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"
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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.

Intersectionality?

Yes. But I try not to say that word too much. So many people are scared by it! And I try to speak accessibly, which is also a difficult thing when communicating through media. I try not to reduce the discussion, but I keep it open.

You brought up Laverne Cox, from Orange Is the New Black—someone who has totally revolutionized portrayals of trans women in media and pop culture. But there’s still that pervasive Law & Order trope of the “sassy tranny hooker” to deal with. In your mind, how much have those stereotypes affected America’s perception of trans individuals?

I think they’re so limiting. It’s not as if I don’t want those images to exist, but if the only images that exist are of trans women being belittled and reduced to punchlines, or tragedy, meaning only reporting on us in death—you know, when a trans woman is murdered, which might be the only time you even hear about a trans woman outside of trans, gender-justice, and feminist circles—then it’s dangerous because that’s your only representation, your only portrait of someone. Especially in Law & Order, there’s no story for those girls. It’s just a detective walking down the street, and there’s some tranny hooker. Literally—that’s it. She doesn’t have a name. She’s not necessarily a source to get more information.

I think the credits literally say “tranny hooker” sometimes—which is nuts, because on some shows even the most minor characters get at least a first name.

Yeah! Laverne often talks about her time playing those roles. They’re the only roles available. Now she has Orange Is the New Black, and she can really show what she can do, and be impactful. People are realizing, “Wow, I don’t really know much about trans women’s lives. I don’t really know much about trans peoples’ lives.” We don’t show them living. We may show them going from pre- to post, before and after. But that’s about it. And so I think it’s rare to see a portrait of a trans woman, post-transition, living life. And I think it has to do with the objectification of women’s bodies in general, but then there’s the added stigma of being a trans woman in this culture. It just becomes even more of a point of dehumanization and belittlement and objectification.

You grew up in Hawaii, and in the book you write about the extant but slightly less severe stigma attached to trans women there. Did that make it any easier for friends and family to accept your identity?

Hawaii was so integral to my journey. I was just there at the right time. I think about Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers—he talks about being at the right place at the right time. For me, it was also the right medical experience, of being able to have access to hormones at such a young age. But there was also this whole community of people who were there already. Specifically the Hawaiian Kanaka Maoli community, which has a space beyond male and female, beyond the gender binary. There is a space to be other. I guess Facebook has now has tons of space for others… but this was a space beyond having to be a man, or a woman, or in transition to either.

We have mahu, which are kind of like the hijra in India, or the fa’afafine in Samoa. It’s a third space for gender. Oftentimes it’s a feminine male-bodied person, someone who was assigned male at birth, who then takes on the housekeeping and culture-bearing—meaning teaching hula and dance. They’re very much a pivotal group in native Hawaiian culture. So, for me, having grown up in that space even though it’s been colonized and Westernized and very Americanized, it was nice to have that remnant in the culture.

In seventh grade I met my best friend Wendi, who is a trans woman. Also my hula teacher—in school, who was paid by the public school system to be there—was openly mahu, which would loosely translate to transgender, in a sense. She didn’t want to go through medical transition, but she was living her life as a woman. She was very visible. And having those composites of womanhood in my life really empowered me.

But your childhood wasn’t entirely free of hardship. You wrote about being sexually abused at a young age—and made a point I thought was really necessary: that trans identity doesn’t stem from instances of abuse, or confusion resulting from abusive scenarios.

I think a lot of people are very interested in why other people are trans, or why people are gay. I just am trans. That’s just the way it is. I knew this as a child. But I was told that because I expressed femininity in a boy’s body, I needed to be silent about it. To be ashamed. That led to isolation, which then made it easier for me to be prey to a predator in my own home. My brother thought maybe that was one of the reasons I’m trans. A lot of people think that. So, I just kind of wanted to unpack that a little bit, at least through the lens of my own experience.

Weirdly it wasn’t hard for me to revisit it. It was difficult for me to write about it and make myself clear—in terms of getting that confusion out of the way. Because so many people think that our gender identities and sexual orientations are a result of some kind of deviance.

Or being a victim of some traumatic event.

Exactly. Something bad must have happened! Or too much maternal influence, or something happened during gestation. I’m sure scientists and behavior experts think about this stuff all the time, but I’ve never invested in that conversation. I just am trans. Being a feminine, isolated child, taught to be secretive about her identity—that’s what led to me being targeted.

Reading your book has made me, and probably a number of other readers hyper-aware of how we use pronouns. But it’s still a difficult concept for some people to comprehend. Why do you think that is?

I think a lot of people say things like, “They’re just words. Get over it.” But for a trans person, you have to fight every single day. Especially if you don’t look like me. You fight every single day just to be recognized as who you know yourself to be, who you really are. I write about literally petitioning the government for a name-change, to get your proper gender markers. These things aren’t cheap, and they’re fought for, and they’re deliberate. Trans people are always told, “Oh, it’s no big deal. Just semantics.” The whole Piers Morgan thing was really about language.

For me, in my personal life, I could’ve accepted that interview as reductive. It wasn’t necessarily offensive or mean or done with ill-intent, but when the community captured it, I realized the issue was so much bigger than just me. I thought I was just there to talk about my little book project, but the community was looking at it with very fierce eyes. From a place of trauma, too. For me, if someone calls me a man, I can brush it off. No big deal. But if Janet Mock can be called a man and misgendered, what does that mean for the others? This media moment isn’t just about me. It’s about an entire community that’s told every every single day who they are is incorrect, delusional, unnatural, illegitimate.

That’s why pronoun usage is so basic. Giving people the space to define themselves—and for us to not assign them new definitions based on what we’re comfortable with. If anyone takes anything away from that discussion with Piers Morgan, it’s exactly that: just accept the definitions people give you.

Perhaps I should’ve started the interview with this question: How does Janet Mock self-identify?

First, as Janet Mock. Then writer. After all that, trans woman of color.

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Jake Flanagin is a former story researcher for The Atlantic.

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