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Review: Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

“My most prized possession was my lanyard of Lip Smackers,” Janet Mock writes of her early adolescence. “…I tore it out of the confines of the paper package, which read, ‘All the flavor of being a girl.’” Young Mock, just beginning to present herself femininely, wore the lanyard constantly, a visible marker that she was a girl.

This is just one of the many poignant anecdotes Janet Mock provides of her “path to womanhood” in her 2014 memoir “Redefining Realness,” which reaches from her childhood to soon before the book’s publication. The book creatively peppers a chronological narrative of her early life with contemporary statistics and moving literary quotes that make Mock’s already-compelling story all the more relevant.

The book is framed by Mock’s interactions with her current partner in 2009. We begin on their first date, when Mock is contemplating whether she should tell him she is trans. Because of that perspective, we hear her story told with trust and compassion, a story told with love, because she is telling it to her partner as well. This allows us an immediate intimacy into her nuanced narrative.

Mock’s story does not resemble the narrative of trans people often portrayed by the media as a physical—usually surgical—transition that alters identity. It is absolutely not about a “sex change.” As she states explicitly at the close of the book: “What I want people to recognize is that ‘transitioning’ is not the end of the journey. Yes, it’s an integral part of revealing who we are to our- selves and the world, but there’s much life afterward.”

In Mock’s case, there’s also so much before. We learn of her experiences as a Hawaiian-black child growing up primarily in Hawaii, as well as Oakland and Texas, and her complex family life. She discusses her parents’ drug addictions, her teen-mother sisters, experiences with domestic violence and child sexual abuse and sex work, and the always-present intersections of her gender, sexuality, race and class. For example, she and her brother Chad were often harassed on the playground for their blackness, an invisible distinction. “I say this,” she explains, “because the kids who teased us were as brown as us, but we were black. There was a racial order that existed…” This is just one demonstration of her careful examination of the dichotomy between visible and invisible difference.

Mock, as a self-defined “low-income trans woman of color,” lives her life at one of the most oppressed intersections, but never overlooks her points of privilege, especially in terms of her societally-approved beauty and ability to “pass.” In one scene where Mock is beginning to become acquainted with a group of older trans women sex workers, the term “fishiness” is used in Hawaiian slang for the same purpose. “To be fish meant I could ‘pass’ as any other girl, specifically a cis woman, mirroring the concept of realness…” (A cis person is someone whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth.) Realness is a form of protection.

A feminist mantra since the 1970s has been that the personal is political. Mock brings this platitude to reality repeatedly with well-sourced anecdotes about the state of trans people in America. For example, as Mock cites in the book, trans women of color face a constant threat of violence, one that is greatly increased if one does not “embody realness.” This is substantiated in a 2014 Vice article by Mary Emily O’Hara: “‘Usually what we see is homicides of low income trans women of color are the ones where police don’t respond as fast as they should with the forcefulness that they should. It’s not just a trans issue, then, but an issue of income and color,” Osman Ahmed, research and education coordinator for the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), said in an interview.”

Ahmed acknowledges the same intersecting oppressions that Mock does continually, especially in her discussion of sex work, which she engaged in in her late teens in order to fund the surgery that would allow her to have a vagina. She provides the experience of someone for whom survival sex work is the only option from a first-hand perspective, not sparing any details, and links it back to systemic oppression. This is where Mock thrives; she links feminist theory and statistics and literature with her own life experience, making it accessible to readers both old and new to the topic.

This accessibility is what makes the book most valuable; her story is built on a foundation of compassion and the struggle for self-definition and social acceptance. When Mock details the mood swings she felt as a teen taking hormones, her obsessions with certain idols and pop icons like Janet Jackson and Beyoncé and the alienation she felt living in her changing body, her experience mirror that of many other women’s paths, both cis and trans, into womanhood. Mock quotes feminist writer Simone De Beauvoir’s famous claim that “One is not born, but becomes, a woman.” That’s true for all of us who identify as women, regardless of what sex we’re assigned at birth.

As Mock explains in her conclusion: “When I think of identity, I think of our bodies and souls and the influences of family, culture and community—the ingredients that make us.” This epitomizes the strength of her story. Yes, she consists of outside influences and natural dispositions, but she is truly defined by her independent decision to live her truth—and to generously share it with others.

Mock is a contributing editor for Marie Claire and is the host of MSNBC’s weekly show “So POPular!”- check out its pilot episode here