Elliot Page: What the Media Got Right

Given the media’s less-than-perfect track record in covering well-known celebrities who come out as trans, the media’s handling of Elliot Page’s coming out was a welcome change.

On Tuesday, LGBT internet communities celebrated when Elliot Page, star of Juno, The Umbrella Academy, and Whip It, shared on social media that he was transgender.

In a note posted on Twitter and Instagram, the actor wrote, “I love that I am trans. And I love that I am queer. And the more I hold myself close and fully embrace who I am, the more I dream, the more my heart grows and the more I thrive.”

In the last few years, there have been just a few instances in which well-known celebrities come out as trans, with perhaps the most high profile being Chelsea Manning and Caitlyn Jenner. In both cases, the women were deadnamed—referred to by their previous name, and often the wrong pronouns—by the media. Even NPR initially used the incorrect name and pronouns for Manning, despite her wishes and the advice of LGBT advocacy groups (NPR eventually changed its policy, after backlash). 

Given this less-than-perfect track record, the media’s handling of Elliot Page’s coming out was a welcome change, from the perspective of many trans people. Compared to past incidents, almost no outlets have used Elliot’s deadname, and the vast majority have used his correct pronouns. With Elliot being perhaps the biggest trans celebrity to come out since Caitlyn Jenner, it’s a welcome surprise to see his coming out go as well as it’s gone.

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But the fact that this show of respect is remarkable to us is a stark reminder of the countless times the media has disrespected us and the memories of our loved ones. It’s also a reminder that the media has a long way to go in terms of respecting trans people in their coverage. 

Earlier this year, Aimee Stephens, plaintiff in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. EEOC, died. Her case, after six years, had finally made its way to the Supreme Court, where it ultimately led to the groundbreaking ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County which outlawed employment discrimination against LGBT individuals under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Elliot Page: What the Media Got Right

Image Description: a picture of a group of people standing around two women, one of whom is seated in a wheelchair.
Aimee Stephens (right, in wheelchair) and Laverne Cox (left) outside the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2019. (Elvert Barnes / Flickr)

Unfortunately, Stephens died before the Bostock ruling was announced. And unfortunately, in death, she was deadnamed in multiple prominent news outlets, including the New York Times

“For someone like Aimee… to be disrespected in death like that is… cultivating this idea that, at her core, she’s really this other person, who she was not. It’s just incredibly disrespectful and painful for the trans person and the people that loved them,” said Chase Strangio, counsel for Stephens’s case, on a recent episode of “On the Issues.”

“It feeds into this notion that we, as trans people, are always fraudulent and covering up some truth about who we are… When we insert narrative reminders of someone’s assigned sex at birth, it reinforces the notion to the cis person that we aren’t who we say we are,” said Strangio—who also wrote about the importance of Page’s coming out

As Strangio points out, the link between the way the media portrays trans people and the way that trans people are treated in real life is very, very real. Just as media representations of trans people being played by cis actors contributes to the idea that trans people are “faking it,” as explained in the recent Netflix documentary “Disclosure,” media coverage that deadnames or misgenders trans people reinforces the idea that trans people are “faking” their gender with malicious intent—an argument that is often used as a justification for violence against trans people (remember the gay/trans panic defense?). 

“One of the biggest mistakes that the media consistently makes when it comes to trans people is deadnaming trans people who have been killed, which is just unbelievably disrespectful,” Oliver-Ash Kleine, a journalist and founding member of the Trans Journalists Association (TJA) told Ms. “But it’s not only really disrespectful, and taking away someone’s autonomy—it also reinforces the culture that has led to the epidemic of violence against Black and brown transfeminine people by undermining their gender and disrespecting who they are. The media has a really big responsibility to not contribute to the disrespect and misunderstanding of trans people. Because this disrespect contributes to and reinforces the culture that leads to that violence.”

So, why does this keep happening? Part of the problem, says Kleine, is that the vast majority of coverage on trans issues is written and edited by cisgender people. Due to structural barriers and hiring discrimination, trans people are far less likely to be in newsrooms or have salaried positions in media—let alone editorial or leadership roles. 

That’s why Kleine, along with a group of fellow trans journalists, decided to start the Trans Journalists Association.

“We’re kept out of traditional networks of mentorship and networking, and career growth, right? So I really wanted a place for us to be able to come together and support each other. And once we all came together, we kept getting so frustrated about all of the ways that trans people were talked about and represented, with the media using language that wasn’t appropriate for us, undermining our gender and who we are.” 

So, the journalists decided to create a style guide.

“When we looked around at other LGBTQ nonprofits and media organizations with style guides, we just felt that a lot of them weren’t very comprehensive, and that there was a lack of resources for good trans coverage for reporters who wanted to learn how to do better, who wanted guidance around this. So we decided that, okay, cool, we’re just gonna make it.”

“It’s really important that we listen to trans people about how to report on trans issues and tell trans stories,” said Kleine. “We see over and over and over again, that trans people are misrepresented. In news coverage across the board—it’s not just one outlet, it’s a systematic problem. And the reason for that is there aren’t trans people in most newsrooms, or if there are, there’s just one.”

Membership to TJA is free—precisely because its founders were aware that the vast majority of trans people working in media are freelancers or in other underpaid non-staff positions. The organization also provides support for employers who wish to make their workplace more trans-inclusive, and to trans journalists, who are often the only trans person in a newsroom—a difficult space to occupy when your identity is a regular debate topic in online media spheres or subject to obsessive regulation by lawmakers.

Media coverage and representation of trans people has come a long way in a short amount of time (as with most LGBTQ rights gains, largely thanks to the tireless work of Black and brown trans organizers). But despite recent wins, glaring and violent insufficiencies in coverage remain.

And it’s clear that fundamentally changing the way the media covers trans people is one key step towards ending the epidemic of violence against trans people, and trans people of color in particular. This is a violence that undergirds even joyous moments like Page’s coming out.

“The discrimination towards trans people is rife, insidious and cruel, resulting in horrific consequences,” Page wrote in their note. “To the political leaders who work to criminalize trans health care and deny our right to exist and to all those with a massive platform who continue to spew hostility towards the trans community: You have blood on your hands.” 

“To all the trans people who deal with harassment, self-loathing, abuse, and the threat of violence every day: I see you, I love you, and I will do everything I can to change this world for the better.”

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Oliver Haug is a social media editor and podcast producer with Ms. magazine. They are also a freelance journalist, focusing on LGBTQ+ issues and sexual politics. Their writing has previously appeared in Bitch Magazine, VICE, them.us, the New York Times' newsletter "The Edit," and elsewhere. You can read more of their work at oliverhaug.contently.com, and follow them on Twitter @cohaug.