The decade's most triggering comedy
Last week, Twitter suspended Jordan Peterson for calling a woman by her name. Jordan’s observation that “Ellen Page just had her breasts removed” had apparently violated Twitter’s rules against “misgendering” and “deadnaming,” two neologisms that mean the opposite of what they seem. The verb “to misgender” first appeared in 1989. It ostensibly refers to inaccurately identifying someone’s sex, but ironically it has come to mean accurately identifying the sex of people who wish it were not so. In reality, Jordan did not “misgender” Ellen Page; he simply “gendered” her. The only people “misgendering” the actress are the ones who pretend that she is a man.
The term “deadname,” which first appeared sometime in the early 2010s, follows a similar illogic. It describes a person’s name from birth until the moment in which he declared himself to be a member of the opposite sex or no sex at all and assumed a new name. Today Ellen goes by “Elliot” and has even legally changed her name. But “Ellen” isn’t Miss Page’s “deadname.” Even if one were to accept the dubious premise that men have a right to call themselves “Sally” and ladies a right to call themselves “Hank,” Ellen isn’t dead. She is very much alive and has called herself “Ellen” for 33 of her 35 years. “Ellen Page” starred in Jason Reitman’s hit film Juno, for which “Ellen Page” received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Must Reitman recut his movie credits now that Ellen fancies herself “Elliot”? Must the Academy rescind Ellen’s nomination for Best Actress and retroactively nominate her for Best Actor? The Academy continues to list “Ellen Page” among its past nominees. Does Hollywood’s most prestigious body condone “deadnaming”?
The prevailing transgender consensus contends that Ellen has always in some way been Elliot. According to Wikipedia, for instance, “Page was born on February 21, 1987… He was assigned female at birth and used his birth name of Ellen prior to transitioning.” In other words, “he” was always a man, albeit a man whom everyone, apparently including herself, believed to be a woman. But Ellen’s supposedly eternal maleness raises new problems of sexual identity. Prior to her “transition,” Ellen entered into a “same-sex marriage” with a woman named Emma Portner. At the time, both ladies considered themselves to be lesbians. Miss Portner still does. But to affirm Page’s “gender identity” is to deny Portner’s “sexual orientation,” and vice versa. If during their relationship Ellen was a man, then Emma was not a lesbian; if Emma was a lesbian, then Ellen was not a man. One cannot simultaneously indulge the sexual ideologies of both women.
And what if someday Ellen once again acknowledges that she is in fact a woman? A growing number of people have regretted their “transitions” and returned to their proper names and pronouns. Will her Wikipedia page strike virtually all references to “Elliot” and “his” accomplishments, just as it did for “Ellen”? What if Ellen changes her mind again? Does her sexual identity have any basis in objective reality, or does it hinge entirely on her own will? The answers to these questions carry implications beyond abstract theorizing. If a person’s sex has its basis in biological reality, then we can perceive that reality with our intellect and avoid falling afoul of the censors’ rules against “misgendering” in the public square. If a person’s will determines his sex, then one can never know for certain what to call anyone, and the censors might cast any of us at any moment into the social media gulag with Jordan Peterson.
The social media companies themselves are liable to fall afoul of this capricious view of sex, as ironically Twitter did when it de-platformed Jordan. After the censors suspended Jordan for mentioning “Ellen Page,” the forbidden name began to trend, which BuzzFeed noted meant that Twitter had immediately violated the very same rule for which it had punished Peterson. Twitter soon apologized and replaced “Ellen” with “Elliot” among the trending terms.
This revision did not represent a bug in the system but rather an essential feature of the transgender ideology. As one transgender scholar explains, “The matter of ‘the past’ is a complicated one for transsexual and transgender people.” That is because the transgender identity requires the constant rewriting of the past according to one’s present self-definition. “It is only understandable,” the scholar insists, “if a trans person responds by insisting on the primacy of the present, by seeking to erase the past, or even by emotionally locating their ‘real self’ in the future, that elusive place where access (to transition, health care, housing, a livable wage, and so on) and social viability tend to appear more abundant.” If Ellen calls herself Elliot today, then Ellen must always have been Elliot no matter how many film credits mention Ellen. Orwell described the same process in Nineteen-Eighty-Four: “The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”
This hostility toward the past helps to explain why leftists of sturdier sexuality have rallied around the movement. Statue-topplers want to erase their forebears as completely as gender identity activists hope to erase their past selves, and transgenderism offers to the activists the additional political benefit of justifying their program on the grounds of pure will without reference to reason or reality. Either Ellen Page is Ellen, or none of us can say who she is or ever was — just as our opponents who control the public square want it.