"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Janet Mock has written a memoir about growing up trans in America, but as she says, it’s also more than that. “Redefining Realness” is book about race, about identity, about sex work, about reading. It’s also a testament to the power of community. In a time when trans people of color are disproportionately likely to experience discrimination and violence, Mock found a community of trans women in Hawaii who helped her forge her own identity, and who showed her that this forging was possible. Now she’s building a community herself, with her book and Tumblr and Twitter presences that encourage others to share their stories.
It’s an effort that feels especially important when many in media seem unable to represent trans people’s stories without sensationalism — on Tuesday, CNN’s Piers Morgan asked Mock if any of her past partners had “run a mile” when they learned she was trans. Mock declined to comment specifically on the Morgan segment, but she spoke to Salon about beauty, the media, and her advice for families of trans youth
Caleb Hannan’s piece in Grantland, which outed a trans woman, has been heavily criticized, as has Katie Couric’s decision to ask Laverne Cox about her genitals. Do you have any advice for mainstream journalists covering trans issues?
The first would be to see trans people as people. I feel like there’s a layer of really deep-seated internalized dehumanization of trans people and their bodies. That creates a kind of separation between the journalist and the trans person they’re speaking to, this separation that would never happen if they didn’t know the person was trans. You wouldn’t ask a cisgender women about their genitals. Is that something Katie Couric would ever ask someone, beyond a medical issue? It’s our cultural idea that trans people are not really people, they’re objects that we objectify and gawk over. I feel the same way about stories about trans kids; we talk about children’s genitals on TV constantly. Because we’re trans, our bodies are open for inspection.
Especially in that Grantland piece it seemed like there were so many different layers of things that were conflated with each other, a need to suss out her background because it seemed like something was iffy or off — the need to suss out the con artist aspect as well as the “falsity” of her identity as a woman. When we tell trans women’s stories, we see it as, “She’s deceiving us, she’s not really who she is.”
For journalists, it’s a matter of allowing trans people to declare who they are. The big thing for me is self-determination, being able to define ourselves for ourselves and for journalists to take that. Because journalists themselves can’t see trans people as who they say they are, that bias is shown through their writing.
I was really interested in your discussions in the book of beauty and beauty privilege. Can you talk a little more about how you feel the way you look has affected your life?
That’s the hardest thing for me to convey, because obviously there is the commodification of beauty. That’s why I’m most likely on my book cover, because I’m deemed “desirable” by our society to a certain extent. But I can’t talk about beauty without talking about my own dissociation with my body as a teen, talking about passing, the need of passing as a survival tool for trans women specifically. It’s so complicated ; when I talk about looks it’s a double-edged sword. It grants me access but you still have to get past the looks, in order to get people to actually engage with me beyond the surface.
There’s also race: Even this privilege I so-called have of passing, the next level is my blackness being a part of that. Yes, I’m passing as a cis woman, but I’m also passing as a cis black woman in our society, and how much privilege does that carry? Unpacking that, that passing privilege — I don’t think it’s the same thing for each person who can blend in as cis.
I feel like that’s a whole ‘nother book. It’s one thing so many people bring up, and it’s a hard thing to grapple with and talk about. I have this relationship with the concept of passing, period. I’m not passing as anything because I’m perceived to be a woman and that’s who I am. I don’t feel like I’m passing, I feel like I’m just being.
In the book it seemed like your family supported you, even when they weren’t always making the best decisions. Do you have advice for the families of trans youth?
I think my number one thing would be to let them lead the way. If you’re trans or not, parents have dreams and expectations, but the healthiest children are given a sense of freedom to declare the things they’re interested in, choose who they want to be, what they want to wear. They tend to be the freest people because they’re not policed.
Listen to your child and let them lead the way. The trauma comes in for trans people when we constantly get these messages, when I got the message from the people that loved me that the way I was acting was wrong, that gave me the message that I was wrong. My parents were loving, but there was a policing of me constantly. It says a lot about my father’s issues about black masculinity in our culture. Who am I hurting by wanting to play with a doll?
What do you think changed for your dad, that he was able to move from that policing to accepting you?
Honestly, me being sent back to my mom right before I was about to start puberty was just this miracle of an intervention. I would be a different person if I had to spend those teen years with my father. I wouldn’t have had the Hawaii trans community, I would have grown up even more in poverty, and also even more with my father’s issues around masculinity. I don’t know if it was as much acceptance, as that we were apart for so long — in that nine-year span we had never seen each other. When I wrote that letter at 16, that was just the beginning. He said he’d always known, and it wasn’t something that I hid. I think it was just kind of our natural progression in our own relationship with each other. He didn’t have as much of a problem accepting my transness as I had to forgive him for the things I felt he failed to provide as a child.
And I’m “the most successful person in my family” — it’s not like I ended up living this life of tragedy. I think it helped [that he could see] my child is doing great things in her life. I think all of that feeds into it with my father.
Can you tell me a little more about growing up in Hawaii and how the community you found there helped you?
I think I had the most unique adolescence you can think of. I attended high school and middle school with my best friend who was a trans girl. I didn’t grow up isolated, and that alone is such gift. Something about Hawaiian culture has that extra space for something beyond the binary, and of course it’s been Westernized, but there’s still that space. To have “feminine” boys walking around and being how they are, and there’s a space for like, “That’s a mahu.” There’s a name for it. That’s enabled a safe community for trans women to be in Hawaii.
Seeing my first adult trans woman, I was just like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe she’s a possibility” — and seeing many different images of trans women, I met trans women who were performers, but also lawyers, social workers and ones who were also sex workers, who created their own system. Because I had this whole sense of what trans womanhood was, that’s what Hawaii was for me. It gave me this unique lens of what trans womanhood is: It’s not something super shameful, it doesn’t match what the media’s narrative for us is. Whereas I can see if people grow up in isolation, you would only know the media’s betrayal. For me I had real-life lived examples of that, so I could then create my own — it’s not just one person I saw on a TV show.
You talk in the book about how the LBGT movement hasn’t always been good at embracing trans women, or women with multiple identities, and that’s been an issue for feminism too. Do you have thoughts on how social justice movements can be more inclusive?
I think for trans women specifically it would be to see trans women as women. That’s constantly the point of conflict and friction and tension — something as simple as domestic violence shelters and homeless shelters and the negating of trans women from those spaces. Trans women are constantly falling between the cracks of many different social justice movements — when in my mind you’d think there would be more people talking about and helping because these women exist at multiple intersections. They’re the most marginalized so you should be centering your work around them.
I think it’s also this sense that trans women aren’t already doing this work, and haven’t already been doing this work for decades. I think about the work of Miss Major, our trans elder. She was there at stonewall, she’s been doing this work for a long time, but because her identity as a trans woman and a black woman is not affirmed in our culture, we ignore the work that she does. I think about DeeDee Chamblee in Atlanta with LaGender — she’s also empowering trans women who had experience in the sex trade or are currently in the sex trade, she finds them local resources. All this work is already being done, but it’s not being funded. Trans movement stuff is often volunteer-based and it’s not heavily funded by major organizations. [It's important] to see the work that those women are doing and ask, how can you support that work?
I think we also like to think in silos, and people don’t always fit in silos, these binary identities. It’s hard for us when the person doesn’t fit what we think the person we need to save looks like. But I’m happy that these different conversations are happening, and people are thinking in a more intersectional, layered way.
What was the most rewarding part of the book for you to write?
For me the most rewarding part was just writing a story that’s often untold and ignored, putting it down in print. That was the most rewarding thing for me politically and personally. Personally it’s this accomplishment of a dream for me as a writer, to speak about things I’ve been taught to be silent about, to transform that silence into what I believe is an empowering memoir.
What was the hardest?
The hardest parts to write were about the systemic oppression of someone growing up poor — what leads a young trans girl of color to make the decisions she needs to make to get the healthcare that she needs. That was the hardest part to unpack.
Your book is really deeply engaged with literature. What have you been reading lately that you loved?
bell hooks’ portrait of her girlhood called “Bone Black,” that really touched me. I’m currently reading “The Summer We Got Free” by Mia McKenzie. And I have the new Pearl Cleage book here, “Things I Should’ve Told My Daughter.” I keep on reading “This Bridge Called My Back.” When I feel like I’m the only one out there, I find that book and I remember, there’s tons of women out there already, they already created this blueprint that I can follow along.
What’s next for you?
I think right now it’s the book tour, which is still in development, traveling around that. Honestly this is my first book so it will probably follow me for a long time, getting it to more people. My biggest thing is to ensure that it’s not seen in a reductive lens, like, “It’s just this trans memoir.” I believe it’s so much more than that. I feel like it is a commentary on race and poverty and self-determination and the context of pop culture and literature and everything.
I have this story-sharing submission Tumblr for readers, its called I Am Redefining Realness. What I noticed in the storytelling process is when you’re so open about yourself, then people tend to crack themselves open and write you long emails about their experience, so I’ve created this space where readers can share. But I just want to continue to tell stories, in many different media.
Anna North is Salon's culture editor. Follow her on Twitter at @annanorthtweets.More Anna North.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)