When Elliot Page came out as transgender in December 2020, he set the internet ablaze. There was plenty of hatred, as there is whenever trans people exist in public space, but there was something else, too: celebration. He was perhaps the highest-profile person to ever come out as trans, and his announcement increased (the nearly non-existent) transmasculine representation in Hollywood.
It was only a matter of time before Page would be given an in-depth magazine profile, and his TIME cover dropped on Tuesday. Accompanied by photos shot by trans photographer Wynne Neilly, the profile marks Page's first interview since coming out, and the first time his story has been shared in words not written by him. The piece also comes at a crucial cultural moment. Trans youth are under attack in the U.S., with over 25 states introducing bills to ban trans girls from competing in girls' sports, to ban gender-affirming care for trans young people, or both. The profile never lets the reader forget what is at stake for the lives of trans people in this country.
"Around the globe, transgender people deal disproportionately with violence and discrimination," the profile reads. "Anti-trans hate crimes are on the rise in the UK along with increasingly transphobic rhetoric in newspapers and tabloids. In the US, in addition to the perennial challenges trans people face with issues like poverty and homelessness, a flurry of bills in state legislatures would make it a crime to provide transition-related medical care to trans youth." From there, the piece spends several hundred more words outlining Saturday Night Live bits, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene's transphobic outburst on the House floor, and even recaps Dr. Rachel Levine's confirmation hearing. In essence, it's a play-by-play of Trans Issues.
With deep respect for those who came before me, gratitude for those who have supported me & great concern for the generation of trans youth we must all protect, please join me and decry anti-trans legislation, hate & discrimination in all its forms. pic.twitter.com/5yr8TYywTn— Elliot Page (@TheElliotPage) March 16, 2021
In focusing so much on the magnitude of this political and cultural moment, however, the profile misses something crucial: joy. Living openly as a trans person can bring fear and discrimination, but it can also bring freedom. There should be liberation in Page telling his story, even — and perhaps especially — because of the weight of the current moment. For too long, trans people's stories have been packaged for a cisgender audience and controlled by cis media gatekeepers. In framing trans stories for cis people, often the pain and the struggle is what’s centred.
It’s how we came to understand the most common narrative about what it means to be trans: being “born in the wrong body.” That was a storytelling device designed to allow cis people to understand the trans experience. Page’s profile gives us that, too. By opening the profile with descriptions of Page’s childhood gender dysphoria, it is pain that is centred once again. He lays bare his suffering and trauma to be consumed by cis readers, describing how difficult it was to look at photos of himself or to wear women's clothing on film sets, to justify his existence in the hopes that cis people will see him — and, by extension, all of us — as valid and worthy of basic human rights.
“Elliot’s profile is a necessary one for this moment considering the attacks on trans kids,” Oliver-Ash Kleine, a trans journalist and host of the Cancel Me, Daddy podcast, wrote on Twitter. “But there’s another one where he doesn’t have to recount his childhood dysphoria & lifelong pain to defend trans people’s existence. Can’t wait til we can have profiles like that.”
Trans identity is not all pain and suffering. In fact, many trans people don’t even experience gender dysphoria, which was once considered essential to trans identity. Being trans is joyful and free, it is living openly and authentically, it is self-actualising the life you want, it is an expression of agency, it is an act of making your body—and your life—your own. Framing transness in this way is radical and reclaims the experience from cis storytellers. There's an adage about how finding joy in a world that marginalises you and fails to recognise your humanity is an act of resistance. Sharing stories of trans joy at a time when the state wants to take away our ability to live and thrive is resistance.
The reception to Page's announcement is a sign of progress. As the story notes, his agent has been bombarded by requests to work with him and he will continue playing the role of Vanya in Netflix's The Umbrella Academy, which is filming its third season now. “It seems like there’s a tremendous weight off his shoulders, a feeling of comfort,” showrunner Steve Blackman said of Page's return to The Umbrella Academy set. “There’s a lightness, a lot more smiling.” These developments could have been celebrated more in Page's TIME interview. The writer could have speculated on what future projects for an out transmasculine star could look like, rather than focusing on how much he hated watching himself on-screen before his transition.
Trans stories are more than just “the series of traumatic events that cis people think define trans people,” as writer Niko Stratis put it on Twitter. Allowing trans people to exist beyond stories of struggle is “the difference between seeing someone for what they are and seeing them for who they are,” tweeted Gillian Branstetter, the media manager at the National Women’s Law Center. We learn so little about who Page is as a person in this profile, which centres so prominently on his transition, dysphoria, and The Issues facing the trans community.
This, of course, is not a criticism of Page, who is admirably using his platform and privilege as a successful, white transmasculine person to help others. Instead, it is a critique of the mainstream media, which is dominated by cis gatekeepers who determine which stories are valid and control how and by whom they are told. In the future, hopefully, we can lean into trans joy as much as — if not more than — we highlight trans pain.
“I’m really excited to act, now that I’m fully who I am, in this body,” Page said to TIME. “No matter the challenges and difficult moments of this, nothing amounts to getting to feel how I feel now.” The world is more than ready for fuller, more nuanced portrayals of trans people; in fact, our lives depend on it.