Janet Mock: Redefining Realness

A Discussion about Race and Gender

By Nicole Dotzenrod

In celebration of the Stonewall Center’s 30th anniversary, the University of Massachusetts Amherst welcomed New York Times bestselling author of Redefining Realness and transgender rights activist Janet Mock to the Student Union Ballroom on Oct. 28. Mock spoke about her experience as a trans woman of color, in a discussion led by Dr. Demetria Shabazz and Andrea “Dre” Domingue, Ed.D.

Mock, born and raised in Hawaii as the middle of five children, said she realized early in her life that she was both a child of color and poor. On top of confronting her socio-economic class and racism, she also struggled with her gender identity from a very young age before coming out as trans. “My transness is influenced by race and class,” she said. “For me it’s about being honest about all of my identities that exist in one body,” she said.

Mock’s first models of feminism and womanhood were modeled by her native-born grandmother and mother. Mock joked that the only models of black feminism which she felt connected to growing up were members of Destiny’s Child. Later, watching TV helped Mock start to form her gender identity. Characters such as Claire Huxtable helped task Mock as a young person to challenge traditional career tropes.

A pivotal experience in Mock’s understanding of womanhood was experiencing her female relatives cooking and gossiping in the kitchen on Sundays - a space that she desperately wanted to be a part of. When she was able to engage in this space as a preteen, Mock felt a sense of inclusiveness.

Mock’s understanding of gender and womanhood was also shaped by her best friend Wendy, a trans woman, who helped Mock navigate the way, tapping into a community of trans women of color in Hawaii. “My life would be completely different if I didn’t have both of those real life bonds,” she said.

When Mock was 12 years old, Wendy introduced her to the Hawaiian word “mahu,” which native Hawaiians use to refer to being somewhere in the middle of the gender binary system. Within families in Hawaiian culture, she explained, mahu means having a child that, “was assigned a certain sex or expected to be certain gender norm, but rebuts those gender norms to be a combination of all. Mahu was seen as a privilege, because you had a child who could do everything.” The term’s meaning became derogatory only after white missionaries and plantation owners came to Hawaii.

“I grew up in that post-missionary context, but at least I had a word at a point in my life when I didn’t really know what trans was. I think I heard mahu before I heard transgender. My understanding of transness and gender nonconformity came from a native space in Hawaii.”

Mock’s book Redefining Realness began as a series of journal entries which she wrote to tell the truth about her experiences and to face them head-on. What started as a personal project in 2009 became about contextualizing her experiences in a socio-political lens when her story was famously published in Marie Claire in 2011. Trained as a journalist, this was the first time Mock was on the receiving end of the interview.

“I had spent most of my time telling other people’s stories. I was very comfortable with asking people questions, not necessarily being the recipient who needed to answer the questions,” she said. Mock described a sense of hiding behind famous people’s stories while working as editor of People magazine – ready or not, it was time to be her own protagonist, in her book Redefining Realness.  

 “When I was thinking about the audience, the audience has always been my seventh grade self, who was searching for language and searching for reflection in stories. I wanted to make sure that I centered her as the reader and protagonist – a mirror that I didn’t have growing up.”

In writing her novel, Mock hoped to help trans youth realize they are not alone, and that they are heroic. She hoped that writing her book would help people understand the experiences and struggles of a young, poor trans girl of color.

When asked if she considers herself a trailblazer, Mock said, “When I look at the entire context of the work that I’ve done so far I can see how people would say that, but I think I’m so busy doing that I haven’t had time to sit and reflect on what it means. This is only a mere fraction of what I want to do, and what I feel that I will do. So for me I can’t look at myself in the grander scheme of the dreams that I have.”

When Mock reflects about where she was a just a year and half ago, she said she never expected to be where she is now.

“I’ve just been trying to get to the next step of life,” she said. “How do I get to world domination?” she joked. “We throw labels around so easily. A person can tell their story and suddenly they’re an icon. I don’t know if that’s enough. My hope is that my body of work, when I’m gone and no longer active, will stand on its own firmly,” she said.

While there are a lot more trans narratives being shared in mainstream media now than when Mock was growing up, she said there is still a long way to go on the road to trans acceptance. Mock said that stories such as Caitlyn Jenner’s cannot and should not stand alone in representing trans experiences.

“There is a space of greater visibility now, but I often struggle with how this hypervisibility affects those who are not living their lives on the red carpet or television – people who are just trans folks who are existing. In terms of the analysis of Caitlyn Jenner, it is so layered. We have the piece of her being someone who is white, privileged, and very moneyed. It is a very rich space. It is a celebrity space.”

Still, Mock said, “she is a trans woman. She is a person who has experienced isolation in that sense of struggle – that piece of her own personal journey – even with her money, access, privilege, and whiteness, this stuff is still real. This movement is a lot bigger than her, and she’s been cognizant of that in the conversations we’ve had. This movement has always been here and these people have always been here.”

When asked to give advice to young trans people who are not out to their families, Mock said, “Listen to yourself. You are the expert on your experience and your life, identity, and pronouns. Find folks around you who will listen to you, affirm you, and validate you and your sense of identity, and hopefully they build you up to a space where you know you have a support system behind you when you go forward and speak to your given family. The end-all, be-all is not your given family. Just because someone gave birth to you doesn’t mean they have a right to define you.”

“I have grown up with trans women of color who I felt were brilliant but because they were poor, of color, or sex workers, they were told that they were not worthy of being seen and heard. You are worthy of being seen and heard. You can tell your entire truth in all the messiness and fierceness, and still be considered valuable. And not because someone says you’re valuable, because you say you’re valuable.”