I was shopping for dresses I didn’t need at a vintage store near my apartment when I read the e-mail that changed my life. From Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More.
It was May 13, 2011, and the message—titled “Drum roll please . . . Marie Claire”—contained a three-page PDF of what would become known as my “coming-out story.” “I hope you like it,” the editor of my profile wrote. “We are very pleased with it. Very proud of it.”
I downloaded the file on my iPhone and read the article for the first time, seated on a curb outside the boutique. It was a brisk and sunny Friday in the East Village, one of those days that hadn’t decided what season it wanted to be. My palms were moist and my heartbeat was hasty as my eyes glided across twenty-three hundred words written by journalist Kierna Mayo. I read the article three times from the same spot on that cold cement. After each reading, I was moved but strikingly detached.
It was a stranger’s story to me. It belonged to some brave girl who defied all odds, crossing sexes, leaving her past behind, making it to People magazine, and living to tell her story in a major women’s magazine. I found myself applauding this heroine for embodying the do-it-yourself bravado that Americans celebrate. Although the facts correlated with my life, the story belonged to Marie Claire through the reportage of Kierna. The profile was a compilation of a series of meetings, phone calls, and e-mails from the past few months that disclosed one aspect of my identity: I am a trans woman, or, as Marie Claire put it, “I Was Born a Boy.” The fact remains that the girl in that article didn’t resonate with me because it wasn’t really my story. When Kierna approached me back in 2010, only the people closest to me knew I was trans: my family, my friends, and my boyfriend. They were people I trusted, who nurtured me, with whom I was intimate. I took Kierna’s call because a friend to whom I had opened up told me I could trust Kierna. This friend was the same person who had disclosed to a well-known journalist what I’d shared with her in confidence. Regardless, I was not ready for the vulnerability that comes with public openness when I spoke to Kierna at age twenty-seven. During our conversations, I withheld parts of myself and details from my journey (partly because I was unpacking my own shame; partly because I needed to save those details for my own story). As a result, the girl in the piece seemed untouchable, unscathed, a bit of an anomaly.
I was reluctant to open up to the world for the same reasons I had been afraid to reveal myself as Janet to my mother and siblings at thirteen, to wear a dress through the halls of my high school, to tell the man I loved my truth: I didn’t want to be “othered,” reduced to just being trans. I struggled for years with my perception of what trans womanhood was, having internalized our culture’s skewed, biased views and pervasive misconceptions about trans women.
Growing up, I learned that being trans was something you did not take pride in; therefore, I yearned to separate myself from the dehumanizing depictions of trans women that I saw in popular culture, from Venus Xtravaganza’s unsolved and underexplored murder in Paris Is Burning, to the characters of Lois Einhorn (played by Sean Young) in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and Dil (played by Jaye Davidson) in The Crying Game, to numerous women exploited as modern-day freak shows on Jerry Springer and Maury. Let’s not forget the “tranny hooker” credits seen everywhere from Sex and the City to every Law & Order and CSI franchise. According to the media, trans women were subject to pain and punch lines. Instead of proclaiming that I was not a plot device to be laughed at, I spent my younger years internalizing and fighting those stereotypes.
I don’t want to be seen as one of them, I told myself a number of times as I grappled with making the decision to tell my story publicly. I remained silent because I was taught to believe that my silence would protect me, cradle me, enable me to have access, excel, and build a life for myself. My silence and my accomplishments would help me navigate the world without others’ judgments and would separate me from the stereotypes and stigma.
As I remained silent, though, I became aware of the fact that behind these limited media images and society’s skewed perceptions, there were real girls out there. I knew these girls. I’d grown up with them in Honolulu and passed them on the streets of New York. These girls and women were not given the same opportunities and concessions with which I’d been blessed. They were dismissed and dehumanized, which made an overwhelming majority of them vulnerable to the harshest treatment, exclusion, discrimination, and violence. These women stood at the intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality, and personal economy on the margins of our society. Despite my attempt to remain separate and be the exception, the reality was that I was one of these women.
Photo of Janet Mock and boyfriend courtesy Aaron Tredwell Photography