Creating a 'Living Image' of a Transgender Woman

Writer and advocate Janet Mock on the importance of showing transgender lives in the daylight, and avoiding a focus on the "before and after"
Richard Shotwell/AP

Janet Mock has arrived. The 30-year-old New Yorker is the American transgender community’s most vocal and visible advocate. Her memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, released earlier this month, recounts her experiences as a trans woman navigating poverty, abuse, familial dysfunction, sexism, racism, and—as if that weren’t enough—finding love in New York City. Mock’s tale was ultimately a triumph, and the book a fiery success—it reached No. 19 on The New York Times Best Seller list last week. Author and feminist activist bell hooks called it a courageous work: “Told with a spirit of raw honesty that moves beyond confession to redemptive revelation, this book is a life map for transformation—for changing minds.”

The publication of Redefining Realness also kicked off a flurry of high-profile interviews: The Colbert Report, Melissa Harris-Perry, and two now infamous spots on the recently canceled Piers Morgan Live. After the first interview, Mock accused Morgan and his production team of trying to “sensationalize” her experience, placing undue emphasis on her transitional surgery and asking obtuse, invasive questions like, “How would you feel if you found out the woman you are dating was formerly a man?”

In an interview with BuzzFeed Politics, Mock said Morgan was “trying to do info-tainment. He doesn’t really want to talk about trans issues, he wants to sensationalize my life and not really talk about the work that I do and what the purpose of me writing this book was about.”

Morgan’s response was predictably petulant. On top of Alec Baldwin’s front-page cri de coeur against allegations of antigay speech, it’s safe to say that while February was an excellent month for Janet Mock, it was not so great for heterosexual white dudes navigating privilege. As a heterosexual white dude, probably just as susceptible to foot-in-mouth disease as Morgan or Baldwin, I was somewhat apprehensive at the prospect of interviewing Mock, face-to-face. We met just before she took the stage Tuesday evening at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library for a discussion with Washington Post columnist Helena Andrews.

I worried for nothing. Mock was a delight to interview. Her thoughts—on everything from Orange Is the New Black to third-gender anthropology—were candid and full of insight. Fellow white dudes, pay attention.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Forgive me if you’re hearing this question for the umpteenth time, but why did you choose the memoir as a vessel for your activism?

It was a challenge to write in the first person. The last three years have been about forcing myself to use “I” statements, which I’m very uncomfortable with even though I just wrote a memoir. But I think there’s an intimacy there—a lack of barrier, a lack of gatekeeping, or someone else’s filter. So that’s why I choose the “I” statements, even though I’m uncomfortable with them. I think the other reason is Maya Angelou, who was such an influence on me growing up. And others. I felt that there was this whole canon of women-of-color writers who’ve written in first-person. But I’ve never seen a trans woman of color received in that same canon.

On the subject of influencers, in Redefining Realness you recall, as a child, being asked what you wanted to be when you’d grow up. You’d say “a secretary,” because that was an accessible image of success to you at the time. But you later write you really wanted to be Clair Huxtable, you just didn’t know she existed yet. Was part of the purpose for writing the book to provide a Clair Huxtable-image for young trans women?

I guess. I’m stealing from Laverne Cox when I say this, but I don’t feel comfortable with “role model.” But I like “possibility model.” With the book, I wanted to show that there are other images of us out there. It’s part of the reason why I fought—well, I didn’t really fight—to be on the book’s cover in daylight. Because you don’t necessarily see trans women, young trans women, young trans women of color out in the daytime. Usually they’re banished to the darkness of street corners, or shown in their deaths. There’s never a living image of a trans woman—specifically one of color, growing up poor, all of the various facets of my identity.

You first gained notoriety in a 2011 profile in Marie Claire magazine. Was the tone of that piece partially behind the desire to present a more honest, three-dimensional self-portrait?

Marie Claire was a baby step. I think it was everyone’s first public interaction with me, and it was a big deal for me at the time. When I did it, it was just to disclose the fact that I’m trans, and that’s all I did in that piece. I talked about my childhood and very much followed the typical transsexual tropes in media—you know, “I struggled with my body for so long, blah, blah, blah … ” I mean, I know it was more powerful than that. It changed a lot of peoples’ thinking. And lives. People came out as trans afterward. But for me, the book was a lot more complicated—in terms of talking about these different experiences that are beyond a single-identity-focus lens. If you’re a trans woman of color who grew up poor and engaging in sex work, there’s really so much more involved there.

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Jake Flanagin is a writer for The New York Times's Op-Talk.

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