Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness” is a heartbreaking work of staggering revelation.  I have not read a memoir that felt more truthful, urgent and brave. Mock chronicles her perilous journey from boyhood to womanhood, illuminating all of the obstacles race, class, life circumstances and other people (even well-meaning ones) erected in her path.

The narrative is deeply personal and also political in its insistence upon drawing attention to the entire transgender community, which desperately needs broader awareness and acceptance.  The book educates as well as captivates. I highly recommend it to anyone seeking a better grasp of the challenges facing transgender children and adults, particularly those who come of age without the financial and moral support of their families.

Here’s why everyone should read “Redefining Realness:”

You’ll get a master class in unapologetic selfhood.  Mock lays herself bare in this book, from her parents’ drug addictions to her time as a teen sex worker.  But this is not exhibitionism for exhibitionism’s sake.  This is a full-hearted embrace of her own complex, layered identity. She’s owning her story and daring us to join her in making life easier for the next girl like her–born with a male body but longing to grow into her womanhood.

“I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act,” she writes.  “It is an act that can be met with hostility, exclusion, and violence.  It can also lead to love, understanding, transcendence, and community.”

It’ll sharpen your understanding and your communication.  “Redefining Realness” packs real explanatory power, helping us avoid stigmatizing slips of the tongue.  It will teach you the basics: the difference between cis  and trans and their relation to the alignment (or misalignment) of a person’s gender identity and the sex assigned to them at birth.

More importantly, you’ll gain a sense of the very real lived impact of words when used to dismiss, dehumanize and disparage trans people. You’ll grasp why gender reassignment surgery isn’t about turning gay people into straight people of the opposite sex.  Why it’s not prudent or safe for a woman to disclose that she’s trans to everyone she meets. Why we all need to focus on making the world safer for everyone.

It’s a love story.  Mock presents storytelling as a form of intimacy.  The book operates within the frame of her revealing herself as a trans woman to the man she loves, but it’s clear that self-love is really what’s at stake.  She had to learn to accept, embrace and love the fullness of her experience before expecting the same of him.  The revelation of her truth itself was vital, whether he embraced her or not.

“I wasn’t sure of anything but the fact that I was no longer merely the veneer I had cautiously constructed since leaving Hawaii for New York,” Mock writes of the moments after the telling. “I could no longer maintain the shiny, untarnished, unattainable facade of that dream girl, the mixed one with the golden skin and curls and wide smile, the one wielding a master’s degree and an enviable job.”  The mask slipped to reveal something more beautiful–her humanity.

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