Writer and TV host Janet Mock became a face and a voice for the transgender community after she told the world about her journey as a “trans girl.” In her new memoir, Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me (out Tuesday), Mock (a former editor at PEOPLE) traces her trek into adulthood in which she loved and gained strength while owning her identity as a black woman.
“I hope that readers — particularly young readers and anyone who feels marginalized — will feel empowered because there is a roadmap now to follow,” the 34-year-old said in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE. “Hopefully they’ll feel inspired to go out and try to live their greatest, grandest dream.”
Surpassing Certainty serves as a sequel to her first book Redefining Realness, in which she wrote of her childhood in Honolulu and the sex work she engaged in to pay for hergender reassignment surgery at age 18. Now, in Surpassing Certainty, she revisits the sometimes joyous, sometimes painful moments she had as a young trans woman, from her time as a stripper and the years-long romance with her now ex-husband to her decision to move to New York City and pursue a Master’s degree in journalism.
In the book you write that you were very selective when sharing your story with others. What’s your advice for other trans women as they navigate relationships and romance?
The number one thing is to ensure that they feel safe enough to tell someone their story … It shouldn’t be the responsibility of trans women to disclose to every person that they meet, [that they’re transgender] whether it’s a romantic partner, friend, roommate or coworker… There’s a misconception that trans women are out there deceiving people. We’re not out there deceiving people. We’re not even trying to pass. We’re just trying to be ourselves in a society that has put us into boxes, and has told us that if we don’t fit in those boxes then we don’t belong and we’re not deserving of happiness, of fulfillment, of contentment. [We need to have] agency over who we tell our stories to and whether we want to tell our stories to someone at all.
How does your husband, Aaron Tredwell, feel about the book, especially because it focuses so much on your relationship with your ex-husband Troy?
Aaron is deeply appreciative [of Troy] for taking care of me for all of those years and for being someone that stood up for me in a time in my life when I didn’t really have people showing up for me… He’s really proud that I was able to give tribute to my ex … Sometimes first love is such a pivotal, influential relationship and challenges us. I think that sharing the love story, the complicatedness between me and Troy, will resonate with a lot of readers who have moved on from their first loves.
What did engaging in sex work (which you write about in your first book) and your time as a stripper (which you write about in the second) teach you?
It taught me to have agency over my body … There’s all kinds of labor out there. Women are so policed and devalued and dehumanized when it comes to the work they do… I think it’s vitally important to center those experiences and to ensure that when we talk about feminism that we include those who are often marginalized and pushed out of our movements. My feminism has been deeply influenced by a lot of women who engage in the sex trade and sex work. For me, part of writing about it is to lift the stigma and the shame. [We can’t] forget that there are many people out there fighting for their own liberation in these sometimes dark corners. [Women in the sex trade] are often [ignored] and judged by those who consider themselves to be liberal and accepting.
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What did you think of Caitlyn Jenner’s memoir? What is the danger of lumping all transgender stories together?
What’s so great about this time period that we’re in is that we can have Caitlyn’s story, we can have my story, we can have Laverne Cox’s story. We can have a mosaic that shows the complicatedness, the things that overlap. But also I think it challenges us to nullify the notion that there’s a single trans story out there — because there isn’t. [Particularly with Caitlyn Jenner’s experiences], they show that trans folk can be problematic, that trans folk can have conservative ideology and political views that don’t even align with the community that they’re advocating for. For me, as an activist and a storyteller, I’m very centered in ensuring that we show the complicatedness of the human experience that happens to be rooted in my community’s trans experiences.
What needs to be done to ensure we can all live equally?
Right now we need to ensure that we are operating and gathering in coalitions and ensuring that we care for one another. Even though you may not have the same experiences, try to ensure that you’re aware… Activate from that space and challenge [yourself] to link up in arms and help fight.