In my review of The Transgender Issue, I said I was more interested in manifestos than memoirs when it comes to trans people. This remains the case. However, as Redefining Realness demonstrates, memoirs can still be powerful and useful. I read this as part of the same book club that got me reading White Tears/Brown Scars. I was initially apprehensive to be one of the few if only transfeminine people in a group of predominantly cis people discussing this book—but I chose to participate firstly because I have made a promise to myself not to let my fears hold me back, and secondly because the organizer of the book club is a rad person and I knew I would feel safe. I wanted to have good conversations about gender and also race, which is an important factor in Janet Mock’s life and this book.
My initial reaction to Redefining Realness was that Mock’s gender journey is quite distinct from my own. This is fine, of course—no two trans people are going to have the same story of transition, and Mock and I are separated by nationality, race, time period, sexuality, and career choices. There were definitely some more general observations about gender that resonated with me—I will get to those in due time—but overall, little of Mock’s experience matches with mine.
The most obvious point of departure is simply the age at which Mock began to realize she was different from her siblings and peers. At first she thought she might be gay, since language like trans, etc., wasn’t as common when she was a child. But she knew she was different early on, knew she liked feminine things. She recounts how much she enjoyed spending time in the kitchen around her grandmother and aunts, observing that “this is womanhood” and it was something she wanted access to. Although it took me a much longer time frame to realize I’m trans, I can identify with that observation, for it was something I articulated very early in my journey: I didn’t want to be treated like one of the girls; I wanted to be one of the girls.
Mock eventually discovers, through meeting other trans people her age and older, that trans applies to her, and that she wants to express herself differently and start hormone therapy. I hope that the cis people who read this book will grasp how lack of reliable and affordable access to gender-affirming care is still a serious issue for trans people, both in the States and here in Canada. Mock’s frank discussion of how she turned to sex work out of neither pride nor trafficking but rather the sense that as long as she had a body, she could make the money she needed for gender-affirming surgery belies the simplistic narratives we often tell about sex work. She is not apologetic for her actions, yet she does not celebrate what she did either. For her, it is another example of a chapter in her life that was made harder by her circumstances.
As always, I am more interested in the social rather than medical aspects of transition given the latter’s over-emphasis in our media (something Mock also laments). Mock’s social transition is interesting because she begins by coming out in high school before ultimately “living stealth,” as we say, when she moves to New York. When she initially comes out, she faces challenges that are all too familiar to me: people using the wrong name or pronoun (intentionally or not), and an unevenness in how people accept or react to one’s transition. I’d like to say my experience was “better” than Mock’s, but again, I can only really settle on different. I had some challenges she didn’t as a result of my age and embarking on transition at the start of a pandemic; she had challenges I didn’t as a result of her age, her economic circumstances, and the time in which she lived. It’s difficult to compare, but part of me is sad I can recognize so much of my struggle in hers despite our separation of over two decades.
I appreciated Mock’s commentary on race as well. In particular, she observes how she was racialized differently depending on where she lived, Texas or Hawai’i—in the former she was Black; in the latter her connection to her heritage was far more nuanced. Again, she undermines simplistic stories we like to tell about race, particularly race in America.
In book club, we were discussing how race and gender differ in terms of marginalization despite both being social constructs that can be used to oppress. Mock’s description at the intersections of race and gender led me to conceptualize it thusly: race is weaponized; gender is pathologized. White supremacy uses whiteness as a way to reward or punish through inclusion/exclusion—we see this in how the definitions of whiteness have changed throughout history. Whereas with gender, if you do not conform to the roles set out through your assigned gender at birth, something is wrong with you in a pathological sense. Cis women who don’t have kids have been, and sometimes continue to be, told that something is wrong with them for lacking that maternal urge. For trans people like myself, we have always been at the mercy of a diagnosis to be legally recognized in various circumstances—the fact that it has changed from “gender identity disorder” to “gender dysphoria” doesn’t erase the pathologization of my gender identity. Hence, while both race and gender are social constructs that can create conditions of oppression, the differing ways in which our society wields those constructs to promote conformity influences how we perceive them as ideas.
Mock’s writing style is clear and simple in a good way: her descriptions are candid and forthright. Whether she is sharing her joy or discussing a truly horrible experience, she tells her story without embellishment. Despite the detailed accounts of sexual abuse, sex work, and other potentially triggering experiences, this book is very easy to read.
If I could change anything about the book, it would simply be to add more about the contemporary events surrounding Mock coming out and what that was like. (I’m guessing she has addressed this in her subsequent books, I hope.) But as far as a memoir of this part of her life goes, it’s pretty good, and I hope for some, eye-opening.
A couple of other quotations that resonated with me.
From the introduction:
Being exceptional isn’t revoultionary, it’s lonely. It separates you from your community. Who are you, really, without community? I have been held up consistently as a token, as the “right” kind of trans woman (educated, able-bodied, attractive, articulate, heteronormative). It promotes the delusion that because I “made it,” that level of success is easily accessible to all young trans people. Let’s be clear: It is not.
This resonated with me because I carry a lot of privilege aside from my transness and count myself somewhat fortunate in my transition. Moreover, I appreciate that Mock emphasizes that one’s identity is not by itself revolutionary. Neither my transness nor my aceness automatically make me a revolutionary. I need to consciously and consistently fight for liberation.
Much later in the book, in Chapter Eleven, Mock notes:
There’s power in naming yourself, in proclaiming to the world that this is who you are.
I feel this too. Mock chose Janet in part because of Janet Jackson. I chose Kara because of the CW Supergirl portrayal of Kara Danvers—the show is so progressive, and Kara herself tries so hard yet, mostly because of her whiteness, makes a lot of mistakes. I chose the name to remind myself that I will make mistakes too in the fight for liberation, but I can learn and keep fighting.