The Transphobia Against Elliot Page Unintentionally Shows the Fragility of Gender Norms
Cis celebrities give themselves stage names and undergo cosmetic surgeries all the time — showing how gender affirmation is only problematic to some when it comes from trans people.
It began with a famed and controversial psychologist — Jordan Peterson — dead-naming Elliot Page in a tweet. Peterson refused to take the tweet — in which he also took issue with Page having undergone top surgery and referred to the doctor who performed it as a “criminal physician” — down, leading to his suspension from Twitter. Peterson then took the pains to shoot a video decrying the latest frontier in the “culture wars,” noting that he would “rather die” than delete the tweet — following which, he promptly deleted the tweet.
The farcical series of events chronicling the transphobic meltdown is, disappointingly, not new. But it does unintentionally open up a conversation about gender itself, showing how more people — including cis individuals — undergo gender-affirming processes than we might believe. In other words, trans people face the brunt of something that every one of us does every day: which is to reaffirm our own commitment towards our gender.
In the world of celebrities itself, many have had stage-names that the public has had no problem adhering to while referring to them. There’s no way that the frontman of The Police was named ‘Sting’ at birth, nor was Lady Gaga christened thus at infancy. ‘The Rock’ does not refer to an actual rock, Cardi B is a clever inversion for ‘Bacardi’ which, in turn, was a nickname that Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar had, and everyone uniformly tied themselves together in knots while referring to The Artist Formerly Known as Prince when they changed their name to a mere symbol.
And yet, when Elliot Page came out as trans, some parts of the world refused to respect his right to self-determine his actual name. But the fatal flaw in the argument of transphobic people — that they would not “lie” and call someone by a different name than they’d known them by — is that we do this all the time. Not only with celebrities but with ourselves too, when we call people by their nicknames even as their official names might be different. Why? Because that’s how many identify, and it’s also how we identify them as people.
And it’s not just in a name. Many transphobic arguments are rooted in a panic about how trans people undergo gender-affirming procedures that alter their bodies. This is easily countered by the fact that these procedures are documented to be essential healthcare for many and are often life-saving. Gender affirmingsurgeries address the dysphoria that trans people face and can also reduce their likelihood of developing mental illnesses. Simply put: “Gender reassignment surgeries and hormonal treatments are a set of medical procedures that are used to alter a trans individual’s physical appearance and sex organ characteristics to better fit the gender identity they identify with,” as Aditi Murti notedin The Swaddle
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But there’s another layer to unpack here. What about cis people who undergo surgeries, procedures, or rigorous activity to accentuate the features of their bodies that carry gendered meanings? Think of the many cosmetic procedures that many cis women undergo for their faces — rhinoplasty, lip and cheek fillers, botox, and others that alter the shape and contours of the face to look more traditionally feminine, stereotypically beautiful. Think of the elaborate workout regimens, diet plans and often dangerous steroid-pumping rituals that cis men go through to get beefed up and look more quintessentially masculine. Breast enhancement surgeries are yet another example of women wanting to highlight the parts of their bodies that are perceived as feminine. They all, ultimately, affirm gender when taken to their logical conclusions.
The exception that many take towards trans individuals and try to explain it away as “logic” only shows their bigotry toward gender minorities, not their concern for people’s well-being against the “criminal physicians” of the world. But the process of gender affirmation clearly isn’t just one that applies to trans people. We affirm our gender by the clothes we wear, the names we ask to be called, the makeup routines we follow, the mannerisms we use to express ourselves, and virtually every aspect of our social selves. Some of us are fortunate to not even be conscious of the way we “do” gender — but it doesn’t mean that we don’t.
So when transphobes target Elliot Page for his gender, they’re actually exposing a closely guarded secret of society: not even one of us can claim that we are so secure in our own gender that we do absolutely nothing to affirm it. Unfortunately, trans people are the most visible — and more vulnerable — of us when they simply live their lives the way every human being does. Their only crime, then, is having the courage to break out of the gender norms assigned to them by society, and exercising their free will to adopt their own. When transphobic people take issue with this, they really take issue with freedom itself — forcing us to re-examine our own gender affirmative processes and why we abide them in the process.
As pioneering gender scholar Judith Butler noted, we “perform” gender all the time according to cultural norms, making it “a negotiation, a struggle, a way of dealing with historical constraints and making new realities.” In a Guardian interview, Butler added something that aptly summarizes what Elliot Page and his detractors are going through at the moment: “… we should be prepared and even joyous to see what trans men are doing with the category of “men”.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.