Life

Elliot Page Is a Grown-Up

But a culture that infantilizes transmasculinity refuses to treat him like one.

Elliot Page on the cover of Time magazine.
Elliot Page. Reuters Marketplace - Cover Media French Online Report

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Elliot Page’s new profile in Time magazine, the first since his coming out as trans in December, is bringing much-needed visibility to the experiences of transmasculine people. In it, the actor opens up about the pain his gender dysphoria had long caused him, and the relief he experienced after deciding to live openly, to undergo masculinizing chest surgery, and to dress in clothes that don’t make him feel, as he puts it, “so unwell.” Page now says, “I was finally able to embrace being transgender, and letting myself fully become who I am.”

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Alongside this welcome exposure, however, has come an amplification of harmful messages that are only too familiar to trans men and transmasculine nonbinary people. (Page has not explicitly said where he falls on the binary/nonbinary continuum.) These are messages of infantilization and diminishment, where a grown adult—Page is 34—can be spoken of as though he were an impulsive teenager.

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One noxious, illustrative example can be found in an article for the Federalist, which describes Page’s transition in the headline as a “cry for help.” The first paragraph declares: “Elliot Page appears to be the model for rapid-onset gender dysphoria.” For those unfamiliar, ROGD is a proposed but as-yet-unsupported diagnosis, which is believed by its proponents to affect adolescents. The idea, essentially, is that teen girls (discussions almost never use “boys” or trans women) are somehow lured into erroneously (and “rapidly”) identifying as trans by too much transgender acceptance in online culture.

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Of course, it should go without saying that a 34-year-old who has experienced dysphoria symptoms since he was 11, as Page relates in the profile, would not be a candidate for this unproven, speculative diagnosis, even if it described a real phenomenon. But “accuracy” is not the point of this piece or of the larger anti-trans rhetoric of which it is just one part.
(Indeed, the author himself acknowledges, way down in the text, that Page is an adult who cannot be barred from making his own decisions.) The point is to spin out a bunch of words hand-wringing about the impact of Page’s coming out might have on trans boys (though they’re referred to as teenage girls throughout the piece) in an attempt to discredit transmasculinity writ large.

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In these aims, the Federalist article is representative of a particular prejudice that trans men face. Transphobes who discuss trans men almost never refer to us as men at all. They don’t even use the word “women,” which, though it would be insulting and misgendering, would at least show a baseline recognition that we have agency and make our own decisions. Instead, anti-trans activists’ discussions of top surgery or of the effects of testosterone therapy are forever talking about girls, teenage girls, vulnerable girls, young girls, and daughters.

This is a marked difference from the language used to oppress trans women. If you’ve paid attention to the debates around “bathroom bills” or the recent legislative campaign against inclusion in women’s sports, you’ll know that trans women are invariably described as predatory adult men. In fact, however young a trans girl is, she’s never too young to be described by a transphobe in such terms: Even in kindergarten she’s a “threat” to other girls if she so much as uses the bathroom. Meanwhile, a trans man is never too old to be described in infantilizing terms as young, impressionable, victimized, and vulnerable to social contagion. Trans men are rarely even described as actively transitioning; instead, they’re “being transed,” in the parlance of extreme transphobia.

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J.K. Rowling spent hundreds of words in this vein in an essay last year, describing her fears about teenage girls falling victim to transness and imagining that she too might have been trans-ed if her teenage struggles with sexism and body image had happened a little later. Another common manifestation of this infantilizing impulse is certain media’s obsessive focus on stories about detransitioners, highlighting the tiny number of women who transition in adolescence or young adulthood only to detransition later—if these women were wrong about themselves, the implication goes, how can any trans man be believed when he speaks about his gender dysphoria or transition?

The infantilizing impulse is rooted, of course, in sexism based on trans men’s birth-assigned gender. A foundational insight of feminist thought is that cis women are routinely infantilized, undermined by being spoken about as if they were mere children. Transandrophobia (transphobia directed at trans men) emerges from this, bringing with it sexist notions about cis women: their inherent childlikeness, their vulnerability, their lack of agency, and their need to be controlled by a strong patriarchal figure—a husband, a doctor, or a father. This dynamic makes it very difficult for trans men to speak up for ourselves and advocate for our own rights, and that is no coincidence. By design, if transphobes are talking about teenage girls, they don’t have to reckon with adult trans men as decision-makers in our own lives.

Elliot Page is a high-profile example of this prejudice in action, but he’s far from the first, and he won’t be the last. Trans men need our allies to be aware of this dynamic, and to help us push back against it—we are not “little girls” who need “saving,” but grown men who are worthy of respect.

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