Updated with a new Afterword.
Actor Elliot Page did an interview last spring with Oprah Winfrey on AppleTV+. It was his first TV interview since coming out as a transgender man in December 2020. I’m sure this is old news for some as the interview was posted online in April, but I just watched it this month.
The interview was done virtually but you’d never guess. It sure wasn’t Zoom! The technology made it appear they were together in the same room. That part alone was remarkable but the interview itself was more so. It crystalized a lot of issues for me.
First a little background for those who don’t know:
Elliot Page, 34, was born in Nova Scotia. He was assigned female at birth and went by the name Ellen. Acting since age 10, he’s listed on IMDb with 52 film and TV credits including the popular Umbrella Academy currently running on Netflix. He hosted Saturday Night Live in March 2019. He has two projects in post-production and a third currently filming.
Elliot has come out in stages, first as a gay woman in 2014 with a moving speech at the Human Rights Campaign. That quickly led to an appearance with Ellen DeGeneres. Finally in December 2020 he was ready and able to fully come out as transgender — and boy did he ever! He jumped almost immediately from the closet to the cover of Time Magazine’s March 29/April 5, 2021 issue. I instantly recalled the Leonard Matlovich cover in 1975.
Although I’ve supported transgender people as far back as I can remember, even as an activist in the LGBT movement I’ve never paid particular attention to transgender issues. It’s only recently that trans rights specifically has moved to the front burner for me, and I learned a lot from Elliot’s interview. I see now the parallels between the gay & lesbian struggle spanning from Stonewall to Marriage Equality, and the struggle of transgender people today. I’ve never fully appreciated the extent to which there are different strata in the LGBT community and how we haven’t all progressed at the same pace.
The transgender community today is very much back where gays & lesbians were in Matlovich’s day. Trans people are struggling for basic acceptance as human beings. They’re having to battle myths and misconceptions, defend their basic legitimacy and fight for the “simple” right to be themselves. Gosh, this sounds awfully familiar!
Elliot Page’s Journey
In his discussion with Oprah, Elliot’s description of his struggle and transition is vivid and poignant. But the interview is compelling beyond just his personal story. He puts a human face on the word “transgender” which is too often reduced to a “thing” or “phenomenon” or “condition” or even “threat.” I’m also impressed with Elliot politically. For someone so relatively new to the LGBT community, he clearly has a sharp insight into the nature and current manifestation of anti-LGBT bigotry, and the challenges we face in combatting it. Moreover he articulates all this in a way that I think can resonate with many non-LGBT people.
These are a few brief excerpts from the interview. In this first video Oprah quotes from the coming out letter that Elliot posted on Instagram in December 2020. He describes to Oprah how the months of solitude in pandemic lockdown through 2020 gave him time and space for introspection to sort things out.
This next video is a report aired on Entertainment Tonight that includes Elliott’s answer to Oprah’s question “What part of your transition has brought you the most joy?” After pausing a moment he replied “Getting out of the shower, and the towels around your waist, and you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, and you’re just like… ‘There I am!'” For the rest of us, that moment after a shower is so mundane we don’t even think. But for someone transgender, it’s about life itself.
In this final clip, Elliot describes his sense of deep responsibility to those who paved the way in the past like Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major, and to trans people today that lack the resources he’s fortunate to have in getting though life. He feels responsibility to trans youth especially, and to resist the surge of anti-transgender legislation pending or now enacted in states across the country. I’ll discuss this more below.
These pictures show Elliot is his life before and after transition. In the interview he describes how uncomfortable, anxious and sometimes physically ill he felt having to wear dresses and “act the part” at film premiers, ceremonies and the other events that celebrities attend. I can just see his elation pictured on the right. “There I am!” Finally, at age 34, he can now be his authentic self.
The Invisibility of Trans People
A huge challenge facing the transgender community today is invisibility — as individuals. The debate about transgender issues is exploding everywhere in politics, news and social media. That issue is extremely visible, but not the actual people everyone is talking about. This is why the Elliot Pages of the world are so important.
Gays and lesbians learned long ago that coming out is critically important, both for one’s own well-being and for the well-being of the community. Living in the closet can be like wandering the Earth as one of the Walking Dead. The little daily compromises and the Big Lies required to sustain a mythical identity eat away at one’s soul. Every act internalizes self-hate, a conviction that one isn’t worthy, that their very existence is unacceptable. Happiness can rarely be more than surface deep.
The LGBT community has long recognized that people have a harder time hating gays and lesbians once they realize they actually know one of us: a parent, a sibling, an aunt, an uncle, a best friend, a neighbor, a coworker. The slogan is true: “We are everywhere!” In recognition of this importance, October 11 has been designated each year as National Coming Out Day.
Since 1975 when Leonard Matlovich appeared on the cover of Time, gays and lesbians have come out in ever-increasing numbers. This visibility and familiarity has driven up support for same-sex marriage at a pace no one could have imagined. I certainly never expected see marriage in my lifetime! Support has sped from 27% in 1996 to 70% this year.
Unlike with gays and lesbians, very few people report that they personally know someone transgender in their life. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) reports that multiple studies indicate only about 20% of the general public personally knows a transgender person. Pew Research puts the number at 42%, which frankly strikes me as too high. Even I have only personally known a a handful of transgender people throughout my life. Perhaps the true number is somewhere between 20% and 42%, but still this is quite low in comparison with gays and lesbians (87% in 2016).
Lack of familiarity breeds contempt
It’s said that familiarity breeds contempt. When it comes to LGBT issues, it’s lack of familiarity that breeds contempt.
Gays were widely disparaged and hated back when we were invisible. We’re still hated by some but now it’s more the hard-core unrepentant bigots who will probably never change. Back in the day people said things about gays that sound almost comical now, but it was “common sense” then and the consequences were quite serious: Gays are all pedophiles and molest children. Gays are homosexual because they were molested. Kids will become homosexual if they have a gay teacher or scout leader. Gays will undermine troop morale and destroy the military. No one is born gay, they’re turned gay. People choose to be gay and can change back anytime they decide.
Now it’s transgender people who are the invisible ones, the hated ones. People assert all kinds of things with absolute conviction while never once having spoken to a transgender person. When you don’t know the human being standing in front of you is transgender, possibly even someone you love, it’s easy to believe any number of things about them. It’s easier to dismiss them and devalue them. It’s easier to hate “them”… or “those people”… or “people like that.”
Walk a Mile…
We’ve all heard the expression “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” I think that’s wise advice many times — but particularly in this situation. For most of us, the feeling of being in the wrong physical body is almost incomprehensible. Even as a supporter of transgender people my whole life, I have no idea what their experience must feel like. I can’t imagine what it feels like being in the wrong physical body except that it must be deeply uncomfortable. I just accept that the descriptions of their experiences are genuine, the same as I accept heterosexuals when they report opposite-sex attraction. I don’t know what that feels like either. I find it frustrating when people can’t accept or validate something unless it relates directly to their own personal experience.
If a person can truly stop and envision himself or herself in the place of the other, empathy and compassion naturally follow. Allowing yourself to feel what another person feels, or at least acknowledge their feelings without censoring or judging them, is powerful for them and for you. Assumptions aren’t so easy anymore. Communication and understanding can begin.
Knowing a transgender person and having a sincere conversation with him or her can be essential. If this isn’t possible because no trans person is available to talk to, then watching things like the interview with Elliot Page is a good alternative.
This next video is excerpted from a talk by then-Southern Baptist Pastor Danny Cortez to his congregation at New Heart Community Church in Whittier, California. His talk deals with sexual orientation, not transgender issues, but his story here is relevant. In this brief excerpt from an hour-long talk I posted previously, Danny describes a meeting he had at Starbucks several years earlier with a parishioner who was struggling with being lesbian. At that time, Danny was counseling her against homosexuality in the traditional theology of the Southern Baptist Church. He describes here what happened when the parishioner challenged him to see the world through her eyes.
Attack on Transgender Rights:
2021 is Worst Year Ever
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) reported back in May that 2021 had already become the worst year in recent history for attacks against the LGBTQ community by state legislatures across the country. Over 250 anti-LGBT bills had been introduced, half focused against the transgender community, and 17 had been enacted. Thirty-five (35) bills would prohibit transgender youth from being able to access best-practice, age-appropriate, gender-affirming medical care. Sixty-nine (69) bills would prohibit transgender youth from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity without regard to individual circumstances.
Freedom for All Americans has mapped the bills earlier this year revealing how this is a nationwide assault. In fact the situation is even worse than depicted! Since these maps were last updated additional bills have been introduced such as House Bill 454 in Ohio to prohibit healthcare for transgender youth. A complete list of anti-LGBT bills is posted online by the ACLU.
Attack on Transgender Rights:
Youth In the Crosshairs
Anti-LGBT forces are playing from their age-old game book, focusing their attacks primarily on youth. The infamous 1977 anti-gay ‘Save Our Children’ campaign lead by singer and orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant cynically played on myths about homosexual teachers preying on their students.
The Dade County, Florida, Commission had passed an ordinance outlawing discrimination in employment, housing, and public services on the basis of sexual orientation. Opponents of this new law protecting gay rights, led by Bryant, worked overtime to stir up fear among parents. They claimed that gays “are trying to recruit our children into homosexuality.” Anita Bryant asserts in this clip that our mere visible presence is a psychological danger more damaging to children than physical molestation.
Having a child turn out gay was one of the worst fates conceivable back then. Today these same anti-gay forces are now doing everything possible to deny transgender youth the right and ability to seek counsel and possible medical treatment. Ohio House Bill 454, mentioned above, “will make illegal many conversations and teachings about LGBT lives in schools and health clinics — and backs up these gag orders with severe punishments for professionals and insurance plans.”
We need to think about this. The Pew Research Center has found that 59% of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Fundamental to this right is the idea that women and their doctors should decide what’s best. This is what 6 in 10 Americans believe. This fundamental doctor/patient relationship is at risk or already denied to transgender youth in Ohio and across the country. The basic humanity, safety and happiness of these youth is under attack. To deny a person their humanity and opportunity to become their authentic self is a profound cruelty and injustice.
May 2022 — This Afterword reorganizes, expands and updates topics covered in my original November 2021 post.
Unique Issues & Complexities in the Struggle for Transgender Rights
I hope I’ve made clear my support and solidarity with the trans community and transgender rights. In this spirit I think it’s important to address issues I’ve seen come up repeatedly in reports, articles, discussions and debates. Even as I defend and advocate for transgender people, there are some aspects of transgenderism that concern me. Read on and I will cover each one below.
The Challenge of Conflicting Rights
Historically there’s been a heavy thumb pressing on the scales of justice against the LGBT community. There’s greater balance today for gays and lesbians, but that heavy thumb still tips the scale against the transgender community. Animus has a lot to with it it, but not exclusively. And the thumb is pressing harder. Over the last several years we’ve seen a veritable explosion of anti-LGBT bills and laws across the country, most focused against transgender people specifically.
Human rights and justice can get complicated. There are times when two legitimate rights conflict. These situations are usually resolvable, but it can be difficult. When the rights of different segments of society clash, patience and a fair balancing are needed.
Transgender rights is a complex issue with social, political and medical implications that are more far-reaching than “simple” gay and lesbian rights. There is no rational case against same-sex marriage or nondiscrimination in housing and employment. These have been called “special rights” by those opposed, but that’s absurd. These rights and protections to which all people are entitled don’t hurt anyone. My marriage has no material impact on the heterosexual couple down the street, much less across town.
Other situations are less clear-cut. Gay rights get a little murky, for example, in situations where it’s felt that one person’s gay rights impinge upon another person’s religious rights. Most readers will recall the Colorado baker, Jack C. Phillips, who objected to a state requirement that his commercial business prepare the wedding cake for a same-sex marriage. Phillips is Christian and says it’s his religious belief “that it would displease God to create cakes for same-sex marriages.” He took the matter all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which decided in his favor in 2018 (Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v.Colorado Civil Rights Commission). SCOTUS ruled that Phillips was protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment in refusing to bake a cake. I disagree. I would counter that this is a public accommodations matter under the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protections Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.1From the 1963 Civil Rights Act: 42 U.S.C. §2000a (a)All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin. 42 U.S.C. But regardless of who prevails, this is a classic example of conflicting rights.
Like the same-sex wedding cake example, the rights of transgender people occasionally come into conflict with the rights of cisgender people, specifically women. These areas require patience, discussion and negotiation.
Trans Rights & Women’s Sports
The participation of trans women in traditional women’s sports is a huge controversy. Pictured here is University of Pennsylvania trans swimmer Lia Thomas on the podium after winning the 500 freestyle during the 2022 Ivy League Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships. In March 2022 she became the first known transgender woman to win an NCAA swimming championship. Thomas has become a lightning rod in this ongoing controversy as debate rages over whether she had unfair advantage.
This is a complex issue on multiple levels. It extends far beyond any single sporting competition with its winner and its loser. Individual records and league standings can be altered with direct impact on women’s scholarships, career opportunities, endorsements and much more. Sports can be a lucrative lifetime career in which men have disproportionately benefitted.
Objective scientific standards and benchmarks are needed to determine who should and should not be allowed to participate in women’s athletic competition. This is difficult because the science is still evolving and not all the data is in. The International Olympic Committee announced new principles governing transgender sports participation in November 2021. The NCAA Board of Governors updated their policies in January 2022. The Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, including member Martina Navratilova, is grappling with the issue. Other organizations and sports are too.
I don’t have the definitive answer for this issue, but will say this:
I oppose absolute ‘all or nothing’ positions — on either side. I oppose any absolute prohibition barring all transgender girls and women from participation in girls’ and women’s sports. Obviously the same holds for similar prohibitions in boys’ and men’s sports. On the flip side, I also oppose total unrestricted participation by trans girls and women, or trans boys and men. As I’ve said, objective standards and benchmarks are needed to ensure some kind of level playing field. Unfortunately, for the moment, this is a work in progress so the controversy will continue for some time.
Access to Protected Women’s Spaces
Another big controversy surrounding transgender rights is access by trans women to protected women’s spaces: bathrooms, changing rooms at gyms and spas, and even women’s prisons. This is a very important and sensitive issue for cisgender women that needs to be considered seriously.
Some reading this may recall the controversy in 2021 at the Wi Spa in Los Angeles. One or more women became upset when a trans woman, reportedly with a penis, exposed herself in a women-only section of the spa. I covered the issue at the time in this blog. Claims and accusations flew every which way during that uproar. The details of that incident and the issue overall are beyond my scope here, but I will share this general opinion.
I believe trans women should have access to women’s spaces — but I think it behooves the transgender community to use a certain discretion in deciding when and how to exercise one’s rights. Just because something is permitted, and even protected, doesn’t necessarily mean one should do it. Context matters. I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy when women object to a trans woman using a bathroom where any exposure occurs in the privacy of a stall. But an open locker room, changing room or other space such as a spa is a little more difficult. Every situation is different and the options for discretion vary, but where possible I’d recommend that a preoperative trans woman try to avoid being seen.
Surgery & The Rights of Young People
When I was young, my biggest decision was whether or not to tell people I was gay. Today, for transgender youth, the question goes beyond just telling people. Youth have both the desire and the opportunity in many cases to initiate gender transition. This gives rise to enormous legal, ethical, medical, emotional, political and other issues that seem to dwarf the challenges of my youth. All kinds of rights potentially conflict: trans rights, youth rights, and parental rights.
An issue I encounter constantly in debates about gender identity and transgenderism is surgery, such as the top surgery that Elliot Page underwent and describes here. Surgery is of course irreversible, so it is an extremely serious step — especially when minors are involved.
Non-Surgical Therapies. First, a few words here about non-surgical therapies:
Binders. Safest of all for youth are things like professional binders for trans men to cover their breasts, properly fitted and fastened.
Puberty Blockers. For young people under age 18, I fully support puberty-blocker therapy where it is deemed medically and/or psychologically appropriate. This is considered a reversible treatment with minimal negative side effects. I know that some will assert that puberty blockers should never be used in any situation related to gender dysphoria. These are usually people opposed to transgenderism, period. Their objections are noted, but can be disregarded due to their bias. I believe it’s cruel to withhold puberty-blocker therapy from any young person who needs it and would benefit.
Hormones. I also support hormone therapy for minors age 16 or 17, again when deemed medically and/or psychologically appropriate, but this is more risky. Some effects of hormone therapy are not reversible, so doctors, parents and patients should tread very carefully.
Bottom line. At a minimum, we must acknowledge and respect transgender youth and allow them every reasonable opportunity to live as the gender they feel they are including names, pronouns, grooming, attire, etc. All these are 100% reversible. There is absolutely no legitimate or defensible reason for denying a young person these options — which will help them ultimately decide if they are truly more comfortable as the other gender.
Surgery. Surgery on minors is extremely rare, but it does happen.
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) outlines criteria governing irreversible surgical interventions including these stipulations:
- patients have the capacity to make fully-informed decisions and give consent for treatment, and
- patients have reached the legal age of majority in a given country [age 18 in the U.S.], and
- patients have lived continuously for at least 12 months in the gender role that is congruent with their gender identity.
I consider all these criteria appropriate. By age 18, for better or worse, a person should be free to make such decisions.
In limited cases, surgery is considered an option starting at age 16 if deemed appropriate and warranted in a specific youth’s individual circumstances. It must also be approved by doctors, parents and the youth. Even if all approve, I’m very dubious about any permanent surgery with minors. I need to see really compelling evidence to be convinced that waiting two more years till age 18 is not possible or acceptable.
But surgery goes even lower than age 16 in some cases. The Journal of Medical Ethics reports that “Recent insurance database analysis and patient-reported outcome studies identified patients as young as 14 years old undergoing a gender-affirming mastectomy.”
I personally cannot conceive of any circumstance in which an action of this magnitude and permanence can be acceptable on a person under age 16 — nor probably under 18 as I’ve indicated. In the case of Elliot Page here, social prejudice kept him in the closet until his 30s. No one should have to wait that long and endure the quiet pain and hardship he went through. But at least he was certain his top surgery was the right step!
My position here regarding surgery may be met with disfavor from some in the LGBT community, but I think my overall support for transgender people is clear. Adolescence has always been a uniquely challenging time, and now all the more so in this modern age of greater options, social media, etc. I believe in fully supporting transgender youth — up to the point of no return. That must wait until the age of majority. At 18 they are free to proceed as they see best.
A Diminishment or ‘Erasure’ of Women
Finally, in the effort by some to be inclusive and embrace transgender women, there are signs this could go overboard with consequences that hurt us all. I see a trend emerging in some areas where it feels as if (cisgender) women are almost being canceled or erased in some ways. A startling example was the September 2021 cover story run by The Lancet, one of the oldest and most-respected medical journals. The cover story referenced “bodies with vaginas.” The editor subsequently apologized, but I think it’s important to not let it slide by.
The historic advances of women and the women’s movement over the decades are critical political and social achievements — which are notably under attack right now with the U.S. Supreme Court poised to reverse Roe v. Wade. In our efforts to defend and extend the rights of transgender women, we must be careful not to undermine or diminish cisgender women.
I am convinced that trans rights and women’s rights can co-exist and even strengthen each other, but it’s going to require that all sides meet somewhere in the middle. The trans community needs to moderate its expectations and demands in some areas, but at the same time the rest of society has to be open to science around gender that’s not frozen in the 1950s. I see little hope for resolution until society drops its knee-jerk bigotry and state legislatures stop passing reactionary laws. Until that happens I think the trans community will see little alternative but to keep up the battle — and I will support them.
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