Transgender teen’s rocky path to self-identity laid bare in memoir
On February 28, 2014 | 4, Articles, Featured |

This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star, Feb 2014.


When Janet Mock set out to write a memoir of her quest of self-discovery as a young, transgender woman, she knew it would be full of adversity, bravery and heartache. What it really needed, though, was romance.

“Oftentimes when we discuss the politics of LGBTQ people, we erase the element of sex and intimacy because of the politics of respectability,” she says.

“I’m also a woman who is craving love and someone who is worthy of having partnership and love. I think that (often when) we paint trans women’s lives, we often see that as something that should be secret or fetishized and objectified.”

There is plenty of heat in Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Mock, who was welcomed into the world as a boy, but realized with more and more certainty as she grew up that her true gender was female. Mock opens her tale on the night of her first date with her boyfriend, Aaron, whom she had met days before while dancing at a Lower East Side club. Though she barely knew the man with skin “the color of sweet toffee, the kind that gets stuck in your teeth,” she wanted to tell him who she really was.

“He smelled like sweat and cilantro and looked a lot like that one thing I yearned and feared: intimacy,” she writes.

Since the Feb. 4 publication of the New York Times bestseller, billed as the first memoir by a trans person who transitioned while young, Mock has done a whirl of interviews with People,The Colbert Report and a contentious two-part appearance on Piers Morgan Live. A subtitle under Mock’s name reading, “Was a boy until 18” on her Feb. 4 appearance sparked furor (“@PiersMorganLive get it the (expletive) together,” she later tweeted), prompting her to come back for a second, more heated turn on the show.

Redefining Realness chronicles her life growing up in a poor family in Honolulu, the child of African-American and Hawaiian parents. She moved to California, where she began a rocky process of discovering her identity, getting sex reassignment surgery at age 18 and moving to a successful journalism career in New York City. Petite and feminine, with an eruption of bronze curly locks, Mock could have “passed” as female — but revealed her identity as a trans woman in a splashy 2011 profile in Marie Claire.

She’s lived her life in the spotlight ever since.

Mock spoke to the Star on Wednesday on the road from Washington, D.C., back home to New York, where she was looking forward to a few days’ respite before the next stop on her hectic book tour. The night before, she spoke to a crowd of 500 at D.C.’s Martin Luther King Memorial Library.

Aaron, her boyfriend and the man who figures so much in her story, was in the driver’s seat. She dedicates her book to him, crediting him with a crucial role in helping her love and accept herself.

Although an understanding of the issues faced by trans youth is growing, medical transition procedures for teens are hard to access, and the appropriate age to begin treatment is controversial among medical professionals. Mock calls that “medical gatekeeping on trans people’s lives.” She writes about self-medicating with hormone pills at 15 before deciding to seek a doctor’s guidance.

Beginning hormone treatments as a teen, she explains, allows a trans person to experience one process of puberty, rather than having to have a second later in life.

“It’s a decision that shouldn’t be governed — it should be made between a young person, their doctor and their parents.”

Trans women and men enjoy greater rights in Canada compared to those in many parts of the world, but there is a long way to go. A Statistics Canada study found that 20 per cent of trans people in Ontario had been physically or sexually assaulted because of their identity. The same study found that they have disproportionately lower incomes; half of trans people in the province live on less than $15,000 a year. Trans youth in Canada struggle acutely with discrimination — the Public Health Agency of Canada reports that 20 to 30 per cent have attempted suicide.

Legislation to protect transgender Canadians from discrimination is currently awaiting Senate approval before becoming law. The NDP-sponsored Bill C-279, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity, was passed by the House of Commons in March of 2013.

It’s no surprise that change has come more swiftly online. On Feb. 13, Facebook earned praise from Mock and other human rights and LGBTQ advocates when it announced it would give users choices other than “male” or “female” for their gender identities. Its extensive list of options now includes “trans” and “agender,” and users also have the ability to choose the pronoun they want Facebook to use in referring to them: male (he/his), female (she/her) or neutral (they/their).

Now, Mock is looking past print toward the bright lights of TV. Speaking with admiration about Ellen DeGeneres as a pivotal role model for gay women, she is pondering what a TV show of her own could offer trans youth.

“I think the media offers us the possibility to dream of what our lives could look like, especially for young people,” she says, thinking about the recent blooming of positive trans characters. “I think about Laverne Cox’s role on Orange is the New Black, Harmony Santana’s role in (the movie) Gun Hill Road. Having those mainstream portraits that people can have access to enables them to think of trans people in different ways. Instead of being the butt of the joke, we’re at the centre of the story.”