Janet Mock, the writer, television presenter, and activist, grew up in Honolulu and Dallas, in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, between the homes of her mother and father. At twelve, resettled in Hawaii, she fell into the protective company of a glamorous cadre of transgender friends and mentors; her seventh-grade hula teacher was a māhū, a native Hawaiian term, Mock explains, for people who live outside of the gender binary. “In Hawaii, I didn’t have to look to ‘Law & Order’ or ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’ or ‘Silence of the Lambs’ to see trans people represented,” she told Hilton Als, last fall, in an interview at the New Yorker Festival. “They were part of my everyday.” In her memoirs, “Redefining Realness” and “Surpassing Certainty,” and in her television work, journalism, and advocacy, Mock conjures that richness of representation—tracing the contours of her own life while laying the ground for the stories of other trans and gender-nonconforming people, of creativity and resilience born of necessity. Since leaving Hawaii for N.Y.U. and working as an editor at People, she has appeared on countless TV programs, has served as a producer, writer, and director on the show “Pose,” and has written the foreword to a book of Mark Seliger’s photographs documenting the trans community of Christopher Street.
“In a culture of false idols, or at least loud and dangerous and hollow ones, Mock is a true and real heroine of our times,” Als said, in October, introducing her to the festival audience. “Serious and quiet and witty when it comes to telling it like it is, certainly, and when telling us what it was like to become herself.” In the following interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, Mock spoke with Als about her youth, the challenges of reporting on one’s own life, and about the monumental gifts she gave herself in her struggle to find freedom in her body.
I thought I would start by declaring that there are two Hawaiians who have changed my life: you and Bette Midler. Any state that can produce the two of you is O.K. by me. Can you tell us a little bit about your first years in Hawaii?
My dad is a black man from Texas. He joined the Navy, and his first duty station was in Hawaii, where he met my mom, who was working in civilian service on Pearl Harbor naval base. She’s a native Hawaiian. They got married, had me and my brother, Chad, and there was a semblance of marital bliss in the beginning.
My father loves himself, and he loves women, so he went out and sought pleasure in the way that he wanted to outside of the commitments he made to my mom, which broke her heart. The only memories I have of them being in the same room is—and I write about it in my first book—my mom’s attempted cry for help by slashing her wrists. So that sort of dysfunction was normalcy for me growing up.
There’s an extraordinary section in your first book where your father takes you to Texas, and you’re exposed to a kind of Christian fundamentalism. What was that like for you, especially since you were already feeling gender difference in the world?
Well, my father definitely took on the role of: “I’m your father, and you are my son, and, therefore, it’s my responsibility to correct you. So, all of your feminine ways, I need to berate them out of you, police them out of you.” His job was to contain me.
When my mother and father split up, the first thing my mom did was send her two sons, my brother and me, to go live with our father.
Did she feel that she was investing in your future masculinity by doing that?
Kind of. I think so.
She had it all wrong.
But I also think that she was looking for a new life and a new start.
And that was very wrenching for you, because you were very close with and loved your mother.
I loved my mother. I was obsessed with my mother.
That period of time in Texas with his family, your grandmother, and so on, what was it like culturally for you? Because you were really Hawaiian by then. What was it like to go to the Deep South?
All I think about is my grandmother, Shellie Jean Gibson, and the gifts that she gave me. She became a savior in the fact that she created space for me to sit in the kitchen and eavesdrop on grown folks’ business, which was largely my auntie, Linda Gail, doing people’s hair, and my auntie Joyce, just kind of playing the mediator, and my grandmother, who was always very light on words, but whenever she spoke she had a gravity and a sageness to her that was particularly loving.
And so to be around those women, for me, was this sacred space. And there were certain times when my father would catch me too comfortable in that space. I remember once when I baked a cake, and it burned, he used it as a point to chastise me publicly in front of the entire family to say, basically, “This silly faggot, this little sissy in my home, look what you get.”
I remember being just constantly yelled at and then put in a corner and made to feel small and meek. And my father remembers me being so much more combative. I don’t remember ever talking back to my father, but he remembers me talking back and battling him constantly. And I don’t know if it was just because of my actions, that the things that I did just spoke so loudly to him, no matter how small they were. But he saw that as a form of argument in those times.
In your book, there’s a scene where he cuts your hair. His feeling is that you deserve this; that you have been defiant, and so he’s going to show you that he has the upper hand. Did those moments with your father push you to a closer realization of who you were, or was it something that made you want to deny who you were?
I don’t think it ever made me want to deny who I was. I think it just made it easier for me to figure out the space in which I needed to pretend, or to shield parts of myself from him.
And what were you pretending?
Pretending, or at least not acting as quote-unquote flamboyant as I wanted to; not being as loud so as to not call attention to myself in his presence.
How did it work out that you went back to your mother after a time?
I think my godfather, who was my father’s Navy buddy, came to visit us and saw how we were living. And he contacted my mother, and my auntie Joyce did, as well. She found her in the phone book—I know, very old-school.
And they called her up. And I remember O.J. was being chased in the Bronco. The moment when I talked to my mom and I was on the phone with her, as this madness was going on on television, and everyone else was paying attention to this, but the greatest headline in my life was that my mom was reconnected and talking to me and saying, “I’m going to come and send for you all.”
How long had you been away?
Almost six years. And almost six years without contact.
How old were you when you went back to Hawaii?
And what was happening to your insides?
I don’t like to use the word “trapped,” but I was feeling very, very tightly contained in my body, and I found myself taking these risks and making these social experiments—I’d come up with new identities. So I had Keisha, who was very near and dear to me, and Keisha started out talking on the phone to boys. And then Keisha wanted to go out into the world and start experimenting.
So I remember once I went out as Keisha. I had long, curly hair at the time, as a tween, and I started this flirtation with this boy who I was deeply in love with, at my cousins’ house. And one day he came over, and he knocked on the door and asked for Keisha. He was, like, “Oh, she has long, curly hair, da da da.” And then my dad quickly put two and two together, and that’s what led to him cutting my hair, eventually.
And so I think a part of me was seeking out a space in which I could be freer, and that space just happened to come in when my mom sent for us to come back to Hawaii.
She had a lighter touch around all of that stuff. She had a higher, quote-unquote tolerance for my gender nonconformity. And I was able to meet new friends, and that’s when the queen of my life came in, my best friend, Wendi . . . she really was the savior for me.
When you met Wendi, she asked if you were a māhū. Tell the folks what that means.
Well, māhū is a native Hawaiian term, a label for people who live outside of the gender binary; largely folks who, in our loose Western translation, would be like trans women. In the seventh grade, my hula teacher was a māhū. In Hawaii, I didn’t have to look to “Law & Order” or “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” or “Silence of the Lambs” to see trans people represented. They were part of my everyday.
And then I met my best friend, Wendi, who clocked me at the playground and was just, like, “Bitch, what are you trying to do here? We can turn this buzz cut into a Halle Berry ‘do, if you want,” like, “We can remix this.”
How old were you?
I was twelve. And I just got so lucky that, within the first few months of being there, I found this best friend who had this, like, this hallway of femininity in her home. Her grandparents were older. They were raising their child’s child, and they were very hands-off. Wendi had porno magazines, and she had wigs, and she had eyeliner, and she had clothes. It was this really great space of desire and pleasure that I got to share.
There was nothing that you had to hide with Wendi, really, because she would just read you anyway.
Yeah, she would read me, and she would also, you know, I always saw her as a queen. She very much saw herself as a goddess.
When I met her, she had a green bob. She wore, like, super-high socks, with the stripes on them, with, like, rolled-up soccer shorts and a tight top, her backpack bouncing around the campus.
And, because she was so big, I could just hide behind her.
So, if I started tweezing my eyebrows, no one really noticed. Or if I started wearing eyeliner. No one really noticed, because Wendi was always doing more. She was always five steps ahead of me. And just so much more brazen. And so that was contagious, to have a friend who didn’t care so much about what people thought.
And I’m not the only girl that she did this to. She literally was the passage—the Underground Railroad of transitioning.
I was just going to say, the Trans Underground Railroad. That is the greatest thing ever.
That’s what it was. It was just a space of play, and she just made it seem so easy. Like, this is just what you do, and then you do this next, and here’s these other girls that you can meet, and here’s other examples of people. She introduced me to drag queens, and she introduced me to trans women who performed in drag clubs.
And I remember meeting this woman named Stacey. She was this beautiful Samoan woman, and I thought she was so much older, but I was thirteen and she was maybe eighteen, nineteen. And she just was the epitome of what I thought a woman was, just gorgeous, with long hair, and she just seemed so free compared to all the other queens that she was dancing with or performing with. I was, like, “Wow, it is possible. It is possible to be a beautiful woman, and to live in the world, and to be confident, and to not be ashamed of yourself, and not to hide.”
What was happening in terms of transitioning at that point? Were you thinking about it, or was it something that you were committing to?
After meeting Wendi, I knew very early on about the idea of medical transition—you take Premarin, and then you go on to shots, and then you have whatever surgeries you want to have. It was always something that I was planning toward, but I didn’t know how I would be able to afford it.
After I met Stacey, that’s when it became real to me. I knew that she came from where I came from, in terms of socioeconomic background, in terms of being assigned male at birth—all of these things.
So she became the gateway. I remember she started Premarin a few months before I did. And then she got tired of taking Premarin because it bloated her, or whatever she didn’t like, and she was, like, “I’m going to start taking shots, so you can start taking my Premarin. Just give me thirty dollars for them.”
That’s how I started, and it was all behind my mom’s back. It was giving myself permission to do what I knew I needed to do in order to find my own sense of freedom and liberation and contentedness in my body.
Was there anyone at school, guidance counsellors or teachers, whom you could turn to to talk about the person that you wanted to become?
Allison. She was a social worker in high school, and she created this group called Chrysalis with this organization that did a lot of H.I.V./AIDS research and outreach work. And it was a group for trans girls and gender-nonconforming folks at our high school. So I didn’t grow up in this weird isolation. I saw trans people every day, and we were all so very different, you know—I grew up knowing that we were not a monolith.
One of the sort of harrowing sections of your book, the first book, certainly, is getting the money to pay for the transition.
Yeah. There was this block called Merchant Street, which was in downtown Honolulu. It’s where the girls worked. They were engaged in sex work, in the sex trades. I remember I first went there when I was, like, fifteen, when I was able to go out at nighttime.
At first I came with, like, my National Junior Honor Society hat on, thinking, I could never do what they do—that’s disgusting, you know, all these puritanical views that I had in my head about what it meant to use your body, your only asset, in a world that’s not taking care of you.
And so I remember I was given an opportunity with this woman named Shy-Ann. She had this regular, who had basically outgrown her. And he pulled up and saw me, and he was, like, “I want her.”
And, at this point, I wanted to graduate to shots, and I knew that my mom, too, at that time, was struggling with addiction and codependency in her relationship, and so home was very unstable. And so the way in which I wanted to feel stable was to take control of my body. And so I knew that, by doing this sixty-dollar hand job, I would be able to have two months of hormones. And so I remember making the decision to get in that car and, at fifteen years old, to do this, and to continue to do this with this man for, like, the next two years of my life. And that was my way into sex work.
In the book, when you were having these experiences with these men, I felt that you were standing outside, watching yourself do something. Was it something that you felt outside of?
I think that, writing a memoir, it was easier for me if I tackled it as a journalist, or as someone that was looking at my life, and then treating myself as a subject, and then, maybe later, turning it to “I” statements.
Yes. If you read someone like Joan Didion, writing about the death of her husband and child, she’s on one hand writing about it from that place, but also as a reporter who’s trying to understand how and why something might have happened.
I think one thing that I was constantly trying to do for myself was to not judge my younger self for the choices that I’d made and the options that were available to me. Seeing that black trans girl on the streets of Honolulu, trying to make a way out of no way, I had to treat her—myself—as the heroine of the story. And so that meant owning your choices and owning the limited options that you had at the time.
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Tell us about Bangkok, and then coming back.
So I had known a woman who had gone there for her bottom surgery, and I knew that that’s where I was going to go. I saw her results. I was, like, “That looks good.” And so that’s where I went to have surgery.
How old were you?
I was eighteen. It was winter break between my first semesters of college. I finished my first semester of college, and, before we were going to start back in January, I went on a ten-day trip to Thailand and had this surgery.
On your own.
What was that feeling? It’s beautifully described in the book, but, for those folks who haven’t read the book, what was that feeling, of being released from the person that you weren’t to the person that you felt yourself to be?
There was this weight that I particularly felt about that part of my body that, for me, just was so dissonant to the image I had in my head of myself, of my own ideal. And so to be able to get up one day, and to stand up, and to have this void, or this vast openness in between my legs, was just so deeply affirming. It was like things made sense to me, in terms of looking at my own form. And because I had to live in this body and exist in this body, I wanted to learn to love my body and accept it.
And so, for me, it was one of the most monumental gifts I gave myself. But I think there was also a reckoning in the sense of, I felt so alone, too.
It was a solitary journey, and I was so young. And knowing, too, that I have made so much sacrifice and put in so much work for it to happen, knowing that my mother felt a deep sense of failure that she couldn’t be there for me. I know that’s something that still weighs very, very heavily on her, and the book is very hard for her in that sense, because of the fact that her child needed her, and she didn’t know what ways to show up because she couldn’t even show up for herself.
Your consciousness starts growing once you become a college student. Because you were secretly writing. And then you had a wonderful therapist who suggested, “Why don’t you keep on with the writing thing?”
I was very resistant, yeah. I would sit in that room with him and just talk about all of these anxieties that I had. At that point, I was in a relationship with this guy, and I was thinking about leaving that relationship, and I thought, Maybe I can’t leave it, because who else is going to love me, because I’m trans, and once they find out that I’m trans they’re not going to want to be with me. And I had all these pathologies in my head that I had learned from the world that I grew up in, that I was not deserving and worthy of love and affection, and all this stuff. So I was in therapy to unlearn all of that.
And my therapist believed that there was a part of me that wanted to express so much of this stuff but had never really expressed it. And he was, like, “You have quite the story. I think there would be a lot of healing that you can do for yourself by writing it down.”