Images by John Hook
All of Janet Mock’s dreams are coming true. At 28, she is planning a national book tour for her memoir Redefining Realness, released on February 4 by Simon & Schuster. A twitter hashtag she created, #Girlslikeus, has gone viral for transgender visibility, and she has become a leading voice in national discussions of LGBT rights, politics, and the intersections of identities. A decade ago, prior to moving to New York City where she found young success as the online editor for People magazine, Mock walked the same Waikīkī streets where she finds herself now, visiting her family on holiday, but under vastly different circumstances. Statistically, people with her traits do not fare well. That she is black, Hawaiian, grew up relatively poor, transitioned from male to female in her teenage years, and paid her own way through life means that walking comfortably through the streets of Waikīkī is something of a victory march.
“I’m just mentally preparing for the book launch,” she says, tousling her hair on the pool deck at The Modern Honolulu. “I’m working through this new Beyonce album too—the way the song ‘Pretty Hurts’ is a new take on TLC’s ‘Unpretty.’ I was actually speaking to bell hooks about this recently.” “Wait, you were speaking to bell hooks?” I ask incredulously of the author and feminist. “Sure. I met her after I spoke at Ohio State, where there’s a person who identifies as trans on the faculty. She advised me to be thinking of my next book, the one that follows this,” she tells me. “That she endorsed my book means the world to me.”
It’s quite fun speaking with someone capable of recalling both theory and decades of pop culture references on the spot. “When I started to tell my own story, that’s when my career really happened,” she says. “I’ve been here for three days, and I run into people I knew as a kid every single day. This small town-ness is just not part of my life right now. There’s an armor that I suppose I need to take off in Hawai‘i.”
Since she left, there have been several legal and cultural victories for the LGBT community. It seems every gay person born in the 1980s or after has come out of the closet. As second-wave feminists continue to teach a classic historiography of the institution of marriage, at times sounding like advocates for temperance and suffrage, their students follow a host of new voices in the movement on Twitter. The unprecedented speed of this cultural change was highlighted in Hawai‘i when the State legislature called a special session for the sole purpose of deciding the legality of marriage equality in October of last year. The normally disjointed progressive movement took it as an opportunity to unite. Adorned in rainbow lei and holding colorful signs, thousands celebrated as Hawai‘i became the 16th state to legalize same-sex marriage.
But despite the global successes for marriage equality, individuals who have transitioned sexes remain stigmatized. One of Mock’s friends, Laverne Cox, who plays a trans inmate on the internet-based show Orange is the New Black, was recently asked about her transition on Katie Couric’s daytime TV show, “for the education of viewers,” Couric said. Instead of answering outright, Cox reframed the question. “The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the lived experiences,” she responded. “The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are the targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.” Couric, the telegenic professional unaccustomed to Oprah-style histrionics, was near tears before cutting to commercial. Cox let viewers know that there are more than broken hearts at stake here.
Considering the cosmopolitanism of the author’s current life, it comes as a surprise how much of Mock’s memoir happens in Honolulu, cruising the discount racks at Ross with mom and the matinees at the old Restaurant Row theater. She speaks lovingly of her grandmother, her local mother, and her father, who was a boiler technician in the Navy and sported one fly gold tooth with a star in it. His descent into drug use during Mock’s teenage years is redeemed in later chapters by his unwavering love, in the best way he knew how. “We must make room for people’s complications,” she says of him when asked. Of moving out of Kalihi, the neighborhood that she grew up: “I felt there was an advantage in calling myself a Moanalua Menehune,” she writes in Redefining Realness. “To say you went to Farrington was to say you were from Kalihi, which meant you were rough around the edges, tough because you had to run from the Samoan bullies asking you for ‘dollah’ on a daily basis.” A sense of humor and a capacity to see the good in all humans is a sorry consolation prize for a youth spent having rocks thrown at one’s head while walking along Kalihi Stream.
Part of the joy of a properly written memoir is the chance to experience someone else’s memories. If you are reading this, you probably know what it’s like to graduate from high school. But you probably don’t know about graduating from Premarin tablets (to begin a male to female transition) to weekly doses of Estradiol valerate (in preparation of eventual bottom surgery). As for what it’s like to have a gender reassignment surgery in Bangkok: It’s a little terrifying. “The custom lines at Don Mueang Airport were all kinds of wet hotness,” writes Mock. She also contextualizes her experiences with everything from the DSM IV to the writings of Toni Morrison to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s Standards of Care guidelines.
But Redefining Realness is not biographical sociology; it’s more coming-of-age in Honolulu during the years just prior to the Internet. And there’s enough sex in the back chapters to make a ’90s R&B crooner blush. During her teenage years, as she was earning the W.R. Farrington Memorial Scholarship, Mock was spending evenings as a trans prostitute on Honolulu’s Merchant Street. In the description, no prurient punches are pulled. Readers are walked through the techniques, smells, and hours of prostitution on the streets of Honolulu; the community of outcasts under orange streetlights; the ease and timing of getting a guy off when time is money and money is peril; and what it means to be introduced to a whole new vocabulary of desire.
Though Redefining Realness has some fun in it, sex for pay in this memoir is pure anguish. Mock describes sex with cops who don’t pay, braddahs, and very dangerous men who could make a statistic of a memoirist in an instant. The last nearly happened to Mock when she saw the flash of a blade in a van as John calmly said, “I swear I’ll gut you,” when she held on to her purse after a sex act. “No one person forced me or my friends into the sex trade; we were groomed by an entire system that failed us and a society that refused to see us,” she lived to write of the experience. “No one cared or accounted for us. We were disposable, and we knew that. So we used the resources we had—our bodies—to navigate this failed state, doing dirty, dangerous work that increased our risk of HIV/AIDS, criminalization, and violence.”
After graduating from high school and a stint at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, Mock moved to New York. While trying to make it in the competitive world of national periodical publications, she traded one kind of bullshit for another. “Exotic” and “pretty for a black girl” were the replacements she got in the city for “faggot” back home. These chapters consider a healthy heterosexual relationship, replete with the New York City minutes: Saturday nights in Manhattan; singing the words on the dance floor; hoping to meet a guy. The fun of the back chapters, of making it, are reminiscent of essayist Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” who explained, “It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.”
For her first book, Mock is receiving the kind of endorsements a young writer can only dream of. The author Barbara Smith praised her memoir as “a classic American autobiography. Like Richard Wright and Maya Angelou.” And there is certainly something of the African American experience and the memoirist’s capacity to frame her experience in a personal narrative of optimism that warrants the references; that living to publish the tale of survival is its own triumph. But Hawai‘i readers may see another more apt precursor to Redefining Realness, as her Honolulu reads like the tangled supplement of a memoir by another ambitious half-black writer who grew up in the city 20 years prior—Barack Obama.
Like Dreams of My Father, the lessons from Redefining Realness are a mix of ambition and classic American self-determination. There are two lessons this reader received: Firstly, after you’ve seen the world with its pants off, it’s hard to be scared of anything. Secondly, as we must be reminded in times of crisis, it is absolutely possible to create or recreate the self; to become someone new and better despite age or background, mistake, or trauma—a respected writer even, a person others look to for inspiration. For self-definition, Janet Mock takes from the oft-quoted feminist Audre Lorde: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” But Janet Mock wasn’t crunched or eaten alive. She dances on. So, for good measure, here’s a lyric from Beyonce’s new album: “This time I’m gonna take the crown / Without falling down, down, down.”
Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness published by Simon & Schuster is now available wherever books are sold.