Our Voice To Voice conversation series began in January with a collection of interviews between LGBT authors discussing their work, queer life and some of the challenges of writing.
In February, celebrating Black History Month, we've asked some prominent and inspiring individuals to join the Voice To Voice series so we can get an window into some of the issues that define and challenge people who are both African-American and gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
Last week we featured Laverne Cox and her twin brother M. Lamar and on Monday we offered a conversation between two Charlotte, North Carolina lesbian activists, LaWana Mayfield and Rhonda Watlington. On Tuesday we shared Meshell Ndegeocello and Toshi Reagon's discussion.
Today we're featuring a conversation about identity between Clay Cane and Janet Mock.
Clay Cane is a radio personality and journalist who's contributed to numerous publications such as The Root, theGrio, The Advocate and BET.com, where he's the Entertainment Editor. Aspiring to be a James Baldwin with a pop culture twist, he spends his Thursday nights as host of Clay Cane Live on New York's WWRL 1600AM.
Janet Mock is a writer who earned a GLAAD Award nomination for her story about growing up transgender. She's also a Staff Editor at PEOPLE.com, hosts the relationships podcast "The Missing Piece" and is writing her memoir about her adolescent journey beyond gender. In 2012, she was named one of theGrio's 100 most influential leaders making history today for "challenging the stigma surrounding gender identity."
Here, Cane and Mock discuss their decision to be out as journalists, the duality of being black and LGBT and dealing with homophobia and transphobia, respectively.
Janet Mock: So happy to finally meet you! I feel I already know you from reading your work and being a fan of your radio show.
Clay Cane: I feel the same way! I’ve wanted to interview you for a long time. I loved your article in Marie Claire because it created such a buzz in the community and sparked a dialogue I hadn't heard in a long time. And congratulations on the GLAAD Award nomination!
JM: Thank you. The outpouring of support is surreal to me. But I'm sure we can spend the hour fan-girling out. [Laughs]
CC: Yeah, I'm sure we could go on and on. Okay, I have a question for you: Having "come out" as trans in such a public way, when you think of gender identity, what does it mean to be a woman?
JM: I can only talk about what it means to be me. I intimately know what it means to be Janet, this young woman who comes from this evolutionary existence having grown up trans. To be a woman means standing fully in your truth and owning the totality of your experiences -- things that have really nothing to do with gender. That sense of owning who you are is what attracted me to you. You've talked about the duality of your experience as a black, gay man, quoting Zora Neale Hurston, saying, you're not tragically colored or tragically gay. Can you expand on that?
CC: For many people, they look at being LGBT as having a tragic life: living an existence of shame, rejection and anger. That's not my story and I will not let that be my story. Actually, being gay saved my life. If I would've been straight, I would’ve more than likely been in jail or dead like the other boys in my neighborhood in West Philadelphia. Because I was gay, I was introverted. I would stay home and study, listening to Madonna and Prince! [Laughs] I wouldn't be the writer that I am if I don’t fully accept all of the dimensions of myself.
JM: I find that to be fully you is amazing but it's a whole other thing when you do it in your profession as you've consciously done as an openly gay journalist.
CC: I got into the writing industry via other gay men who were closeted. They felt like it would hurt their careers if they were out. Well, from the start of my career I made the decision to be who I am because I didn't want anybody to say, "Well, he interviewed T.I., but he's a faggot!" Being out made me a better writer. You can't sit down with a stranger and get the truth out of them when you're paranoid about somebody finding out your truth. The truth is, being who I am has never stopped me from getting a job. I wouldn't have gotten my radio show on WWRL if I had been closeted. What about your coming out as a journalist?
JM: While making the decision to tell my story, I definitely took on other people's thoughts about me, internalizing other people's transphobia. So when I came out publicly, I was armed for people to say awful things about me. Instead, I was overwhelmingly embraced. I wasn't expecting the love and light that actually came my way, and the opportunities that arose as well because I chose to be open about my journey.
CC: Exactly! All this paranoia of being hated on and you are embraced. Trans people I’ve known over the years have talked about the fear of being "spooked" or "clocked." You are strikingly beautiful.
JM: [Laughs] Thank you.
CC: And it seems no one questions your womanhood. Is there certain amount of privilege you have versus someone who isn't as "passable"?
JM: First off, I have major issues with the term passing because it implies that trans people are trying to "pass" as something we are not, when in fact we are being exactly who we are. But yes, my so-called attractiveness can be a privilege, one of the few I've experienced in my life -- like my access to an education, the fact that I had a family that supported me and access to medical intervention as a teen. I'm conscious of my privileges and my so-called oppressions. Because I fit our society's rigid mold of femininity, no one yells, "That's a dude." That's not a part of my everyday experience, and that has lightened my load. There's no denying that, but that's also why I shed that invisibility and came out. And I know many women who will never come out, just like you know many closeted men who'll never come out, because there's so much fear and paranoia surrounding being trans or gay. And this brings me to one of the pieces you wrote in The Advocate about homophobia, particularly in the black community. You wrote that to be a "real man" in the black community means you must be homophobic. What did you mean by that?
CC: Let me just say, black folks are not more homophobic than white folks and it upsets me when people say that. But in the black community, homophobia does stand for manhood. You're a real man; you're a real "nigga’" if you don't like gay people. I can recall walking in Harlem and seeing a shirt in a window that read: "A real black man is a man who loves God. A real black man is a man who doesn't deal drugs. A real black man is a man who doesn't have sex with men." Think of the boys, girls, trans people, closeted people and anyone else in between who saw that shirt and the damage it might have done to them that day. Being black and being gay, you live a double consciousness, and the truth of the matter is -- and I know black folks hate to hear this -- racism doesn't affect me on the same level as homophobia. When I experience racism I know how to deal with it. I've been taught all my life how to deal with racism from my mother, my father, my grandfather, who told me, "You’re not inferior because you're black." But homophobia -- that bothers me more because I mainly experience homophobia from my own people, black people. Nobody taught me how to deal with that, which I eventually did learn. There's no progress when we pit the LGBT community against the black community. The LGBT community is black, poor, rich, Latino; it's everybody. Homophobia in the black community is truly hurting us. We as a community have to take a stand and say no more.
JM: I've actually noticed that there's been a more visceral reaction to my story on sites where the readers and writers look like me rather than the ones where they do not. And I'm still aiming to understand why. Why is it that my experience threatens some to the point where they'd say I'm an abomination and if they had kissed me, it drive them to murder me? I consider myself a strong person but I'm still taken aback when some reader damns me to hell. I don't think I'll ever get used to that.
CC: When I hear folks say, "You’re going to burn in hell," I just think that there’s no way I would be this far in my life without having God, spirit, or whatever you believe in, on my side. The point where I am unforgiving is the church. That is disgusting to me. Where does somebody go in their soul when you tell them they’re an abomination? How can they love? How can they receive love? Why would they protect themselves with a condom if they’re told their life is an abomination? Mindsets like that are destroying people’s lives.
JM: It’s ironic because religion initially lifted people up at a time when they desperately needed something to believe in and it’s sad that many black LGBT people, who need something to believe in, aren’t able to turn to their churches.
CC: Where does a person go when their minister damns them to hell? How dare you have the audacity to damn a child to hell who’s grappling with who they are. That’s just disgusting to me. And there are some self-hating gays in the church who believe they’re going to hell and support those doctrines -- they are the tragedies. They are already in hell. I do not believe being gay, being who you are, is a sin. I'm in heaven! Speaking of heaven, I have to ask you my signature question: When you go to heaven, what is the DJ playing?
JM: I'd have to say it's The Beach Boys's "God Only Knows." It opens with the line: "I may not always love you. But long as there are stars above you. You never need to doubt it. I'll make you so sure about it." It's about openness, love, acceptance. It’s about the bonds that spark and break a relationship. It’s airy yet deep -- so me. What’s the DJ playing for you?
CC: A tribal house beat remixed with Nina Simone’s "Feeling Good" and I would just rise up!
JM: And still, as Maya Angelou says, we'll rise.
Below, see a video of Cane and Mock's Voice To Voice conversation, shot by Aaron Tredwell.