Transgender Writer Shares Her Powerful Journey To Womanhood

The letter T in LGBT stands for transgender, a term used for people who feel they were born the wrong gender. Recently Janet Mock, an editor at People.com, revealed she was born a boy. Mock says she knew she was meant to be a girl since she was four. Mock talks about her family and her transition.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

This month is LGBT Pride Month - that's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. And we decided this was a good opportunity for us to assess issues important to the LGBT community. We want to talk about some of the legal, political and social advances being made by people who identify as LGBT. We'll speak with two prominent activists who actually have very different political philosophies, in just a few minutes.

But we are going to start with a very personal story about being transgender. Once again, that's the T in LGBT. It's a term for people who identify with a gender other than the one in which they were born.

And if you pass Janet Mock on the street in New York, you might just turn your head at a beautiful, fashionable woman with fabulous hair. She also happens to have a great job. She's an associate editor at People.com, the website for People magazine, and she has a circle of great friends.

But Janet Mock recently decided to reveal to her colleagues, and to the world, something only she, her family and a few close friends knew: that she was born a boy. She says she had no intention of discussing this further outside of her intimate circle until recently, when because of a number of tragic stories involving young people who took their own lives because of shame around sexual issues, she decided it was time to tell her story, which she did in the pages of Marie Claire and in a video for the It Gets Better campaign, which is aimed at vulnerable young people. And she's with us now from our studios in New York. Thank you so much for joining us.

JANET MOCK: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you said in your piece from Marie Claire - which is beautifully written, by the way. And we'll link to it so that people can read it for themselves. You said that you knew when you were a child, very young child...

MOCK: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: That there was something wrong, that you really didn't belong in the body in which you were born. Can you talk about that?

MOCK: Of course. I was - I'd say about 4 years old when I knew that I was a girl. One of my family's favorite stories to tell about me is involving my grandmother catching me running around the playground in a neighbor's muumuu, which is a dress in Hawaii, and I was scolded by her. And it was the very first time that I knew that who I was did not align with who the people around me thought I should be.

MARTIN: And you said you just felt that you belonged in that muumuu.

MOCK: I did. I did. It felt freeing. It felt like the kindred spirit of girls that I had hung around with when I was little. Yeah, it just felt right being in that dress.

MARTIN: You told us that by the end of your freshman year of high school, you were actually wearing women's clothes to school. What was that like?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOCK: Well, it was an adventure, for sure.

MARTIN: So how did - but I mean, what happened? Did you just go home for like, summer vacation and come back in September and say: You know what, this is me, this is it.

MOCK: Well, it started very slowly. It started with lip gloss and tweezing of the eyebrows in seventh grade. So, it was very small steps. And then in my sophomore year when I began doing hormone therapy, I was blossoming. And so I felt more comfortable with expressing my female side and who I was. And it was obviously an outward transition that just felt very, very right to me. I expressed myself better just in classroom situations. I felt people understood me because I was expressing myself in my female way. And so it was just me, you know?

MARTIN: Well, talk a little bit about the hormone therapy, if you will. And the reason I'm asking about this is that I'm assuming you could not have done this without the support of your parents.

MOCK: No, I couldn't have.

MARTIN: So can you just discuss how you discussed this with them, and how they came to a place of supporting you in this?

MOCK: There's five of us - I'm the middle of five children. And so my mom is a single working mother, and she's always been. And so she didn't have the luxury of being able to dictate my dress or, you know, what I wore. And so she just kind of - our natural agreement was that if I continued to be very active in school, and I continued to excel at my grades and everything, that it was completely fine with what I wore. If I wore a dress to school, it was fine by her.

But when the medical stuff came in and I had a very - I had a little older group of trans women in Hawaii; it's a very big community there. They kind of showed me the way on how I could start hormone therapy, and all of this stuff. And my very close friend Wendy, my childhood friend, she had started a year before I did. And I bought my pills from her behind my mother's back, at 15.

And that was a big no-no with my mom when I did have to reveal to her what I was doing, and that I needed her support. And she just realized that my child, she does not love her body; she does not love the vessel that she's in. And so she was very adamant about us doing it the right way and going to an endocrinologist. My father, he's a military man. He worked his career in the Navy. He's from Texas.

And my father had a very hard time with it, and he had to process it in his way. And I always say there's a mourning for him. He had a baby boy that he loved, and that he had dreams for. And you know, I had to give him that time to mourn that. You know, I'm just so blessed and so happy that through the years, you know, I transitioned - I started transitioning 13 years ago. So with my father, he's had 13 years to come around, and he came around in about four or five years, you know, to embrace me as his new baby girl. And it's beautiful, and I love him.

MARTIN: You know, you write about that idea of being reborn, in your piece. I mean, you actually had gender reassignment surgery, which I think some people would know as sex-change surgery, when you were 18.

MOCK: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You went to Thailand for that surgery - I assume because it's more affordable to do so.

MOCK: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: And you talk about the fact that as you were waking up from the surgery, you said: I felt completely reborn. Though I had been born a boy to my native Hawaiian mother and African-American father, I would never be a man. It was the birth of my choosing this time. And now, it was official. Charles had died so that Janet could live.

MOCK: Mm-hmm. Yeah, that gets me a little emotional there.

MARTIN: It's emotional to read even for someone who has not walked that journey. You know, because you describe it in a way as something that you had to do, not something you wanted to do.

MOCK: Yeah. And you know, I guess, first off, gender-reassignment surgery is a very personal choice. For so many trans women, they have no desire to have - I guess what we call the bottom surgery. You can fully express yourself as female without having that surgery. It's not necessary for everyone.

But for me, it was very necessary for me to be able to towel off and not have to hide that part of myself and to just be, and not feel as if I'm carrying some sense of shame in me or on my body - which I had lived for 18 years, carrying that sense of not loving myself completely in the physical form that I was carrying. And so to be able to be rid of that, and to be the woman of my choosing and my natural sense of self, it just was so fulfilling and so - just beautiful.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Janet Mock. She's an associate editor for People.com. She recently decided to make public that she was born as a boy. And in fact, she's one of the many people who've offered YouTube videos under the banner It Gets Better. That's a public service campaign, which was started a couple of months ago to counteract bullying in schools, which - just seems to be a growing number of very public teen suicides with young people who have been bullied around their sexuality, sexual orientation or even perceived sexual orientation.

I just to want to play a short clip of your video, if you don't mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

MOCK: I have a boyfriend whom I love, friends who love me just as I am despite my past, despite everything. And I have a career as a writer that gives me meaning, and gives me real purpose. And I know that you can live the life of your dreams as well. I promise that it gets better. I know because I am you. I love you, and I can't wait to see you on the other side.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask about your decision to - is come out the right word? What do you think is the right word? To be public about it because as I mentioned earlier, you're very feminine, very beautiful, I have to say - hate you - but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And you really didn't have to. And you said, in fact, in your piece that you really didn't want to be a poster child for this experience. This is going to change your life - so why did you feel it was important to do so at this time?

MOCK: It's a very awkward thing saying the coming out because for me, everyone closest to me knew about my history as growing up transgendered. I think that last fall was a very hard time for me personally because I had been working on my book for the last year. And to work on it just privately and anonymously and live my life just as myself, and not have all these labels attached to me, was what I guess I needed for the last five, 10 years.

But there became a sense of responsibility. I had made it through this journey and had thrived through it all - you know, survived, thrived through it all - and it took a village of people to help me get to where I am. And I knew that kids who grew up like me needed to know that despite the fact that their internal sense of gender did not match their sex organs, that they mattered, and that they have so much to contribute to this world and that there are people just like them - like me - who are out there living their lives.

And I knew that I needed to speak up and get out of, you know, my sense of shame, or whatever, I had attached to being trans. And I needed to speak up and give my story to them so that they could feel and resonate the power within it to say that, I can do anything. I can become the woman of my dreams, or the man of my dreams - or just become the person that I know that I am.

MARTIN: We've heard your message to people who are living this experience to say, I understand what this is like. It does get better. I'd like to ask if you have a message for people who just think this is wrong, that it's either against God, it's against - it's unnatural, that you should just live with the body you were given and adjust to it, and that's what everybody is supposed to do. And I just wondered if you had a message for people who have that belief.

MOCK: I understand someone not understanding it quite - because I guess most people are OK. They're born, and they have that convenience of being born in the body that is aligned with their gender. And so they can't quite understand not being born in the body that represents them at their best. And I think that's what it's about. It's about us all just wanting to have a vessel to navigate in this world. And to have the - fulfill the dreams that we need.

And I think it's just startling that nearly half of transgender youth contemplate wanting to kill themselves. There's something just so astounding and powerful in that. And it's so incredibly sad. And I think it's that kind of thinking, where people are going to judge me because they're going to call me a freak, or they're going to say that I should just stay being a man because that's what God made me to be. And you know, I just think there needs to be a level of acceptance. You don't have to agree with it, but you can understand, I think - understand not liking a part of yourself, and wanting to correct that so that you can overcome your circumstance and step into a new day, and just be yourself, and just be.

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you.

MOCK: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: We appreciate it. We'll look forward to the memoir.

MOCK: Thank you.

>MARTIN: Janet Mock is an associate editor at People.com. She recently decided to write about her experience in Marie Claire magazine. Her piece is titled, "I Was Born a Boy." She's currently working on a memoir, called "Fish Food." And she joined us from our bureau in New York. Janet Mock, thanks so much for joining us.

MOCK: Thank you so much, Michel.

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