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.
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.