at times, I’m like, cis, straight, black, and brown folk overwhelmingly may not have heard about who I am and what I do and my story. And so in that space, I actually went not to one-on-one, but I’m talking about 0 level.
It was like the level of that conversation was so elementary. But I felt that that work was necessary thinking about the audience that I was speaking to. And I was investing in that audience, that audience that actually lives in the neighborhoods that a lot of trans women of color live in. The neighborhoods in which, oftentimes, they are most persecuted and harassed and suffer from violence—at the hands, sometimes, of straight men. I was like, “I need to talk directly to them.” And so I allowed myself to do that work. Didn’t mean that I didn’t … I wasn’t meditating, doing my morning pages, surrounded by my friends before I went into the space. And so yeah. For me, it’s just always about what is your level of investment in this space and conversation?
Let me ask a question of the audience. How many of you know what Janet is talking about when she says “cis”? OK, that’s just about everybody.
All right. Just …
The world has changed.
It has. It really has changed. Are you surprised by how much the world has changed from your first book? Which was 2014? Did I get that right?
I am. Yeah, I think it’s been rapid in terms of awareness and visibility. I think I was waiting for consciousness to kind of change a little bit, right? The ways in which we’re actually on a level that we’re not thinking of the ways in which we denigrate, and inspect, and naturally kind of still put trans people here as this kind of token of progress. I think about now in Hollywood, almost on every show, there’s like a trend sidekick almost. It’s so interesting to me because sometimes I’m like, “Oh, I wonder if the actual representation even matches the representation in life.” Because I think that it is a marker. It is a marker for how far someone will go in terms of representation and diversity and inclusion. But it’s exciting. It’s an exciting time to create; it’s an exciting time to see actors and models and writers be able to now get deals that were almost unimaginable for me to get when I was trying to work for a year to get those deals.
So you’ve been telling your story now for a while. First through … well, we first met at MSNBC, in the green room, before going on Melissa Harris Perry. But then you wrote … you’ve written your two books. And now you’re still storytelling but in a different way, in the show Pose. How is storytelling, for you, different from writing a book to bringing your voice to television through a show like Pose?
It’s the immediacy. The intimacy level’s the same because you’re still inviting someone into your space, right? For all audiences. You think about a book—you go to a store, you buy it, and you sit with it, if you decide to read it. You sit with it and you spend those hours with that storyteller. It’s similar with television. But with television, you can’t compete with the visuals. And how that can make someone have a visceral reaction and make them think differently. I think about the pilot. The first episode of Pose, and how in the first scene, we had five trans women sitting in a living room talking, and no one talks about being trans.
They’re talking about their complicated-ness of their family, about how they’re going to compete in this category in the ballroom scene, what they’re going to do to just shake things up and become grand prize winners. And you see this kind of … it’s very Cinderella a little bit. Blanca’s in the kitchen cooking rice and beans. The evil mother is …
Oh, she’s evil. Oh.
She’s … Elektra is doing her Elektra thing. And the girls are cackling and doing all their stuff. And I just think about that I had never seen that image before in my life. And we are putting that in the first frame of the show. And so in that sense, that’s something that I think has introduced … in a book, I can introduce them to me and my best friend maybe. The trans people that they would know, but here, they see five trans women talking, and living, and dreaming, and fighting, and all this stuff that I think then makes them think about their own family structures, and then therefore see trans people. “Oh, they have families. Oh, they’re human. They’re similar to me; they have dreams and aspirations.”
Right. In that same first episode, there’s this actually very powerful scene. There’s so many powerful scenes in that first episode, but the one where, and I’m blanking on the character’s name, but he wants to be a dancer.
Damon. And mother Evangelista finds out that Damon has not submitted his application to dance school, and she drags him there, and she gives him this talk. First she goes in there and makes them give him an audition. But then she basically says to him, “You have a voice, and you have a talent that you’re dying to share. Here’s your opportunity. Do that. Break out of your shell to do it.” And in the end—I’m going to spoil it—he gets in. But after, you watch him perform in front of these folks, in this very emotional, raw performance.
And I bring that up because I’m just wondering … this is all about sharing your truth—that scene, our conversation now—and I’m just wondering what advice you would give to those who want to create the space for different voices to be heard or create the space to give those who want to tell their story, that it is OK; that it is safe for them to share their true selves, to speak their truth, to be true.
Well, I think it’s an acknowledgement that even when we say that there’s safe spaces, that they’re still in perfect spaces because they’re filled with people, right? And so people are complicated; they’re going to come with their biases and not quite knowing how to really talk and receive people and whatever truth that they share. And so I think an acknowledgement of that makes it a more real space. And then that’s when you have to call on the courage of each individual to do that for themselves, but also being acknowledged—acknowledging the risks that come with speaking up.
When I first decided to step forward in 2011, I was aware that I could have lost my job, or at least I was paranoid that I would lose my job, and if I didn’t lose my job, not really truly be supported in order to move up the ladder. My dream at the time was to be the next Carrie Bradshaw. So I wanted to be an editor in chief of a magazine. That was my first dream.
I think you’ve surpassed Carrie Bradshaw.
Thank you. And so at that time, I just thought about those risks and kept on thinking about the risk, the risk, the risk, the risk, but it was the friends in my life who I had been open with, who knew me, who are the ones who will be here for you [who said], “You don’t have to worry about this. This feels as if this is your calling. You keep on obsessing over this idea of telling your story, of being heard, of wanting to reach out to young people, to reach out to that girl that you were.”
And so that part of it is what emboldened me, right? Was the communal support, having my community around me, and then also feeling as if I was being purposeful. There was only so much I could do writing about Angelina Jolie and her children, who are amazing, but … and so I think in that sense for me, it was … that’s what enabled me to have that brave space, and I think it’s always too. For me, it’s always a community aspect of it. I think Stefan, Stefan said earlier, such a thing.
Stefan said earlier about the idea of when you tell your story, you invite people to know you; you invite them into your life; you create a foundation for connection. I know that without having told my story in that article, and then my books, then I would not have this abundant life that I have now. Of course, it’s hard work, and talent and being gorgeous and all this stuff.
…when you tell your story, you invite people to know you; you invite them into your life; you create a foundation for connection. I know that without having told my story in that article, and then my books, then I would not have this abundant life that I have now.
I don’t know …
She is a supermodel now.
But, I’ll take …
But it’s also the fact that I took that step. That step to invite people and then to think about the goodness in people too. Though we see specifically for me in my communities, we see over and over again, we read the traumas, the trauma, the trauma, the trauma that happens to trans women of color particularly—black trans women, and if you look godly, Latina X trans women. And so that alone would make you not want to leave your home. And so when I think about the work that I do, and the fact that I have come to a point, even then in 2011, being a 20-something-year-old young black trans woman who was working in a corporate structure, who had a 401(k), who had a salary, I was relatively safe.
And so I felt that I didn’t get to that safe point in my life to sit there and be quiet and to work in a cubicle for someone else. Right? And so, for me, it was how was I going to be purposeful? And the purposeful thing for me to do would be to give images, to give words, to give stories to those women who are looking in the mirror before jumping on a subway and trying to build themselves up to say, “OK, I can make it out today and then get back home, right?”
And so, for me, it was how was I going to be purposeful? And the purposeful thing for me to do would be to give images, to give words, to give stories to those women who are looking in the mirror before jumping on a subway and trying to build themselves up to say, “OK, I can make it out today and then get back home, right?”
On Pose, you directed “Love Is the Message.” That wasn’t in season one. That was your first time directing, right? You also co-wrote that episode.
Excuse me, we both say … quickly in terms of storytelling, is there one form of storytelling that you like more? Was writing more fun as a storyteller or directing more fun as a storyteller?
It’s hard because going back to your question earlier, we talked about … where you asked about television as a medium and books. The difference between the two is that immediately with television, it’s collaborative. Immediately, because you sit in a writers room, surrounded by four other people, and you’re talking about stories, and you’re just sharing yourself and you’re … so you’re immediately forced to be vulnerable in a way that oftentimes can’t feel as safe. Whereas when you’re with the book, or you’re with an essay, you’re just sitting by yourself and you’re thinking about what you want to write, or for a lot of it, you’re just sitting there drinking coffee, wondering about what’s to come.
And so it’s just different. One starts off in solitude, and then you gradually bring in more people at your choosing. But with television, it’s collaborative from the start, and so, thinking about writing and directing, writing feels more at home to me. But directing came so much more naturally, in a strange way. Ryan Murphy, who’s my mentor and friend, he’s just like, “I saw you, and you’re already telling me what to do, and you had only been in the office for a week.” And he’s like, “I knew immediately that you had the skills to be a director,” which is all about communication. It’s not only about having a vision for how you see the story and the script unfolding, but it’s being able to communicate that vision to people clearly, in ways that they can understand. It’s about convincing them to collaborate with you and to bring their best selves to serve your vision.
And so I think about just the conversations. I just directed the finale of season two of Pose, and I thought about those costume pieces that we had. We had … spoiler … we had some of our men on the show dress in drag. They had a week to design these costumes for six men. Wigs and all, this kind of stuff, and I had to send this rallying-the-troops email, but that’s what directing is. It never ends. It’s … you’re sitting there and you’re watching a scene, and then there’s a cut and the break, and then someone comes over with swatches or something, and you have to make a quick decision. You don’t know if it’s the right decision, but you just go with the instinct. And so it’s all about trusting yourself as well.
So writing has a similar sense in that, but with writing, you can kind of be alone. You don’t have to worry about people too much until later in the process.
Mm-hmm. I want to go back to something that you said earlier, and that was when it comes to talking about the trans community. It’s always focused on trauma. And I want to move away from the trauma and focus on you in that. So now you have Pose. You’ve written books; you wrote for Pose; you’re directing for Pose. You now have this amazing deal with Amazon?
Netflix, I’m sorry. I have Amazon on the brain, Washington Post. They don’t know, but you know what I mean. But with Netflix. How? When just a few years ago, the T was silent in LGBTQ, and now there’s a black trans woman who has a deal with Netflix, and you’re the first trans person to get this kind of deal. How hard was it to convince them to sign you? To change your content producer?
Strangely, it wasn’t hard at all. Because by that point, I had had a body of work that they could look at. I had written four episodes of the first season of Pose. I had gone out and stumped for the show when no one was watching. Because all of our actors were relatively unknown, except for maybe Billy Porter. Maybe some people if you knew Broadway, you kind of knew who he was, but you weren’t really engaged in that sense, and so I did a lot of work on that first season of Pose, and so it … but it’s also having a mentor, and I think that that’s the power of having community again. Ryan went in, and he was like, “Janet’s special, she’s important to the culture, and you guys should be in business with her.” It was between them and another network, and they just all …
Honestly, they all went off of my directing on episode six. They were just like, “This is a voice and a talent that we want to be invested in,” but in terms of the progress, it’s the movement. I think it’s all of those different voices who pushed visibility. I think about Laverne Cox’s prominence in Hollywood with Orange Is the New Black. That working in tandem that then created a level playing field, an opportunity for Ryan to then realize, “Oh, authentic casting, actually getting people from the community to do this work to play these characters; oh, that’s probably something that I should be doing.” It worked on that show. And so it’s these little building blocks that I think led to the sense of like, oh, we should probably … Pose is successful because they have been authentic. They’ve hired authentic storytellers from the community to tell their own stories. And so we think that there are more stories there.” And I think that that’s why Netflix.
We’re going to go to Q&A with the audience. I think we have mics. Yeah, we do. We have mics, but I do want to point out two things: When you said episode six of Pose, that’s episode six of season one. That’s “Love Is the Message.”
Yes. “Love Is the Message.”
And then you can’t mention Billy Porter without mentioning the fact that he just won the Emmy.
For lead actor in a drama series, and that was historic because he’s the first openly gay black man to win in that category. And for that show. For Pose, and if you haven’t seen Pose yet, watch Pose. Because it is terrific, and he is terrific. How are we going to do [this]? I see one mic runner. Oh, I see. OK, two mic runners. And just raise your hand, and right, there’s one; there’re two here in the center. The man here to my right in the second row and the … who’s the other person on the other side? Just raise, and then one is that—you get it. Go. And quick question, short questions, and no speeches please.
Lincoln Mondy: Hi, my name is Lincoln, and I work for Advocates for Youths, and we focus on young people’s sexual reproductive health and rights. And I think one of our kind of communications challenges, especially with our network of youth activists, is making sure that young people aren’t just used as trauma porn and that reporters and people always are positioning young people to speak with them—they’re not just looking for their lived experiences and also understand they have expertise born out of those lived experiences. So I guess my question for you is … you’re a brilliant strategist. So kind of do you have any advice for positioning people to make sure that you’re not just getting that trauma point and that you’re actually being able to have these conversations that lead to policy change and how these interviews and media work that lead to real change?
Yeah, great question. I think talking about what these young people do, right? I think focusing on results of what they do is great. I think sometimes it is hard because even with the work that I do, I can’t just talk about the results of things without talking about the human story and struggle. I think that just naturally connects people to … sorry, my pearls. That connects people to … sounds a little brutal, but to care, to want to care. Right? And so I think that if you can at least, for them, in terms of the media training, if you can get the young people to learn ways to sound-bite their stories, then allow them to pivot them in a way that feels more empowering to talk about what they’re doing and how their personal lived experiences have informed the work that they’re doing … right?
And I think also then prepping these journalists, too, to be like this is a young person who is not relatively far from what they’ve experienced. Right? They’ve just experienced it. And so I wouldn’t push too much in terms of the details. But maybe you can come to us, and then we can give you some background blah, blah, blah.
Karolle Rabarison: Hi, good morning. My name is Karolle Rabarison. I’m with the Online News Association, and you talked a bit about the importance of mentorship and community. Could you say more advice and how to go about finding mentors?
For me, one-line emails are the best thing in the world. They make me feel useful as someone who is very busy, and so in terms of connecting to people, that’s something that I’ve used in my own toolbox to communicate with very busy people. I remember Ava DuVernay. We connected on Twitter, and I sent her a one-line quick message of, “Do you know any great entertainment attorneys that you trust and that you’d give your life to?” And she sent me two names and even then went on and then introduced us in an email, right? That builds a connection.
I think that we sometimes get too caught up on the label and the identity of what a mentor-mentee relationship can be. Again, I think it goes back to action. How can you use this network of all these great people who are very busy to help you do one or two tasks? It makes them feel very purposeful, they feel as if they’ve done something, and accomplished something, especially for high-achieving people. But then also, it doesn’t really require them to spend a lot of time asking me out for coffee or lunch. It’s a lot of pressure. I have to think about the ways in which I’m going to reject you. When instead, if you would just ask me what you wanted, then I can figure out a way to actually do that. And if you can be very specific on that. So I think trash the idea of wanting mentor and bestie, and think about how these great people in your life, this network of people, can help advance the things that you’re doing.
Jonathan Capehart: You should clip that answer and send it around because that was the truest thing when it comes to the mentor-mentee relationship. Question there.
Mike Carter-Conneen: Hi, Janet. My name is Mike Carter-Conneen. I’m with Spitfire Strategies in DC. My husband and I are huge fans of Pose.
I have two quick questions. Can you talk a little bit about the transition from the first season with the white cisgender straight characters to the focus more on the houses and the trans stories? And also, can you pull back the curtain a bit on the monologue this past season at the beach? The Kylie and Barbie monologue—my husband can repeat it verbatim without dancing.
Jonathan Capehart: Oh, wow! Oh, my God! It’s like Siskel and Ebert up here. So, you got an answer?
Well, the fact … well, again, this is the way in which we were able … Ryan’s used to having huge hits, right? And he’s a genius at this, at centering kind of niche communities and then in a team of misfits and then enabling the wider audience in the world to love them, and care about them, and root for them, right? And to see them as family. He did it with Glee; he did it with two bizarre plastic surgeons on Nip Tuck. He has a way of … the way his mind works … but I think he also knew because our entire cast was unknowns. We cast from the community, five trans women of color. And even thinking about our other LGBT characters, everyone was unknown. And so he is the king of casting. And so he was like, “We need some stars.” And so he basically was like, “We need to create characters that represented another side of the world that these characters think that they want to be a part of.” Right?
So the queer characters in the underground ballroom scene are performing the lives of these people who are actually living them, who are also then performing to live up to the standards. So the standard at the time in the 1980s … New York City was this Trumpian world: this one young executive who’s going into it, this other coked-up executive, and then the wife, right? Played by Kate Mara. So we have Kate Mara, we have James Van Der Beek, and we have Evan Peters—all people who are known by America. That also makes the show more palatable to an audience that may not think that these black and brown queer characters, poor characters, are for them. And so by utilizing that talent and their visibility and their name recognition, we were able to draw on a wider audience.
Season one was very successful. And Ryan said, “I don’t think we need those characters anymore.” And so, because the story was never about them, it was always, Evan Peters, this character in relationship to India Morris’ character. And your second question about … it’s Ryan. You know that monologue is all Ryan. He was just like, “I want you to write all of the things that you wish you would have had and that you’d be saying to a basic bitch.” And I was like, “OK.” So then I just wrote. Yeah. So, that’s where it came from. And what’s so great about writing for these characters, and not writing from my space of autobiography, or the self, is that I can say, probably, I can be more honest and more truthful because I can put it in Elektra’s mouth, or I can put it in India’s mouth, or I can put it in MJ’s mouth.
Piper Nelson: Hi, my name is Piper Stege Nelson. And I’m with SAFE here in Austin. We work to stop abuse for everyone. I thank you for your words around being a representative, or being a representative for different groups and talking about how much investment you have—and in terms of how much you give back. I want to ask, as an ally or as someone who’s working hard to be a good ally, when I’m at a dinner party and I hear someone ask you about your dad name, or when I hear someone asking you to speak for entire groups of people, what can I do to best support you? And I recognize the irony of me asking you to tell me what I should do to support you. But any thoughts that you have would be helpful.
Jonathan Capehart: This is the most woke question I have ever heard.
Throwing something in like a quick joke, or something that would read that person without them knowing that they’re being read, but they know that they’re being checked, would be helpful because if I don’t have to do that work, that’s amazing. Or you can also, after doing that, you can then extend yourself to then say if you want to have a conversation about this, I’m more than happy to point you to some resources, dah, dah, dah. So any way that you can help deflect, pivot, check them, and then help them, would probably be the best.
Lucia Allain: My name is Lucia. I work with RAICES, and I’m a queer brown person. So I’m very proud to see you here. But you talked a lot about investment, right? And figuring out who you talk to eventually, whether you’re at dinner, or where you’re going to be telling your story. How do you navigate that? How do you navigate, or when do you make the decision when you’re going to invest in talking to white folks? Because I think there are times where we, as brown and black folks, we think about, “Well, do I really want to inform this person? Do I really want to put my time there?” And I feel like a lot of us struggle with the time of understanding, when is the right time to invest in a white person? When do I need to let them know that they’re wrong or when they need to step back because I need my space.
Well, for me, it’d be the investment in what that person can do. Right? Every person on the street, regardless of their race, or gender and sexual identity. It’s what can they do? Everyone matters—I get it. But it’s, what can that white person do? So, how much of your five times that you can do this in the next three months? Is this person worth the one of five? For you, right? And so if it’s a superior or a boss who’s just not kind of getting it, then you got to do that work, right? Because you’re the one in that room. But while you’re doing that work, you can also talk about the dynamics just in the way that Piper just said—the dynamics of the fact that you’re asking me how to help me, right?
And so I’m always someone that is very upfront about when I know that I’m having to do that work. Because I wouldn’t feel that I’m being honest to myself, or to my communities, by pretending that it’s OK that I’m having to sit here and give you a lecture on such and such and why your actions are possibly hurtful or harmful, right? But I think that again, it goes back to the investment is like, what can that person do? And how strong, in terms of your own intuition, do you believe that that person can be transformed?
Because I’m not here to just have conversations to have conversations, right? So how transformative can this conversation be for this person, that then this person can go out and use their access and their privileges and their advantages and their power and influence to then transform other spaces and conversations at which you’re not invited to that dinner party? Right? So that’s why a part of that question wasn’t … the answer wasn’t just check them. Checking is good, but I think how can you help them so that they can go and then become better advocates, allies, partners, comrades, blah, blah.
Jonathan Capehart: This is going to be the second-to-last question because I’m going to have the last question.
Nico Calvo Rosenstone: Thank you so much. Thank you so much, Janet, for being here. I’m actually a trans man myself, and seeing you out in the media allowed me to realize that I can be openly trans and live a life of dignity. So you’ve had a tremendous impact on my life.
Thank you. That’s very sweet. Thank you.
Thank you. So I dedicate a lot of my life right now to trying to get people to take action. And I’m hoping that maybe you could give us all here one thing that we can do when we leave to actually improve the lives of trans people.
Well, can you give one to us first?
I’m talking to my hero here. There’s a lot. Yeah, one thing I really focus on is going to your workplace and making sure that you have inclusive policies. People don’t realize that trans people’s lives can be transformed if they’re employed and they can stay employed. And so many of our employers actually don’t have equitable policies. And that doesn’t allow us to stay employed, which dramatically affects our lives. So that’s the one that I have for all of you, to actually go in and look at the policies and make sure that people have health insurance to make sure that trans people are actually being treated with dignity.
To piggyback off of that, I think obviously trans folk are a heavily underemployed population. And so if there’s ever an opportunity to hire, to engage, to get a consultant in any of the work that you’re doing, I would say to possibly try to hire from those communities. I know that it’s been transformative on our show, but also thinking about the work that I do as a board member of the Arcus Foundation.
With any grantee that we give money to, we ensure that they have an equitable policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. And that is something we’ve done across the board to ensure that even employers, or even foundations, are aware of the fact that oftentimes we don’t offer protections to trans folk in the way in which sometimes we will offer it for queer folk. Yeah.
Jonathan Capehart: So my last question, and this is a fun question. The dinner party.
You’re throwing the dinner party, and you can invite four people, living or dead. Who would you have at your table?
Oh, my God! I’m so… Zora Neale Hurston. Oh, God this is so hard. Audre Lord, Lena Horne, and Michelle Obama.
Oh, there you go. All right, so that’s five. OK, we need someone at the other end of the table. So who’s going to be at the other end of the table? You said Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lord, Lena Horne …
Oh, James Baldwin.
And James Baldwin.
And with that, Janet Mock, author, writer, director, content provider for Netflix mogul. Thank you so much for being here.
Oh, thank you, Jonathan. Thank you, Jonathan. Thank you. Thank you, guys.