Janet Mock was in the middle of a media whirlwind when she decided that she had to write a memoir. It was 2011 and Mock had just come out as transgender in a bold story in Marie Claire, a move that rocketed the then-editor of People.com to the forefront of the burgeoning national conversation on transgender identity in America. Mock’s story of growing up biracial and in the wrong body in Hawaii made national headlines, but she felt it was incomplete. “It was a great step forward,” Mock, 30, told me about doing the Marie Claire article, “but it wasn’t enough of the leap forward that I wanted to take using my own words as a writer and my own experience.”
That leap forward turned out to be the memoir “Redefining Realness,” which hit bookstores today. It traces Mock’s journey toward coming into herself as a woman, and offers up crucial context for the work that she’s doing now. In the years since coming out, Mock has become a nationally recognized writer and speaker who regularly tackles what it means to be a trans woman of color. She’s a regular on MSNBC, has her feet in the world of fashion, and in 2012 started a Twitter hashtag called #GirlsLikeUs that underscores the need for trans women of color to become more visible in society.
I caught up with her to talk about the impact she hopes to have with her new book.
Take me through the process. I know that writing a book is often described as its own type of hell. Was it like that for you, was it therapeutic or both?
It was scary, and it was therapeutic. Taking the lead from Audre Lorde, any time you shatter silence, it can be an empowering experience, but it’s a frightening one, too. I was taught for so long growing up that the things that happened to me, I was supposed to keep secret and therefore manifested into shame. For me, by speaking about those unspoken truths I’ve been able to empower myself. My ultimate goal with “Redefining Realness” is to empower and give language and reflection to other girls growing up like I did.
You just mentioned the word “shame.” I want to talk a bit about the “politics of respectability.” There’s this ongoing historical narrative that says that if marginalized communities want to be heard and respected, they have to fit into these very narrow definitions of what’s acceptable to the mainstream. Talk to me about how that comes up in your work. For instance, you talk about your past with sex work and you don’t talk about it coming from a place of moral trepidation.
Shattering that was everything to me. That was the goal of the book—to throw the respectability and politics template that we’ve all had to follow as people of color, as marginalized people, to throw that out of the window. Even having a place to speak about the erotic in our lives is also something that we’re not supposed to do. [I have a] stigmatized identity as a trans woman, and then [I’ve also said] I engaged in sex work for my own survival. I think that what helped it a little was that it’s coming from my own experience and I don’t see it as this super traumatic experience. It’s just something that I went through. Yeah, there was trauma attached to it. But it’s not this super sad story. I got good and bad with that whole experience.
For me, in the introduction of the book, I talk about exceptionalism. Often times for us to be heard you have to have all the credentials, like I did. I was able to be heard because I’m able-bodied and quote-unquote articulate and educated with credentials from People.com and a master’s degree. So I hope that by having a foot in the door I can also push the conversation forward and say, “No, we need a place to talk about our bodies and shame and the erotic and sex and sex work and all of these things.” I hope to slutty it up a little bit. [Laughs].
I think this is a really unique moment because in addition to yourself, there are other high profile trans women of color such as LaVerne Cox and Carmen Carrera. You’re all visible and you’re all in the media. What does that feel like and how do you hope to use that platform?
The first thing I feel is that I’m not alone. I don’t have to carry the entire burden of representation. There’s at least five of us that are pretty highly visible—I’d throw Isis King in that list as well. It feels great that there are different portraits. I would like more portraits, and that’s happening with trans women of color creating their own podcasts with shows like Angelica Ross’ show and Kitty Bella’s show. There’s all these different facets of us.
The next thing is that we get to create the portrait of what we didn’t have growing up. We get to have different portraits and personas out there giving us reflections. I like this quote by Barbara Smith who says, “When we have stories that reflect us, it teaches us not just how better to live, but how better to dream.” So I think that’s the greatest thing with having trans women of color out there: we can tell our own stories.
Talk to me a bit about what sisterhood means to you and why it’s important. You’ve got #GirlsLikeUs and that’s been a really strong movement online. Why is it important to build community among trans women of color specifically and not focus explicitly on trans folks of color in general?
For me, it’s to bring the marginal center. I center my work around these women and I think the run-off water will then go to other sections of the community. Trans women of color are the most at-risk, the most marginalized. I need to make sure that my work is speaking directly to them and to do that without shame or guilt.
The next level of that is also building a network of sisterhood where we banish this idea that resources are scarce, that only one of us can be out in public on television or having a thriving career and life. No, all of us can have that. I think that by us connecting, we then share our resources with one another, share our platforms with one another and we uplift each other’s names in the face of a world that tries to tell us that we should not even exist and then not even co-exist together.
What that does too is that moves the framework away from just victimhood. So often we hear of trans women of color as victims. Was that intentional or is it just about being yourselves in an honest and full way?
I think that there are a lot of hurdles that we’ve had to jump over in our experiences. The one thing that people often say about trans people of color and trans women of color is that it’s a resilient community and I think through that resilience you find brilliance and triumph. Because we’re able to be heard, we can tell our stories in a more full light where we can talk about the fact that we’ve lost sisters, that we’ll continue to lose sisters, that the police department botches our cases like we’re seeing with Islan Nettles’s case. But at the same time we can also applaud the visibility that she had, and the release of this book, and all kinds of other accomplishments in our community. I think that those of us who are visible on that level are very cognizant that there’s good and bad and we can speak to all of that.
Talk to me about the process of publishing the book. It seems like you’ve been able to make it into something that’s beautiful and community-centered. Talk to me about how you were able to focus on that aspect of community engagement.
Writing a book has become a dream coming true. When I was growing up I wanted to live in New York City, be myself and be a writer. I’ve been able to become that dream and that’s surreal. The next level of it for me just as someone who’s seen as a representation of this “community” is making the book accessible to trans women of color. For me, the story-giving campaign is a part of that, where I got people to donate money and got low-income trans people to request books. So we got 127 books out through that community campaign.
We also wanted to make sure there was space alongside the book for readers to tell their own stories and it not just being about me, so I elevate voices beyond my own experience. There’s no universal trans experience, there’s no universal women’s experience or human experience.
And through the writing process, I wanted to make sure that the writing of the book was accessible. When I was growing up, I didn’t have political consciousness and so I think that a young, poor trans girl reading this book will then be able to see that she has language to describe her experience and recognize that there are whole systems of oppression that are leading her to the circumstances that she’s in and that it’s not her fault and she’s not the first to go through that. She’s not alone.