To Be Transgender is to Be Human


To be nobody but myself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make me somebody else — means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight, and never stop fighting.

– E. E. Cummings

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.

Elliot Page, while still Ellen, at Hollywood Life Magazine’s 7th Annual Breakthrough Awards, December 2007.
Elliot Page on Instagram, 2021.
Watch the Interview

The interview streams exclusively on AppleTV+. If you don’t have it, you can get a free 7-day trial and watch the interview before committing to keep the service at $4.99/month. There’s a lot of other good content though, so you might find you’d like to stay.

If you’re on Windows and have no Apple devices, you can still watch using your browser.

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 been recognized that people have a harder time hating gays and lesbians once they realize they actually know one 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.

Source: Gallup

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 as far as I recall, 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 their reports are genuine, the same as I accept heterosexuals when they report opposite-sex attraction. 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.

All anti-transgender bills.
Source: Freedom for All Americans
Bills prohibiting access to medical services.
(Note that Ohio House Bill 454 is not indicated.)
Source: Freedom for All Americans
Bills prohibiting sports participation.
Source: Freedom for All Americans

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.

Source: SuchIsLifeVideos

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.

Tragedy, for me, is not
a conflict between right
and wrong, but
between two different
kinds of right.

– Peter Shaffer

Closing Caveats

Human rights and justice can get complicated. There are times when two legitimate causes conflict. These situations are usually resolvable, but it can be difficult. When the rights of different segments of society come into conflict a fair balance is needed.

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.

Transgender rights is a complex issue with social, political and medical implications that are more far-reaching than gay and lesbian rights. My same-sex marriage really has no material impact on the heterosexual couple down the street. If I was a trans woman, my participation in a sports competition, however, could very well have a direct material impact on other competitors — some whom I’ll possibly never meet. League standings and such things can be altered. This can affect access to scholarships, career opportunities, and a whole range of things beyond the actual sport.

I hope I’ve made clear my support of the trans community and transgender rights — but unfortunately not every position or demand of the transgender community warrants an automatic pass. Some things require discussion and negotiation.

For example, I am a supporter of what I’ll call here “the legacy women’s movement,” that is, the women’s movement as we’ve known it until now and the historic gains won by women over the decades. These need to be protected and expanded. There are at least two areas that concern me:

  • Women’s Sports. I touched on this above. There’s no question this is an area of great controversy. This issue is very complex and beyond the scope of this essay. I will only say here that I oppose absolute ‘all or nothing’ positions on both sides. I oppose any absolute ban limiting participation strictly to those assigned female at birth (“cisgender women”). I also oppose the absence of any guidelines to regulate participation by trans women. Objective scientific standards are needed, and not all the data is in. To this end NBC has reported that the International Olympic Committee just this month announced new principles on this question. It’s a step along the road but I’m certain the discussion will continue.
  • A Diminishment or ‘Erasure’ of Women. It feels that (cisgender) women are almost being canceled or erased in some ways. Medical journals and institutions are starting to refer to “bodies with vaginas.” Will we soon be talking about the “Bodies with Vaginas Movement” or amending textbooks to talk about the “Vulva Owners Suffrage Movement?” Perhaps this is an absurd extreme, but to some degree we’re on this path now. I think we all need to step back and think about this.

I know these two points come into conflict with the aspirations of many in the transgender community and I certainly don’t want to add to that pain.

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 I see little hope for this until society drops its knee-jerk bigotry and state legislatures stop passing reactionary laws. Until the latter happens I think the trans community will see little alternative but to keep up the battle — and I will support them, albeit sometimes with critical support.

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