Janet Mock in June 2013. Photo: Getty
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Janet Mock: “Who will ever love you if you tell the truth?”

Juliet Jacques talk to US journalist Janet Mock about her book Redefining Realness.

Redefining Realness, the new memoir by American journalist and trans rights activist Janet Mock, opens with “the email that changed my life”. This was a PDF of her three-page “coming out” story in Marie Claire, written by Kierna Mayo and published in May 2011 under the problematic headline of “I Was Born a Boy”. Here, Mock talked about having her gender identity policed by her family and her peers, her understanding of herself as transsexual in her teenage years, and her trip to Bangkok, aged 18, for sex reassignment surgery.

The 2,300-word article immediately made Mock – a Staff Editor at People magazine’s website – into a prominent trans woman of colour, a community under-represented in the mainstream media. Mock points this out in her 250-page book, which expands on the themes in that article: her childhood in Hawaii and Oakland; how she defined herself and found a trans community; the physical, social and legal aspects of transition; how her gender identity was policed by her family, her school and her peers; how being trans intersected with being a person of colour from a low-income family, and later, doing sex work; the challenges of finding love; and the reasons why she came out. Redefining Realness has already made waves in the US, not least after Mock challenged the way that Piers Morgan framed her story during his CNN programme, and has just been published in Britain by Atria Books.

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Juliet: You were an established writer when you came out in 2011. What made you do it, and why did you choose to do so in Marie Claire?
Janet: I came out as not enough of our stories are told from our perspective. Marie Claire was offering the chance to be a part of a women’s magazine, which often celebrates ordinary women doing extraordinary things. I thought it was very important as a young trans woman to be included in a mainstream women’s magazine, countering that historical reluctance to accept trans women as women.

How has your life changed since you started talking and writing about your transition? And how have you balanced the potential problem of being typecast with the need to discuss the issues faced by trans people of colour?
My life has changed because more people know me and the personal issues I’ve struggled with – it’s about being visible and vulnerable. I knew early on that one consequence would be having to represent all trans women, women of colour, people of colour, to some extent – it’s about finding balance, remembering that I’m one person with a microphone and I’m proud to have that, but also that it’s important to try to uplift the voices of other trans women. I don’t feel as if I’m typecast – like any writer, the difficulty is that one facet of my identity becomes louder, obscuring the fact that I’m also a woman, a writer, a lover of pop culture and other things.

In the book, you talk about how your father thought you were “gay”, and how you didn’t have terms like trans, transgender or transsexual to define yourself. You also mention how phrases often encountered in trans narratives, such as “I always knew I was a girl”, erase ‘the nuances, the work, the process of self-discovery’. How difficult did you find it to render your experiences into an accessible language?
I knew what was important – the process of reading a book is very intimate, and an investment of time. Readers understand it as a complete portrait – the nuances are lost when points of our stories are reduced to media soundbites. Writing about my personal life and contextualising my experiences, I needed to unpack and challenge certain media memes. On my road to self-discovery, only certain terms were available – I didn’t use ‘trans’ or ‘transgender’ until junior high school, but I was living as trans much earlier. I wanted to bring people on that journey.

There has long been a gulf between the way the mainstream media discuss trans people – not just in the words used but also the overarching narratives – and the way we talk about our own lives. One reason you wrote Redefining Realness was because you weren’t happy about how Marie Claire presented your story – but what are the advantages of telling your story through a book rather than journalism?
Marie Claire only gave me 3,000 words, which was not my entire story – but this was not my catalyst to write my book, as I was already doing it. The greatest asset of a memoir is that it’s completely me, without my voice going through another journalist, editor or TV producer. It’s great to engage with the mainstream media to get messages out, but the most empowering tool is to create records of our lives, and our own images, which are not filtered through judgements, biases or misunderstandings. That’s why I liked your Transgender Journey series – rather than a sensationalised account, you were offering an honest story of your experiences in real time.

The autobiography used to be the main way in which trans people explained their gender identities to a wider public, but hasn’t been so popular with trans people in the last couple of decades. Why do you think this is, and for whom did you write Redefining Realness?
The reason I wrote it was because I didn’t see any books by people who looked like me. I read plenty of transsexual autobiographies – Caroline Cossey, Christine Jorgensen, The First Lady by April Ashley, Jennifer Finney Boylan or Kate Bornstein – which were all by trans women, but didn’t really cover intersections with youth, poverty, race or ethnicity. I wanted to look at being trans as one part of my identity, amongst other aspects, asking how I could tell a fuller story.

People are not always able to publish – I wanted to use privilege I had to give a voice to someone like me, who loved books. The audience is the girl I was in the library, looking for a reflection, but also cisgender women, as I wanted to build understanding, to discuss shared experiences of girlhood and womanhood, and how these concepts have evolved. If we start embracing each other as sisters, we’ll take better care of each other.

The title refers not only to your ownership of your identity, but also to Jennie Livingston’s film Paris is Burning (1990), about the African-American and Latino women in New York balls, who were judged on their “realness”. The book references plenty of inspirational public figures, including Janet Jackson, Maya Angelou, bell hooks, Audré Lorde, but few trans people of colour. You found some local role models, but how important are they in popular culture?
I think for any of us, but particularly marginalised people, it’s so important to be reflected in the media, and use that to suggest possibilities, encouraging people to dream bigger. Trans women of colour were never celebrated in the media – our stories were always about victimhood, violence and death. It’s vital that this is discussed, but we know that these issues exist, and it’s also important to see ourselves in celebratory terms, through people like Lea T,  Carmen Carrera, Laverne Cox and others. People of colour have often been marginalised within the trans community, so it’s especially important to suggest that more than victimhood is possible for us. One of my main objectives was to uplift trans women of colour like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson, who were involved with the Stonewall riots and liberation movements – I wanted readers to ask themselves “Why didn’t I know about these activists and legends?” and look them up. I mentioned the Compton’s cafeteria riot in 1966 as well as the more famous one in New York three years later – this probably happened so many times, when poor trans people with nothing to lose fought back against police oppression, and I wanted to mention their legacy.

Some of the British trans women were inspirational: I saw Caroline Cossey on The Arsenio Hall Show, which was popular when I was eight years old, and I thought “Oh my God” – here was someone from the UK, talking about being “born a boy” and transitioning. At grad school, we read books by journalists about their own lives, and I was assigned Conundrum by Jan Morris. She was a beautiful writer, but her experiences were very different to mine – the book resonated most when she talked about Morocco being the only place to go for surgery, and I identified with that after my trip to Thailand.

Given that LGBTQ* lives have historically been portrayed as tragic, I think there’s a lot of pressure to gloss over difficult experiences, but Redefining Realness is unflinching about racism, abuse and the realities of sex work as well as being trans. How hard was it to include these stories, and to publicly explore your own attitudes to them?
For me, that’s the point of a memoir. I started from my most uncomfortable moments: I didn’t have issues with being trans, but with how it marginalised me, and pushed me into certain traumas, such as bullying at school, sexual abuse from my stepbrother, and sex work to pay for treatment. I asked myself how I could be unflinching whilst talking about success: the media coverage I’d had suggested that everything was fine, and the book enabled me to be open and transparent about the pain, as well as the things I’m proud of.

I wasn’t afraid of writing about that, as I knew that if people read the book, they would care and understand. I was more worried about the media turning parts of it into soundbites. The problem with Piers Morgan was that he hadn’t read the book – Redefining Realness is a tool for people to understand the language that we’ve developed for our experiences, and there’s an important difference between “assigned male at birth” and “born a boy” [the caption used when Mock appeared on Morgan’s CNN show]. It’s important that people read books like this in order to think about how to cover the people and issues involved in a more thoughtful and respectful way.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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