About 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Lauren McNamara, 31, was woken up from a nap by her wife, who had news to share. Elliot Page — the actor they had both loved watching in movies like “Juno,” “Inception” and “Into the Forest” — announced he is transgender and uses he/they pronouns. In a post on social media, Page wrote: “I can’t begin to express how remarkable it feels to finally love who I am enough to pursue my authentic self.”
For McNamara, the news took a moment to fully register. Then, her reaction was pure joy. “This is someone who really has it together and knows who they are,” she says. “This is a really important moment for that person — a culmination of a lot of growth worth celebrating.”
McNamara says she knows what a momentous moment this must have been for Page. Eight years ago, she came out as a transgender woman. At that time, she says, the conversations around being transgender “were at a different place.” But even then, coming out to her family felt like an act of respect both ways. On the one hand, she felt “this was something important about me and my life that they deserved to be a part of.” In turn, she wanted her identity to be acknowledged.
On a very public scale, a similar phenomenon has been playing out in the aftermath of Page’s announcement. On the whole, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, with well wishes from fellow celebrities, advocacy organizations and companies (including Netflix, the platform behind Page’s hit superhero series, “The Umbrella Academy”).
In the transgender community especially, the news was met with “jubilation.” But as quick as transgender folks were to celebrate Page’s coming out, they were also quick to ask that others educate themselves about how to best support Page and others who come out.
This most obviously played out in how certain media outlets referred to the actor. Some headlines included references to the name Page was formerly identified by, which, as McNamara says, is “generally frowned upon” in the trans community. This “deadnaming” attaches a person to “a name, an identity, a place in life that they may have actually felt very uncomfortable occupying for a very long time,” McNamara says.
Tyler Econa, a 19-year-old writer who identifies as transmasculine and uses they/them pronouns, was also “very happy” to hear of Page’s coming out. Econa came out in 2014, when they were 13, and didn’t have many transgender icons to look up to. “Now that this is coming into the spotlight, it’s such a wonderful opportunity for other young trans people,” they say.
At the same time, reactions on social media revealed how relatively little is known about how to handle these issues. As Econa puts it: “A lot of people just don’t understand the basics — what it means to be trans, or how to act around trans people. So when things like this happen, it’s a big opportunity for learning.”
We spoke with transgender experts and individuals about what to be mindful of when talking about someone’s coming out; how to support your loved ones; and what you should know about the intersection of other systemic issues, notably racism, that transgender folks face.
How to talk about notable transgender people
For the most part, the media did a pretty good job of referring to Page when writing about his coming out, according to Gillian Branstetter, co-founder of the Trans Journalists Association. Many relied on contextual clues to identify him — noting the movies Page had starred in, for example, but not necessarily leading with his former public name.
“For most trans people, deciding on a new name is a chance to correct the record,” Branstetter says. “Elliot is the only expert source on the matter. Every person is the only expert on their gender identity, not doctors, not courts or official documents. It’s a matter of self-identification.”
Samantha Allen, author of “Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States,” finds it striking how differently news organizations and social media users talked about Page vs. Caitlyn Jenner, who came out as transgender in 2015. The deadnaming in Page’s case “was much less frequent, or if it was happening, it was in accordance with GLAAD’s guidelines,” Allen says, pointing to media resources the advocacy group has published in light of Page’s announcement. GLAAD recommends only referring to Page as Elliot Page, except in singular instances when it may be necessary to identify how Page was known to the public before coming out. It also recommends describing Page as a nonbinary, transgender person. “Both transgender and nonbinary are umbrella terms that describe many different types of experiences,” GLAAD wrote. “In page’s case, it can be used like this: ‘Elliot Page describes themself as transgender and nonbinary, meaning that their gender identity is neither man nor woman.’”
Many outlets also used more recent photographs of Page, which Branstetter recommends. Ideally, she says, it’s best to avoid using photos of transgender people before they came out.
It’s also important for people, especially those shaping the news, to educate themselves before stories like this break. “It’s not a matter of if you’re going to tell a story about trans people, but when,” Branstetter says. “You don’t want to put off overcoming some of these basic hurdles.”
Supporting transgender loved ones
When someone in your own life comes out as transgender, here’s a guiding principle many trans people recommend: “Trust this person to declare who they are.” As Branstetter puts it, it’s not about “second-guessing or putting up skepticism”: “If your vision of someone in your life requires them to live a lie, you should question your own motives.”
The choice to come out as transgender is an extremely personal one, and in many cases has taken years to arrive at — as Page wrote, “I feel lucky … to have arrived at this place in my life.”
McNamara says she understands that “for the people around us, this can be something that might be received as unexpected news, it might be something they feel they need to process,” she says. “But for the person coming out, this is something they’ve been living with, dealing with, processing and managing for likely many years.”
It’s common for loved ones, especially parents, to feel they need to “mourn” someone they believed they knew. But advocates want to push people to reframe their thinking around this. As Branstetter puts it: “Resist that understanding and embrace the fact that someone you really care about is throwing off a cloud of shame they’ve lived under perhaps in complete secrecy.” Instead, Branstetter says, “participate in their joy.” Allen advocates a similar sentiment: “Lead with love.”
The next step, Econa says, is education. As Econa puts it: “Don’t just listen to respond, but listen to understand.” That may come in the form of asking questions about how your loved one wants to be identified, Econa says, but it also means doing your own research on trans issues. Resources on the Internet abound — whether that is GLAAD’s collection, Twitter threads on “trans etiquette” or reading lists.
Allen adds that while it’s crucial that people “don’t use old pronouns or deadnames, know that you will make mistakes, and move on if you make a mistake.” She continues: “Most trans people, when someone messes up, we want them to get right back on the horse and keep going instead of making it awkward.”
Be aware of inequalities within the trans community
Page’s announcement didn’t just revolve around his own coming out. He also pointed to the 40 transgender and gender non-conforming people who have been killed so far in 2020, as tracked by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. A majority of these murders have been of Black and Latinx transgender women — a result of the compounding of multiple forms of discrimination, including transphobia, misogyny and racism.
But for Lourdes Ashley Hunter, founder and executive director of the Trans Women of Color Collective, the mention of the violence wasn’t enough. “Everyone should have the opportunity to be seen and affirmed in their truth, but we must recognize the inherent privilege that belies in White, male-presenting bodies in the United States,” Hunter says.
To directly combat the disproportionate violence and discrimination that Black trans women face, Hunter says, it’s important to support Black trans small business owners, as well as organizations on the ground that “are doing critical work to elevate not the narratives of violence but providing sustainable resources.”
Page, for his part, should focus on “rallying White trans and cis people to become active agents in shifting the narrative of violence against Black trans women,” Hunter says.
For Econa, who identifies as Latinx, it’s important for Page, as a White person, to elevate others’ stories: “People in positions of privilege, using that voice and platform to speak about trans people of color, that’s a very good thing to do.”
Branstetter says that Page’s coming out has also sparked an important conversation about which transgender narratives Hollywood and the media embrace. As a White transgender woman herself, Branstetter says, she is “treated as the default.” But Page provides more visibility for transmasculine people, who face unique challenges, including access to reproductive health care. Although the public health world has in recent years become more inclusive — including a move to use gender-neutral language when speaking about pregnant people — a “flat narrative” still tends to dominate mainstream conversation, Branstetter says.
Ultimately, Allen finds this idea of visibility is most crucial. “The most important thing to takeaway is that the volume and positivity of this discourse is hugely important. People who are still in the closet are seeing that, noticing it,” she says. “Seeing so many people loudly and with huge smiles on their faces celebrating Elliot living his authentic self makes a difference for them.”