Janet Mock had a recognizable presence on social and mainstream media for a few years now. In 2011, Marie Claire published a profile of her, her first major introduction to the public as a trans woman and activist. A lot of people got to know her for the #girlslikeus hashtag on Twitter, which allows trans women to share their experiences, and she continues to speak out about the issues that trans people — especially trans women of color — face.
Redefining Realness is a memoir about coming of age as a young trans woman in Hawaii. She was the firstborn son of a couple whose relationship was doomed from the beginning; they divorced because of her father’s constant philandering. She and her little brother stayed with their mother, but that arrangement was also short-lived. Her mother was someone who always needed to be in a relationship, and with a new man and a new baby on the way, Mock is sent Oakland (and later, Texas) to live with her father and younger brother. By that time, Mock already knew she was different, but she didn’t know exactly how. Her father also knew she was different, and Mock could never seem to fit the role of firstborn son/big brother that was expected of her.
Her recollection of those years are painful, filled with poverty, struggles with identity, sexual assault, and watching her father fall into addiction. She finally got her wish of getting sent back to her mother in Hawaii, but instead of finding a nurturing environment, she and her brother are dismayed to find themselves in a situation similar to the one they were in with their father.
And yet, it’s back in Hawaii where Mock is finally able to take her identity more directly into her own hands; her family might not have completely understood her, but they supported her as best they could. As a headstrong teen, she took matters into her own hands and began taking a friend’s leftover hormone pills (she had a friend who was also transitioning), and regardless of her poverty, her ultimate goal was to have gender reassignment surgery as soon as possible, which led to the decision to enter sex work. You can read an excerpt from that chapter here.
It’s a brave book that not only tells her story, but more importantly, put that story into context. She doesn’t just talk about poverty or sex work or how she was treated at school after she made her debut as Janet; she talks about the all-important whys behind those things as well, citing the hardships many trans teens face. She’s also honest about the ways in which her experiences were atypical from other trans people with similar backgrounds; unlike a lot of people, she had her family’s support and was treated with dignity and respect by the doctors associated with her transition (not to mention having access to those doctors in the first place).
Because Mock is a high-profile trans advocate and woman of color, I think it’s wonderful that she didn’t shy away from writing about difficult topics and certain decision she made. I’ve read several great books by white trans women, but none have come close to reflecting the types of experiences Mock recounts in her memoir. That’s important, because while one can cite statistics in acknowledgement and solidarity, Mock has actually lived them; her book is a valuable testimony for trans teens going through similar experiences. It’s also an important read for allies, who often forget how different forms of marginalization — poverty, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, and so forth — can intersect. Mock’s book won’t let you forget that.
Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More was published by Atria Books, in imprint of Simon and Schuster, in February 2014.