I was in my twenties when, on a visit to the family home, my parents informed me that a relative had been in touch to advise that one of their children (by then, an adult close to my own age) had decided to have a “sex-change” operation. Although no one in my family could have anticipated such news (especially in those years), everyone accepted it with grace, and as much understanding as was possible. It was clear that this decision had been a long time coming, and was believed to be the only choice that permitted a happy life. I limit additional specifics only because this isn’t the part of the story that is mine to tell.
I must have had some sense of how much emotional upheaval might precede the decision to accept such a realization and share it with others — even family. I had known that I was a lesbian since adolescence and believed, based on personal observation (and whatever reading material I could get my hands on) that estrangement and rejection might well be the response if I shared this information. And, sadly, it seemed extra-scary to be vulnerable with family. I had taken to reading a lot of poetry in those days, and I found Robert Frost’s suggestion that. “home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in,” a comforting thought. But was it true? What if (emotionally-speaking) I went there and they didn’t take me in? Such fear, although unfounded in my case, dominated right up to that day in my twenties, and for quite a bit longer. I must have somehow felt that it was one thing to share the belief that you had been born in the wrong body (for that, perhaps you could be forgiven) but quite another to accept and seek acceptance of yourself as a lesbian.
I found myself pondering all of this anew after watching Oprah Winfrey’s recent interview with Elliot (formerly, Ellen) Page.
I first became aware of Page when she appeared, at 17, in Hard Candy — a tour de force performance in a film about a 14-year-old who exacts revenge on a suave and canny man who is known to prey on teenage girls. (Roger Ebert dubbed the film, “Lolita with a Scalpel.”) Page’s talent was clear in the film, Juno, as well, and in numerous other movies. At 26, she “came out” as gay, and then at age 34, in 2020, came out as trans, and exchanged “Ellen” for “Elliot.”
I watched the Oprah interview with interest, hoping that Page might be encouraged to discuss the nature of the compelling urge that led to such a seminal modification in herself. I wondered: what were the specifics that define a woman or a man so clearly that altering one’s body to eliminate one set of discrepancies, and confirm others, made sense? A clear definition between the two would be required, wouldn’t it, in order to choose to go forward in life as one sex, rather than the other? Was transition a mostly psychological event, or primarily physical? I wondered what changes would occur in future relationships. Would the previous role of “woman” be rescinded in some way? Was there something we might call a male essence that now existed within? If so, could it be described?
At a 2014 conference in support of LGBT youth, Page commented on the criticism she sometimes received for refusing to dress according to feminine standards, “There are pervasive stereotypes about masculine and feminine that define how we’re all supposed to act, dress, and speak, and they serve no one.” I hoped that Oprah might probe this observation. If Page truly saw gender stereotypes for what they are (superficial, damaging assumptions about what it is to be male or female) on what basis was the decision made to “change sex,” even going so far as to undergo the removal of her breasts? I hoped that Winfrey wouldn’t miss the opportunity to have the nuanced, complex discussion such decisions would seem to warrant, and, in a broader societal sense, require.
To me, these are not facetious, judgemental, or leading questions. Many of the struggles Ellen experienced as a girl are identical to my own. I felt the same discomfort with girls’ bathing suits, for instance, and ditched a skirted, plaid two-piece for a pair of surf shorts as soon as I could. My body, and the changes it was going through, embarrassed me, as was also true for many other girls I knew. I hated the idea of wearing a bra and practically willed my period to back off until I was 14. I too would have opted to be a boy if such a miracle were possible. Why? Because even taking into consideration the other side of the coin — the complex and nuanced difficulties in being male — boyhood was FREEDOM, at least to my very young eyes. The mistake, I realized later, was in believing that one had to actually be a boy to be free. Only a great many positive variables, and time itself, allowed me to see that it was the freedom to transcend hackneyed feminine stereotypes that I truly yearned for. Given time, I began to see that the story was really one of liberty and transcendence; that although sex was real, interpretations of “gender” were often arbitrary and cruel. Now, they are crueler than ever, and “transition” has usurped transcendence.
Winfrey didn’t ask the questions I would have liked to hear, but in this case I could hardly blame her. Page seemed too vulnerable, even fragile, to warrant a probing inquiry of any depth. In addition, Winfrey may have felt uncomfortable questioning the topic of “trans” too deeply for fear of blowback. Her mandate, as is true for media generally, was to affirm Page’s decisions and beliefs, not inquire into them in order to gain a deeper understanding. But regardless, a few things about the interview stood out for me.
To hear someone confess that, up until coming out as gay at 26, “I had not even touched someone I was in love with,” is heartbreaking no matter what the context, but more poignant when you realize the reason for such anguish is self-repression, as well as fear and worry about being shunned if people discover who you really are. She tells Winfrey “I feel like I haven’t gotten to be myself since I was 10 years old.” In that moment it occurred to me that Page’s physical appearance was closer to an androgynous adolescent than a 34-year-old man (or woman, for that matter) — as if, after winding things up with Oprah, she might head off to get the school picture taken. I found myself wondering if what was truly being longed for were the lost years of childhood, those days when, for a magical, blessed time, we are neither boys or girls — we simply are. In what was to me the most painful exchange, Oprah asked what part of transition had brought the most joy. Page replied: “Getting out of the shower and the towel is around your waist and you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, and you’re just, like, ‘there I am.’”
Removing her breasts, coming out as trans, renaming herself, these were all adult decisions that Page was free to make, of course. And the actor’s concern for others who are suffering identity issues is palpable in this interview. Page is clearly someone who, based on her own personal experience, worries primarily about the vulnerability of young people. I do too. And this is why I can’t put out of my mind the effects — some known, some as yet unknown — of hormones and puberty blockers on children, or the statistics which suggest that kids, given the opportunity to pass through a period of “gender confusion” (and puberty) will go on to live healthy lesbian, gay, (or, I would imagine, sometimes straight) lives, their precious bodies and minds intact and fully-functioning.
I can only assume that neither Page or Winfrey have exposed themselves to the readily-available information that contributes to the greater debate on transitioning children. Or, they have satisfied themselves that any contradictory opinion, no matter how well-documented, is unworthy of debate, since its source is, at best, misinformed, and, at worst, transphobic lies espoused by those who share a right-wing agenda with a plan to squeeze children back into the right bathing suit. In that sense, the interview remains incomplete, and, considering the seriousness of the topic, and the fact that Page clearly considers herself a spokesperson for youth, irresponsible on both parts.
Like Page, I too want children to have the opportunity to be themselves at 10 and beyond — to be able to observe themselves in a mirror and see their true selves, to persevere in this crazy world long enough to understand a simple truth: it is not possible to be born in the wrong body. It is only a matter of being born in the wrong time — a time when damaging and dangerous stereotypes have risen once again in conjunction with society’s ability and willingness to perform invasive and irreversible medical procedures.
We find ourselves in a situation where, now more than ever, children — whether they are wearing bikinis or cut-offs, high-tops or heels, whether their hair is worn shoulder-length, or hacked short and dyed blue — require adult emotional assistance in order to cut through harmful illusions that have gone mainstream in our time. Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Elliot Page is a disturbing reminder that, under the guise of inclusivity, kindness, and affirmation, children are being led by a Pied Piper blend of media, medicine, politics, and celebrity, into a world of catastrophic self-loathing instead.
Brenda Brooks’ novel Gotta Find Me An Angel was a finalist for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award. Her 2019 book, HONEY, was shortlisted for the U.K. Staunch Book Prize, an award for thrillers “where no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, or murdered.”