In the Fall of 2017, Janet Mock steps onto the set of FX's Pose for the first time. The new TV show, which depicts the prolific and dazzling underground 1980s New York ball scene in 1987, is filming in a cozy loft in the city's historic Bronx neighborhood. This is the first scene of the first episode: the apartment is perfectly lit. A disco ball hangs overhead to aptly accentuate the moment.
Mock, who serves as a writer and producer on the show, watches the scene unfold: five transgender women lounge around while two queer boys dance in the center of the room. She listens as they utter lines she helped craft, spoken to perfection for the first time. "Oh my god," she thinks. She looks out past the set and over the city skyline. "This f*cking show is everything that I ever wanted."
Pose is the latest brainchild of prolific creator Ryan Murphy — and a historic moment for both Mock and traditional TV. Mock is the first transgender woman of color to write and direct on a television series. Murphy hired more than 100 transgender actors and crew members to help bring the project to life. In early May, he announced on Twitter that 100 percent of the show's profits will go to charitable organizations that support the LGBTQ+ community.
By the time I spoke to Mock on the phone in May 2018, she'd just wrapped her final day as a director on the show's first season. "Literally, I woke up today at 10 o'clock. First time I got in eight hours of sleep in months," she told me with a laugh. "Yeah, I'm still processing this monumental experience that I was given." I'm not surprised that she hasn't quite wrapped her head around everything that has happened since Pose went into production in October. To conceptualize, write, and bring to life such a magnificent story would be nothing short of a whirlwind.
And to be clear, Pose is magnificent. I watched the first four episodes to prepare for my interview with Mock. As a white gay man, I've had the privilege of seeing myself represented on screen in TV shows like Looking and movies like Love, Simon and Call Me by Your Name. Even so, the singular power of this show and this moment was not lost on me. The impact is striking: to see so many incredible and diverse stories and so much tenderness. Black gay men who weren't afraid to be in touch with their femininity. Multiple transgender women of color in the spotlight, front and center. Tears stung my eyes multiple times in the pilot episode alone.
Mock said all the women on the show have been imbued with parts of her personal story, but there's one character who really mirrors her: the sweet and melancholy Angel, played by Indya Moore. "I've seen my younger self in her journey. The way in which she has to survive a world that is hostile to her existence, which I think all of the women of the show have to do," Mock told me. "It's late 1980s, New York City. It's a gritty time. And so these women are surviving all of that. But I have given to her my experiences and survival of sex work. I've given to her my want and craving and desires for love."
"I was like, 'Oh my god. This f*cking show is everything that I have ever wanted.'"
Love is a sticking point for Mock, both in her history and in Angel's arc. "I was such a lovesick young girl who just wanted a boy to hold my hand, and to want to be with me, and to be seen with me," she admitted. "We want to be loved and seen and held fully as who we fully are. And so I don't think that that's a abstract goal or a foreign goal. I think that it is a goal that we all have and it's universal. When I see Angel craving for that love and for that acceptance, I see myself. I see my young self. I see myself today."
How did that lovesick young girl grow up to be an empowered, transcendent woman who wound up writing on one of the modern era's more vital TV shows? Mock has had quite the journey, and it all stems from her career in journalism. "I actually wanted to be a writer first, but because I didn't have a financial safety net when I moved to New York City, I didn't think that I could make it," she told me.
"I didn't have the means to be able to just sit and write stories that I wanted to write, or to sit and write a book, or to write creatively, so I was like, 'How can I get paid as a writer? Oh, I could be a journalist and like maybe work for a newspaper or magazine.'" She landed a job at People shortly after graduating college.
"When I look back, I realize that it was a way of survival, too, in a different sense. It was a way for me to hide," Mock said of her early career. "My life really, truly changed when I went from the teller to the subject."
Mock began to identify as female when she was a teenager. By the time she graduated college, she was at a point in her journey where she could present as a woman without facing doubt or skepticism. When she started work at People, it was her choice whether or not to reveal her identity as a transgender woman. She opted not to for quite some time, but one day, everything changed.
For years, she said she focused on the stories of others so that she didn't have to confront her own truth. In some ways, she said, it was a defense mechanism. She wasn't ready to tell her story. Then, when she was 26 years old, something changed.
Five years into her job at People, Mock was frankly a little bored. "I wasn't challenging myself," she says. At that time, a little campaign called It Gets Better had launched. The goal was to offer support to LGBTQ+ youth who were experiencing harassment and bullying for being different.
"I was seeing a missing link in terms of trans representation," Mock recalled. "I was like, 'I transitioned through high school. I dealt with harassment and bullying, yet I'm sitting here in a place of privilege — in this skyscraper, in downtown Manhattan, working for Time, Inc. — and not telling my story.'"
Mock knew it was time to act. She said she felt conflicted. She was afraid she would lose her job and be unable to take care of herself. In the end, she leaned into her fear. "I thought, 'I made it through, so therefore it is my duty to tell my story,'" she said. "To offer young girls growing up like I did — or growing up at that time and struggling with the same things that I was struggling with — I owe them a semblance of hope to say that, yes, you can truly get through."
That year, Mock came out very publicly with a story in Marie Claire. Mock later wrote on her personal website that she wasn't entirely thrilled with some of the ways she and the transgender community were characterized. "I do wish I could change one thing in the piece: the term 'boy', which is used a few times," she wrote. "My genital reconstructive surgery did not make me a girl. I was always a girl."
"There's no greater joy in the world, I believe, than finding your own purpose and then knowing, 'This is the way that I'm supposed to go.'"
This misstep did not take away from the power of the piece. As a matter of fact, everything changed after the publication. "I thought I was so old and wise," Mock remembered with a laugh. "I was old and wise in a sense of not being a 12-year-old anymore who's struggling with her identity. In that sense, I was an adult speaking to my younger self, telling her, 'You are deserving of all the things. You're deserving of being seen, and being heard, and being respected in all the things that you engage with and do.'"
In that moment, Mock's personal mission changed: "to be able to release my people and myself from stigma and shame. And to hopefully then release other people — who may not have the same experiences of me and my communities — to release them from ignorance and fear."
"Sitting with myself and telling myself my whole story enabled me to be able to be truthful and purposeful," she told me. "And there's no greater joy in the world, I believe, than finding your own purpose and then knowing, 'This is the way that I'm supposed to go. And by doing this, I'm being useful.'" Mock went on to write two memoirs: 2014's Redefining Realness and Surpassing Certainty in 2017. They told stories of her personal journey with identity, her memories as a young, confused child growing up in Hawaii, coming into a crystallized sense of self, and living authentically. For the first time, she was telling the whole story — her whole story. The next thing led to the next thing, and before long, we arrive back to where we started: Pose.
It's clear that Mock has poured her soul into the writing and crafting of these characters. Pose's narratives are histories of pain, sadness, and loss; stories of adversity and great triumph. In a recent column with Variety, Mock writes about her historic hiring. "I am the first trans woman of color to be hired as a writer on a television series (previous staffings include white trans women writers, including Our Lady J for Transparent, Imogen Binnie for CBS's Doubt, and Lana and Lilly Wachowski for Sense 8). Murphy then promoted me to producer within weeks of my hiring, and pushed me, despite my own trepidation, to direct episode six of our first season."
During our own interview, Mock told me the historic nature of her position didn't even really occur to her, at least not initially. "All I was thinking about was, 'I need to do a good job. I need to do right by this script that I wrote with Ryan.'"
Mock had to hit the ground running, but she luckily had the strong support of Murphy along the way. She even said he stayed with her on set until 3 a.m. to make sure she had everything she needed to get the story right. "I felt emboldened, and I felt empowered, and I felt encouraged. And after getting through that, I was like, 'OK. This is what I'm supposed to be doing.'"
When she wrapped her directorial debut (the night before our interview, I might remind you), one person seized the opportunity to shine a spotlight on Mock's true historic impact. That's when everything truly clicked. First assistant director Deanna Leslie gathered the crew at the end of the shoot. "She just said, 'I need us to give a round of applause on Janet. She is wrapped. And she's wrapped on her directorial debut, and we know how historic this is,'" Mock recounted Leslie saying. "'Not only are there not enough women directors. There are not enough women of color directors. And there has never been, in this stage, on this network, a trans woman of color to be able to direct an episode of television. And so we need to take a moment to just take in this together.'"
Now, the moment is at hand: Pose premieres on FX on June 3. "I don't know if I can be able to answer how people will take the work," Mock said. "My job is just to tell the story." That said, she does have some hopes for how the new show will be received. "I hope that, specifically for girls growing up like I did, that they feel empowered. That they're still deserving. That they're still deserving of being seen and heard. The impact . . . will be the revolutionary idea that those who have always been on the outside looking in are now recentered, right?"
"These women are the heroines of the narrative . . . it's deeply powerful to watch."
For the first time, Pose gives transgender characters the chance to be directly in the spotlight. They are not sidekicks, they are more than bit parts, and they're not presented as punchlines or victims. "These women are the heroines of the narrative. They are not serving some straight, white, cisgender person's narrative. They are the narrative."
She mentions the few white cisgender actors who also appear on the show: Kate Mara, Evan Peters, and James Van Der Beek. "They serve these women's narratives. And I think that that is a shift and a paradigm that's deeply powerful to watch," she said. "To convince those stars to take a backseat to these women's narratives . . . that's powerful."