Redefining Realness

Redefining Realness - Janet MockTrans autobiographies are A Thing. People who are just starting out on their journey often consume them voraciously. Many people I know have talked about writing theirs. Me, I’m kind of over them. I certainly have no plans to write one. It’s not like my life is particularly special. All I’d do is hurt people that I don’t want to hurt, including myself. And yet, I very much wanted to read Janet Mock’s book, Redefining Realness, and I am so glad that I did.

To start with, Janet’s experiences are very different from mine. I wanted to see what things were like for someone young enough to be my daughter. And Janet comes from a very different background: black, working class, American. Mostly, however, I wanted to read her book because I knew that she could write. She’s a professional journalist, someone used to profiling celebrities for People magazine. She can tell a good story; and dear goddess do trans folk need people who can tell good stories. Women of color such as Janet and Laverne Cox are amongst the best advocates that trans people have these days, so it behooves me to know a bit about them, and given them support.

White cis feminists are very fond of a concept called “shared girlhood”. The idea is that “real” women have some core shared experiences that they all share, and that serve to define them as women. More importantly, failure to share these experiences is cause for exclusion; it marks you out as “not a real woman”. There’s a reason that the word “real” is part of the title of Janet’s book. It has been pointed out elsewhere that “shared girlhood” often means experiencing life as a white, middle class girl, and that the lives of young girls in, say, a village in India, or even the slums of Oakland where Janet spent a few years of her childhood, can be very different. I’ll come back to this later in the review, but for now, chronologically, it is necessary to say a few things about trans girlhood.

While there are things about growing up trans that very many of us share, transness, even trans femininity, is more diverse than cis femininity. Some trans people know very early in life that they need to fully transition, others take years to come to that conclusion, and yet others never need to take that step, being happy with a genderqueer lifestyle. Janet, it seems, falls into that first category, as do I. There is a lot in her story that is familiar, but also a lot that is very alien. Here’s a snippet of the familiar from early childhood.

In rare moments of self-reflection, when I faced no one but myself, I dropped the mask. I didn’t have words to define what I saw or who I was, but I recognized me and often chose to dismiss her with the one question that pushed me to put the mask back on: Who will ever love you if you tell the truth?

There are many reasons why I didn’t transition young. Fear was a hugely important part of it. But I also had a very stable, loving home environment. No matter how uncomfortable you are in yourself, it is still a wrench to leave a comfortable life. What’s more, if life is made easy for you, you never develop the survival skills necessary to make it on your own, on a very dangerous journey, at a very early age. Unlike many trans kids, Janet was never disowned by her family, but she experienced sex abuse, parents who took drugs, poverty and homelessness. She notes:

The lack of social capital instilled an “I have nothing to lose” blind determination that made it easier for me to be true to myself at an early age. I was unabashedly brave, taking risks because I had no experience.

That, I think, is what it took to transition young back then, and probably still does if you are poor, or come from an unsupportive family. Janet, however, must have had something else, because many of the young girls who followed her path end up as just another statistic on Trans Day of Remembrance.

One of the things that helped her is spending her high school years in Hawaii. While technically part of the USA, the Hawaiian Islands are culturally part of Polynesia. They were colonized fairly recently, and many Hawaiians remember a time when social standards were much more relaxed. Janet notes:

To be mahu was to occupy a space between the poles of male and female in precolonial Hawaii, where it translated to “hermaphrodite,” used to refer to feminine boys or masculine girls. But as puritanical missionaries from the West influenced Hawaiian culture in the nineteenth century, their Christian, homophobic, and gender binary systems pushed mahu from the center of culture to the margins.

Growing up in Hawaii, therefore, provided Janet with a cultural background of acceptance of gender non-conformance that, while by no means widespread, allowed for the open existence of an extensive trans community that could provide social support. That community also gave trans girls the protection needed to engage in sex work free from pimps, and therefore a route out.

Sex work is not, as J. Michael Bailey would have it, something that trans women are “naturally suited to”. It is, however, something that many of us cannot avoid. The fact that I would probably need to sell my body to survive was one of many fears that kept me from taking the plunge and transitioning young. Janet notes:

Many people believe trans women choose to engage in the sex trade rather than get a real job. That belief is misguided because sex work is work, and it is often the only work available to marginalized women. Though we act as individuals, we can’t remove ourselves from the framework of society. Systemic oppression creates circumstances that push many women to choose sex work as a means of survival, and I was one of those women, choosing survival.

That word “real” again.

And yes, survival is what it is all about. When white cis feminists from safe middle class backgrounds rail against prostitution, they do so from the safety of never having had to make the sort of non-choice that Janet made to survive. I share their background, but I could so easily have walked out of it, and having been faced by that actual choice I will never condemn anyone for whom staying safe was not an option.

The other major advantage that Janet had in life was her brain. Like Kevin, she was the first person from her family to graduate from college. That’s something I hugely respect. For me, not going to college would have been seen as a monumental failure. Getting there wasn’t hard. Janet not only completed a university degree, she did so while working nights on the street to raise the money for her gender surgery. I can’t begin to comprehend how hard that must have been.

And so from college to a Masters degree to New York and a well paid job in the media. Life was good, boyfriends came easily, and no one in the Big Apple had the faintest idea how hard the girl from Hawaii had worked to get where she was. Ah, but where do you go to my lovely, when you’re alone in your bed? What are the thoughts that surround you? I had a love-hate relationship with that song when I was a kid, because I knew it was about a trans girl. I hoped one day it would be about me, scary though that prospect was.

The narrative of Janet’s early life is wrapped in a more recent tale, a love story of how she met The One, the boy that she wanted so badly that telling him about her past became a necessity. I never had to go through that with Kevin because when we first met I was pretty damn obvious if you knew what you were looking at. The closest I came to that level of fear was telling my family what I would be doing with my life. Telling a beloved boyfriend that you are trans has to be way harder than that.

There’s another issue too, one of validation. It is not true that every girl wants to be a princess, but I’m pretty sure that nearly every girl gets told that she should want to be a princess, or the princess equivalent in her local culture. Boys are valued based what they might achieve in life; girls are valued based on how good a man they can catch. That’s the same the world over, and it is the same for trans girls as it is for cis, except more so. Shared girlhood, it’s not as simple as people think.

If cis girls are raised to believe that they’ll be a success if they catch a good man, trans girls, at least androphilic ones like Janet and myself, dream of the validation that would come from someone, anyone finding us attractive. If there is an attraction to sex work, it is that at least someone apparently finds you desirable.

Aaron, as anyone who has followed Janet’s career will know, turned out to be just as wonderful as she had hoped, if not more so. I have rarely missed Kevin quite as badly as I did when I read the passages dealing with their relationship. Love, however, is never the end point of the story; it just means that you don’t have to go through the rest of it alone. There is still that matter of “realness” to be confronted.

In a brief moment of channeling Julia Serano, Janet notes that all women are, to some extent, considered fake.

It was a balancing act to express my femininity in a world that is hostile toward it and frames femininity as artifice and fake, in opposition to masculinity, which often represents “realness”.

For trans women, that balancing act is immeasurably more complex, as we are expected to embrace the presumed fakeness of femininity in order to prove our realness as women.

Simply, “realness” is the ability to be seen as heteronormative, to assimilate, to be not read as other or deviate from the norm. “Realness” means you are extraordinary in your embodiment of what society deems normative.

And yet, anyone who knows what you have achieved, no matter how extraordinarily normal you might have made yourself, may still see you as fake. Janet notes that many of the flattering comments she received about her looks came over as anything but complimentary.

They were all backhanded compliments, acknowledging my beauty while also invalidating my identity as a woman. To this day, I’m told in subtle and obvious ways that I am not “real,” meaning that I am not, nor will I ever be, a cis woman; therefore, I am fake.

What’s worse is that those people who are in the know seem to think they are morally obliged to point out The Truth! to all and sundry (Caleb Hannan, are you listening to this?).

In Hawaii, my home, disclosure was routinely stripped from me. People would take it from me as if it were their duty to tell the guy I was flirting with that I was trans and therefore should be avoided. It’s these social aggressions that force trans women to live in chosen silence and darkness, to internalize the shame, misconceptions, stigma, and trauma attached to being a different kind of woman.

Catch 22. If you say nothing, people tell you that you are living a lie. If you come clean, well you have just admitted that you are a fake.

Of course the media doesn’t help. Janet is part of that machine, and she understands it all too well.

The media’s insatiable appetite for transsexual women’s bodies contributes to the systematic othering of trans women as modern-day freak shows, portrayals that validate and feed society’s dismissal and dehumanization of trans women.

The only solution, as people like Janet and Paris Lees understand, is to take back the media, to make it our own. “We are the media,” as Amanda Palmer is fond of saying. Or at least we will be when people like Janet, Paris and Laverne Cox are joined by an ever-expanding army of young, talented and (inevitably, necessarily) beautiful trans women. (Trans guys and genderqueer folk have their own media battles to fight, but Janet & co are fighting my battles for me.)

So you make a spectacle of yourself. You come out, publicly, because by doing so you retain some semblance of control. Every high profile trans woman knows that if she doesn’t do this then someone else will grab the opportunity to make money out of exposing her in a very nasty way. (Did someone mention Caleb Hannan?)

Not that this is a perfect solution. Safe, it most certainly is not. As part of the process of making herself into a trans media personality, Janet has had to write this book. She has had to open herself to the world in all sorts of intensely personal ways. She has also had to do that to her friends and family, in ways that they might not always appreciate. In the era of the Internet, where any privacy is difficult to come by, such revelations are even harder to make. This is prostitution of the highest order. Being a media celebrity is not just selling your body, it is putting your soul on display for people to gawp at, and to pass judgment upon.

So there has to be a little bit more. It can’t just be about being visible. There has to be a point to be made. I suspect that most of you won’t read Janet’s book, because most of you are not trans, nor are you particularly voyeuristic. So — spoiler warning — here’s a sneak look at part of the payoff.

What people are really asking is “Why didn’t you correct people when they perceived you as a real woman?” Frankly, I’m not responsible for other people’s perceptions and what they consider real or fake. We must abolish the entitlement that deludes us into believing that we have the right to make assumptions about people’s identities and project those assumptions onto their genders and bodies.

To put it simply: Janet is the real Janet; I am the real me. Both of us live the way that we do because we cannot be true to ourselves otherwise. Prior to transition, we felt we were living a horrible lie, desperately trying to adopt a gender presentation that did not come at all naturally to us. Now we have stopped pretending. That’s the real truth, and that’s all you need to know. I thank Janet from the bottom of my heart for articulating that so clearly for me.

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