What is now known as "gender reassignment surgery" would, in an earlier time, have been referred to as a "sex change operation". The latter term is perhaps more honest in public discussion, avoiding as it does the conflation of the idea of physiological sex to that of social presentation that occurs with the current prevalent usage of the term "gender".
In February 2008, I saw a film called Juno, starring Ellen Page (who has since transitioned to a man and is now known as Elliot Page). See here for comments relating to Juno that have appeared previously on this blog. The part played by Ellen Page in Juno, as an unexpectedly pregnant high school teenager, attracted very significant acclaim at the time the film was released.
Elliot Page has recently gained media coverage following an interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which he speaks of how liberating he found being able to have "top surgery" and so present visibly to himself as male. UK coverage can be read on the BBC news website and the Guardian newspaper website.
“I want people to know that not only has it been life-changing for me, I do believe it is life-saving and it’s the case for so many people,” the actor told Oprah Winfrey on her new show for Apple TV+...
Page said the surgery has given him newfound energy “because it is such a freeing, freeing experience”, adding: “This is incredibly new. I feel like I haven’t gotten to be myself since I was 10 years old.”In the interview, Elliot speaks of feeling a discomfort with his own body that was only partly relieved by coming out as a gay woman (and entering a same sex marriage from which he has divorced); and how his (partial) transitioning enables him to now feel comfortable with his body. He goes on to challenge steps being taken in the United States in response to concerns about the treatment of children for gender reassignment, that he sees as limiting access to important health care. (There is some echo in those steps of concerns raised here in the UK about the work of the Gender Identity Development Service at the Tavistock Clinic.)
Whilst it is important to treat Elliot Page's account of his own experience with respect - it is a courtesy, I think, to refer to him now as he would wish to be referred, and hence my use of "Elliot" and masculine pronouns in this post - it does nevertheless raise two questions in the context of a wider debate.
Firstly, a narrative such as Elliot Page's should not be seen as the only and normative narrative. Alongside those suffering from gender dysphoria who may be helped by transitioning, there are also young people who may not be helped by considering transitioning, and who simply need health care as they grow up through puberty in the sex that they already have. Our public conversation needs to recognise that there are differing background stories - multiple narratives - around gender dsyphoria, and that an assumption in favour of transitioning is not always going to be helpful. The public acceptance of transitioning by the media and wider culture, which in effect promotes this acceptance to others, is not going to be helpful for everyone.
Elliot Page's earlier experience as Ellen Page in the film Juno also highlights a second question in a very visible way. He has transitioned (at least partly) from the female sex to the male sex; he is now someone who was of the female sex but is now of the male sex. How far can someone identify fully with their new physiological sex, or, as is implied by the identification as part of a "trans" community, is the fundamental identification that of a person who was of one sex and is now of the other, that of a person who has changed sex?
[In December 2020, I posted indirectly on this last point, in the context of the alacrity of media sources such as Wikipedia in changing the previous "Ellen Page" in their cast list for the film Juno to "Elliot Page": Ellen or Elliot?]