On Friday, Feb. 13, Janet Mock, New York Times bestselling author and transgender women’s advocate, spoke about what she sees as concerning LGBT issues as well as current events surrounding LGBT people in the media, at the University of Rhode Island’s 21st Annual LGBT Symposium.
The conversation did not center around Mock’s own personal transition story, which she said you can just “Google” to find out- but transition issues were discussed. Â The symposium tried, and many would say succeeded, to go far beyond simply a discussion of the body and the changes involved with transitioning, to involve conversation and reflection.
“I have stepped away from being the subject,” Mock said. “I want to be the person driving the conversation … and not necessarily me being there, being the subject of your [personal] questions.”
Mock continued, “For some reason I think we have language now to say that this is a transgender person and you can get it, but for some reason we want to go all the way back and be like, ‘Take us from the beginning, when did you know.”
The symposium was able to discuss an array of problems facing transgender people along with current events involving LGBT concerns. Â Issues such as visibility opposed to hyper-visibility (something more than meets the eye or common knowledge) as a means to increase awareness of transgendered issues, all the way to reflections on current media coverage’s of ex Kardashian and olympic athlete Bruce Jenner’s transition were discussed.
“Visibility is one thing, but there is also this other large piece of it that is hyper-visibility,” Mock said. “This idea that because there are so few characters that we do see … these people are expected to represent the whole community of people … The body is important, it’s important that we proclaim ourselves and define them for ourselves and that we own our bodies, but at the same time if we [transgender] are only made to be objects that viewers gawk at, then what are we talking about”
On the latter Mock said, “The piece that bothers me as a journalist, and also as a trans person too, is the fact that the subject [Jenner], has not spoken out. He has not given us language to describe what [his] journey is … How do we even know that Jenner would describe their experience as womanhood. Â What if they were no-binary, what if their experience is outside of what we, most people, have language to describe.”
After the symposium, Joanna Ravello, assistant director of talent development, commented on some of the other issues and ideas that came up in the duration of the symposium. “I would think the biggest thing would be how intersectionality shapes our lives differently,” she said. “The speaker was talking about being transgender, being a woman, coming from a poor background, and how all those intersecting identities shape who she is. The multiple identities we have… we need to account for, not just suppress one and accept another.”
The symposium engaged in a question and answer format that allowed the audience to feel more engaged in the discussion at hand. Henry Thompson, a student at URI, said, “The questions were pointed in a way that didn’t make it about her life and more so her work”
Annie Russell, director of URI’s LGBTQ center and facilitator for the evening, said the format of the event allowed Mock to offer a broader perspective to students.“I also think [the Q&A format] allows us to avoid this so common circumstance where all we do is force a person who does identify as trans[gender] to share everything personal about their lives as opposed to how they feel about big issues or ideas,” she said.
When asked why it might be important to hold such event here on a college campus, Ravello answered that “I think it is important for students to understand the range of diversity, not just racial diversity, but all kinds of diversity. These types of [LGBT symposiums] inform students in a greater way than probably what we would typically have on a campus.”
Many students in attendance were heavily influenced by Mocks open dialogue on transgender issues. “My one take away is that there needs to be a greater understanding in dialogue of trans[gender] issues, but the way it is brought to the table is through individual stories,” Elizabeth Koller said. “So Janet Mock is bringing herself in as a trans woman talking about her experiences and using it as a platform to talk about things that affect far more people.”
“There needs to be a greater understanding that just because someone identifies in a certain way doesn’t really affect the fact that they are people,” Ian Armitstead said.
After hearing Mock speak, Michelle Suriani’s impression was similar to Armitsteads. “No matter what your experiences we are all human,” she said. “I am trying to learn that and engage in that and understand that because if its something that is not a big deal to you, it could be important to someone else.”