Redefining Realness is Janet Mock’s memoir of growing up as a poor, multiracial, trans woman in Hawaii. As you can imagine, this is a difficult book for me to review since it is an autobiography. Instead, I will simply describe my overall impression of the book.
What was it about?
Janet Mock is a trans activist who began her career writing for Marie Claire. Her memoir Redefining Realness chronicles her struggles growing up transgender and poor in a society that was only just beginning to address trans rights. Her father does not live responsibly, and her mother gets into relationships with men who go in and out of prison.
From a young age, her parents and siblings notice that Janet (born Charles) does not behave like other boys. She wants to be a secretary and prefers feminine clothing. Her step brother begins to sexually abuse her at the age of 9. When she does start transitioning at 15, her teachers and classmates are not tolerant. However, she does make friends with other trans individuals and participates in a trans support group. Eventually, she makes enough money while in college (through sex work) to pay for gender reassignment surgery in Thailand.
This is a very graphic memoir. Everything from sexual abuse to sex work is described in detail. But this is Janet Mock’s story. Often, the trans individuals whose voices we hear in the media are white and came from middle to upper class families. Mock wants to bring attention to the majority of trans individuals who do not come from such privileged backgrounds. Many do not have the money to undergo hormone replacement therapy or have reassignment surgery, so they have even more difficulty integrating into society.
I definitely live a very sheltered life. Mock never has a stable home growing up, and has parents who do drugs. She makes choices that most of us would condemn. But there are structures in every society that prevent people from doing the right thing. When we ignore the influence these structures have on marginalized groups we end up blaming the victim.
I am still learning about gender and sexuality. I noticed while I was reading the memoir that I often thought of the trans individuals mentioned as becoming a certain gender. But that is not how trans individuals understand their gender. Mock does not thing she changed from being a boy to a girl. She has always understood herself as a girl.
Perhaps the greatest challenge I had reading this book (apart from the graphic language and descriptions) was relating to Mock’s definition of femininity. I have never cared much about clothing, makeup, or pop culture. I dress fairly androgynously most of the time and spend my money on books. But I’m also aware that many women do feel pressured by societal standards and by advertisement to look a certain way. I began to be aware of my privilege not only as a cis woman but as a woman who for whatever reason does not feel threatened by the media’s representation of women. I wonder sometimes whether I can appreciate certain initiative in the feminist movement because of my gender neutral presentation, but that’s a topic for another time…
I don’t think I will reread this memoir. This is a book that you read once and give away. The writing is also pretty awful. Still, it took a lot of courage for Mock to write so honestly about her life. I worry how the most recent election in America will affect LGBTQ individuals. If you, like me, are still learning about gender and/or sexuality and are OK with reading something as graphic as Redefining Realness, I recommend Mock’s memoir. We need to listen to and learn from people whose voices are deliberately silenced by society.
I read this book for The Literary Others reading challenge hosted last month by Adam @ Roof Beam Reader.