Janet Mock ran for class treasurer at the end of her ninth-grade year at her public high school in Honolulu, Hawaii, and she won. At the beginning of the next school year, she took the stage in the school cafeteria with the other newly elected members of student government for a back-to-school assembly. The class officers introduced themselves, one by one. When it was Janet’s turn, she greeted her three hundred fellow sophomores with “I’m Janet, your class treasurer!” She thanked them for their votes and their support, and stepped back.
For Janet this was huge. When she ran for class treasurer, the name on the ballot was her birth name, the one her parents gave her when they perceived her to be a boy. During the summer before tenth grade, Janet made the transition from the boy everyone saw her as to the girl she had always known herself to be. For a mixed-race transgender girl who’d grown up in poverty without trans role models, this was not an easy thing to do. Luckily she had the support of her best friend, Wendi, who encouraged Janet to be her true self.
When they met, the first thing Wendi said to Janet was, “Are you ma’hu?” Ma’hu is a gender role in traditional Hawaiian society that refers to people who exhibit both feminine and masculine traits. It roughly translates as someone who is in-between genders, and before Hawaii was colonized in the nineteenth century, ma’hu people were well respected. Now ma’hu is often used as a slur against gay men, but many trans and gender-nonconforming Hawaiians are reclaiming the term in a positive way. When Wendi asked Janet if she was ma’hu, Janet said “No!” She was still scared to admit her truth, but inside, she was thrilled that Wendi could see who she really was.
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Janet’s appearance on that stage was a public coming-out to her peers. She was unapologetic about who she was, and for the most part, her peers and the school’s staff supported her. One teacher was openly dismissive. She repeatedly misgendered Janet, calling her “him” and “he” and using her birth name instead of “Janet” while taking roll each day. While this may not seem like a big deal to some people, names are important parts of our identities.
Janet went on to become a successful journalist, author of two books, and television personality who regularly shares her story and advocates for feminism, racial justice, and LGBTQ rights. And she is still close with her dear friend Wendi.
“I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act.”