Janet Mock is not playing the game of respectability politics. She could, if she wanted, be a kind of trans woman Bill Cosby, at pains to make an example of her normalcy, eager to give an image makeover to trans people at large. “I have been held up consistently as a token,” she says in her new memoir Redefining Realness, “as the ‘right’ kind of trans woman (educated, able-bodied, attractive, articulate, heteronormative).” But having grown up low-income, multiracial, and trans, Mock knows too much about being the wrong kind of woman to glory in exceptionalism. Since the 2011 profile in Marie Claire in which she announced herself as a trans woman, she’s started the #GirlsLikeUs Twitter campaign and become a spokesperson and activist for trans issues. The profile more or less maintained the rhetoric of respectability, leading with her “supportive man” and “enviable career” as editor of People.com. But now Mock is telling her own story, and she does not omit the dark, the delicate, and the potentially disreputable.
Mock’s gender seems hardly the greatest of her struggles growing up. She’s shuffled back and forth between dysfunctional parents, sexually abused, threatened by the prospect of homelessness. Mock paints her parents with love even as she describes their profound failings. She starts and ends her childhood in Hawaii with her mother, whom she spends her early youth adoring as the gentle, kind alternative to her domineering father. Yet her mother is hands-off to a fault, preferring the company of a string of men to that of her children, even disappearing in Mock’s adolescence to smoke meth with one of the sleaziest of her boyfriends. Mock spends five preadolescent years on the mainland with her father, whose active parenting is hardly more congenial than her mother’s neglect. He is the adult in her life most intent on stamping out her femininity. For all his bullying, his care for her and her brother is plain, and it’s as shocking to the reader as it is to Mock when he becomes for a time addicted to crack.
Unsettlingly, her parents’ greatest flaws are assets in her own transition. From her dad, the self-proclaimed “selfish bastard,” she inherits a life-saving sense of entitlement: “Like my father, I grew confident in my choice to be true to myself, despite what anyone thought, despite the fear of what was to come.” In spite of his efforts to make a man out of his daughter, he imparts to her the self-assurance to pursue womanhood. And in this pursuit her mother’s noninterference becomes equally crucial. She doesn’t ask questions as young Janet starts going to high school in girls’ clothes and self-medicating with a friend’s hormone pills. To her credit, she eventually helps where she can, driving Janet to doctors’ appointments and paying (unreliably) for hormone injections. But it’s clear that her lack of resistance is more essential than her support. For all their mistakes, both her parents are unstinting in their love. When Janet finally writes her father explaining her transition, he’s far more upset about her doubting his love than about her gender.
Mock makes clear that her traumas are not responsible for her transness. She’s especially careful in recounting her sexual abuse by the teenage son of her father’s girlfriend. There’s a just-so story about LGBT people in general and trans people in particular that attributes their sexuality or gender to abuse. Mock turns the narrative around: it was not the abuse that made her trans, but her gender identity that made her vulnerable to abuse. “Derek treated me like a girl, I thought,” she says, “so I understood him to be my only ally, and my ally wouldn’t do anything to hurt me.” Her worry after he first molests her is that if her dad finds out she’ll “get whipped for acting like a girl again.”
Yet nothing in this story is simple, and Mock refuses the easy rebuttal to the just-so story, “I always knew I was a girl.” Just as she seeks to complicate the “right kind of trans woman,” she complicates the right kind of trans narrative. She says her first conviction was that she was a girl. But the conviction has its nuances. The certainty of “knowing” would be near-miraculous given the ubiquitous feedback that she was a boy. In place of the simplistic rhetoric of “born this way” or “trapped in the wrong body,” Mock says that she spent a while “living somewhere between confusion, discovery, and conviction.”
Mock’s grace in handling complexity is matched by her frankness, and she talks race, class, and intersectional politics without ever sounding polemical. Recounting her time with her dad’s family in Texas, she says,
My grandmother and my two aunts were an exhibition in resilience and resourcefulness and black womanhood. They rarely talked about the unfairness of the world with the words that I use now with my social justice friends, words like intersectionality and equality, oppression, and discrimination. They didn’t discuss those things because they were too busy living it, navigating it, surviving it.
These are practically the only times Mock uses those words, too. She writes for a wide readership—she includes more Hawaiian pidgin than political lingo; quotes from both Oprah and bell hooks; and explains some things for the benefit of a cis (non-trans) audience, but just as often seems to address “girls like us.” She’s aiming not to alienate, but her inclusiveness doesn’t make her mealy-mouthed.
Her light touch is most crucial, and most masterly, in her recollection of her sex work. Openly discussing the sex work she did as a teenager to fund her transition is her most daring challenge to respectability politics, her strike against her own exceptional status. Trans women of color working the streets aren’t news (unless they’ve been murdered); they’re crime-show backdrops. But beautiful, successful journalist Janet Mock working the streets might be news. And in telling this story Mock simultaneously risks her status as the “right kind of trans woman” and attempts to extend that status to other trans women, particularly low-income trans women of color.
Mock has an equivocal relationship to this part of her past. On the one hand, she says of her fellow trans women on Merchant Street in Honolulu, “I stood in awe as these women fought for their womanhood. They taught me, from car to car and date after date, to take ownership of my life and my body.” There may be no more radical moment in the book than when she writes of a long-legged Tyra Banks–ish sex worker, “I yearned to be that sexy and powerful.” Not every day is a black trans woman selling sex held up as a model of power. Yet Mock’s own experience is “not that of the trafficked young girl or the fierce sex-positive woman who proudly chooses sex work as her occupation.” Without pathologizing sex workers, she acknowledges the relationship between her sexual abuse and her path to Merchant Street at sixteen. Still more important, she simply had no other way to pay for her medical care. While her mother struggled to come up with the money for twenty-dollar injections, Mock was looking ahead to $7000 genital reconstruction surgery. Her after-school mall job wasn’t going to fund that. So sex work it was, though she clearly wishes there had been another option for her. She recognizes that empowerment is not on/off: an empowering choice in a disempowering situation is more ambiguous.
At eighteen she flies solo to Thailand for that hard-won surgery. My only disappointment in Redefining Realness is that the principal story ends there. How did she get from University of Hawaii freshman moonlighting on Merchant Street to People.com editor in New York? This journey seems nearly as remarkable as the one from that “somewhere between” childhood to the “conviction” of trans womanhood. But perhaps what happened after she had some repose from “living it, navigating it, surviving it,” is, in its way, more private than even this memoir. And with Redefining Realness Mock has already given us plenty.