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Elliot Page And The Year In Anti-Trans Bigotry

Anti-trans pundits want you to think that trans people like Elliot Page pose an existential threat to lesbians. That couldn’t be less true.

Posted on December 10, 2020, at 12:46 p.m. ET

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

Last week, when Elliot Page announced to the world that he is trans, I cried off and on the whole day. I cried, at first, reading the gorgeous statement he made on Instagram: “I love that I am trans. And I love that I am queer. And the more I hold myself close and fully embrace who I am, the more my heart grows and the more I thrive.” I cried reading his wife Emma Portner’s repost: “Trans, queer and nonbinary people are a gift to this world. … Shine on, sweet E.” I cried seeing celebrities like Julianne Moore, Miley Cyrus, Ilana Glazer, and Natalie Portman flood Elliot’s Instagram with excitement and love. Sir Patrick Stewart’s comment in particular really got me, perhaps because, with its quiet simplicity, the message stood out against a backdrop of emojis and exclamation points: “Elliot, I am proud to be your friend.”

I try not to get too enamored with the false promise of identity-representation politics. As Alex V. Green wrote for BuzzFeed News last year in an essay titled “Trans Visibility Won’t Save Us,” “Visibility and representation can be deeply affirming for those marginalized from the mainstream. But a politics of identity and its recognition have come to overshadow the ways in which that recognition carries unique consequences for some trans people and not for others.” Not only can “representation be a form of surveillance” for trans people of color and those who don’t “pass” as cis — it can also, as Green notes, give “permission to cultural and political leaders to eschew material policy changes for representational gestures.”

Luckily for all of us, however, Elliot Page is that rare kind of celebrity who seems to be under no illusions about their own self-importance — and takes the privileges and responsibilities of their fame seriously. Page has long since used his growing cultural capital to redirect attention away from himself and toward those on those margins, as with his award-winning Viceland documentary series about queer people in different countries, Gaycation, released with cohost Ian Daniel in 2016. More recently, in his coming out Instagram post, Page made sure to highlight the ongoing epidemic of fatal violence against Black and brown trans women, at least 40 of whom have been killed in the US this year alone.

Even though increased trans visibility hasn’t done much to change the material conditions of most trans people living in precarity, there’s still symbolic significance to a beloved star sharing with us that he’s trans (making him one of, if not the most famous transmasculine person in American popular culture) — especially at a time when conservatives and contrarian liberals are attempting to stamp transmasculine youth out of existence.

Whether or not they’re able to access essential healthcare, however, and no matter how many trans panic campaigns are wielded against them, trans youth aren’t going anywhere. The ways in which so-called gender-critical (read: trans-exclusionary) “feminists” and certain prominent cisgender gays have used Page’s announcement as yet another opportunity to bemoan the loss of lesbians to the trans “trend” — and to insist, absurdly, that trans men and boys are only trans because of some misguided sense of internalized misogyny — just reifies the power of someone like Page proudly embracing their identity on the world’s stage.

Of 2020’s many horrors on offer, one that’s flown dangerously low on our collective radar is the “debate” over treatment for trans children, which reached a particularly frightening point earlier this month in the UK. A court there ruled that trans youth under 16 can’t consent to gender-affirming care — even when that care has been deemed necessary by a child’s doctor and their parents. Puberty blockers, which allow gender-questioning youth the ability to delay the development of primary and secondary sex characteristics — giving them essential time and space to explore their gender identity without the extraordinarily distressing effects of undergoing the wrong kind of puberty — have been deemed both safe and necessary by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) and the Endocrine Society, among other major medical associations.

And yet, as lawyer Chase Strangio wrote in a Twitter thread about the UK court’s decision, this care “has been the target of a massive attack of misinformation from people with large platforms in the UK and the US, and now the result is that youth are losing their lifeline. .. Behind the rhetoric of trans contagion, of ‘transgender crazes’, of ‘irreversible damage’ are thousands of young people who have found a home in their bodies, who have had a chance to live and imagine adulthood, who have been given breath after years of panic and pain.”

Of 2020’s many horrors on offer, one that’s flown dangerously low on our collective radar is the “debate” over treatment for trans children.

The most well-known peddler of these misinformation campaigns is, of course, one of the most famous children’s authors in the world. J.K. Rowling had been poking around on “gender-critical” Twitter for years, observant bystanders noticed, before coming out in full-throated support of anti-trans bigotry in an open letter back in June. She couches her supposed concern over “gender identity issues” in part on a 2018 paper by a researcher at Brown that popularized the concept of rapid onset gender dysphoria, or the idea that kids were being seduced into adopting trans identity due to “social contagion” on Tumblr and Instagram. The paper was taken down and later republished with edits after public outcry over its deeply flawed methodology and questionable conclusions; last year, another researcher at Brown published a scathing critique of the original study, deeming it beneath scientific standards even after the revisions.

Rowling, like many others aligned with her, became concerned that people’s rights to publish shoddy scientific work or spread bigoted propaganda were being unjustly censored. She also believes that other people’s personal gender journeys are somehow interfering with her and other women’s rights.

That’s one of the throughlines of a book Wall Street Journal reporter Abigail Shrier published earlier this year, with the hysteria-inciting title of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, making clear from the get-go that its author isn’t even going to pretend to engage with actual trans people’s lived reality. Shrier claimed she was being censored when Target, made aware of the book’s scaremongering anti-trans message, pulled it from its stock (then replaced it a day later). Media reactionaries like Glenn Greenwald and Bari Weiss came to Shrier’s defense; Weiss claimed that Target’s attempts to “disappear” her friend’s book was “despicable.”

The journalist Melissa Gira Grant, in an article for the New Republic, notes that Shrier has tried to claim the public is the real victim here, “denied an important debate — as if she isn’t just repackaging the status quo of systemic discrimination that already defines so much of daily life for trans people in the United States.”

Shrier and her defenders’ insistence that they’re being unfairly silenced by trans activists is especially comical, considering she’s promoted it on places like Joe Rogan and Megyn Kelly’s podcasts with their hundreds of thousands of followers. Meanwhile, as Grant points out, “books about trans people are among the most censored books in the U.S. … Trans writers and trans organizers alike have been censored in the ways Shrier believes she is being censored, though those stories rarely attract the level of attention from the same writers now defending her.”

Rowling, Shrier, and the like want us to think that they’re just standing up for women and for sexual assault survivors; I happen to belong to both categories, and I’m repulsed and infuriated that these identities of mine are being used as cudgels against trans rights. But nothing makes me angrier, as a former proto-dyke, than when these people pretend they want to deny trans kids essential healthcare to supposedly protect gay children.

Too often, depressingly, it’s former gay kids themselves who share Rowling and Shrier’s concerns that young queer people who, in previous generations, might have grown up to identify as gay are instead now identifying as trans — and not only due to apparent “social contagion.”

“I find it depressing how many young lesbians feel that, because they do not perform or feel invested in conventional femininity, they can no longer be women,” as one of the many TERFy tweets lamenting Elliot Page’s coming-out put it. “And so they shift from identifying as lesbian women to straight men. Compulsory heterosexuality all over again.”

The idea that some cis lesbians transition in order to be more socially acceptable as straight men is just as ridiculous as the idea that they do so to stop facing sexism (experiencing anti-trans discrimination as the member of a small and much-maligned community is a better bet, surely??). The poet Chrysanthemum Tran pointed out what a lot of us LGBTQs already know: “there are just too many trans [gay guys] who used to steadfastly id as butches & too many trans lesbians who used to id as [gay guys] for this to be true.” A gender transition tends to make people more queer, if that’s even possible — more likely to be attracted to the kinds of people they might not have been before. I’m obsessed with the way the writer Jamie Hood put it: “for the record i am like one of three straight trans women in the entire world,,,,, transition is Thee biggest lesbian global jobs creator & everyone knows it.”

The fact that so many trans people are also gay is one of many reasons that the idea that lesbians have “lost” Elliot Page — and that we’re an “endangered species” because some of us choose to transition — is so absurd. But it reveals what’s at the heart of so many intra-community queer debates, which have been raging since time immemorial.

So many of us, however we grew up and however we now identify, have been forced to approach our queerness through a mindset of scarcity, rather than one of abundance. We all learned at one point or another that the vast majority of people in our families and hometown communities were not like us. That’s why getting older and finding other queer people is so special — the joy, communion, and fellow feeling, even after being out for years, can still feel like a miracle. But finally finding a home in an identity — after experiencing years of trauma related to the way our society punishes that identity — also leads many of us to batten down the hatches and deadbolt our doors, paranoid that the possibility of anybody wandering in and out somehow threatens the structural integrity of the whole.

Queers love fighting. Whether it’s pansexuals versus bisexuals, bisexuals versus lesbians and gays, or people who choose to identify exclusively as “queer” versus people who think “queer” can be vague enough to mean anything at all, we’re constantly accusing each other of exclusion, erasure, and outright bigotry. After Elliot Page came out, there were debates on Twitter about whether his choice to use the word “trans” meant he might not identify with “transgender,” and is there even a difference? Some nonbinary trans people warned that Page hadn’t called himself a trans man, so we shouldn’t assume he identifies as one, leading some trans men to wonder why there needs to be such a strict delineation between nonbinary and “binary” trans people, especially when it leads to assumptions that a transsexual man is a supposedly more limiting identity.

Trans-exclusionary lesbians who blame gender transition on “compulsory heterosexuality” are just (poorly) rehashing one of the oldest queer fights in the book. Accusing others of being somehow less radical, or of receiving unearned advantages — for passing as straight or cis in certain contexts; for dating men or being men — tends only to rile up the accused party into a defense of all the ways in which they, too, are discriminated against, and how dare anybody assume otherwise. Try telling a bisexual in a long-term “straight” relationship that she has passing privilege, or a depressed lesbian that, actually, bisexuals face greater risks of poor mental health, or an asexual person that he’s not actually queer, or a trans woman who’s just been denied hormone treatments that “binary” trans people like her have it easier. These arguments are all the more ridiculous, of course, when considering blanket comparisons of whose lives are harder which fail to account for race or class are pretty much completely meaningless. Excuse the stale Tumblr term, but the Oppression Olympics are always on the verge of tearing the LGBTQ community apart — to the extent that we’re even a “community” at all, which is, lol, not really.

The idea that some cis lesbians transition in order to be more socially acceptable as straight men is just as ridiculous as the idea that they do so to stop facing sexism.

To be clear, I’m just as likely as any other Too Online gay to make gross generalizations and shit-talk about the Discourse in the safety of my lesbian group chat. It’s fun! And, to an extent, necessary — a way to let off steam, to bond, to endlessly process our stupid gay trauma.

The real problems arise when certain gays team up with straight people to carry out their in-group vendettas. Lesbians who view trans people as threats — rather than as our siblings and comrades in the fight against all forms of gendered oppression — are much more likely to look outside of our “community,” which is overwhelmingly trans-affirming, for validation and support. That’s how we wind up what Esther Wang at Jezebel calls the “unholy alliance” of lesbian TERFs and the far right, who are following in the footsteps of anti-pornography feminists seeking refuge with conservatives in the 1980s. Since “gender-critical” feminists tend to be monomaniacally obsessed with trans people to the exclusion of virtually any other issue, you get someone like Arielle Scarcella, a formerly progressive lesbian YouTuber, praising Donald Trump for his support (???) of gay people in a ridiculously memeable video with the Log Cabin Republicans — proving, yet again, that anti-trans prejudice is inextricably intertwined with white supremacy.

The thing is, red-pilled lesbians who are worried about the erosion of lesbian culture aren’t totally off base, but they’re blaming trans people when misogyny, capitalism, and gentrification are the actual culprits. So, too, is compulsory heterosexuality, which has nothing to do with why people transition and everything to do with why so many people, even in a time of increased gay acceptance, still might not realize their own queerness until later in life — or ever.

In Adrienne Rich’s famous 1980 essay on the concept, she references a letter the playwright Lorraine Hansberry wrote to the Ladder, an early lesbian publication: “How could we ever begin to guess the numbers of women who are not prepared to risk a life alien to what they have been taught all their lives to believe was their ‘natural’ destiny — and their only expectation for economic security?” I thought it was quite poetic that during the same week TERFs were whining about “losing” lesbians to the trans dark side, 43-year-old Real Housewives of Orange County star Braunwyn Windham-Burke came out as a lesbian.

Though TERFs like to insist on “biological reality” — that lesbianism is something essential, innate, and defined completely by one’s interest in other people’s genitals — so few queer people I know, trans and cis alike, identify with the “born this way” model. I think often of Rich writing that “there is no statistical documentation of the numbers of lesbians who have remained in heterosexual marriages for most of their lives,” because I easily could have ended up among their number. I was happy enough in my relationship with men and boys before coming out in my early twenties — because I thought that happy enough is the most one can really expect under patriarchy. Women, in particular, are taught to settle for scraps in their straight relationships; bad sex and fucked-up gender dynamics are par for the course. It’s terrifyingly easy to just accept that this might be the best you’re gonna get, to spend years completely unaware that a whole other world is possible.

Luckily — and with no thanks to lesbian TERFs, who say they care about preserving lesbian culture but accomplish the opposite by giving us a horrible reputation — lesbianism isn’t in terrible danger of extinction. Most of our bars and bookshops have closed, gay men’s culture has gone mainstream while they occasionally fail to pay attention to ours, and we’ve been priced out of a lot of the neighborhoods where many of us used to live. But we’re still here.

When people like Katie Herzog on Andrew Sullivan's blog ask us where all the lesbians have gone, I want to scream: Here! We’re right fucking here! We’re on TikTok, where lesbian teens reign supreme; we’re shitposting and shame-lusting on Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram. Lesbian culture on the internet is not just surviving, but thriving, in memes and Megan Rapinoe GIFs and rousing, weekslong conversations about whether or not our first major holiday rom-com was any good. (I didn’t think so, but I’ve loved fighting about it! Also, I’ll take any opportunity to look at Kristen Stewart.) We’re committing space crimes, rebooting The L Word, making extraordinary films, getting haunted by ghosts, and continuing to believe, despite all available evidence, that Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss got up to some gay shit together. In non-pandemic times, we exist IRL, too, building new lesbian bars and going on lesbian cruises and figuring out how to throw inclusive queer parties. We’re dating on apps built by and for us, starting businesses and writing books, participating in mutual aid and giving back to our communities. We’re still talking, laughing, loving, breathing, fighting, fucking, crying, drinking, riding, winning, losing, cheating, kissing, thinking, dreaming — and I don’t think we’re planning to stop anytime soon.

We’re rejecting scarcity and choosing abundance.

When you’re forever in a defensive crouch, stuck in a scarcity mindset that insists other people’s identities are threats to your own, you’re denying yourself the much richer and more joyous reality that there are no limits — to queerness, to gender expansiveness, to our ability to build a world in which everyone is housed, and fed, and safe, and loved. I saw it everywhere this summer while covering the protests against police brutality, hoisted on signs and unfurled on banners across buildings, the phrase that encapsulates the modern abolitionist movement but could just as easily apply to the hell that is cisnormativity and compulsory heterosexuality: A better world is possible.

And lesbians, I think, are well-primed to envision what that world can look like. Evan Urquhart, a trans man who formerly identified as a lesbian, put it beautifully in his piece for Slate on why lesbians don’t need to mourn the “loss” of Elliot Page:

“Transitioning and becoming a man was no more about rejecting lesbians, for me, than becoming an adult was about rejecting my mom and dad. Those who shaped us can never be erased, and though my relationship with the lesbian community has changed, it is still a close one characterized by gratitude, mutual respect, and love. … This generous, empathetic streak in lesbianism is, to my mind, one of the things that sets it apart from other communities, even other communities that fall under the LGBTQ umbrella. The energy of reaching out and drawing everyone in is rooted in the very particular experience that cis lesbians, trans lesbians, and transmasculine people share of experiencing, and resisting, the pervasive social pressure on women to conform to a narrow, straight ideal. This pressure — whether you call it misogyny, patriarchy, bias, the weight of expectations, or what have you — has been felt by each of us, and each of our lives has been warped by it in some way. Something in that process seems to prompt us to draw close to one another, to recognize what we still share even if we change in different directions over time.”

The vast majority of lesbians support Elliot Page and all of our other trans siblings because we believe there’s room for all of us. We’re rejecting scarcity and choosing abundance. We’re choosing each other. ●

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.