In 2013, author, journalist, and transgender activist Janet Mock appeared in HBO’s documentary The Out List. Director and portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders had previously explored other identities in The Black List (2008) and The Latino List (2011) by interviewing prominent figures within each community about their personal and professional experiences of living as, by and large, marginalized members of society. The Out List featured high-wattage stars like Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris, but Mock, who is also one of Fast Company‘s Most Creative People, was the sole “T” in the alphabet soup of the LGBTQIA community. As important as something like The Out List is to help advance conversations around topics like gay rights, Mock believed the trans movement had enough public figures and momentum behind it to narrow the focus for another “list.”
“I felt that there needed to be a space where trans people got to talk about their stories on their own terms without other people’s editorial content,” Mock says. “It was like an uninterrupted way to have trans folk just tell their stories.”
And so The Trans List came to be, with Mock serving as a producer and lead interviewer.
“One of the most difficult parts of The Trans List was coming up with a list of 11 people,” Mock says. “For me, what was important was to ensure that we were as diverse as possible across a lot of different intersections. So we’re not just talking about race, and we’re not just talking about gender expression–but we’re also talking about location, and we’re talking about age and generation.”
The Trans List features subjects like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a transwoman of color who was arrested during the New York City Stonewall riots in 1969, alongside Alok Vaid-Menon, a nonbinary transfeminine writer and performance artist of South Asian decent.
“Trans people are not a monolith. We come from many different experiences and backgrounds–our transitions don’t look the same,” Mock says. “I hope that this film does a great job at offering that breadth of assortment of our experiences.”
What Mock set out to do as the interviewer for The Trans List was to take those experiences and flesh them out into stories that convey the complexities of what it means to be trans in America today.
“I wanted to create a safe space for people to show up fully as themselves and to feel as comfortable as possible so that when they were talking to the camera, they were able to convey the urgency of their story, the silliness of their story, the fun, and the traumatic,” Mock says. “A lot of times when people went through difficult experiences, I cried with them and that’s all I could do. I think a part of being present is being empathetic to someone’s experience and what they’re sharing with you. The storytelling and the story sharing process [are] powerful–it can lead to some of the greatest transformations.”
Part of that process was giving greater and more comprehensive visibility to the trans community beyond headliners like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner. To be sure, both have played vital roles in pushing transgenderism into the mainstream, much like, as Mock points out, Ellen DeGeneres and the TV show Will & Grace did for the gay community.
“The media piece becomes instrumental in terms of making people feel, making people see, and making people hopefully move to a point of action and changing their own behaviors and challenging folks in their policies,” Mock says.
Both Cox and Jenner are indeed a part of The Trans List, but Mock was careful to curate her list of subjects beyond star power and to be inclusive to those who didn’t make the cut for the documentary by featuring them in an accompanying portrait series shot by Greenfield-Sanders.
“Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, everyone knows who they are. But what about all the people who are in-between who are not walking the red carpet?” Mock says. “What the film does so well is that it will give people an introduction to 11 new people that they can now say, ‘I know a trans person.’ They can go into their communities and say you need to watch this film and they can all get a great 101 on what it means to be a trans American.”
The Trans List premieres Monday, December 5 on HBO.