By Janet Mock as told to Kierna Mayo
The flight to Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport felt far longer than I’d imagined. It was Christmas break during my freshman year at the University of Hawaii, and I was 18, anxious, and alone. After high school graduation, many of my classmates were throwing big graduation parties and buying new cars. Those kids went looking for good times and great memories, but I was desperately searching for one thing only: a chance to be in the right body for the first time in my entire life. I had traveled more than 6,000 miles to have gender reassignment surgery — a sex change.
At the arrival gate, I was greeted by two smiling nurses who assured me that everything was going to be OK. But I already knew that. I was the one who had lived with the sheer torment of inhabiting a body that never matched who I was inside, the one devastated by the quirk of fate that had consigned me to a life of masked misery. By the time I set foot in Thailand, I knew there could be nothing worse than living another day with a penis dangling between my legs.
Counting backward as the anesthesia took hold, I surrendered to what I believed with certainty would be a better future. And then, just like that, I was awake again. The sound of Muslim prayers rang through the air, echoing in my brightly lit hospital room. Even though I’d spent the last three hours on the operating table — I could already feel the first tinges of pain in my lower body — I felt completely reborn. Though I had been born a boy to my native Hawaiian mother and African-American father, I would never be a man. It was the birth of my choosing this time. And now it was official: Charles had died so that Janet could live.
Once, when I was 5-years-old, a little girl who lived next door to my grandmother dared me to put on a muumuu and run across a nearby parking lot. So I did. I threw it on, hiked it up in one hand, and ran like hell. It felt amazing to be in a dress. But suddenly my grandmother appeared, a look of horror on her face. I knew immediately that I had crossed some kind of line. After yelling at me, she banished me to our patio, where I played quietly with my sumo action figures for a while. I loved them because they had long hair, and they were the only “dolls” OK for me, a boy, to play with.
It didn’t take very long before the social cues got louder and clearer. My parents started scolding me over the way I walked and held my hands. I learned to hide aspects of my personality. Playing with girls was fine, for example, but playing with their Barbies was something I could do only behind closed doors. After my parents split, my mom said my younger brother and I needed a strong male role model and sent us to live with our dad in Oakland, California. Stern and critical, my father couldn’t accept how feminine and dainty I was in comparison to my rough-and-tumble brother. “Get outside and play!” he would bark. One time, I pretended to be a girl named Keisha — I wasn’t dressed like a girl, but in my baggy jeans and colorful top and with my longish hair, I easily passed for one. A boy who didn’t know me told my cousin Mechelle that he thought I was pretty. “Isn’t she?” Mechelle said, playing along. She. It spoke to my soul.
It was my father who first dared to ask the question: You’re not gay, are you? I was 8 and wasn’t even sure what that meant, but I knew from his tone that it was unacceptable. “No!” I shouted defensively.
When I was 12, my brother and I moved back to Honolulu to live with our mother. Hawaii felt like another universe, and reflecting on it, I am struck by how much more open and accepting it was. The searing social issues there had more to do with locals versus “foreigners” (aka “haoles”) than with kids like me. In fact, I even found other boys like me there, and I eagerly gravitated to them. Together we envied girls, their ability to express their femininity without shame; I admired the way their bodies bloomed and rounded out. Not mine. I was beginning to loathe my shapeless body, the straight lines and hard angles.
During recess one day, I met Wendi. A year older than me, she was part of a small, tight-knit group of transsexuals who went around town wearing makeup and skirts hitched up to the thigh. They congregated outside our school at night, where they practiced the dance routines of Mariah Carey and Toni Braxton. They were a revelation, and I was emboldened just watching them. Wendi lived with her grandparents, who supported her and allowed her to wear girls’ clothes and makeup, a freedom I envied. I spent hours in her room, playing with her cosmetics, plucking my eyebrows, trying on bras. The more time I spent with Wendi, the more comfortable I grew expressing myself as a female. By the end of my freshman year in high school, I was regularly wearing women’s clothes to school.
But the fallout was swift and merciless. Fag! I can see your balls! The insults reverberated off the lockers and echoed down the school hallways. Though I was never physically threatened and never feared for my safety, the harassment was relentless. Not a moment went by that wasn’t accompanied by a taunt, a slur, a cruel reminder that my classmates could not, would not, see me as I saw myself. “You’re making people uncomfortable,” one vice principal said while he looked me over with disdain. Soon he gave me an ultimatum: Wear a skirt to school again and get sent home for the day. But it was too late to turn back. I liked how I looked as a young woman, even though it meant exposing myself to ridicule. After that, I held my head high as I strode through the hallways in my miniskirts, past the haters who called me a freak, past the teachers who looked on disapprovingly, and past the vice principal who routinely sent me home. By the end of sophomore year, my mother, who condoned my wardrobe, had had enough. Together, we decided it was time to transfer schools.
Though most of the students at my new school had heard whispers about my past, it was a much more open environment. There was even a Teen Center staffed with social workers who counseled gay kids. One of them joined me as I introduced myself to teachers as Janet and helped them get comfortable with calling me that name instead of the one listed on the attendance sheets.
There are key moments in a person’s life when you just know your destiny is about to change. For me, this moment came when Wendi, whom I remained friends with despite being in different schools, started taking female hormone pills. When she graduated to injections a few months later, she sold me her pills for $1 a pop. The timing was divine, as I’d already begun to detect a hint of an Adam’s apple on my throat. The changes in my 15-year-old body horrified me. Sometimes while showering, my thoughts got dark: What if I just cut this thing off? Wendi’s pills were my savior. For three months, I took estrogen and watched my body’s slow metamorphosis: softer skin, budding breasts, a fuller face.
But I knew that taking them without the supervision of a doctor was risky. I needed someone to monitor my progress. That’s when I finally confessed to my mom what I’d been doing. A single, working mother, she didn’t have the luxury or will to micromanage my life and allowed me to do what I wanted so long as I continued making honor roll. That was our unspoken deal. But the medical changes were different — she recognized that my desperation to be a woman was not just teen angst or rebellion; it was a matter of life or death. “If that’s what you want,” she said, looking me straight in the eye, “we’re going to do it the right way.” So she signed off on a local endocrinologist’s regimen of treatments, which involved weekly hormone shots in the butt and daily estrogen pills. For the first time, I could visualize heading off to college as a woman, pursuing a career as a woman. No more dress-up, no more pretending.