Janet Mock is a transgender woman who began her transition in high school and lived as a woman in New York City in her 20s, working media jobs. This is her memoir, and it’s a fascinating story, especially since it cleverly starts with Mock revealing her gender identity to her straight-man boyfriend, whose response the reader eagerly awaits for the next 300 pages.
Everyone’s lurid questions swirl around these issues—How would a straight man feel to discover he’d been sleeping with a former man? Did Mock have an obligation to disclose? Can a transwoman really pass that effectively? And while the eventual answers are interesting, Mock’s story is much more than that, and she knows it, and uses the hot topics only as a frame.
Mock is half black, half Hawaiian and grew up in poverty bouncing between residences with a grandmother, a neglectful mother, a crack-addicted father and a cast of siblings, half-siblings and de facto step-siblings. She was sexually abused as a child, though she says her gender nonconformity came first. She makes a compelling case that contrary to the stereotype (that abuse causes gender dysphoria) the abuse was the result of her gender, since the abuser sensed she’d keep silent because of her difference.
Despite the obvious flaws of her family, Mock drew on their positive qualities, loved them, and used them for the support they were able to offer. Her gentle treatment of them shows true kindness of spirit. And, in a way, the multiple homes and not-so-benign neglect allowed her to take the reins with her gender in ways that a more policed young person would never have managed. (For example, she started taking off-label hormones and growing breasts in high school… and her mother didn’t notice.)
It’s a page-turner, and a great story.
The book and the generally excellent writing suffer, however, from the sense that Mock is trying to win a cultural argument for trans people through framing her life in the right way. She tends to spell out the political lessons of her experiences. Passages like the following are encrusted with lingo and feel like dogma 101:
The stories of my early expressions of femininity echo many people’s lived experiences with exploring, experimenting, and expressing gender. I’ve read and heard stories of trans people from all walks of life who remember playfully exhibiting their preferred gender behaviors and roles at age three or four without anyone’s prompting. …the majority were discouraged from experimenting outside their prescribed gender roles and behaviors. This contributes greatly to self image… Most cis people rarely question their gender identity…. This makes it difficult for the majority of people—including parents of trans youth and those close to trans people—to grasp the varied identities, needs, and determinations of trans people.
What’s the difference between a “lived experience” and an “experience”? What does “determination” mean in this context? Do we really know how parental discouragement of gender non-conforming behavior affects self-image, or is this a party line, a truism that everyone accepts because it seems to make sense? And “most cis people rarely question their gender identity”…. uhhhm, that’s probably not true, especially in childhood, whether you end up cis or end up trans. Most of this passage probably is accurate enough as common sense, but it has a false science-y quality that I object to.
I suppose the point is that the book is Dogma 101, Mock is quite specifically writing the book as a work of advocacy, using herself as an example to teach a general readership about trans issues.
The most interesting part of that to me was that as an advocate she struggles with the desire to pass as a woman (be a woman), as has been her deepest urge since childhood, verses the rising tide of calls to stand with her sister trans-women, which involves a fair amount of not-passing. It’s a conundrum and Mock doesn’t have the answers, but she has obviously responded to calls for her help with the same kind of generosity she has shown in other parts of her story. I admire her for it.