“What I want people to realize is that ‘transitioning’ is not the end of the journey. Yes, it’s an integral part of revealing who we are to ourselves and the world, but there’s more to life afterward.”
In 2011, magazine writer Janet Mock found herself the subject of a profile in a magazine article, rather than the writer. Working with her friend and colleague Kierna Mayo at Marie Claire, Mock stepped forward for the first time to publicly identify as a trans woman. Although everyone in her native Hawaii had known about her past and her transition, it was not something she had shared with the majority of her new friends and colleagues in New York. A number of suicides by trans teens prompted Mock to do the profile, and make an It Gets Better video. However, the Marie Claire profile was framed as a happy success story, one that elided many of the darker realities and challenges of Mock’s early life. In Redefining Realness, she steps forward further, sharing the difficulties she faced to get where she is today.
Mock’s parents were divorced, and she spent her childhood shuttling between them, variously living in Oakland, Texas, or Hawaii with one or the other, as each put their own romantic lives ahead of their children. Mock writes about her parents with love, and compassion for their failings. Of her father she says, “I’ve come to realize that he simply loved me and wanted to protect me, even from myself. He was grappling with fears that involved my safety and how my outward femininity would make me a target of bullying, teasing, and other dangers her felt lay ahead.” Mock, however, does not minimize the resulting damage. “My adult understanding of my childhood with my father doesn’t erase the effects of his policing,” she writes. And those consequences were dire. One of the major omissions in Mock’s Marie Claire profile—one she admits she hesitated to include even in her memoir—is how her father’s gender policing of her femininity led her to hide the fact that she was sexually abused by the teenage son of her father’s girlfriend, for fear that she would “get whipped for acting like a girl again.” She eloquently fights back against any suggestion that the abuse caused her to be trans, arguing instead that isolation and repression made her an easy target.
Mock locates her memoir at the intersection of race, gender identity, and poverty, particularly highlighting the difficulty poor trans women of colour face in accessing the medical services necessary to transition. She zeroes in on the tug of war between pathologizing trans people with a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and the reality that such a diagnosis may activate insurance coverage that enables transition. Interspersed with her recollections are asides on the political and social context of transition, gender policing, and the relationship between gender and sexuality. She clearly defines her terms, opening up her memoir to a general audience rather than one that is already educated about trans issues. She is also in a position to share an insider’s perspective of a unique culture. In the relatively accepting environment of Hawaii—compared to her earlier childhood in California and Texas with her father—Mock began her transition as a teen, had a trans best friend, and a community. “What we were blessed with was being in the right place at the right time,” she writes. “Hawaii’s community of trans women was vast and knowledgeable. There was a deep legacy of trans womanhood passed on to us by older women who had been exactly where we were.” It was this community that provided Mock with the knowledge and the means to transition at a relatively young age.
Mock defies invasive cis interest and the traditional trans narrative by, among other things, refusing to provide before and after photos of herself. She is clear about the desire to tell her story on her own terms. Given this emphasis, I was surprised by the strong focus on bottom surgery in the second half of the book, since trans advocates have spent a long time discouraging prurient interest in such a private decision. However, Mock emphasizes that it was a very important step for her personally, and this focus becomes relevant to understanding a crucial stage of her life. While she was in her first semester of school on a full scholarship at the University of Hawaii, she was also engaged in the sex trade, desperately trying to save up enough money to go to Thailand for surgery. Though Mock describes the decision to do sex work as a “non-event at the time,” Redefining Realness grapples lengthily with the fall out, and how an “entire system that failed us and a society that refused to see us” forced many trans women of colour down this path to transition.
Though the focus on surgery becomes understandable in light of the great lengths Mock went to in order to secure it, the greater disappointment is that, apart from a fourteen page conclusion, Redefining Realness essentially concludes with the operation. Mock briefly circles back to her opening hook, where she met her partner and made the decision to reveal her past to him, but she reveals little about her time at university, or her move to New York to pursue her career. Perhaps these events are still too current for Mock to be ready to write about them, or perhaps she is saving them for another book, but I wanted to read about the “more to life afterward” that Mock so elegantly emphasizes in her conclusion, but ultimately declines to delve into.
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