Joey Soloway on Pronouns, Deadnaming and the Joy of Elliot Page: "We're Going to Be Here"

Joey Soloway and Elliot Page
Courtesy of Jesse Chamberlain Marble; Courtesy of Elliot Page

Joey Soloway (left) and Elliot Page

Joey Soloway, like many people, opened their computer Tuesday morning to read Elliot Page's social media post. "I can't begin to express how remarkable it feels to finally love who I am enough to pursue my authentic self," Page wrote, identifying as trans with pronouns he/they. "I've been endlessly inspired by so many in the trans community. Thank you for your courage, your generosity and ceaselessly working to make this world a more inclusive and compassionate place."

Reading Page's words gave Soloway chills. Not only are they one of those who've been doing the work, they know the relief that comes with claiming one's identity. Soloway, the highest-profile nonbinary individual in Hollywood, began identifying as Joey this year. This, after using their parent's trans journey as inspiration for the Emmy Award-winning series Transparent and centering much of their work on lifting and celebrating marginalized voices.

"I felt a lot of joy," Soloway told The Hollywood Reporter Thursday in an interview to discuss Page and the impact of having another high-profile trans person come out. "I get a feeling of joy and excitement whenever somebody comes out as trans, or when people tell me that their kids are trans. I always get this lifting feeling of somebody being able to take off a very heavy weight. And be free."

I saw the word joy used a lot online this week in regard to Elliot. Did you field any reactions from friends in Hollywood or in the community?

You know what? Yeah. A lot of people texted me. A lot of people just texted one word, like "Elliot!" I think because I let people know that I wanted to go by Joey instead of my old name a few months ago, a lot of people wanted to get my take, and be like, "Look, there's another member of your club." Every time somebody comes out publicly, it's a lift for trans and nonbinary people because everybody feels a little bit less alone, and a little bit less scared. I think of it like when you’re kids and you live in a town where you have to be careful crossing a really busy main road, a bunch of kids hold hands and walk very slowly across the road together.

It's really hard to come out, but when people do, it helps for people to hold on to one another. And say, "Yeah. There's more than one of us. There are more than two of us. We've been here. We're going to be here." Being trans can be this generative, flourishing, beautiful moment as opposed to what we're usually feeling, which is totally afraid and completely panicked about the rights and safety of trans people.

That’s something Elliot referenced in their statement — the juxtaposition of joy and fragility in facing the realities of threats to the trans community, in terms of violence, lack of acceptance, discrimination. How does that feel to navigate that?

Luckily, everybody just stays in now, so the question of what you're going to do out in the world, out in the streets, how to feel safe, that question is turned down for a little while. A lot of people are having these internal journeys right now over this past year where you don't have the things that can really distract you from just going in and figuring out who you are. Whenever I talk about being nonbinary in public, I always try to make sure that I talk first about my white privilege. It's because I grew up as cis-passing that I've been able to have a career where I can relax my shoulders enough to say, "Yeah, this is me." It's so rare to be able to go to work and say, "Hey, everybody. I use they, them pronouns," and everybody says, "Great. Can't wait."

If you're white, if you work, if you were cis-passing growing up, you are already surpassing far ahead of so many trans people who are in such a tight spot in terms of being able to support themselves, to have safe housing, to feel safe walking down the street, walking in a park. It is like having to hold these two extremes at the same time. That's why you take joy when you can get it.

I was thinking about that and wondering if being white and cis-passing had an effect on how Elliot was embraced …

I'm sure. Celebrities are safer. It's hard in some ways because you're in the public eye and people know you. But think of the people who live in a home with parents who don't accept them, with an abusive partner, or in a religious town. If you've gotten to a point of being a public figure, you definitely have a support system in place. Elliot's lucky. I'm lucky. Anybody who can do this, who can say, "This is who I am," is incredibly lucky. Incredibly. So often, I think what a privilege that I can have an X on my driver's license. What a privilege that I can remind people whenever I want to, "Hey, there's this other thing besides male and female. It's called nonbinary and I'm that." These ideas that we could move what it means to be a person in our lifetime.

What was so exciting yesterday about Elliot coming out was the way the media handled it. So few outlets deadnamed them and the ones that did were called out immediately and they knew how to change it. The media's getting in shape and learning how to do this, and learning how to report on these announcements. That was very inspiring.

Can you share what the concept of deadnaming means to you, and why it's so harmful?

I started using the name Joey in, like, March, and once I settled on the new name, it feels very strange to hear the old name. It really feels like somebody is talking about the person that they know, love and miss, as opposed to being in up-to-date communication with who I just said I was. I was talking to another journalist yesterday about a book that he's writing. He wanted to talk about working on the shows Six Feet Under and United States of Tara, and he said, “For the sake of making it easier if that's OK with you, I'm going to go ahead and use your old name and pronoun for when you were working on those shows. Right?”

I said, "No, no, no. No, we don't do that." It's a very hard lesson to learn but it's also a very simple lesson. When somebody graduates from medical school, everybody goes around saying, "Doctor, doctor, hello, Dr. Soloway. Look at you, doctor." If it's something that people want to be a cheerleader for, they'll change your name immediately. If you get married, they call you by your new partner's last name. If people are excited, they'll use the new name. They won’t say, “I still think of you as mister instead of doctor. Let me just call you mister.” If somebody you knew professionally had come back from medical school and they passed, you wouldn’t say, "But you're always a nurse to me," or "When I met you, you were a nurse." People know how to change. In the trans community, a moment like this says, “OK, we all know how to do this. Change the name. Change the idea. Get it right.”

You got a lot of positive attention over the summer for helping correct a journalist in using the right pronouns. If you can offer any advice for people who still can’t get it right, what would you say?

I always remind people that we use a "they" pronoun for our singular. But we don't know the gender all the time. "Who left their sunglasses here?" That's they. "Somebody left their lunch on the table." It's not about a plural. It's about we don't know the gender, and to just not know the gender, and to ungender, it's just a great exercise. If we're all trying to be smart, tolerant, modern and forward-thinking, we should try to use the they pronoun. For me, sometimes when people say, "I just can't do they," I say, "Then just do he instead of she," because I want you to acknowledge that I'm not the person you used to know.

People should think of it as learning a new language. It's a great thing to try, and a great thing to do as a thought exercise in being willing to do it for the person that you love, to keep pushing yourself. A lot of people say to me, "You'll always be [deadname] to me." They think they're trying to tell me that they'll always love me, but they're actually saying, “I don't recognize your transition.”

There’s an ambient sense of belonging that comes with being cis, and part of that ambient sense of belonging is feeling like you have the right to question somebody's gender changes and say, “Help me understand.” Even that is really asking trans and otherized people to do the emotional labor of continuing to create a world where the person making the mistake is always safe, no matter what. "Don't worry. You didn't hurt my feelings. It's fine." You always have to make sure that the cis people feel safe, and that's part of cis privilege.

You mentioned how this year has led to a lot of introspection. What have you learned about yourself during the pandemic?

I really like being alone. I found out I really like having time to myself. I can see that it's a long road ahead, for me at least, becoming Joey, and exploring Joey, and I think once you make that transition you look back at a lot of things in your life and wonder how they would've been different. With Topple Books we published a book called Raising Them: Our Adventure in Gender Creative Parenting by Kyl Myers. She and her husband are doing gender creative parenting. Their kid, who is I think 5 or 6 years old now, they haven’t revealed the gender to anyone, including grandparents. They’re waiting for the kid to choose their gender, and maybe even change genders throughout their life. If you're nonbinary and you try to imagine, "Wow. Who would I be if I was raised by parents like that?", "Who would I be if at that moment I hadn't started thinking of myself as a girl?"

Then, as a writer, you start to think, "Who would I be as a creator if I was surrounded by nonbinary mentors, nonbinary agents, nonbinary buyers and nonbinary distributors?" You can't help but really be jealous of, again, the ambient sense of belonging that comes with being cis, male and straight. I know that's complex, but, for me, I think about how hard I've been working to feel normal.

Many of the articles about Elliot mentioned "Oscar-nominated actor." As somebody who has won many awards, where do you stand on gendered awards categories?

I think it's a problem because anything really that's gendered is a problem these days, anything. When somebody calls me to say, "I'm starting an organization for women in the arts," I go, "Do you have a plan for nonbinary people, trans-masculine people, and people who don't identify as women, but also don't have male privilege?" Woman and man makes sense talking about the past, but in terms of talking about the future those words can end up leaving people out.

If I'm doing a fellowship for female writers, there’s a bunch of nonbinary writers who would see that announcement, and think, "I'm not going to apply for this. This isn't for me. I'm not female." It seems absurd to have gendered categories in any craft. However, we live so deeply in patriarchy and white supremacy that if we didn't have gendered categories people wouldn't be wanting to give awards to people who aren't men. There has to be a way. When people ask, "Do you mind being on the 100 Most Powerful Women List?" I say, "I don't want to be on the 100 Most Powerful Women List because I'm not a woman," but if I'm not on that list then I'm not on any list.

Gender is going to evolve a lot. Nobody's really asking for the destruction of masculinity or femininity. They're asking to add in a third gender in the middle, and everything in between, and also to simply insist that gender has nothing to do with bodies. If you are assigned female at first, and you have a body that appears female to the doctors, OK, that doesn't mean you're a girl or a woman. It just doesn't. That simple idea makes things like a best actress award a little crazy, because it does mean that we're dividing craft awards based on somebody's physiology.

One final question. I loved what you said about holding hands crossing a busy road. Let's pretend you grab Elliot's hand and go together, what do you say to them?

I would say, "Congratulations. Thank you for being out here."

Interview edited for length and clarity.