Literary Hub

How Janet Mock Helped Me Dismantle My Assumptions

Janet Mock

I was in the queer books section of the public library, hoping to find something new. After deciding to transition from male to female, I’d begun identifying as transgender more deeply than ever before, so all summer I’d been trying to educate myself as much as possible about my community. I’d read transfeminist essay collections, Kate Bornstein’s landmark Gender Outlaws, a book about transmen, the memoir of an intersex activist, a book of case studies about being LGBT in the Bible Belt, and lots of other things. Many of the things I’d read that summer had come from the exact public library shelf that I was now browsing, hoping to find something new.

On the spine of a book I saw big, shiny, bold gold letters. They looked like they might even be embossed. I had a gut reaction to what I was seeing: the reader in me who had spent years immersed in the tasteful, measured world of extravagantly literary small presses felt put off by these aesthetics. It looked slightly uncouth, unabashedly vying for my attention, proclaiming without any shame or self-consciousness that HERE WAS A BOOK. So many things that I’d learned throughout my life were telling me to look anywhere but at this book. And that’s exactly why I picked it up.

When I slipped it off of the shelf and inspected the cover, things got even bolder. A giant, glamorous headshot filled the cover of the book. Enormous amounts of beautiful, flowing hair and a sleek blue dress that looked half-boardroom, half-runway. That same shiny gold font. There was even one of those subtitles that read like a focus group–tested, marketing-copy slogan informing you of the book’s contents. At this point my instincts were screaming at me, this book is not for you! I knew right then that I was absolutely going to read transfeminine journalist, advocate, TV visionary, and aspiring media mogul Janet Mock’s second memoir.

My transition had been all about abandoning my assumptions and doing things that I never expected I would do. It was extremely humbling to admit halfway through life that I’d been living as the wrong gender. If I’d been so blind to such a basic flaw in my existence, what else had I gotten wrong for my whole life?

Because of this I’d made it a priority to try new things and re-evaluate long-held assumptions. A lot of that was simply deciding to do things that I’d always felt were “not for me.” It could be extremely simple, like learning to cook a vegetable I’d never tried before; or it could be intensive and prolonged, like committing myself to the process of undergoing therapy. Because reading had been such a fundamental part of my life for so long, it was perfect for this sort of assumption-smashing.

If I hadn’t done this, I probably never would have picked up Janet Mock’s books, and that would have been a big loss. Her story is simply amazing and inspirational. Growing up impoverished to divorced parents who both struggled with drug addictions, she managed to transition in her teens in the 1990s, a time when things were so much harder for transpeople. She largely self-funded her transition through the only available option—sex work—while being an honor student despite facing bullying, ignorance, and oppression at her school.

And then she journeyed to Thailand by herself to get vaginoplasty, an operation that is uniquely intimidating even when you are surrounded by supportive loved ones and top-rate medical care. As if that wasn’t enough, she worked her way through college in New York City, put herself through journalism school at NYU, and jump-started her career with coveted internships despite facing all of the barriers that confront a young black woman trying to get ahead.

We live in a society where female ways of being are still commonly viewed as second-best, where too much feminine energy can be an obstacle to being taken seriously.

I really appreciated Mock’s books for showing me worlds that I knew almost nothing about. Her story is much more than that of a transwoman fighting to become comfortable with herself while building a career and a marriage. Mock writes as powerfully about her race-based experience as she does about her trans experience, and she also shares struggles that all women can relate to—body image, campus rape, sex-based discrimination.

I also appreciated Mock for her unabashed glamour and femininity. We live in a society where female ways of being are still commonly viewed as second-best, where too much feminine energy can be an obstacle to being taken seriously, where women are expected to conform to stereotypically male communication patterns and expectations in order to have a career and real power. Too often it’s a choice between embracing who you really are and getting what you want in life.

This misogyny hits transwomen in a particular way. Many of us simply never come out, because we’re told that embracing our true selves will put us in danger of physical harm, and get ourselves ostracized from our families, friends, and communities. When we do come out, we’re ridiculed for voluntarily giving up the benefits of male privilege to lower our status to that of mere women, even while pop culture sensationalizes how bodies change as we transition. We’re told that we’re fakes who can never be “real” women, and if we get too good at being women, then we’re seen as threats who trick men and “trap” them into doing things that they consider homosexual.

At the same time, those same insecure men exoticize us as “chicks with dicks”—which, to judge by the popularity of transsexual porn, is something a lot of them really like. And then men—and sometimes other women—project these insecurities back onto us, arguing that we only want to become women as a sneaky way of getting access to the ladies’ room.

These are all things that Mock deals with in her books, and I admire her for how she confronts these biases. She admits that her own feelings can be complicated, and that it took decades to resolve the self-hatred that these biases instilled in her. I recognized myself in these parts of her story, and she helped me to understand that we all carry this shame—not just transpeople—because our system of gender finds ways to oppress all of us. There’s nothing wrong in admitting this shame and in admitting your struggle with it. This is one of the first steps to dealing with it.

This process of confronting my biases has transformed my life in so many ways—one of them is how it’s made me re-think my beliefs around what I read. Nowadays, I often worry that a lot of the books I find value in would be considered too light, too female, too self-helpy by readers who once trusted my taste as a critic. This shame does us all a disservice, because they are wonderful books that I’ve gained so much from. Too often “literature” is still seen as cold, cerebral, intellectual, manly.

Perhaps more than anything, reading Mock’s books was the beginning of my work to recognize and overcome this shame. Transitioning was not just a coming-out as proudly transgender, it was also a coming-out as someone who wanted to dismantle her internalized shame around liking women’s things, pursuing happiness in life, and finding joy and value in caring for herself. Transitioning is more than a process of making my body align more closely with my expectations for it; it’s a cultural shift, an opportunity to do the work of finding better things to believe than those that you have been given. It’s a chance to envision another way of living and to lovingly guide myself toward it day by day.

Nowadays, I often worry that a lot of the books I find value in would be considered too light, too female, too self-helpy by readers who once trusted my taste as a critic.

When I overcame my misgivings and shared my enjoyment of Surpassing Certainty on social media, it was the first time I can recall saying that a defiantly feminine, pop-friendly book largely about trans themes was a valuable work of American literature that anyone could benefit from reading. As Mock has continued to do more and more incredible things, finding more of her voice and becoming more of a force in our artistic culture, more people have recognized just how great her books are.

She is an inspiration, and she needn’t only be an inspiration for a woman such as myself. Her advocacy to make more room in this world for gender nonconforming people benefits everyone, because it loosens the constrictive gender roles that limit men’s emotional lives and teach women to undervalue themselves. Her story of a woman who worked her way out of poverty to find happiness and self-love is a testament to what’s possible in America. We all have our limitations, our blind spots, our internalized beliefs that are hurting us—I’m glad that Janet Mock helped me to begin doing the work that’s let me reach a better place with these things. She might help you too.

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