What does it mean to be transgender? What can I ask a trans person? Let’s talk about it.
The trans friends I run with are calling it “Elliotmas”–the 33-year-old star of Juno, Whip It, and Umbrella Academy came out today as transgender, announcing his new name, Elliot Page, and his pronouns, he/they. I would like to take this moment to give you a primer on how to talk about this (and similar situations) with the appropriate respect and kindness due a human being with dignity and autonomy of self-determination. We’ll keep this at a 101 level.
What does it mean to be transgender?
It took me a while to figure this one out for myself, because for a long time I just thought that it meant you wanted to be the opposite gender of the one you were assigned at birth. What I learned is that it’s not simply a binary. If you don’t identify with your assigned gender at birth, you’re probably trans. This does not necessarily mean you want to transition along binary definitions of gender presentation (how you act out your gender through clothing and mannerisms in day-to-day life); it could just mean that you’re, like Janet from The Good Place and like me, “not a girl!” You might be agender (identifying more androgynously). You might be bigender (a sort of: yes, and! of gender), or you might be interested in hormones and surgery and transitioning to a particular end goal of how you socially present yourself.
However, if you yourself are not transgender, the details of the medical side of things for transgender people (not “transgenders,” by the way) are none of your business unless volunteered to you by a trans person. Medical transition information, like all medical details, is not obligated to anyone other than that person’s doctor.
What questions can I ask a trans person?
You can ask about their pronouns (not “preferred pronouns,” which sounds condescending, like you doubt their ability to know themselves), and you can then begin to practice using them. “They/them” as a singular pronoun has been in constant use in the English language going back to before Shakespeare, and requires just a little attention to detail to adjust to using. If you mess up, don’t make a big deal about it: “Elliot Page… she–oh, I mean HE–…” Interrupt yourself, correct it, start the phrase over, and keep going. Don’t apologize profusely–this is making the interaction, for the trans person, about comforting your discomfort with the new learning experience. Just correct yourself, and carry on. If you’re still struggling, here’s a handy guide that might help!
You can ask how they might like to be referred to other than through pronouns. There’s some conversation about Elliot’s announcement because he uses both “he” and “they” as options for pronouns in his coming out post. This is a cue that he is comfortable with either, and perhaps doesn’t identify as a boy or a man–just a human. Until he tells us otherwise, it’s smart to just refer to him with neutral terminology: person, human, etc.
Wait, does this mean he’s straight now?
Elliot is married to a woman, yes, but this doesn’t mean he’s straight, necessarily. He identified as queer in his post, and we’ll leave it at that for now. Gender identity isn’t linked to sexual orientation–and sometimes both are a little fluid. It’s really up to each person to tell us individually what they like and how they want to be seen, so I’m going to take his word for it and refer to him as queer now. (And no, it’s not a slur anymore–the LGBTQ community has used it for a long time to encompass the whole umbrella of experiences and identities.)
What does this mean for his past work?
This is probably between Elliot and himself, unless he volunteers more information, but what I can say is that the trans experience is not monolithic. We all have different perspectives on how we feel about our pasts–some of us sever that history and refuse to acknowledge “before” photos or our deadnames (the name we discarded in embracing our transness and no longer use). Some of us are fascinated and closely document the changes in gender performance that occur after coming out–and even share that journey publicly on social media or with friends. This can be an expression of “gender euphoria,” when you feel light and alive and present in your body because you look on the outside and are recognized as the way you feel inside.
If there’s gender euphoria…
Yes, there’s gender dysphoria. This presents differently for different people–and some people don’t ever recognize that this is a thing they’re living with until the moment they experience gender euphoria for the first time, and then realize there are different ways to feel about your body than the ways they’ve been used to feeling. Dysphoria can be a sense of being absent from your body, a disconnect like you’re a disembodied head and your body is moving of its own accord and at your distant command. But again, like within any group of people, experiences vary. Either way, you’re probably gonna see Elliot Page feeling himself in ways we never did before–and it’s gonna be really fun to watch his joy.
How should I talk to the trans people in my life about this?
If they don’t bring it up first, and you’re not in the habit of talking about trans culture, don’t go out of your way to make a point of observing that ELLIOT PAGE IS TRANS NOW. (First off, he was always trans.) Maybe start small and build up trust with your friend/family member/coworker/acquaintance before making this a pointed thing to observe about their existence. Trans people are so much more than their coming out and transition and identity stories! We pay bills and fall in love, we change the oil in our cars and worry about Covid-19, we do the dishes and we shop our feelings away on Etsy late at night, just like you. If you’re looking for more media about the trans community to learn more, a really great place to start is the Disclosure documentary on Netflix. As for your trans friend, talk about normal, human experiences you have in common and if they trust you, you’ll get around to celebrating Elliot Page together when the time is right.