A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Trans Woman

What Janet Mock’s memoir, Surpassing Certainty, taught me

Photo via Simon & Schuster.

From her 2011 “coming out” piece in Marie Claire, to her groundbreaking memoir Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, to her new bi-weekly beauty column for Allure magazine, Janet Mock has written herself into history and has significantly changed media and cultural narratives of transgender women through her bold acts of revelation and storytelling.

Mock’s first memoir impacted me greatly, even though I am not a member of her target audience. Redefining Realness, as its title suggests, challenges our cultural narrative of what it means to be transgender. According to Mock, it is not bodies, surgeries, or physical appearance that make trans people’s gender identities “real.” One’s gender should instead be defined and respected based on a person’s internal sense of self regardless of looks or aesthetics. Put simply, what makes someone a “real” woman is that they identify and live in the world as a woman. Through her story, Mock shifts the traditional narrative focus on “becoming” within transgender life writing, that often defines “realness” on the basis of medical transition, to a focus on self-identification, self-expression, and “being” as the mark of authenticity.

This narrative shift gave me as a reader, educator, and social justice advocate a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be transgender today, namely the struggles faced by trans women. Armed with this new understanding, Redefining Realness cemented my conviction as a dedicated ally and outspoken advocate for trans rights.

As a child, I was perceived as an improperly feminine boy, and related deeply to Mock’s descriptions of the gender policing she received at the hands of her father. Mock’s father, a black veteran from Texas who had traditional views about gender, would often strip her of her physical markers of femininity — such as her long hair — as a form of punishment. These scenes from Redefining Realness conjured up a vivid memory of my father yelling at me as a child as I hid in the bathroom because my grandmother had allowed me to paint my toes with her nail polish.

Needless to say, I came to Mock’s follow-up, Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me, with high expectations. Redefining Realness is situated within the “transition narrative” of transgender memoir, though it expands and unsettles this tradition by inserting Mock’s story as a trans woman of color. Surpassing Certainty, in contrast, is a coming-of-age memoir. It is not a transgender memoir in the sense that, while it is about the experiences of a woman who is trans, this aspect of her identity is not the defining focus of the story. Rather, it is one piece in a complex portrait of a young woman finding her identity, her voice, and ultimately, her way.

Surpassing Certainty tells the story of how Mock became the formidable and fierce activist who first had to be an advocate for herself before she could advocate for others. Mock also writes in detail about her first marriage to Troy, a man crucial to her self-development who she met in Hawaii when she was nineteen and working in a strip club. The book’s title comes from the poet and activist Audre Lorde’s essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” in which Lorde imparts the following wisdom about the act of speaking and self-revelation:

The poet and activist Audre Lorde. Photo via Autostraddle.
“Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end. And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party… And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”

Though Surpassing Certainty presents itself as a book of lessons, Mock’s approach is not heavy handed, and she seamlessly weaves points of wisdom throughout her story, providing a blueprint for others, particularly young women, to embrace the often messy process of self-actualization. Whereas Redefining Realness is more measured in its revelations, Surpassing Certainty has a relaxed, transparent, and approachable vibe. Mock’s certainty in her truth is apparent, and her second offering reads as if she is having a conversation with her audience, sharing secrets with a trusted friend.

Photo via AbeBooks.

Surpassing Certainty is this generation’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, an autobiographical narrative by Audre Lorde in which she invents a genre called “biomythography,” whereby one creates myth out of the material of their life. Lorde described Zami as follows: “It’s a biomythography, which is really fiction. It has the elements of biography and history and myth. In other words, it’s fiction built from many sources. This is one way of expanding our vision.” In Zami, Lorde uses multiple sources — personal, literary, historical — to write herself into history and to create a black lesbian feminist archetype for other young artists to follow, while retaining the particularities of her own experience.

Mock similarly uses her life to create a model for “the girls struggling, striving, and slaying in the shadows” to whom she dedicates her book. Her story is uniquely her own, yet allows others to find themselves — to speak and to shine.

Here are some important lessons I took away from Surpassing Certainty:

No one, especially a trans person, is obligated to disclose their story before they are ready

Surpassing Certainty begins when Mock is nineteen years old, shortly after she completed her medical transition in Thailand. During the period of her life covered in the memoir (ages 19–25), she struggled with whether or not to reveal her identity as trans to those around her, especially romantic partners and friends, and wondered how relevant this disclosure was to these relationships. Yet, she grappled with the cultural stereotype of what transgender writer and activist Julia Serano refers to as the “deceptive transsexual” — the trans woman who “passes” and deceives men into romantic relationships by not disclosing this aspect of her identity. This stereotype falsely implies that trans women are not really women, but dishonest men. The fear of being perceived as a “deceptive transsexual” keeps Mock in her marriage with Troy longer than necessary based on her fear that no one else will love and accept her for who she is, that she will be seen as freakish, inhuman, and unworthy.

Mock’s description of this period of her life troubles the concept of “passing” as it relates to transgender people. “Passing,” in the context of gender identity, refers to the experience of being perceived as a member of a gender category one is not and is defined on the basis of normative standards of appearance for that gender. In other words, the test of whether one is “passable” is based on standards of beauty and appearance for cisgender (non-trans) women and men. Historically used to refer to black Americans who crossed the color line by passing as white, such as the protagonists of Nella Larsen’s novels, the concept of “passing” cannot simply be imposed upon the experiences of transgender people. As Mock points out, if someone is living as the person they know themselves to be, then they are not “passing.” Mock identifies as a woman and lives her life as a woman. Therefore, she is not “passing” as someone she is not — she is being her authentic self.

While Mock questions the accuracy of describing trans people as “passing,” she is also clear that her appearance — namely the fact that people read her as a cisgender woman — gives her privilege that not all trans women possess. She refers to these unearned assets as the privilege of disclosure and the privilege of selective openness, meaning that before she was publicly “out,” she had the ability to choose when, where, and to whom she would reveal her identity. Trans women who are “clocked” (read as trans) based on cisgender standards of appearance do not have the privilege to decide when and to whom they will share their identity, which opens them up to ridicule, harassment, and violence.

Mock ultimately suggests that we do not owe our stories to anyone. Trans people, in particular, are not obligated to disclose their stories or identities. If trans people are merely living their lives as themselves, then disclosure is not always relevant or necessary. To imply trans people have an imperative to disclose is othering, as it suggests that trans identities are not valid, that what is “real” is the gender one was assigned at birth on the basis of their genitals.

Sometimes we need to simply live, process our experiences, and tell our stories to ourselves before we are ready to share them with others.

Sometimes we outgrow people central to our becoming

Mock met her first husband, Troy, when she was young and not fully sure of herself or her path. He provided her with confirmation and support that allowed her to have confidence in herself. Because of the central role Troy played in Mock’s development, she is reluctant to let their relationship go even when it has past its expiration date and is no longer right or fulfilling. Mock lived apart from Troy for many years due to his military career, dating other people while trying to maintain their connection. In a last ditch effort to make things work, she bought a house with him in New Jersey, though she was deeply unsatisfied and left after six months.

Through recounting this formative relationship in intimate detail, Mock shows that just as we do not remain static, neither do our relationships. The fact that we continue to love someone who played a significant role in our becoming doesn’t mean we need to cling to them for fear of losing ourselves. Leaving is not an injustice to what once was. Rather, it is a recognition that the relationship, when the final sums are tallied, changed us for the better.

Navigate systems of oppression to create change from within

Surpassing Certainty dismantles the American dream: the cultural myth that if we simply work hard we will achieve success regardless of our backgrounds or the systemic oppression we face. During her time working as an intern for various publications and as an editor for People.com, Mock became critically aware of the extent to which her identity as a young black woman shaped her ability to access the world of magazine publishing. Not only are women of color underrepresented in the pages of mainstream magazines, but also in roles within the publishing industry where they have the authority to shape editorial content. Mock became determined to break the barrier not to merely be an exception to the rule — as she points out, one exception to the rule does not change the overall system — but to transform the publishing industry from within by influencing content and elevating other women of color.

Mock cites Melissa Harris-Perry’s theory of the “crooked room” to explain the ways in which black women are often constrained within professional settings. Harris-Perry uses the term “crooked room” to name the culturally-entrenched stereotypes black women encounter in social spaces. “When they confront race and gender stereotypes,” Harris-Perry says, “black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion… It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room.”

Photo via Huffington Post.

When a black woman enters a particular space, that space is essentially misshapen and difficult to navigate because she cannot simply be seen as herself. Rather, she must wade through the muck of stereotypes, such as those of the “angry” or “sassy” black woman, that act as a lens through which others perceive her. This was the case when an HR director at People.com was hesitant to hire Mock in a permanent role, despite her excellent work, because they questioned whether Mock’s superior, a Vietnamese American woman, would be able to “control” and manage a young black employee. The same director also perceived Mock’s self-confidence as evidence she was a “diva,” which Mock interpreted as a racially-charged description.

Mock also elucidates what she refers to as “layers of blackness” within professional settings, or the differing perceptions and limits placed on black women based on their skin tone. In navigating complex systems, we must reckon with the ways we are both privileged and oppressed, and Mock further dismantles the notion that hard work is tantamount to success by acknowledging the extent to which her physical appearance — her lighter skin, features, and “good” hair — give her unearned advantages over other women of color in the workplace.

Mock, however, has used her privilege and her position within the mainstream to bring awareness to, and advocate for, the needs of those on the margins through her use of writing and pop culture as spaces of identity theorizing and resistance to marginalization. She works from inside the media to shift cultural narratives of marginalized women, to expand who should be seen as fully human and thus have the right to fair and accurate representation.

Perhaps the most significant lesson of Mock’s twenties is that she experiences a form of dual misrecognition: images of transgender women and images of black women intersect to shape and constrain her experience when she is forced to navigate “crooked” spaces. She often occupies a room that is not only “crooked,” but immobilizing, due to the misperceptions that threaten her humanity.

Writing and stories are vehicles for social change

As Mock’s marriage to Troy became increasingly fraught, she sought the services of a mental health professional, Dr. Delucci. Delucci observed that though Mock identified as a writer, she was not writing for herself. He encouraged her to keep a journal to process her feelings and build self-awareness. Mock diligently began to write her story on her hour-long commute from New Jersey, where she was living with Troy, to her job in New York City.

Not only did this writing give Mock the insight necessary to make a change and leave her marriage, but it also sowed the seeds of her future career as a memoirist. Mock describes her writing during this period as therapeutic, but not literary. Nevertheless, the words served as a vehicle to understand and then change herself, and by extension, the world around her.

One does not need to be the next Audre Lorde to use writing as a means of transformation. Self-expression is a human right and an integral part of a fully realized life.

Mock’s commitment to those too “other” to enter the mainstream is evident in the speech she gave at the Women’s March on January 21st of 2017, in which she located marginalized women’s experiences at the center of feminist and social justice organizing. Under an overcast sky, Mock delivered what will go down in history as a landmark example of speech-making, reminiscent of black feminist orators Sojourner Truth and Audre Lorde:

Mock delivering her Women’s March speech, January 21st, 2017. Photo via The Gathering For Justice.
“Our approach to freedom need not be identical but it must be intersectional and inclusive. It must extend beyond ourselves. I know with surpassing certainty that my liberation is directly linked to the liberation of the undocumented trans Latina yearning for refuge. The disabled student seeking unequivocal access. The sex worker fighting to make her living safely.”

Only a decade ago, it was unthinkable for a trans woman-writer-activist-revolutionary of color like Janet Mock to give a keynote speech at a women’s march on Washington. Today, we have hopefully realized that, as Mock writes in Surpassing Certainty, “there [is] no universal woman’s experience.” Mock’s words are a testament to how far we have come, and how our movements — those spaces between the world we inhabit and the world of our most daring visions — must be “intersectional and inclusive” if we are to achieve liberation for all people.

Mock says she most admires women such as Audre Lorde, who used their words to write themselves into existence and into history. But Mock does not need to write herself into being — she is already vibrantly here. And through her remarkable, yet utterly human, story, through the public voicing of her truths, she has changed, with surpassing certainty, the narrative, the conversation, and the struggle.

Audre Lorde. Photo Credit: Robert Alexander (1983), via The New Yorker.
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