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Redefining Realness: an interview with Janet Mock

by Alice Wilder

If you know anything about Janet Mock, you’re already 99% sure that her new memoir, Redefining Realness, is phenomenal. You might know her from her appearances on the Melissa Harris-Perry show, from her awesome Twitter presence, or her landmark piece in Marie Claire. You may have heard of her Storygiving campaign, which raised money to provide 127 copies of her memoir for low income trans* folks. Redefining Realness is so incredible because she tells her truth, her story, without fear and without apology. She could easily have decided to keep the spotless sanitized version of her story that the media likes to tell. But instead she made herself vulnerable and kept it real–and that’s what makes Redefining Realness so inspiring. You should order it now. Seriously. Go. Buy it. Request it at your local bookstore. And if none of that works, I’ll loan you my copy.

Janet and I talked about strategies for self care, expanding our definitions of womanhood, and (of course!) Beyoncé’s new album.

How have you been coping with all of this exposure, all these interviews? What do you do for self care in intense times like this?

That’s something that I’m still trying to learn, right? I started that hashtag a while ago, #HowICareForMe, and I was trying to figure out like, how do I care for me? I get to transform silence into action and transform things through my writing but at the same time it’s like, so much of my life now, especially after February 4th, will be on display for people’s consumption, so a big part of me is learning how to say no to things. Recommending other people to do them because the work is endless and I don’t need to do everything. That’s one thing, saying no to a lot of things–blocking off days to not do writing or “activisty” things. I know that sounds bizarre but I need a day. Also, having boundaries. Some days things pop up and I may have to change that [specific] day, but knowing that I have that day of the week where I can tap into myself and be with myself and see, who am I today? Can I be present and not give myself to people today? And the third thing is knowing that my work stands alone without me, this book, knowing that it is finally published you know it’s like, that can stand alone. Having the confidence to believe that. I’m enough, that’s good enough.

Oh man, I need all that tattooed on my forehead. In the book you talk a lot about being held up as the “one who got out” or the one successful trans* woman of color. Is it ever difficult for you to deal with all this praise?

I am from Hawaii, I come from a humble place. It may sound like a stereotype but I tend to take it–I’ve learned to accept praise and acknowledge it, but always in my mind I contextualize it too like, why is this person giving me praise? Where are they coming from?Praise in terms of how I look that way look–that was cute when I was a teenager, but now that becomes irritating a little bit, like I just gave this great interview about all this stuff and then all people talk about is “oh my god! you’re so pretty!” It’s cute but it’s like, where is the praise coming from, is it just surface level praise? Or “your work has touched me”–that’s the kind of praise that I love. But in terms of exceptionalism, I feel like the book breaks down our concept of American exceptionalism. In order for marginalized people specifically to get any kind of attention, we have to be better than anyone else, be more articulate, more prepared, more educated, and I hope to break that down a little bit. It’s lonely–I was working at People Magazine and I wasn’t tapped into community, because I was told growing up that if I wanted to be successful and have a great life then, “girl, you need to not talk about that stuff that went on.” Some of it was self inflicted but some of it was stuff that I learned–like the shameful things, the traumatic things you should be quiet about, just deal with it and move on. I’m hoping to transform that space. That image that people have of “Janet Mock” the public person is not a complete portrait. Here’s a complete portrait, me redefining what others think about my life and my story and who I really am. And also that it’s also not all seriousness! I quote Britney Spears and Beyoncé in the book. That’s very much a part of my life too, the pop culture part of my life. Women can be feminine and obsessed with pop culture and makeup and all these other things and still be serious, theoretical and critical–that’s important to me too.

It’s so funny that you bring up Beyoncé, because one of my questions is about her new album- what’s your favorite song?

Every week it changes!

It does, doesn’t it?

At first it was “Blow,” and then a couple weeks later it was “Partition,” which is still my favorite. But then “Mine” has been coming a lot in my head over and over and it’s making me obsess over marriage. It’s interesting how she’s getting in my brain on all these different levels. The visuals really push it to a whole ‘nother level. It’s so funny because in the book I write about [Janet's Jackson's album] The Velvet Rope, and what that meant to me at the time at this pivotal time in my life where I was embarking on social and medical transition–like revealing myself to everyone, and that’s what Janet Jackson was doing at the time too. It’s so interesting that I’m in the same point of my life and to have Beyoncé to guide me to make all these statements about womanhood and sexuality and yeah, I could go on all day.

I know right? I have to stop myself from making this whole interview about Beyoncé because there’s so much about sexuality and womanhood and honesty. But moving on, in one of your recent interviews you mentioned the idea of “sitting with your fear,” could you expand on that?

Sitting with fear is real! Saying it is like “oh sitting with fear is a great quote,” but staying with it is scary. I’ve developed a relationship with bell hooks and she was like “baby girl, you are putting this all out there.” She’s like checked me, “you need to be very cognizant and present of the fact that you’ve written all these things down in this book, and that the world will take it how they want to take it, and your job is done.” And that part of me that wants to control how people consume or interact with this book, I have to let that go. I’m a control freak, slightly type A, I have done the storytelling process and now I’m in the storysharing process, and the storysharing process is scary so my whole goal with the rest of this–I started this Tumblr project called “I am Redefining Realness.” I started it mostly for readers, because I know people are going to send me emails telling me their stories and I wanted to have a space where they can do it publicly, in a space where they’re seen and heard and affirmed because the storysharing process is a whole ‘nother thing–I can sit with a computer fearlessly and not really think about public consumption until I hit the publish button or send it to my editor. I have to go through all those little baby steps and it’s only feeling real now. I just got a whole box of books and it’s the first time I’ve seen them and it’s like, “oh my God, this shit is real!” and I’m still getting comfortable with the fact of like, “oh wow, it’s going out!” I haven’t hit the point of completion or zen-dom where I’m like “oh my god I’m so ready for this book and I’ve conquered fear and silence.” No, I’m a work in progress, and I’m still like, this is happening! This is a record of your life so far, and some people may see it as empowering and some people may see it as “disturbing” or whatnot, but it’s out there, and I’ve got to say all that I want to say.

I love that you mention being a work in progress because often it’s so empowering to learn that people you look up to are human too. It’s such a relief to know that bell hooks probably has moments of insecurity like anyone else.

It’s important that we not try to put up strong portraits of ourselves and just be honest about where we’re at- it’s hard to be vulnerable in that public space but I guess I yearn to be. Someone told me that I need to embrace the messiness and not strive for perfection, and bringing it back to Beyoncé again, she’s like “perfection is so mmmm…” and it’s true! A lot people where getting bored of her for a while because she does everything great, and ooh another good album, and this time she was putting it out there. We saw her insecurities, it made her more interesting. Vulnerability really can transform spaces and conversations–I don’t have a yearning to be perfect or exceptional.

SPARK is all about the way women’s bodies are sexualized and I love the way you addressed the sexualization of trans* women’s bodies in the book. Could you talk about that?

One thing I always think about is the public male gaze and walking in the streets of a city like New York, where I live–the street harassment and how that escalates for trans* women when disclosure is forced upon them. It goes from sexual/verbal abuse like “oooh baby” or “why can’t you smile today?” or “hey girl, love your ass!” and the discovery of trans*-ness that comes in that public space and the vulnerability that comes with that. Then it becomes disgust, then it becomes violence. The intersection of trans-womanhood it’s like–what does that look like? How does that escalate for Islan Nettles in NYC? At first it was “street harassment,” a sexualized encounter of harassment, and then it turned into “you’re a f-ing dude, I’m going to beat your ass,” and then it becomes a fight because no longer is she a woman–trans*ness negates her womanhood. We continually communicate that in our culture, in our media, over and over and over. So for me it’s like always trying to break down those things like yes, we experiences of street harassment but here’s how it’s different for trans* women–and in terms of how for trans* women’s bodies are up for grabs in public conversations.

Like Katie Couric!

And Katie Couric is not the first to do this. No journalist besides Melissa Harris Perry has given trans* women space to just be, and talk about these issues and their lives, about what it looks like to be in this body existing in this culture and talk about how womanhood is very diverse. I try to bring a little bit of that critique in an accessible way to people who may be reading this for the first time–why there’s no “before” pictures, there’s no mention of my best friend’s “pre-transition” name–these are ways I push back through my own writing while knowing that people are curious.

I love the depiction of your relationship with Wendi, it reminded me of my relationship with Joneka, my friend who you helped me ask to prom last year with a petition. Thank you for that! Shelby Knox told me it was in the Change.Org newsletter!

Oh my god that’s so funny! With Wendi it’s so funny because I had a really interesting experience of going through that time and navigating my girlhood with a friend who was navigating it in the same way. We didn’t believe what anyone else said about us, and the reason that we could fight back those louder beliefs or negations of our identity is because we had each other. I’m very steeped in sisterhood and I know I can’t survive without it, and that’s a reason why I had to share my story at a certain point. I couldn’t do it anymore, this silence or feeling alone, like “oh wow, you have this great job and you’re dating this great guy and all this stuff” and it’s like, well I need to connect with people who understand me on a deep level. I’m happy that I was so blessed to have her. I wrote the book for the girls out there who were just like us–we weren’t calling ourselves trans* or transgender or transexual. We didn’t have words like that. I wanted to be cognizant that that thirteen year old girl could get this book from the library or her parents could read it and could understand more about what she’s going through and now she has the language to explain her experiences. If we’re talking about sisterhood, it’s about consciousness raising, right? Like, how do we bring her up to a consciousness and say “here’s the language to explain your experience”? I wish someone would have told me that street harassment wasn’t empowering as a young girl looking for validation, that even though I took it that way at the time–that it was okay to feel uncomfortable about that. That these older men are hitting on you in this very sexual way. That it may not feel safe to fight back and you’re not a coward if you don’t say anything back. I always wishing that someone was there and I hope that it’s accessible for young girls out there.

How do you think that the feminist movement can become more trans* inclusive?

I do see the book as a bridge between cis-womanhood and trans-womanhood, especially about how feminism was built mostly around white women, middle class white women. How do we expand the scope and begin centering our politic around those most marginalized, bringing them to center? If we start centering the lives and struggles of those who are most marginalized, who are women, then our work just transforms itself. We all need to unlearn our anti-trans* bias. How do we acknowledge and recognize their womanhood? Because it’s just as real as yours. This idea that we need to protect womanhood, as if it’s something that we created–we all have definitions of womanhood, and it’s expanding that–not seeing it as “because trans women exist it’s taking away our idea of womanhood.” No, it’s expanding it, it’s evolving it!

The one comment I get every single day of my life online is “oh she’s a man, I don’t care what you say, that’s a man.” There’s this need from cis women and men to make sure that they check me and you know, like “everyone just in case you’re fooled, this is a man.” No matter what you say I am who I am, I am a woman. I get to assign who I am for myself, you don’t get to do that for me. Your proclamation or whatever, that’s your issue, that’s on you. I think that if we’re talking about sexism–if we want to dismantle sexism, if we want to create a world where the “sexes” are equal–how gender policing just reiterates the same kind of sexism. That was the topic of my talk with bell at Ohio State. Our conversation was about this idea of womanhood and the politics of calling yourself a woman, and she brought up a great point. She said black women have always been queer–we’ve always been outside of the idea of what womanhood is, we’ve never been centered in the idea of what womanhood is about. We need to extend that also to trans* women. That was a trans* moment when Sojourner Truth bared her breast to say “ain’t I a woman?” bell said that Redefining Realness is the same kind of extension of that, and it was interesting to hear her say that because I’d never framed it that way, I’d never made those connections. But of course a feminist critic like bell of would. She gave me the language to be like “oh wow, I am a part of this tradition of telling our own stories, of proclaiming who we are, which are all feminist things, that are womanist things.

Last question! Is there anyone who you see doing great activist work that isn’t getting enough recognition? Give some shout outs!

Raina who works at the Sylvia Rivera project- she’s one of the only TWOC who was hired by a “LGBT” organization

Women of the Trans* Woman of Color Collective- activists

Kiara St. James and Lourdes Hunter

Dee Dee Chamblee she does a lot of work on the ground in Atlanta with her org called La Gender she’s doing a lot of work to help and empower trans* women who are involved in the sex trade there.

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4 Responses to “Redefining Realness: an interview with Janet Mock”

  1. seher says:

    yes Alice yes Janet yessss

  2. Sophie says:

    sdjlka;jf I actually love her and need this book. Mega jealous that you got to interview her alice, also A+ article <3

  3. [...] advocate Janet Mock’s new memoir, Redefining Realness, has just been released. I got the chance to interview her and in the spirit of self-care, this is what she said about taking time for [...]

  4. Lili says:

    SO AMAZING I just bought the book <3

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