With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
Transgender autobiographies are dominated by whiteness. There's no need to set out a list, suffice to say that since the trans memoir began with Lili Elbe's Man Into Woman (1931), publishers have sought out the safest, most marketable kind of representation of trans to a white, heteronormative majority. This makes Janet Mock's autobiography Redefining Realness (2014) a confessional of special significance. Read next to Sarah McBride's white-picket-fence account of living the American Dream, Tomorrow Will Be Different (2018), I would put Mock's work up there as a parallel piece of essential trans-confessional reading in the 21st century.
Which isn't to say that Mock's personal journey is operating as some kind of binary opposite to McBride's. For one, Mock is privileged with stunning beauty: cis-gendered female-model good looks, perhaps partly due to the hormones she began taking in adolescence before puberty could masculinize her physiognomy. Notable too is her seriousness as a student: like McBride, she's a stellar scholar throughout childhood, eventually earning the scholarship that will take her to the prestigious New York University. As someone who drifted through adolescence in detached mediocrity and wistful window-gazing, can't-be-bothered withdrawal, I'm both impressed and surprised by the narrative of the precocious and super-focused trans student.
Mock's journey, however, is evidently also one of a determined independence as well as defiance against her own material poverty. Raised in low-income households where crack cocaine and crystal meth were a feature of her parents' intoxication, Mock also suffers sexual abuse from a surrogate sibling over a period of years. A watershed moment is her move to Hawaii in early adolescence to live with her mother. There, Mock becomes aware of Hawaiian society's own trans-gender community, the Mahu, with one school friend in particular, Wendi, becoming her lifelong soulmate. "Are you Mahu?" asks Wendi in a first encounter that will slowly open the floodgates to Mock's self-repression. It is through Wendi that Mock takes hormones and begins presenting as female at fifteen, adopting the name of her favourite singer Janet Jackson. One tender experience involves Wendi's plucking of Mock's eyebrows for the first time, but later, it is also Wendi and Mock who together enter the red-light world as sex-workers, with Mock desperate to save up money for sex-reassignment surgery. Such experiences, in communities where sisterhood and passing can mean the difference between life and death, underline how online communities are not a part of Mock's trans awakening. In the tradition of Marsha P. Johnson in the 1960s, community is a lived-in, day-to-day experience, not a virtual world of posts and videos, and this makes Redefining Realness noticeably different to many white trans confessionals.
On the issue of her ultimate success, however, with a successful career in journalism in New York City that reminded me of Sex In the City, Mock's introduction carries a warning that her life journey is not typical for trans women of colour especially. Writing on the importance of community, Mock notes how she has 'been held up consistently as a token, as the "right" kind of trans woman (educated, able-bodied, attractive, articulate, heteronormative). It promotes the delusion that because I "made it," that level of success is easily accessible to all young trans women. Let's be clear: It is not' (xvii).Mock therefore cuts a complex figure. Her life story is an example of the American Dream, of overcoming the disadvantages of poverty and family instability to emerge as a beautiful, probably rich lifestyle figure, with handsome lover in tow. Concurrently, in a recent interview in The Guardian, Mock spoke about her determination to represent African-American trans experience, with her contribution to a new TV show with African-American trans actors, Pose. The interview was interesting in how Mock distances herself from the white, middle-class trans representations of Transparent (2014+) on Amazon Prime, finding those intersections not to be of interest to her. This opens up the question of what it is to be trans, of how intersections of ethnicity, income and nationality can make trans seem fragmented, and perhaps this is a reflection of how identity is constructed, and how identity is hardly as inclusive as those of more privileged positions like to imagine.