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“Freedom From Other People’s Definitions”: An Interview With Janet Mock

In this interview, author and activist Janet Mock discusses the complexities of disclosure as a trans person, the mythology of the gender binary and her memoir, “Redefining Realness.”

Janet Mock (Photo: Courtesy of Erika Turner)

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Toward the end of her poignant memoir, Redefining Realness, Janet Mock writes, “People often describe the journey of transsexual people as a passage through the sexes . . . My passage was an evolution from me to closer-to-me-ness. It’s a journey of self-revelation.” When I interviewed Mock, she echoed that phrase, this time in relation to her book itself – it’s an act of self-revelation, one that aims to empower others to speak their own truths. As always, the “personal is political,” but it’s more than that: Mock eschews ready political categorizations, aiming for a consciousness in which personal self-determination takes center stage. In chronicling her adolescence, she writes, “My presence as a 15-year-old trans girl must’ve been radical to many, but to me it was truth, and my truth led me to form a womanhood all my own.”

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Thus, readers looking for an easy “redefinition” of “realness” will be sorely disappointed: At its heart, Redefining Realness is about what Mock calls “the murkiness of self-truth” – “our genders,” she writes, “are as unique as we are” – and that means that “realness” can never be nailed-down in a bite-size entry. But anyone willing to put aside their mental dictionary for a few hours will come away from this book heartened, strengthened and wholly renewed in their quest for self-discovery and self-expression, “realness” be damned.

Maya Schenwar: I learned so much from this book, but it was also simply a great read – a page-turner, and a powerful personal/political balance. Clearly, this could’ve been a 260-page book based solely on political and cultural commentary. Why did you decide to make Redefining Realness a memoir? Did you have any hesitations about this?

Janet Mock: Telling our own stories is not only an act of self-revelation, but it’s also a powerful tool to bring many people – from various walks of life – along with you. Frankly, not enough stories from marginalized women are being told, and that’s the reason why I led with my own personal story of growing up as a trans girl. I wanted to use the testimonial nature of memoir as a tool of intimacy to make readers feel safe, as if they were with a friend, and relay my personal journey but also contextualize those personal experiences in a broader sociopolitical lens.

My intent was for Redefining Realness to serve as a tool to raise awareness about girls like myself (for the uninitiated reader) and to empower those girls by giving them a story that reflects them and lets them know that they are not alone. Centering my writing with that intent and purpose allowed me not to have any hesitations about the form.

In the book, you explore the various ways that people have accused you (and countless other trans people) of “pretending” or tricking people about your gender. Even in the activist realm, you discuss how the “coming out” imperative encouraged by many mainstream gay groups is also sometimes thrust on trans people. When you initially moved to New York, you chose not to disclose to most people, initially, that you were trans. Can you say a little bit about why it is crucial for people to control the terms of their own disclosure?

It’s simple: We all have agency over our own stories, and no one can strip you of that agency. Your story is yours and it’s your story to tell. And this is for everyone, whether they are cis or trans.

For trans women, specifically, there seems to be this greater pressure from our culture that we must tell everyone our story, all the details of our medical choices and journeys, or else we’ll be seen as “deceivers.” This has nothing to do with trans women, and more to do with how our culture dehumanizes and dissects trans women. We should begin challenging this by asking: “Why is it so unsafe for a woman to be trans in our society?”

Redefining Realness, in many ways, centers on family relationships, friendships, love. You address the complexity of each of your connections, and that includes your parents’ thoughts and actions regarding your gender and your transition – as well as your partner’s process of responding to your disclosure. What was your thought process in focusing in on these relationships (as both an author and an advocate)?

Again, this is a matter of personal disclosure and that’s usually about intimacy, intimacy in terms of who we feel close to and safe enough with to fully share ourselves. As a person with a story I am compelled to tell, I used intimacy as a tool to bring the people in my life along with me on my journey, and as an author creating this text, I used the relaying of those experiences to bring the reader along with me on this journey of revelation, disclosure and testimony.

When we reveal ourselves to ourselves, tell our stories to those we love and then share ourselves with the world, we can begin living fully in our realness, our authenticity and truth.

Growing up, you were grappling with the intersections of racial oppression, poverty, transphobia, transmisogyny, and dealing with being a survivor of sexual abuse. You discuss how some of your choices were clearly dictated by survival; sex work, for example, was definitely a choice, but it was a choice you made in order to live as yourself, to self-determine. After your surgery in Thailand, you discuss meeting another post-op patient, a white trans women from a wealthy background, and realizing the different sacrifices she made to be “seen and accepted.” What are your thoughts on possible steps forward for building alliances across the diversity of trans experiences?

It begins with the recognition within the community – and outside of that community – that the label is just the starting point. Trans people, like black people, like women, like any other identity, are not a monolith, and those communities also suffer from the ills of dominant society, ills like racism, misogyny, classism, elitism, ableism and much more. There is vast diversity and experiences that the label of such an identity alone cannot convey. The acknowledgement of that can serve as the foundation of such alliances, and such alliances can lead to true community, solidarity and liberation.

You open part three of your book with the powerful Gloria Anzaldúa poem, “Letting Go.”: “Nobody’s going to save you. . . . There is no one who will feed the yearning. Face it. You will have to do, do it yourself.” This very much corresponds to the way you grew up; in fact, your parents even mention that despite your struggles, they didn’t feel they had to worry about you as much as your siblings, because you were self-sufficient and went after what you wanted. Still, obviously, it’d be great if more people had support in facing these challenges. What do you see as the most important concrete ways that society could shift to support trans women?

First off, I am ever grateful to Gloria Anzaldúa for creating such a powerful body of work and to Aunt Lute books for giving me permission to reprint her poem (which has been a close companion of mine for years). We can begin truly supporting trans women by shifting the conversation about trans women beyond the framework of the body.

When I say this I mean, we must continue to evolve the national conversation away from what trans women do to their bodies and begin discussing the ways in which we begin protecting and caring for those bodies. That conversation and the ensuing actions would ensure that trans women’s bodies are given vital medical care, safety, protection, shelter, employment, and overall freedom from policing, profiling, incarceration and other people’s definitions.

At one point in Redefining Realness, you mention that you “fit neatly into the binary” of gender, falling solidly in the “woman” camp, but you emphasize the importance of gender self-determination and autonomy. And toward the end of the book, you note that the mainstream LGBT movement, dominated by upper-middle-class white cis gay men, especially erases gender nonconforming folks with “multiple identities.” As trans people are slowly gaining more mainstream visibility, do you see a rising consciousness of gender-nonconforming people who don’t fall into those “poles”?

Overall, I think most people are afraid of what and who they do not know – so experiences that are different tend to lead many people to want to further marginalize and erase those experiences, rather than sitting in that discomfort and working our way through it via education and greater understanding. Also, because gender tends to be one of the most dominant ways in which we interpret, understand and categorize people, trans and gender diverse folk tend to shake up those categories, therefore challenging people’s understanding of gender – a basic tenet for our categorization.

Though I blend into the binary understanding of what a woman is “supposed to look like,” I don’t take pride in this, and continue to center self-determination and definition in my writing and work. It’s the only way in which we will all be free; we must all have the freedom to define and declare who we are and we must fight for that freedom on behalf and with others.

You mention a couple of great experiences with doctors – from the time you started taking hormones – but you note that, of course, not all trans people are so lucky, when it comes to the medical industry. What are a few across-the-board changes that are necessary to ensure better health care for all trans people?

I wouldn’t call my experiences with the medical care and the health industry as a teenager (and even currently) to be positive, but I will say that I was lucky to be part of a community of trans women in Hawaii who had access to one doctor in an entire state who treated us well, with expertise and without judgment. But good doctors are only one facet of the medical industry, and a handful of respectful, sensitive and knowledgeable doctors alone cannot and have not transformed the medical industry. It’s an incredibly complicated matter (and I would point folks who are interested in investigating trans-inclusive health care to read the new Trans Bodies, Trans Selves) but I think we can begin by challenging the method of pathologizing trans people as a means of gatekeeping and gaining access to basic (yet unsatisfactory) medical care and coverage.

What’s next for you – in terms of writing, or advocacy, or both?

There are more books and stories I’d like to write (I’m currently writing about aesthetics and beauty culture), but I’m also concentrating my efforts on television and visual mediums as a space to connect with people and have thought-provoking and transformative conversations about politics, pop culture, aesthetics and social justice.