Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Redefining Realness by Janet Mock & Kenna: A Transgender Life by Kenna Henderson

For those of you who don't regularly read Frock Magazine . . . well, you really have no excuse, since it's both Free and Fabulous! Seriously, though, if you happen to have missed an issue or two, I thought I'd offer up a few holiday treats, re-posting some of the reviews I've featured in my Frock Books column this year. We kicked things off yesterday with a look back to February, and today we make our way into April, with a pair of real-life tales from Janet Mock and Kenna Henderson.

It was 2011 when Janet Mock, editor of, came out as transgender in Marie Claire magazine. In just over 2000 words she went from being a respected editor to an influential spokesperson for the transgender community. Since then, she’s gone on to put a positive, professional face on transgender issues, appearing in the pages of everything from London Times Magazine to The Telegraph, and on such television shows as Huffington Post Live to MSNBC.

Of course, despite what seems like an overnight success, Janet’s life was not so different from any other trans woman, looking to cope with the struggle of her own identity. In Redefining Realness she talks about growing up in a world where being trans was not something you took pride in, or even talked about with anybody outside your immediate family. It was a world of dehumanizing depictions found in popular culture, usually played for laughs, for shock value, or trashy titillation.

Her story has all the hallmarks of the trans experience. She recalls being caught and scolded for wearing a dress at the age of thirteen. She remembers telling her mother that she was gay, unable at that age to separate gender identity from sexuality. With no concept of a trans identity, the idea of a thirteen year old boy becoming a girl was nothing more than a fantasy. Somehow, she still managed to express that fantasy with Wendi, who was the first to do her eyebrows and makeup, and who continues to serve as her makeup artist today.

Janet was fifteen when she told her family that she wanted to be called Janet, following that up by declaring to her teachers and classmates at school that ‘she’ was to be called ‘Janet’ and ‘she’ would be wearing dresses to class. For the most part, her acceptance at school was positive, but there were challenges, such as the chemistry teacher who continued to refer to Janet as ‘him’ and as ‘Charles’ at every opportunity, and the principal who scolded her for dress code violations.

More than anything, Janet’s story is one of triumph. She acknowledges the challenges, the disadvantages, and the issues she faced, but never dwells on them or lets them dictate her story. Instead, she constantly takes charge of her life, insisting that her mother take her to the doctor for hormone treatments, coming out to her first boyfriend, and then coming out to her estranged father with a touching, heart-felt letter and a copy of her yearbook photo. When she talks of her father writing back to tell her she “looks nice,” I’ll admit to shedding a few tears, even if he goes on to caution he’ll need time to come to terms with ‘Janet.’

There is some darkness to her tale as well, particularly surrounding her life as a prostitute, but she owns that life, owns her choices, and almost justifies them as a means to an end. She doesn’t sensationalize it, even if it does end with a Pretty Woman type proposal (which she rejects), and it is here that Janet steps outside her own story to talk about the risks of suicide, HIV, and rape.

Ultimately, Janet’s story is a journey of self-revelation, of understanding who she is inside, and of taking steps to realize that on the outside. It’s an extraordinarily emotional tale, raw and honest, but at the same time polished and profound. She doesn’t try to make herself out to be the perfect woman, and makes it very clear she never set out to be any kind of role model. Instead, Janet shares with her past, invites us to reminisce, and promises a brighter future – something to which we can all aspire.

Kenna Henderson writes of a childhood filled with loss and confusion, one where a young crossdresser, already feeling guilty, is further ostracized by the move to a new community and a new school for his last years of schooling. She writes of a life of wild swings, of embracing and indulging her femininity, and of rejecting and purging herself of every scrap of evidence. It’s a life that I’m sure may of us can relate to, particularly the guilty purges, and that honest shines through.

When she writes of spilling the secret to her wife, of having reached the “boiling point at which hiding something like this from the person you love most becomes terribly painful,” I literally had to put the book down and walk away. My own memories of that situation were just too intense. I shared her fear of ending the marriage with that disclosure, and of not wanting to hurt the other person . . . but no longer willing to hurt ourselves.

The framework of Kenna / A Transgender Life is interesting, with the primary narrative centred around her decision to deliberately seek work as a woman. She admits to being completely unprepared, and to basically “winging it” as far as voice and mannerisms are concerned. There’s something comic-tragic in that experience, but it serves well to ground the rest of the story, in which she reminisces about the things in her life that brought her to that decision.

I found it comforting that hers was not just a story of transition, and of never looking back. Far from it. Kenna changes her mind about herself many times over, veering back and forth across the imaginary line of the gender binary, sometimes pushed, and sometimes pulled to the other side. When she ultimately does decide that it’s time to stop and make a choice, she does so by drafting a coming out letter that I think is quite remarkable.

It begins with the simple statement, “I can burden others with knowledge they would rather not have. Or, I can die knowing that I hid the truth from some of those closest to me” and goes on from there. She writes of mental agitation, professional help, of fear and depression, and of reaching a turning point. She doesn’t demand acceptance, but makes it clear there is no room left for argument.

There is no cure. She cannot go on pretending or performing. She recognizes that it’s time to make a commitment, and to stick with it. Although there’s a brief epilogue, her story really ends with the fitting declaration, “Kenna would prevail.”

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