The AfterEllen.com Book Club: “Redefining Realness”

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The issues covered in Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness, are vast and complex: sexual abuse, bullying, “passing,” parents making bad decisions, poverty and homelessness, the sex trade, friendship, love, identity, culture, and transitioning—from hormones to surgery, from a girl to a woman, from self to a closer-to-true self. It’s overwhelming but empowering, full of sorrow but also determination and joy. It’s extremely personal, while also shedding light onto the structural ills of society that harm, invalidate, and make invisible trans women of color.

As such, it’s hard to even know where to begin with a discussion about all the things Mock brings up. So let’s start with the easier stuff, the topics we can all understand. You know, like Beyonce.

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1) One of my personal favorite things about the book is how she interweaves pop culture into what is often a dark and tumultuous tale so seamlessly, and in a way that never seems silly or insignificant—even when she drops a Britney Spears reference, of all things. She quotes or references multiple books, movies, and works of music that helped shape and influence her own evolving identity, from Their Eyes Were Watching God to Audre Lorde to Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope to late ‘90s Destiny’s Child. I loved these references not just for their own importance to Janet’s story, but for how they helped reel me in as a reader, too, as a white cis girl whose childhood was as far away from the streets of Janet’s Oahu as could be, but who could relate to the pull of these book characters and musical goddesses. What was your favorite reference or quote she included?

2) One of the hardest things sometimes about being part of the LGBTQ community, especially as a writer for a website such as AfterEllen, is admitting that we don’t know everything. And part of the reason why this book could be such an instrumental tool is that it educates without preaches; it explains clearly, and with an intimate honesty, but without condescension. I believe she was able to balance the swing from personal storytelling to more objective analysis and explanation well, so that you stayed glued to the story at the same time as you reflected about what the story really meant in larger terms. For me personally, while a lot of the educational portions described terms and themes well-established in my brain, I was actually quite grateful for her clear explanation of the term trans itself, as well as the politics and complexities of passing. And of course, all of the intricacies of the queer and trans communities in Hawaii was completely fascinating and new to me as well. Were there any specific topics that Redefining Realness helped redefine, or clarify, for you?

3) Another thing I was impressed by was how many of Janet’s friends and family members we were intimately introduced to, and how she was able to show the good and the bad of each one, always ultimately ending in a remarkable empathy and compassion. Was there a favorite secondary character for you? I obviously loved Wendi. But in the end, interestingly, I found myself lingering on thoughts of Chad–the sibling that seemed closest to her for much of her childhood, yet also was the sibling who was furthest away from her on a social and personal scale. Yet at the same time that he didn’t always understand her, he always loved her unconditionally, always worried about her well-being, never abandoning her as so many others did. There’s something special about that kind of a family member, that never doubts, even when they’re on the opposite side of your spectrum.

4) She talks at some length about visibility in the media, particularly in the last section, when she briefly details the beginning of her activism in the LGBTQ community. This brought her to conferences and organizations where she appreciated the efforts, but never actually saw herself represented. She understood that who held the most power—typically, white cis men and women—garnered all the influence over whose voices were heard, while the most vulnerable populations remained marginalized. She describes the disconnect that often exists between the LGB and the T well, while also noting the relationships that do exist between trans youth and queer people of color: “communities that carry interlocking identities that are not mutually exclusive.”

Even on platforms such as AfterEllen, we still have a lot of work to do in making this disparity between gay visibility and trans visibility more equal, more just, and more hopeful. So my question to you essentially is this: How can we make it better?

For more info on Mock, check out this exclusive interview with her from our sibling site, NewNowNext:

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