This article appears in our 2014 Spring issue, Maps & Legends. Subscribe today!
Mainstream media does a pretty horrendous job of telling the stories of trans people, often focusing on the details of their transition and running “before” pictures. Janet Mock had a similar experience when she came out as trans in a May 2011 feature in Marie Claire called “I Was Born a Boy.” At the time, she was 27, living in New York City, and working as a People.com staff editor. Only a handful of trusted friends knew she was trans, and not a single one knew of her life back in her native Honolulu, where Mock engaged in sex work while putting herself through college at a time when her family struggled with poverty, homelessness, and addiction. In the years since the article, Mock has connected thousands of trans women with her Twitter hashtag #GirlsLikeUs and has become one of the most prominent trans women of color, featured in glossy magazines while also sharing deeply personal writing on her blog, sparking long-overdue conversations about the many ways trans women are demeaned and stigmatized.
When a 21-year-old trans woman of color named Islan Nettles was beaten to death in her Harlem neighborhood, Mock attended the vigil—one where Nettles was repeatedly misgendered and members of her community were told to leave their “politics” at the door. In response, Mock wrote “A Letter To My Sisters Who Showed Up for Islan Nettles & Ourselves at the Vigil,” writing, “This is more than semantics, more than a family issue, this is our lives. We all know Islan was beaten to death because she fought hard to be Islan, to be she, to be her.” Just one month later, the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP) would declare the deaths of transgender women of color a “state of emergency.”
In another powerful post, Mock addressed the September 2013 “scandal” surrounding hip hop DJ Mister Cee, who resigned from his job at New York City radio station Hot 97 after a recording of him with a trans sex worker was made public. Mister Cee adamantly defended his heterosexuality and openly expressed shame because of his desire for trans women. In response, Mock wrote, “We, as a society, have not created a space for men to openly express their desire to be with trans women. Instead, we shame men who have this desire…this pervasive ideology says that trans women are shameful, that trans women are not worthy of being seen, and that trans women must remain a secret—invisible and disposable.”
It should come as no surprise that Mock’s new book, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, is a trailblazing memoir, one that Mock intends to use to “rip down” the image of her as a glamorous, curly-haired woman on the red carpet—though that is part of who she is as well. Mock is many things to many people: an advocate, an activist, a role model, though these are titles that make her uncomfortable. What she is above all else, she says, is a writer—and she is one hell of a writer. Redefining Realness details Mock’s life during her most unsteady years: being passed between her parents, being sexually abused, coming to terms with her identity as a trans woman—it’s all written about with astounding honesty and heart.
It’s only been a few years since the Marie Claire article in which you came out as trans was published. But in the book, we learn that the article came about in a less-than-ideal manner: A friend basically broke your confidence by outing you to a mutual journalist friend. Did you have any idea the article would lead to you being one of the most prominent trans women of color?
Reading the Marie Claire article now, it doesn’t feel like it was about me—and it’s because it wasn’t. I held back, I didn’t tell my whole truth, I didn’t write it. In a way I felt like I was giving another writer the biggest story I would ever tell, and that didn’t feel right.
Honestly, I think a bigger spotlight [was put on me] when the Huffington Post reposted an xoJane essay I wrote about coming out to my boyfriend. But I have no bad feelings about how the Marie Claire article came about. My friend, the journalist, and I were all part of the very small black-women media world, and if you’re a journalist and you hear that a black girl working for People is secretly trans, you’re going to want to write that story. I wanted the story of a trans woman of color written, I wanted a story out there that I should have been able to read growing up. But weirdly, I didn’t know I’d have to be the one to write it or that it would be my story.
Was the attention overwhelming?
I mentally prepared myself, but there’s no way of knowing how these things will play out. I was willing to deal with the attention because my goal was to write my book and get it published. I was writing every day, planning for it, I thought I’d have an offer the following year, and luckily I did. What was interesting was the racial aspect of becoming more recognizable—it’s something I didn’t calculate. I knew there weren’t very many women “like me” in the media, but I didn’t realize what “like me” meant. It wasn’t just about being trans—the “of color” part was important to a lot of people. I wasn’t just a trans woman; I was a trans woman of color. There are more of us out there now, like Laverne Cox and Isis King, but it wasn’t something I thought anything of initially. I was just a black girl living my life.
Redefining Realness is groundbreaking, and one of the reasons is that it’s the first memoir of its kind by a trans woman of color. When you were writing it, did you understand the magnitude of what you were doing?
When you’re in the process of writing, you don’t think about the end result, or at least I didn’t. I was just trying to get through it and be as honest as possible. The pressure for me is people misinterpreting [the book] as the universal trans experience. This is one story, one book. I am not speaking for all trans women of color; I’m telling my story. To assume I’m somehow representative of all trans women is unfair. I’ve had access and role models and privileges many trans women of color don’t, but I still struggled, and Redefining Realness is about how I got from there to here. I consciously wanted to rip down any perceptions people had about me. If you read the book, you’ll know I’m not much of a role model. I want the real takeaway to be that if I made it, other trans women of color can make it too.
I did have this glossy perception of you and I’m not sure where it came from, so reading the book and learning about the sexual abuse you experienced, the poverty, the drug abuse in your family, your time as a sex worker—I wasn’t expecting any of it. When writing, how did you decide what stories were yours to tell?
It’s something I thought about a lot and, in the end, if something happened that wasn’t directly related to my story, it wasn’t mine to tell. Anything related to my parents was fair game because when you’re growing up, their struggles are your struggles. So I knew I was going to be brutally honest about my parents. My dad wasn’t an issue, but I was worried about how my mom would take it. My life with her was so chaotic; I ended up on the street because I had no supervision. I had to be honest and it was painful—and I asked no permission. When my mom read the book I was afraid she’d be offended, but she told me I could have been tougher on her and that I was too tough on my young self.
But even though things were so messy, it’s clear there was so much love.
Someone who read an early copy of the book told me the same thing. They said, “You wrote your parents with such love.” There was love, but there was also pain and struggle. I think of bell hooks and how she wrote in All About Love that there’s a difference between love and care. My parents told me they loved me all the time, but they also neglected me and hurt me deeply. It’s a lot to unpack.
For example, I always remembered my dad as this horrible father who policed my gender and wouldn’t let me be who I was. But he recently told me he thought I was defiant as hell and always spoke back and didn’t care what anyone thought. He says the reason we didn’t get along is because we’re so much alike. It makes us laugh now, the very different ways we see that time, but it wasn’t funny as it was happening. As a trans woman of color growing up in a family with a lot of ongoing issues, we basically didn’t have time to deal with each other’s shit because all of us had so much of our own shit to deal with.
I wanted to talk to you about your activism, including your writing about Islan Nettles and your piece about how society shames men who date trans women, which was spurred by the Mister Cee “scandal.” Do you consider yourself an activist? If so, how did that take shape for you?
From the get-go with the Marie Claire article, I had no interest in being the trans poster child. “Activist” was a term thrown at me a lot. “You’re an activist. You’re an advocate. You have to be because you’re so visible.” I had that in my bio for a little while, but I’ve moved away from it. I don’t identify as an activist—I identify as a writer. I’m interested in truth-telling, in speaking truth to power, in contextualizing experiences. I understand I have a platform and I hope I’m using it to elevate the voices of trans women and women of color. I didn’t want to write that Mister Cee piece. But it was another time trans women of color were being talked about, but not included in the conversation. Mister Cee can go on air and misgender us and talk about us as if we’re someone to be ashamed of, but they’re not going to give us a voice? It’s hard to put yourself out there, to talk about what it means to be a heterosexual trans woman; to talk about desire and stigma. I don’t always want to be the one to talk about these things. It’s taxing.
That reminds me of the conversation Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks held at the New School this past November. hooks said she wishes someone else would stand up and write certain things because she doesn’t always want to be the one to do it.
I was in the audience that day and nodding my head so hard. I often wish someone else could put themselves out there. A lot of the time I feel like it’s just Laverne and me, and that can feel very isolating. In the mainstream media, there are only a handful of trans women of color whose names people know, and we’re treated as the go-to trans experts…which is weird because I have a million trans women of color in my life. And with the Mister Cee thing…I couldn’t let that go. Why was it a scandal? It wasn’t because he was with a sex worker. Hip hop doesn’t care about that. It’s because the specific sex worker he was with wasn’t cisgender. That piece was really hard for me to write; it took a lot out of me and it took a long time before I wrote something publicly again.
Do you identify as a feminist?
I feel a similar way about it as I do the term “activist.” I’m okay when it gets attributed to me, but personally I don’t call myself a feminist. There are too many issues with it; the whiteness and the cissexism of it are difficult for me. I grew up poor, I’m a woman of color, I’m trans, I was a sex worker—feminism doesn’t have a great history of how it addresses those intersections. So I stick to “writer”; that’s what I do. That is my contribution.
Do you see anything changing in terms of cis feminists stepping up to include trans issues in their feminism?
It’s hard to say. It’s complicated. There’s a reason why trans women of color have no resources: We’re not seen as women by feminists, so feminists aren’t fighting for us. We’re relegated to an “LGBTQ issue,” but major LGBTQ organizations don’t do anything for the “T”, especially for trans women of color. Through these organizations, you only get resources if you get HIV. Then you get help with housing, with finding a job, with accessing medical care. These systems have been built to tear us down. Feminism and the mainstream LGBTQ movement aren’t here for trans people.
Talk to me about your use of social media, including your creation of #GirlsLikeUs on Twitter.
Initially, I just wanted a way to connect with other trans women. I was working with a group of young women whom I would identify as trans, but who didn’t identify as trans themselves. It made sense, when you’re young and poor, you often don’t have access to language. They would tell me, “We’re just girls.” So #GirlsLikeUs is about our lived experiences that link us, it’s what makes it “like us.” It wasn’t done to build a movement, but it has and now I own it to be that. It lives beyond Twitter. I’ve met women and girls who use the hashtag in real life. I made it for all trans women, but because I’m a woman of color many people think it’s just for trans women of color. If a white woman had created it, it wouldn’t have been assumed it was just for white trans women. There are lots of different kinds of trans people and I always want whatever I do, from social media to my book, to be accessible to everyone. I had a professor tell me Redefining Realness was a good “mainstream book” because I explain words like “cisgender.” I took it as a backhanded compliment. I’m writing for every person who tweets me because I’ve seen how powerful it is to hear those who haven’t been heard.
Is the perception of your book as not “academic” something that you thought about?
I had a lot of conversations about it. When talking to bell hooks, she expressed concern over the cover of the book. She said it should be taught in universities by academics, but they’ll bypass it because of the cover. Why can’t an attractive, femme woman be on the cover and still have it seen as theory and as an important book? Why is that? I respect the hell out of bell hooks and I’m sure she’s right; I’m sure there are people who will take one look at the cover and discredit the book in academia. There are different levels of privilege at play. Language is a privilege. Access is a privilege. It’s not a comfortable conversation to have when academics use language that the people they’re lecturing about wouldn’t understand. I’ve been around trans women sex workers who don’t know what “femme” or “cis” means. How do we ensure that portions of our communities aren’t left out of conversations about them? There are no easy answers. I’m trying, though.
Even with the title of the book, I wanted it to be a nod to my community of trans women of color.
Now that the book is out in the world, how have your interviews with people in the media gone? Mainstream media isn’t really known for its sensitivity surrounding trans issues.
This is my first interview for the book! I don’t have too much fear about doing press, though. What the media says about the book will be very different from what readers take away from it and thankfully I can be picky about who I choose to speak to. I’m not looking to have my face plastered everywhere. I want to elevate the conversation and I’m interested in growing support in communities of color for Redefining Realness. We’re being strategic about who we talk to and work with. If I do find myself in a sticky situation, I’m excited to flip the media around on itself. It’s the review process I’m not looking forward to.
Because you don’t think reviewers will get it?
Because there’s a natural inclination to “other”—it’s something that happens to my communities a lot. It happens when you don’t think you can relate to someone’s story, even though my story is so much more than being trans. I’m worried about the white gaze and people not interacting with the book. I don’t think white people see black characters as human and when there are black characters, they immediately think, “This writing isn’t meant for me.”
Who do you think your reader will be?
I’ve thought about that a lot. Obviously, I think many readers will be trans women. I hope my readers are women of color. I want to build the kind of sisterhood with trans women of color that cis women have enjoyed for a long time. If you don’t know a lot of women like you, you contextualize your experience. You can’t see your own oppression, only your own experiences. I know that was true for me. When you’re a 16-year-old trans woman of color just trying to get your next date, you’re not thinking about the bigger picture of what’s happening. I understand that deeply. That was my life. But you’re not alone and you can get out of that life.
Do you think your book would have been helpful to you when you were in your teens?
It definitely would have had an impact, but how would I have known it existed? Not all young people have access to the Internet. I think knowing there was a story like that out there would have been inspirational. I hope it makes young trans women feel less alone. I was really lucky in the way that I didn’t feel alone. Growing up in Hawaii, I had tons of trans women around me, though no “successful” trans women—and by that I mean women who weren’t doing sex work. When I’d stand on the streets with them waiting for our next dates, I’d talk about wanting to work at a magazine. They’d roll their eyes and say, “Okay girl, we don’t get to do that.” At the same time, I appreciated their honesty. If they would have said to me, “You don’t have to get in that car…” I would have said, “This isn’t an after-school special, this is my life!”
Tell me about something you’re reading or listening to or watching right now that you really love.
I never get asked this! Pop culture is a big part of Redefining Realness and a big part of my life to this day. I live for Beyoncé and I always will. I’m wondering why there are not more women of color on Saturday Night Live. I’m going to start reading Shirley Chisholm’s Unbought and Unbossed and Mia McKenzie’s The Summer We Got Free. I want to read a bunch of women of color writers and name-drop as much as I can during interviews so that I make the most of this platform I’ve been given. It’s my goal to get people to dig for deeper knowledge. I use a lot of quotes in Redefining Realness, and I wasn’t sure which would stay in. The most important to me was the one from Gloria Anzaldúa—“Nobody’s going to save you. No one’s going to cut you down, cut the thorns thick around you. […] Face it. You will have to do, do it yourself.” Everyone I quoted fed me in some way. Including them in my book, and hopefully turning others on to their work, is how I pay them homage. I can talk about pop culture and women of color writers in the same breath, and they’ve held equal importance in my life. We are complicated beings!