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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear