A few months before her twentieth birthday, Janet Mock is adjusting to her days as a first-generation college student at the University of Hawaii and her nights as a dancer at a strip club. Finally content in her body after her teenage transition, she vacillates between flaunting and concealing herself as she navigates dating and disclosure, sex and intimacy, and most important, letting herself be truly seen. Under the neon lights of Club Nu, Janet meets Troy, a yeoman stationed at Pearl Harbor naval base, who becomes her first. The pleasures and perils of their relationship serve as a backdrop for Janet’s progression through all the universal growing pains—falling in and out of love, living away from home, and figuring out what she wants to do with her life.
Fueled by her dreams and an inimitable drive, Janet makes her way through New York City intent on building a career in the highly competitive world of magazine publishing—within the unique context of being trans, a woman, and a person of color. Hers is a timely glimpse about the barriers many face—and a much-needed guide on how to make a way out of no way.
Long before she became one of the world’s most respected media figures and lauded leaders for equality and justice, Janet learned how to advocate for herself before becoming an advocate for others. In this “honest and timely appraisal of what it means to be true to yourself” (Booklist), Surpassing Certainty offers an “exquisitely packaged gift of her experiences...that signals something greater” (Bitch Magazine).
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MY BACK WAS EXPOSED IN A SLINKY HALTER as I made my way through Hot Tropics nightclub, my go-to spot on Thursdays in Waikiki. It was a bit past one A.M., and the gyrating bodies on the dance floor obscured my view of someone I once knew. I recognized her face at once: wide, open, and flat, like she was pressed against a window peering in. I used to see that same face in high school, across the cafeteria. We never had a chance to say hello but we were once part of each other’s every day. Oahu was small, linking locals socially by just a few steps. It was suffocating.
When our eyes met, I felt the shudder of her knowing glare. She was unmoving. I rushed for a seat in a red leather booth nearby to evade her. This also offered me reprieve from a roster of underwhelming dance partners. My bare thighs slid together as I slinked onto the seat in strappy high-heeled sandals that helped me achieve my ideal video vixen aesthetic.
Clubs are companions for those alone and awake. They fulfilled my desire to be desired and satiated my itch for a man’s body against mine—close, strong, and steady. I resigned myself to the possibility of spending the night alone, because my girlfriend Cassie, with whom I had arrived, could not peel herself away from a Brazilian guy with ravenous hands. Their bodies had settled into a cozy choreography, her lean thigh lifted to his hip, his hand supporting her as she curved her back in ecstasy. Their appetite for each other seemed to mean there would be no room for me in Cassie’s Lexus that night. Good for her, I thought, as I watched the guy pet her jet-black mane.
The drunk and jubilant revelers camouflaged me as I tried my best to recall the name of the woman from school. She was alone, tall, olive-skinned, and dark-eyed, leaning against the bar with crossed arms. She seemed unsatisfied by her own lack of prospects, which made me feel less alone. In a feminist utopia, we’d dance together, make a gleeful exit, and seek satisfaction with stacks of Denny’s buttermilk pancakes. Instead, she seemed to stand in judgment.
I had long grown familiar with this particular look—knowing, intense, and direct. She knows me, I warned myself. In my nineteen years, I hadn’t yet gotten used to the fact that nearly everywhere I went—from this club on Kuhio Avenue to the Ward Center cinemas and the pebbled walkways of my campus—someone knew me or had at least heard about me. Privacy wasn’t often granted to a girl like me who had spent years standing out by merely being. It was the price I paid for living my truth. She knew I knew that all it’d take to shatter my fragile normality as another pretty girl in a club was a whisper. The last thing I wanted that night was for her to speak. I didn’t want to be clocked, to be discovered, and excluded. Too many nights had ended with me upset by harsh truths that stripped me of my right to disclose and self-define on my own terms. The truth is a whip when wielded by a malicious mouth, lashing you into obedience and confinement, a stinging reminder that despite your best efforts, you are still captive to others.
I was so preoccupied by her menacing focus on me that I didn’t notice the towering man with onyx skin approaching me. His full plum lips curved into a smile and made his black eyes even more narrow, like marbles in the clasped hands of a child. He looked like a model on a Sean John runway, with carved cheekbones, a square jaw, and feline eyes. His head was bald and glistening under the club’s neon lights. He wore his handsomeness confidently but not cockily, commanding me to focus on him as he stretched his hand out to me.
“Can I have this dance?” he asked.
His presence left me with no other option but to peel myself from my seat. He led me to the crowded dance floor, where he spun me around and away, only to pull me back in. His hands caressed my waist, then slid to the small of my bare back. He made me feel chosen—the reason I had traded the comfort of my couch for the club. Sure, I wanted to be social, but ultimately, I wanted someone to say, Yes, you. I want you.
During a break between songs, I excused myself to go to the restroom.
“Can I get you a drink?” he asked.
“Ginger ale, please,” I said, as I turned away with a smile.
My reflection betrayed me as I took myself in at the crowded restroom mirror. My edges were sweated out. My skin had surpassed dewy and become drenched. At least my body was snatched, I thought, despite an unceasing terror that I was just a burger away from chubbiness. I was young, and my body was resilient enough not to succumb to my late-night diet (Taco Bell Mexican pizzas, Jack in the Box egg rolls, and Zippy’s chili and chicken mixed plates). I patted my face with a toilet seat liner, powdered my forehead, and reapplied a coat of MAC’s Prrr lipglass before returning to the dance floor. He was standing with our drinks right where I had left him.
“I just heard the craziest thing.” He chuckled. “You won’t even believe it.”
“Try me.” I smiled, wrapping my hand around the cool, wet glass of soda.
“So this woman at the bar taps me on the shoulder, and I’m thinking maybe I know her,” he said. “But I don’t recognize her, and I just say, ‘What’s up?’ And she’s, like, ‘I wasn’t going to say anything, but I think it’s fair that you know.’ And I just nod, you know?”
I furrowed my brow in response and ripped the maraschino cherry from its stem, crunching its sweetness between my teeth. I knew where this was going. I had feared this the moment I saw her.
“And she goes, ‘That girl you’re dancing with isn’t what she seems.’ And I just look at her, because I don’t know what she’s talking about. So she tells me that she went to school with you and you were a dude or some shit,” he said, chuckling again. “And she smiles this creepy smile, waiting for my reaction, and that’s when I knew she was on some other shit. Can you believe that?”
It felt like a lash across my back, a strip of fire, stinging and burning. I didn’t flinch, though. Hesitation would have served as confirmation. Instead, I cackled, doubling over as if I had just heard the most ridiculous thing ever. He joined me in laughter. His disbelief served as salve. He was assured that she was just a jealous girl—a hater—who wanted to push the pretty girl he was smitten with off her pedestal.
“My grandma always said that envy seeks to destroy,” he said in a melodic Southern drawl that I hadn’t recognized earlier. “OK, so tell me the truth,” he continued. “I know you’re not supposed to ask a woman this, but how old are you?”
He looked about twenty-six, so I told him I was twenty-one, lying because I was not of legal age to drink or to be in the club. I didn’t care for alcohol then anyway. It made me feel out of control, uneven, slow-witted. I also didn’t want to betray the trust of the doormen who let me in despite the ID I wielded. It was real, it just wasn’t of me. I had bought it for sixty dollars from a friend’s older cousin, a Samoan girl who was similarly hued and could pass for me with a quick scan.
“I’m Branden, by the way,” he said.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Janet.”
We locked eyes as if we were seeing each other for the first time, and he held my attention for a few long seconds before a familiar voice cut us off.
“Girl! Let’s go to Waikiki Beach!”
It was my friend Cassie.
“Oh, sorry.” She laughed in a sorry-not-sorry way. “I didn’t know you were having a moment!”
I had met Cassie, a hapa beauty from Kaneohe with a taste for luxury, a few years earlier through mutual girlfriends. Initially, I hadn’t cared for her, but her unabashed appetite for the pleasures of life was infectious. She quickly became my partner in prowling, the girl I blew off steam with when I wasn’t busy trying to get through my freshman year at the University of Hawaii.
“I don’t know if I want to get all sandy,” I protested.
“Come onnnnnn,” she pleaded.
I looked at Branden to see how he felt about this.
“You wanna go, right?” Cassie asked him.
“I knew I liked you. I’m Cassie, by the way,” she said, flipping her hair and placing her hand behind her to signal her guy. “And this is Luiz.”
Everyone made pleasantries as we walked out of Hot Tropics and into the fluorescent-lit parking lot—where the woman who had spoken to Branden stood at the driver’s side of a white Camry. My body tensed at the sight of her. I suddenly felt wobbly in my stilettos. A slick layer of sweat above my lip betrayed the cool, confident front I needed for safe passage. Branden grabbed my hand as we passed her and I shifted my focus to him and smiled. I heard her car door shut and her engine start, and wondered what motivated her to speak to Branden. Was it a commitment to uncovering the truth? Did she believe that he deserved to know? Did she think about how he would react? And how was she certain that he did not himself know, or that I did not tell him? I still do not have answers.
I rode with Branden to the beach, where I walked with my heels in my hands, crushing sand under my bare feet. Cassie and Luiz ran ahead, tipsily touching, leaving a trail of clothes for us to follow. They splashed into the water without care. The Pacific Ocean wasn’t vast enough to cover their lust. I liked skinny-dipping because it was a group activity that alleviated the pressure to hook up. I found comfort in the black of night. I pushed my skirt down to my ankles and pulled my top over my head. I stood still in the raw, cool wind and my black lace thong. I had something to prove, so I slipped out of my underwear and waded into the water. I was nude but not naked, wrapped in an enigma that Branden would never figure out.
Forced disclosure always shook me, leaving me in a frightening space where my body served as proof of my realness. The need to prove myself valid was never-ending in its plea to affirm, connect, deny, and erase. I aspired daily to be like Toni Morrison’s Sula, a woman who shuns the demands placed on her by her watchful community, a woman who lacks ego, a woman OK in her otherness. She feels no pressure to verify herself. Her only aim is to be consistent, not with the world or those around her, but with herself. On that beach, I was far from that place.
“You coming?” I teased, as I pulled my tiny brown braids into a knot at the top of my head.
Branden hurried out of his clothes and swam after me. When he caught up to me, I yielded, letting him touch my lips with his. Our bodies met under the warm, slow waves, and we stayed that way until daybreak, when I felt assured that I was leaving him without a doubt. I once met a girl so fine women made up crazy-ass stories about her, I imagined him saying to friends over drinks.
I don’t know what happened to Branden. I never answered when he called. I didn’t return his voice mails. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him. I just knew I shouldn’t push my luck. But this was never about Branden, just one of many men who kept me company when I was young and seeking, who never went past the meet-cute or a few dates and nights in bed. I dangled myself like a charm, luring people close enough to push them away when things got deep. I vacillated between revealing and concealing myself. I preferred to be seen and admired yet unknown. Keeping just enough distance was the sweet spot, an intimacy disorder that allowed me to be present but far away. I let them in, my flesh being the means of exchange, but I never let them stay.
I trusted no one. I disappeared into myself. This left me alone with untruths that kept me company: It’s too dangerous for them to see you. Keep it close. Seal it tight. No one would want you if they truly knew you.
GENERATIONS OF GIRLS HAVE been told that the only way they can survive is to remain silent, go unnoticed and blend in. If a girl was able to fit the narrow, nearly unattainable confines of what society demands women look like, it was expected that she keep quiet about her past and just pass. It is never far from my mind that some, not as fortunate as I, are often ridiculed, shamed, hurt, or attacked when they fail arbitrary tests that I seem to pass.
I’ve always taken issue with the term passing. It promotes a false impression that trans women are engaging in a process through which we are passing ourselves off as cisgender women—which we are not. We are not passing as women. We are not trying or pretending to be women. We are women, and cis people are not more valid, legitimate, or real than trans people.
Besides, to pass always felt like an insult when I was striving to excel.
Still, I benefit daily from the privilege of blending in and not being seen as trans. My womanhood is unchecked and unchallenged in most spaces that I enter—from the grocery store to the subway to the locker room. Because of my appearance, I am granted the choice of discretion, of actually choosing how open I am about my experiences, and that is a privilege many are not granted. They are faced daily with the burden of other people’s ignorance and intolerance. We don’t have to search for too long to watch footage of a girl being attacked on public transit or in the restroom, or read a story about the killing of yet another black or Latina woman. There are only so many vigils, so many murals, so many pleas for justice before we must succumb to the fact that our culture is intent on us not existing.
Yet so many still choose to survive, and that looks different for each of us.
I chose to wear the cloak of normality as part of my own survival. I wanted to be accepted as I saw myself, without rebuttals, without denial, without exile. I followed a prescription handed down to me from women I knew who had also benefitted from blending and passing. I took notes as a teenager watching these women slowly separate from their family and friends, leave their places of becoming, and start somewhere no one knew their name. They believed—no, they knew—the only way out was silence.
As these women fled, they took with them experiences and stories and knowledge that would not be passed on, wisdom that other girls would never bear witness to or benefit from. They went out and got theirs, because that’s what they were taught was the only way to make a way. For years, I got mine by remaining silent and blending in. Now I’ve finally reached a place where silence is no longer an option for me. My survival depends on my ability to speak truth to power, not just for myself, but for us. I’m committed to getting ours. It requires me to relay how I struggled with living, dreaming, loving, fucking, being seen, and simply being in my body, in this world. This is a universal experience.
Since the release of my first book, Redefining Realness, many have written to me to express their amazement that I shed my anonymity and chose to be open. A common phrase I’ve read is You didn’t have to. But long before I opened up publicly, I was just a girl making her way, searching for her voice, her purpose, and her place. Part of my process of self-discovery as a young woman depended on selective openness, which gave me the power to choose with whom I shared myself. This offered me space and time to figure out who I was without a facet of my identity leading the way for me. It delayed the process of having to navigate the limitations of others.
I have gotten the chance to choose to whom I tell my story, which has been a privilege that not many have been given. But our stories are ours. They belong to us, and we should be able to tell them—not at the convenience of others but when we are ready. Holding tightly to mine all those years complicated some friendships, romances, and relationships with classmates, coworkers, and roommates. My selective openness led to the end of some and the deepening of others.
Today I no longer deny or hide. I own my story. I enter spaces without leaving parts of myself behind. As much as I own that history, I also own the fact that for many years, I evaded and avoided my truth. Though I am aware that many might make better choices than I did and may now have access to better choices than I had, this book, Surpassing Certainty, describes the path I took as I figured out who I was and processed who I didn’t yet know I’d become: the woman who thrives as a storyteller, an advocate, and a wife. This is my attempt to show up for that girl who is yearning to be let in, to be accepted, who believes that obscuring herself is her only possible gateway.