The Traps That Lead Transgender Women to the Sex and Drug Trades

Transgender talk-show host Janet Mock discusses her journey from self-hate to self-love and the pitfalls along the way.
May 21, 2015·
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Janet Mock first put on a dress at the age of six, only to receive a spanking from her grandmother.

Assigned male at birth, Mock first began to identify as a girl during childhood but was told by the people she loved most that expressing herself was a punishable offense. Four years ago, she took part in the “It Gets Better” campaign, designed to bring hope to struggling LGBT children and teens. Now, more of Mock’s story is revealed—along with her newest successes—in the Web series It Got Better.

Despite school administrators and family members attempting to force Mock to identify as male, she began to transition in her teen years. But finding the medical resources and hormone therapy she needed in Hawaii in the late 1990s was no easy task.

“A lot of the ways in which I dealt with it and a lot of my girlfriends dealt with it was underground economies,” said Mock. “Some dealt drugs or dealt with that piece of it, and some, like myself, dealt within the sex trade.”

Transgender women of color are among the most marginalized groups in the U.S. These women face discrimination at every turn, including difficulty gaining proper identification that matches their gender expression, harassment from law enforcement, and being written off as unworthy of compassion for participating in illegal work.

But as Mock explains, trading sex for money wasn’t exactly a choice.

“That’s something that I went to as a young person because whole systems were pushing me there,” Mock said. As many as 50 percent of black transgender people have worked in the drug or sex trade to support their income, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.

In her 2014 memoir Redefining Realness, Mock does not treat her past as a period of her life for which she needs to be redeemed. Instead of dehumanizing women forced into the business in order to get the care they need, Mock explains that those worthy of disdain are those lacking empathy.

“What I find shameful is a culture that exiles, stigmatizes, and criminalizes those engaged in underground economies like sex work as a means to move past struggle to survival,” Mock wrote in a blog post last year.

Her time as a sex worker was a means to an end. After high school, Mock headed off to New York University, graduated with a degree in journalism, and went on to become a contributing editor to fashion magazine Marie Claire and the host of MSNBC series So Popular.

Mock hopes her personal story can offer transgender girls guidance she couldn’t find in her vulnerable teen years. Stories like Mock’s can inspire those struggling to come to terms with their identity: “We feel like we can go out and conquer the world because someone else had already been there.”