I can’t remember when I first heard of Janet Mock. I just know that sometime in the past three years I started noticing a common byline on sharp articles about trans women. When Mock stepped forward as transgender in a 2011 Marie Claire profile, Chaz Bono, child of Sonny and Cher and probably the most high-profile trans person at the time, had just published his memoir Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man. I was in a relationship with a trans guy at the time, and for a while, well-meaning family and friends would say, “Ah, like Chaz Bono”—their sole reference point for understanding transness.
Bono was an especially privileged example of the typical trans memoirist: white, well-off, and middle-aged. It is this tradition that Janet Mock writes against in her recent memoir Redefining Realness (you can see my review for the Rumpus here). Although trans women of color may be the most marginalized of LGBT people, their struggles are often an asterisk to gay marriage, and they had authored few examples of the “transition genre.” Mock says she wanted, in the words of Alice Walker, to “write all the things I should have been able to read.”
Now Mock is the new face of the transition memoir, although the label is too narrow to describe Redefining Realness, in which she discusses growing up black and multiracial, experiencing sexual abuse, and finding community doing sex work in Hawaii. Although I’m white and cisgender, I knew upon encountering Mock’s work that she was writing the things I should have been able to read, too: here was someone talking race and class along with gender, someone moving the public conversation beyond “trapped in the wrong body,” someone whose book I actually wanted to pass on to puzzled friends and family.
The Rumpus: My first question is sort of trivial, but I was just wondering, why were you originally going to call your book, Redefining Realness, Fish Food?
Janet Mock: Oh my god.
Rumpus: I saw in old articles: “forthcoming memoir, Fish Food.”
Mock: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was a joke between me and [my best friend] Wendy. Because the first thing I was called in the book, the first time I’m given some kind of label beyond my own imaginings of being a girl, was from other older trans women who said, “Oh, you’re fish.”
That term, I always have a problematic feeling with it—in trans women’s community, they say “fish” to mean that you’re looking like a cis woman, or you’re passing. So beyond the ideas of passing—I have issues with that, but then the misogyny layer of “fish” bothers me, too.
Rumpus: You talked about how you interviewed your parents, your brother, and Wendy. Your parents are more ambiguous figures in the book. How did they feel about being interviewed? Did they have reactions to the book? Were they totally cooperative?
Mock: My parents were both very cooperative. My mother, our conversations were through e-mail, because I knew she’d be better writing them and having time to think. She’s very much more internal than vocal. My father is vocal. In fact, he has no computer access or Internet, so whenever he called me was when I asked him questions. I would always have a list of questions I needed to ask him, about details of locations where we lived, and how many girlfriends did he have—and it was just too many to count—and he mentioned homes we lived in that I don’t even remember and I think I blocked out. He was like, “Yeah, we lived in a meth house once,” and I was like, “What?”
Mock: I couldn’t remember all of that stuff. But they all had different reactions. I think my mom avoided the book the longest. Because she was so scared of what I may have thought about her parenting of us, and she carried a lot of guilt about that. I think that when she read the book she saw that I wasn’t writing a revenge memoir or something. It was as complete a portrait as I could tell from my own experience. And so she actually felt freed, I think. Then my father, he’s still reading the book. I think he’s in the middle of it.
Rumpus: Ah, so you’re waiting on his reaction.
Mock: Yeah, initially he told me, “Yeah, I read it, it was great.” And then he called me two weeks later and was like, “You know, I was lying, I didn’t read the book. I’m reading it now, and it’s making me feel all these things.” So I was like, “Just keep on getting through it,” because the beginning part is very tough on him, because a lot of it is about how he gender-policed me and his struggles with drug addiction.
Rumpus: And when you were interviewing your parents, how did you explain the book to them, and their role in it? Or was that something you discussed at all?
Mock: No, not really. I was basically like, “I’m working on my story, and I have some questions about where you were in this.” With my father, it was interesting because he was so unplugged. He doesn’t really watch TV. He’s not into pop culture or news or politics or anything, so he just knows I have this book. Like, “Oh, I heard that you were on CNN,” or something. But he doesn’t really know what’s going on. And he thinks I’m rich just because I have a book.
My mom is more plugged in because she’s on Facebook and watches everything. She’s more conscious of it, so interviewing my mom—I had just come out in Marie Claire, and my father didn’t really know or care—he was just like, “Oh, okay, whatever that means.” But my mom knew, and so she knew that this was her chance to have her voice in it. My brother was more to contextualize a little bit, about the family stuff, and to see what his ideas were about some of the things that were going on with me. When I told him about the sexual abuse, he was like, “Yeah, I remembered that. I felt I remembered something like that going on.”
So they knew that they were there to help me advance the story and color it more, because all I had were my memories and feelings. I didn’t want to just stay in that navel-gazing space. I wanted to do that to be accountable to my own pain, and my own experience, but then I thought their voices were so necessary because they were still close to me.
Rumpus: Were there ever moments where memories conflicted, and that made you question your own memories, or change your mind or ideas about something that had happened?
Mock: My relationship with my father—his remembrance of things was completely different from mine. I remember myself being a lot more policed. I remember him being more of a villain. And he always says, “No, you were always combating me, and always talking back.” I don’t ever remember talking back to my father, but he says that’s how I was. He was like, “You were always very vocal.”
But I don’t remember it that way, so I sided with my remembrance of it, and instead made my actions bold, so that you can see why my father would be propelled to police me more, or cut my hair, and all these things that happened in the book. So I kind of still have that in there, but I don’t remember being the child that—
Rumpus: —Yeah, there isn’t dialogue with you talking back to him.
Mock: I could never! Right now I can’t even get a word in edgewise when I’m talking to my father on the phone, because he talks so fast and he’s so loud and so declarative about his statements. I don’t think I was vocal, but I think that my femininity and my expression of femininity were so loud and obvious to him, it was something that he was so sensitive to.
Rumpus: That maybe he perceived your defiant actions, as he saw them, as you talking back to him?
Mock: Yeah. And I never felt I had voice and agency to do that as a kid. I can’t imagine talking back to my father. His experience with the letter [where I came out to him] was like my talking back. That’s what he told me. I really felt the letter was bolder than it was. When I read it now I’m like, “Oh, it’s so subdued and respectful,” but to my father, he saw it as, “You were giving me this ultimatum and I had to be the bigger person in that moment.” He gave himself so much credit, which is just my dad. It was great, but—my father still doesn’t understand, really. He still struggles a lot with his own community, because he lives in a predominantly black and poor community in Dallas, and the people around him don’t understand why he would call his “son” Janet now. My father only had one interaction with me as Janet in person. Which was in 2004, when I was twenty-one years old. He hasn’t really had much beyond that.
Our relationship is still very much about the remembrance of things, like, “Oh, you remember when you were younger, and you, me, and your brother, we were like the Three Musketeers—we were always together?” Because me and my brother were the only of his children that he helped raise. He had us, even though he had nothing. So to him our relationship is so much more important. In my life it’s not as important. It seems kind of cold—I love my dad, but he’s not present in my life. He hasn’t been present in my life since I was twelve. He was there in memories, and in thinking about what he would think of things. I feel like my dad still doesn’t know me know me yet.
Rumpus: That seems like an interesting tension in writing memoir, because you have to end the book, but the relationships are continuing after the book, and there’s still some sort of need to tie it up in some way.
Mock: Yes! Everything seems so fairy tale, too. That is the one point of tension still—my relationship with my father, and the fact that he doesn’t really know me as who I am.
Rumpus: Which reminds me: do you feel pressure in the way you portray or talk about your relationship with your boyfriend, Aaron? I heard you say that he says he comes off like Prince Charming. Does it feel like there’s pressure for that to be perfect?
Mock: We did this podcast my first year of coming out. And then we stopped doing it because we were like, “This is too much information.” I feel like we showed a lot of our flaws in that space. But that period of time when I’m writing about my relationship with Aaron is actually only our meeting, and then it goes to our point of disclosure. This book wasn’t about him. That was important—even though I frame it in this idea of meeting someone, needing to tell them something so important about my life, it still isn’t our relationship. It was very much how romantic comedies are. You know, there’s the meet cute, and then—
Rumpus: —and then it ends with—
Mock: —we’re together! You know? There’s not many relationship movies, because no one’s really interested in seeing the day in, day out boringness of a relationship. It comes off that way because that’s how I felt it at the time. When I was experiencing it, it was just like, “This is my fantasy,” to have this man that I actually wanted to be with and who I felt was worthy of me. To tell my story to him. That was important for me to portray, because for so long in my life I never thought it would be possible. That someone would love me fully for who I was if he knew that I was trans. Even knew that I did sex work, and knew all these other things about me.
Rumpus: I’ve heard you talk about how this is not confessional. And that was one of my first thoughts on reading it: This is not a tell-all, this is not a confessional memoir.
Mock: I feel like you need to be a celebrity for that shit, too. To have this tell-all confessional, people need to feel as if they really know you. Most people don’t know me. But also this thing of a confession. I don’t feel like I confessed to Aaron that I’m trans. I don’t feel like it was something I needed to confess or ask forgiveness for.
Rumpus: Right, that does have this forgiveness implication. Were you worried about people reading it as a spilling-your-darkest-secrets type of thing?
Mock: Well, yeah, that’s the sad thing about the genre—it’s been so exploited and watered down. Like, reality stars have books that are tied to a new season of their reality show. It’s always that “such-and-such with.” You know, the ghost writer. I was looking a lot at Mary Karr [kinds of] stuff, interviews about when they wrote memoir. They talked about the tell-all, the confessional, and the revenge. These are all tropes that I knew I didn’t want to be writing. Because I was definitely scared of the genre, it could have definitely fallen into many of those tropes. It could have easily fallen into, “My body turned against me. I had to do whatever I could.” I think that is a part of the through line, that’s a tension in it, like, how is this girl going to get from this point to who she knows herself to be?
Rumpus: Yeah, there is that moment where you say the doctor who performed genital reconstruction surgery says he’s glad he can make you more happy, and it’s not, “This is how I finally became happy,” it’s, “This is part of my becoming more happy along with other things.”
Mock: For me it was just another step. And then the next step was going and discovering who I was beyond all of the trans stuff. So that then I could have time now to say, “I want to be out and trans.” To figure out who I was without my transness leading the way for me. My experience from thirteen years old all the way until I was twenty-one and left Hawaii—that whole time period, everyone knew I was trans. That’s how people knew about me. So when I moved to New York City I was able to just be anonymous, and just be a student at NYU without people being like, “Oh my god, that’s the trans girl.” And then people looking at you and being like, “Oh my god, you’re so pretty, I wouldn’t have even know that you were…” You know? Like, okay, that was every conversation…
Rumpus: I can see why that would get old real fast.
Mock: So was I worried that people would see it [the book] as my deepest, darkest secrets?
Rumpus: Or just that other people would shoehorn it into one of those genres that you weren’t really writing.
Mock: All of the sex-related things were the most difficult to write about. Because our society and culture are very drawn to it but also very judgmental and puritanical about it. So I was worried about that. But I knew it would free people, the more open I was about it, and I also know that I have privilege to do that because I’ve moved so much beyond it now. I’ve accomplished these things, so now I can talk about my “sordid past in sex work.” That’s why I really appreciated your review of the book, because that was one of the things I really wanted to do—was challenge respectability politics. I was scared of the sound-biting. That’s what I was scared of. Which actually didn’t really happen. At least not yet…
Rumpus: Well, it’s been a good window since the book came out, it might be safe. Did you feel a burden to other women doing sex work, especially other trans women of color—were you worried that by saying, “This was a choice, but it was a limited choice,” that people might read that too simplistically, and read it as a condemnation?
Mock: The way I wrote it was kind of, I wish I had had other choices, maybe it would have been different, but I wouldn’t really know, right? I wanted that apprehension about it to be in there because that’s honestly my relationship to it. And there’s so little opportunity for real, stable employment, that sex work—this is the conversation I have with all of my friends about this. Some young women now are like, “Should I do sex work? I can’t really get a job.” Even though they’re activists. “No LGBT organization will hire me, and I’m not qualified, because I don’t have a college degree, and all there is is HIV testing work, and to pass out outreach condoms.” So that’s the job, and the job doesn’t pay much.
How do these women move forward in their lives? I really wanted to challenge the idea of choice. In sex work they talk about “choice, circumstance, or coercion.” Oftentimes they only talk about coercion, meaning trafficking. I think it can be all three, and I think that part of mine was all three. That’s why I wanted to include the social context—the way that we built our systems of oppression. Because a part of that is coercion. Those trans girls are pushed out of schools and pushed out of homes, and they have no way to make money, because they have no education or ID documents or all these kind of things. What are their choices? So that’s circumstance, that’s coercion, because they’re part of a system that’s pushing them towards it.
Rumpus: I thought it was very nuanced the way you did it.
Mock: A lot of people want me to have a stance about it, and my whole stance is, do what the hell you want to do with your body. That’s definitely one of my number one tenets. It’s your body, do what you want, be as safe as possible. Do you, boo. I’m like, “This book was not a how-to.” Let’s be clear. It’s not a how-to, it’s how I did it. Trans women always ask me, “What do you think about if I should do—“ Only you know what you can—what you need to do.
But I also know so clearly that sense of urgency to want things to advance. And to be able to pay for the things that you need. That’s what sucks, too, is that there’s girls still in the same place that I was when I was seventeen, eighteen years old. When I give talks at universities I always play this speech of [trans activist] Sylvia Rivera from 1973 at the Christopher Street Liberation Rally. She’s talking about all these things that trans women are going through, like when they’re beat up, and sexually assaulted by men, and no one protects them, and they go to prison, and they’re doing sex work to get their money “for their silicones! And their sex changes! The women are trying to fight for their sex changes, to become women of the women’s liberation movement!” I’ve almost memorized this speech.
But I think about that, and I’m like, Oh my god, things have not advanced that much since 1973! Then I think about my own point in history and how it hasn’t advanced much for trans women of color or poor trans women. The fact that there are girls struggling with the same things that I struggled with, not having health care—even if they have Medicaid, Medicaid being very biased, and saying, “That’s not medically necessary.” That hormones aren’t medically necessary for trans women, even though they give hormones to other women, cisgender women.
Rumpus: It’s interesting because it seems like trans issues are having a media moment—or maybe that’s a cynical way to put it, maybe it’s more of a progress…
Mock: No, I think you’re right, there—media believes in trends. I just think about the times when I was in newsrooms or editorial meetings, and it’s “the power of three.” If you want to pitch a story you say, “These three things are happening right now.” I feel like that’s what’s happening now with all this trans stuff. A couple years ago, maybe three years ago, LGBT bullying and suicides—specifically with gay kids—
Rumpus: Like the It Gets Better Project…
Mock: Yeah, during that whole time there was a moment, right? And it’s not like that had never happened before, it’s just that people were paying attention. I just hope that in this media moment one of these publications makes a statement. Give us a cover of something, really force people to talk about this, and not in a trend piece way. Like TIME magazine needs to do something.
Rumpus: That Marie Claire piece of 2011, where you came out as trans—that was only three years ago. Does it feel like a different climate to you now, or do you think that that’s superficial?
Mock: It does; I even think we have sharper language than we did in 2011. And I think partly because of my own insider-y status—that’s also why the Marie Claire piece happened, because of the fact that I worked at a media company, and so they thought, How could this woman who worked amongst us have been here? We would have known. There’s no interesting story to mainstream media people, they’re so jaded usually.
I think it forced a lot of people who weren’t having these conversations about trans people to develop better language. And my whole thing on CNN [with Piers Morgan], and even with The Colbert Report—being able to have those conversations about language and self-definition and identity and pronouns, and all these things that are so basic and elementary—the generation before me really fought to make trans an identity, a valuable identity. And now we’re like, it’s great that that’s an identity, but we still haven’t taught people to know how to talk to us—not just about us, but to us.
I hope that a girl that’s coming out at this time can have access to better language and more media examples, to see how someone like me or Laverne Cox handles these questions, and may feel more agency to say, “You know what, that question’s kind of fucked up. And I don’t want to answer that.” So they would then have a better piece because they challenged their reporter, instead of saying, “I just want attention, I want someone to tell my story.” Because now we have stories. So hopefully now people feel like they can build upon those stories and tell better ones.
Rumpus: One of the things I thought was so ironic about the CNN business was he, Piers Morgan, kept harping on the Marie Claire piece and you kept saying,”I didn’t write that; those weren’t my words,” and I thought what was happening there was sort of a worse version of the Marie Claire piece, in that it was giving you a platform but at the expense of control over the way your story was talked about.
Mock: That’s almost every mainstream media interview for any trans person. It’s always like that, that negotiating. I’ve had people say, “Well, if you can’t give us before pictures, or your childhood photos, we can’t do this.” And for me it’s easy to say, “Well, then I’m not going to do it.” But a lot of times people just want to be heard, and they want to tell their stories, so they’re willing to make those compromises or may not know that they don’t need to do that. But the power dynamics, right? This is your show, this is your media platform, this is your magazine, so if I want to be heard—you’re saying I’m going to be silenced if I don’t follow your rules.
Rumpus: I take it, by the way, Piers Morgan did not take you up on your offer for—
Mock: The coffee? No. And that was also a read. It wasn’t a real offer.
Rumpus: That would have been pretty amazing, though. How do you make those decisions, if someone is not asking you, “I want before pictures,” but—do you have discussions about language beforehand? Are they briefed or anything? Or is it just, “You seem like you’re more or less an ally, and you have a big platform, so I’m going to take a chance on you”?
Mock: [CNN] was an unknown space for all of us, from my publicist to me. She said, “I don’t know if you want to do this,” and I thought, Why not do it? They said they read the book. They were coming after us to do the show. But there was also no pre-interview. Usually when you do a TV show there’s a pre-interview before you go on air. Every Melissa Harris-Perry appearance I’ve had—and it shows how intentional and thoughtful they are—you do a pre-interview. Even if you’re only on the show for a five-minute segment. And I was doing a fifteen- to twenty-minute segment on the show with no pre-interview. So that means there was no preparation for me to be on that show beyond reading an article that was written about me, not in my voice or words, from three years ago.
Rumpus: Has that made you warier of doing these media appearances?
Mock: It has made me more cautious. Also now I’d say because of those appearances, not anyone will want me on their show. I think that those moments have scared people, like the Katie Couric moment [where she asked Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera about their genitals] scared people. I know that with my book coming out maybe a month after that, my publicist struggled with booking television appearances because producers were afraid of making mistakes. So that’s the part that’s sad about this public messiness of telling trans stories. Instead of doing the right thing of, let’s educate ourselves to see how we can do this right, a lot of them are like, “Let’s just ignore it.” Which is also damaging.
Rumpus: Right, it seems like they could just read GLAAD’s style guidelines or something and follow them.
Mock: But a lot happened in the aftermath—like the New York Times piece [on trans people in pop culture] happened, which was very much a trend piece. It was like, “These people are having a moment.” I don’t know why that piece was in the Style section of the Times. It should have been at least in the Arts section. The only person that was remotely Style was a model, who was one person. There were two artists in it, two photographers doing an exhibit, there was an actress, Laverne [Cox], and then there was me, an author. All of that seems like art to me.
Rumpus: Is it coincidence that a lot of the trans women who are in the public eye now are women of color? You talked about your memoir being written against this transition genre that was very white—
Mock: White and older.
Rumpus: White and older, yeah. And now there are a lot of younger trans women of color who are either in the public eye in a variety of capacities–like Laverne Cox, and Isis King, and Cece McDonald, to name three really different people, and people who are really different from you—but also that there are more trans women of color’s stories. Is there something behind that that you see?
Mock: Hmm, that’s interesting. I think we have media visibility. In terms of running organizations and stuff, that organizational, systemic power is not there. So I think it’s great that the “most vulnerable” is visible… And this is after years of mostly older, white trans people creating the language. And being in the academy, and running organizations, and starting all of this stuff. They still run the agenda on how trans stories are told.
I don’t know why the intersection of race is in there, I don’t know if it’s the Obama era, or whatever, or this greater call for intersectionality, or the fact that our stories of trauma are something that people pay attention to. Like Cece’s story is kind of undeniable, but it really didn’t get that much mainstream attention—it was just Melissa Harris-Perry. It may have gotten a lot of attention in social justice, liberal circles, but beyond that, you go somewhere else and say “Cece McDonald,” people don’t know who she is, don’t know what that story is. I think Laverne Cox would be the most recognizable, and Isis [King], who came kind of before her.
Rumpus: Yeah. My parents—not to pick on my parents, but they’ve heard of Laverne Cox, not of Cece McDonald, I don’t think.
Mock: And I think that up until a month ago no one would have heard of me, really, unless you’re tapped into certain circles. But it’s also the people who are talking about these issues. Meaning me and Laverne—we’re very intersectional in the way that we talk about it. And that has ripple effects in terms of communicating. That’s why I’ve always centered the most marginal in my work, because I do believe that then it trickles up. Instead of this trickle-down theory, like, “We’ll take care of the least vulnerable, cis, gay, white, middle-, upper-class people, and then it’ll trickle down.” I choose the opposite way. The relationship that I have with Laverne—and I hadn’t even known this, but she said, “I had just got cast in Orange Is the New Black, and you said, ‘So why don’t you talk about race in your work?'” And I don’t remember having that conversation.
Rumpus: Sort of like with your dad, you don’t remember the sass.
Mock: Yes! Then she was talking about her own internalized shame: ”If I talk about this, then people aren’t going to listen to me.” I’m just so happy that we have that relationship. And [that she’s] using her platform as the most recognizable trans woman—or probably trans person right now—to talk about these issues in most of her media appearances.
But I don’t really know why trans women of color are—I feel like it’s just a media, pop-culture moment. Orange Is the New Black is huge. Drag Race is huge, and that’s where Carmen Carrera came from. America’s Next Top Model [where Isis King became famous] is huge. So that’s where they all came out of, television, and television is so powerful, you can’t deny that stamp of approval and recognition that comes from being covered on mainstream television.
Rumpus: How much do you feel like trans issues are or should be a part of the LGBT acronym? You talked about being the only trans woman in HBO’s The Out List, and how trans issues are kind of afterthoughts. Do you think that nevertheless there’s some kind of natural ally-ship that should be happening between gay, lesbian, and trans issues that isn’t? Or that those issues have been forced together?
Mock: Going back to the Compton’s Cafeteria riot and Stonewall, it started from this gender-policing of people. Men couldn’t be public with other men, women couldn’t be public with other women, gender-nonconforming people could not…gender nonconform . Even butch lesbians couldn’t wear—Audre Lorde talks about this, wearing her short little afro, and making sure she had a piece of women’s clothing on so people could see that when she was walking around the Village. It was all about policing of gender, because that’s what they could police. They couldn’t see you fucking somebody. So it wasn’t necessarily about sexuality, it was about what your gender said about your sexuality.
That’s what we started from, this sense of, “I’m tired of being fucking policed!” So they bashed cops with bricks and just went crazy and it was a police riot. That’s what sparked it together, but as it formalized more and more, you realize who was in power, and going back to Sylvia’s speech in 1973, she was saying, “You only care about the most powerful.” And this is 1973, four years after Stonewall. This is already happening.
Rumpus: And she’s talking to a gay audience.
Mock: Yes, it was a gay liberation—it was the Christopher Street Liberation Rally. To a cis gay audience, mostly. And trans people. But at the time trans women weren’t even calling themselves women. They wanted to become women, but they were identifying as gay people, too. To them, they were all just gay people. So there was this sense of identity all together, but quickly trans people were pushed away, even though they were very much the fabric of it.
Now we’re at this stage in the last few years—I’d say five to seven years—where they’re tacking the “T” back on. And they’re trying to say, “Okay, so we’ll put them on here now that we’re getting more stuff, and we’ll try to include gender identity and expression, and we’ll try to get gender neutral bathrooms, and we’ll try to make sure we have pronoun usages…” So they’re doing all the right visible things, but they’re still not really included in all these organizations. Because all these national gay and lesbian organizations were very much built to fight against homophobia, not transphobia. I think the intention is there, but these organizations were not built to address that, the people there are not necessarily trans people. There’s a lot of playing catch-up.
If we had stuck to the roots of how we’re all gendered and told because of the genders we’re assigned and the sex we’re assigned at birth that we can’t do certain things, or be with certain people, or express ourselves a certain way, then it would have been more honest. But because we made it more about sexuality, gender identity becomes this aftermath of sexual orientation. I do think [trans issues] should still be a part of it—I just wish there were more trans-led organizations and more trans people a part of those organizations.
Featured image of Janet Mock © by Aaron Tredwell. Second image of Janet Mock © by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.