This post is sponsored by HBO and Gentleman Jack.
In Janet Mock‘s New York Times bestselling memoir, Redefining Realness, she wrote passionately about having the power to speak for yourself and about yourself: “I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act. It is an act that can be met with hostility, exclusion, and violence. It can also lead to love, understanding, transcendence, and community.” Nearly 200 years earlier, Anne Lister shared that sentiment over and over in her four million-word collection of diaries — at least the first part of it.
As a lesbian living in the early 19th century, Lister had access to very few stories about women who loved other women, or who preferred more traditionally masculine styles of dress. She began reconciling her sexuality and gender presentation with a world that provided no role models for her by writing out and revisiting her own feelings. In 1824, after journaling for nearly three hours trying to work out her attraction to a female neighbor and despairing that she would ever find another woman to spend her life with, she came — again, as she always did — to the conclusion that her “inclinations are natural,” and there was no reason to give up hope. “I have gradually written myself from moody melancholy to contented cheerfulness,” she said.
Janet Mock is no stranger to being a revolutionary storyteller. Her aforementioned debut book was the first to give an autobiographical account of a trans woman who came out and transitioned as a teen. In it, she explored multiple intersections of her identity and experiences, including growing up multiracial, trans, and poor. Fellow trans activist and author Laverne Cox said Redefining Realness empowered her to emulate Mock’s “unflinching bravery.” Iconic activist and author bell hooks said it was a “redemptive revelation.” Activist and political commentator Melissa Harris said that in sharing her own journey, Mock was “reflecting all of humanity.”
Last year, Mock made storytelling history again: she signed on to Ryan Murphy’s FX drama, Pose, as a writer, producer, and director. In doing so became the first trans woman of color to join a writer’s room as a regular. When she wrote and directed her own episode, “Love Is the Message,” she became the first trans woman of color to do that too. Pose holds the distinction of being the TV series with the largest cast of trans actors in history. It was praised by critics and garnered two Golden Globe nominations in season one.
Before her groundbreaking episode aired, Mock wrote on Instagram that she’d been nervous to undertake such an enormous task, but, she said to herself, “Your whole life as a black trans girl with all your experiences have prepared you for so many unknowns — from being the first in your family to go to college, to get a masters, to work as a journalist, to leave the safety of telling others stories to actually tell your own story, to write two memoirs that centered #girlslikeus, to be the first trans woman of color to be hired in a writer’s room… and yes, the first to write and direct an episode of television. You can do this, will do this and are deserving.”
Two centuries apart, two queer women using very different writing mediums, pep talking themselves into success, despite the fact that no one had done what they’d done before.
In 1823, after a particularly heartbreaking summer, Anne Lister wrote, “I only meant to have jotted down a few lines of rough draft but thoughtlessly got into the midst of the thing & could not, did not like to, stop till I had done. Just before breakfast I thought of M— till the tears stood in my eyes. I feel better tonight. Writing my journal has composed & done me good; so it always does.”
Lister was, in Mock’s words, telling her story of herself to herself. Or, to quote Mock quoting Audre Lorde, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”