After being the subject of a 2011 Marie Claire profile, writer and activist Janet Mock decided to tell her story in her own words. And what a story it is. Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, is out this week. It’s a brave, honest and gripping memoir detailing Mock’s turbulent childhood and experiences as a young trans woman finding herself.
Despite digging deep and sharing intimate details of her past, Mock still manages to pepper her book with vital LGBT statistics and snippets of important history regarding trans women. While her debut book is most certainly a memoir, it also provides a carefully crafted way to begin discussing the very real issues and challenges many trans women and men face on a daily basis. After quickly devouring the book, I had the pleasure of speaking with the author herself.
The Frisky: The push to write your story in your own words came about after your profile in Marie Claire was published. Why did you have the urge to write a memoir?
Janet Mock: I think that us telling our own stories, unfiltered by well-meaning journalists, or any kind of media gatekeepers, is so vital because you get the pure essence of the person’s experience. What I really notice is that when you give somebody else your story to tell for you, that nuance is lost. For me, I’m so careful about my words, and I really, really think about what I’m saying. I’m grateful for the Marie Claire profile, but there are so many things that still follow me now to this day that really irk me. I feel like when we use the wrong words about people’s experiences, we spread misinformation. So that’s why I felt like it was so vital that me, as a writer, take a stand and tell my own story, fully, in my own words, through my own lens and experiences and reflection.
Redefining Realness is more than just your story — it’s part of a greater narrative and movement.
I think that I struggle so much with representation, especially as someone who is often heard on a certain level. I know that because I am probably one of the first young, trans woman of color that people will know or interface with, even through social media or this book, that there is still a level of representation in my story. I knew that I needed to not only just tell my own emotional, personal experience, but I needed to contextualize that to get across bigger ideas about to what pushes trans women, young trans women, poor trans women, trans women of color, into these incredibly daunting circumstances. And I felt I could only do that through making sure the language was also accessible. If I use the term “cis” I need to tell people why I used it, what it means, and where it comes from. [The same goes for b]reaking down what the umbrella term “transgender” is. All these little things are about accessibility. Even the Storygiving Campaign , it allows the book to be accessible to people who need this book.
Before my own political consciousness was raised, I thought that so much of the things that happened in my life was because of me, that it was my fault. [I thought t]hat I was the only one who went through all of these experiences, and I realized that I was blaming myself a lot because I didn’t have the education to know that there’s this whole system — all these systemic oppressions that were pushing me toward these circumstances. So I want to make sure that young women have this book, and that I make it easy for them to get it. And they can read it and enjoy it and then be able to speak about their own experiences through the words that I’ve put together in this book.
You started the Twitter hashtag #GirlsLikeUs. Tell us more about that.
I love hashtags as one of many forms of activism. I think it’s a great tool to aggregate resources and stories and experiences and struggles, and sharing donations and money and signal boosting. So many people can contribute to it or tap into it if they have accessibility to getting online. I use the hashtag to boost the work of activists on the ground. Just even sharing names of transwomen who are doing work — say, it’s a podcast — and I try and use my platform to let other people know that these women exist and are doing awesome work. They might not be as heard as I am, but their work is just as valuable. I think if we have platforms and we use them, it helps boosts us all. That’s what I love about social media. It’s a great way to mobilize people who have resources, of time, of energy and of many.
I also see #girlslikeus more as like a visibility project. In a world where trans women are also scared to take up space, and are also pushed out of many spaces, that for us to occupy a space so visibly on a platform like Twitter, says that we deserve this space here, and that this is our space. It was created for us and by us. That’s incredibly empowering for trans women to have that kind of space, especially in a world where we don’t have those spaces in real life. For me, I think it’s a great tool for a lot of marginalized people.
There recently has been some increased visibility in the media not only of trans women, but of trans women of color, including you, Laverne Cox, and Carmen Carrera. What is the potential impact of it all?
I think it’s incredibly powerful. For me, I think about how I searched through stories in pop culture to find facets of myself. But they tended to be from stories written by cis women of color. They presented me an image of self, like how I saw myself, and that was incredibly empowering. I can’t even imagine being a 16-year-old at this time, having these different portraits of trans women, and specifically trans women of color out in the world. Living their dreams. Out in the daylight, out in the public. Being very visible. That’s empowering to see yourself. I think all of us kind of reject the “role model” exception that’s thrown on us by the media, but I think that we all know very distinctly through our experiences that it’s incredibly powerful to see yourself represented in some way, somewhere. And also that these women are heard and they have points of view that are a bit more critical. Like when Laverne speaks, she’s not just talking about being an actress — she’s also an activist, using her platform and popularity to push people to think more critically about these issues.
With that in mind, what are your thoughts about the recent Barney’s campaign using trans men and women as models?
I can’t. I am struggling with that. Because you know their anti-Black, racial profiling that happened — we can’t erase that! It shows, also, the problematic nature of the whiteness of the trans movement. There are a lot of leaders, a lot of organizations that are backing up this campaign, and it’s not safe. I know that if a Black trans girl walks in there, her fly ass will be followed in that store. She is not safe. So this trans visibility needs to be complicated. And that’s why voices like Laverne’s are important. Because they’re critical voices, and it’s about being at the intersection of many of these identities. And we tend to complicate when we add on these layers of race, and of being trans and also a woman, and all these various facets of ourselves.
People still think in silos about these identities. Some people might forget my color, but they’ll very much talk about my transness. Sometimes it is uncomfortable to talk about race, but I have to talk about it, because it’s so a part of my existence. When I walk in the world, most people take me as a cis-gender black woman or mixed woman. I can’t separate all those things about myself. And I think I was really trying to get that across in the ending of the book.
I saw a lot of my teen self in your story and here I am, a white, cis-gender woman. We clearly had different struggles, but there were still similar teenage rites of passage, feelings and moments of discovery that I connected with.
It’s so powerful for me as a writer that you could see similar bits of yourself in the book. That’s the goal. That sense of transcendence. The visible and very vocal differences in us can then also be, ‘Oh wow, I remember going through that in some capacity.’ And even though we had different experiences, that there were some shared commonalities. And I think that that’s powerful. I also hope that this book is a bridge, specifically between cis womanhood and trans womanhood, and knowing that it’s all womanhood, this constructed thing that it is — and that we’re all apart of it. And that no one’s idea of womanhood is more valid than another woman’s idea of what womanhood is for her. That our genders are as unique and visible and different as each other’s and none of them invalid. My experience does not invalidate yours. And I think that’s powerful.