Trans writer Janet Mock captivates her audience with a candid talk about identity

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Yale faculty member Joseph Fischel (right) and student Daniel Dangaran ’15 posed questions to Janet Mock during her campus visit on Nov. 18. (Photo by Alaina Pritchard)

For many transgender people, fear of public ostracism makes it difficult for them simply to leave their home, noted author Janet Mock during a campus talk on Nov. 18 in a packed Linsly-Chittenden Hall classroom.

Mock, a transgender activist and author of the bestselling memoir “Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More,” urged members of her audience to be aware of that challenge and of society’s relentless “policing” of gender pronouns. She hopes for a time when a person can walk into a room without having to be identified as a “he” or “she.”

For more than an hour, Mock spoke candidly to students, faculty members, and other guests about her own experience as a transgender woman as well as a person of color and an indigenous Hawaiian. She was part of a panel that included Joseph Fischel, assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, and Yale senior Daniel Dangaran, who focuses his academic and extracurricular work on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and on AIDS. Mock’s campus visit was co-sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism and took part during the national Transgender Awareness Week.

Mock reflected on her own childhood growing up in Hawaii with a female identity and few public figures who shared her experience. Instead, she said she “pulled from” a “kaleidoscope” of people she wanted to be like, including Janet Jackson and “The Cosby Show” character Clair Huxtable. In Hawaii, she added, she was lucky to have a transgender best friend and hula teacher, part of a community of women there who respected “a space” beyond the binary male/female identity.

It wasn’t until Mock became a teenager and was able to see her mother as a full and flawed person that she could stop being “the good boy” she thought her mother “deserved,” and instead begin the journey to become the person she felt she was, she said.

“Once I saw her as imperfect, it allowed me to reach my own sense of self and not be apologetic … not even ask for her permission,” Mock recalled.

As a teen, Mock engaged in sex work to save up for the expensive sex reassignment surgery — a procedure she described as a “vital, life-changing” experience that allowed her to be in the body that represented her. She emphasized that having surgery was a personal choice that is not a part of every transgender person’s narrative.

“There is no such thing as the trans experience,” stated Mock.

She decried how the public still “frames” the transgender story in the same way it has since Christine Jorgensen became widely known in America for her sex reassignment surgery in the early 1950s.

“Trans people have been objectified and seen as freak-show specimens,” stated Mock, adding that others judge them as “silly” or “sick.”

Mock first told her own story publicly in a 2011 article in Marie Claire magazine, where she is now a contributing editor. She said she chose to write her book to take the story “to the next level,” explaining that she wanted to “tell it in a nuanced and complex way that didn’t necessarily frame me as victim or someone who needed to be saved.” Unlike the Marie Claire article, her memoir chronicles her experience as a sex worker.

“[A]s a writer, I am committed to speaking truth, and that’s why I chose memoir as a space to not only share my own very personal experiences, but also to do the manifesto, activist-y work of contextualizing those personal experiences,” she said.

Her memoir, she noted, is modeled on her favorite book, Zora Neale Huston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in which the protagonist tells the story of her life to her best friend. Mock says she chose to write her memoir as a sort of love letter to her boyfriend, Aaron, because he is the most intimate person in her life and her best friend. She added that the telling allowed her to “connect and be intimate” with herself as well as with her readers.

Asked about her relationship with Aaron, Mock declined to offer specifics, saying: “Now that my life is so public — I have told so much — I have to have boundaries. I have given 200-something pages and that’s enough to give.”

While still on her book tour, Mock says she is engaged in a series of future projects, including trying to develop her own television show and “conversation” series. She continues to write and blog, and is engaged in her social movement #GirlsLikeUs, which she launched to empower trans women and celebrate the diversity of womanhood.

Despite all of the media attention she has received, Mock says that she wants her own experience to be viewed as just one individual’s story.

“In America, we really do choose our heroes and heroines,” she said. “We like the idea of a sole person on a magazine or book cover. But I come from a community of people who have been a collective resistance. … I stand on the shoulders of so many people who have been working for decades.”

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,