September 29, 2022

Liesandseductions

Education

Elliot Page on His Transition, ‘The Umbrella Academy,’ and Finding Euphoria

T-shirt, Celine by Hedi Slimane; ring by Sterling Assault.

Ruven Afanador

In December 2020, after disclosing that he is transgender, the Oscar-nominated actor and star of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy (Season Three out June 22) became the most famous trans man on the planet. That’s made him the target of indescribable hate but has also brought him unimaginable joy. Here, in his own words, he talks about his childhood, his career, his transition, and his life, though not necessarily in that order.


What have I learned from transitioning? I can’t overstate the biggest joy, which is really seeing yourself. I know I look different to others, but to me I’m just starting to look like myself. It’s indescribable, because I’m just like, there I am. And thank God. Here I am. So the greatest joy is just being able to feel present, literally, just to be present. To go out in a group of new people and be able to engage in a way where I didn’t feel this constant sensation to flee from my body, this never-ending sensation of anxiety and nervousness and wanting out.

When I say I couldn’t have ever imagined feeling that way, I mean that with every sense of me.

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Shirt and trousers by Giorgio Armani; stud set by Lindsay & Co, available at Bergdorf Goodman, NYC.

RUVEN AFANADOR

My dad had a cabin on the south shore of Nova Scotia with no running water or electricity. I was obsessed with tree frogs. I would watch them hop along for hours, probably because of how tiny they were. I’ve noticed as an adult how nourishing and crucial it is for me to feel connected to nature. I need it. When I’m in those spaces, my whole body will relax. My stress dissipates. I can get quiet.

I spent a lot of my childhood in the woods.

When I was a little kid, all I wanted my parents to play was the Bodyguard soundtrack. Loved. And Annie Lennox, Medusa.I think that had a lot to do with the cover. I’d just stare at Annie Lennox. My mum’s music was a lot of Cat Stevens and Sting. The Tragically Hip—they’re fantastic. My dad was more jazz—Shirley Horn, Ruth Brown.

I don’t think I ever actually saw The Bodyguard. I should watch it. Now I’m feeling embarrassed.

I went to a different school every year during high school, so I never really had that single teacher mentor. When I left Halifax to go to Toronto in grade eleven, I thought the bullying would lessen, in regard to what people were clearly bullying me about. And that wasn’t the case at all. Bullying puts you in a place where, later, you have so much unlearning to do. If you’re getting teased and made fun of and called names on a daily basis, there’s no way that’s not going to get inside of you—particularly when you’re already feeling so much shame. Nobody even needs to open their mouth and you’re already feeling it.

Those kids left a whole bunch of shit that I had to dig through and unlearn. I’m sure I could bring up a moment and one of them wouldn’t remember it, because it didn’t mean anything to them. I’d like to think they regret it now.

I always wanted my mum to take me to the school plays, even if I didn’t know what they were about. There was some kind of urge to be in places like that.

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T-shirt and trousers, Celine by Hedi Slimane; ring by Sterling Assault.

RUVEN AFANADOR

I so rarely read novels, but I did just—not just, but a few books ago—I read Real Life, by Brandon Taylor. It’s fantastic. He’s such a phenomenal writer, it just floors you. That I really, really loved. And it’s quite rare. I read novels more when I was younger, in high school. I didn’t go to college, or university, so I’m adamant and disciplined to read a lot. Nonfiction, pretty much.

My childhood best friend and I are still very, very close. His name is Mark, and what I’ve learned from him—and what’s so astounding about him—is his strength and sensitivity. Not being afraid to share your emotions, your pain, to not compromise who you are. Mark quarantined and came to Toronto to take care of me after my top surgery, and we recorded an EP on his four-track while I recovered. That’s what we were doing—writing these little songs. That sound was just us having fun. There’s nothing better than creating things with friends.

Mark’s initials are tattooed under my right collarbone.

I was a pretty serious soccer player as a kid. I loved the discipline. I loved learning about teamwork. I loved even the more spiritual elements of it—what it means to find and create empty space.

As a kid, it was complicated in relation to my gender. I remember the year the genders were separated. I was so distraught, so inordinately distraught. I was crying to my mum, “Please, one more year, one more year!” When I was playing with the boys—soccer, touch football, out back during recess and lunch—I was having a blast. They did let me play one more year, then I had to go to the girls’ team. I looked like the other boys, which I was. I’d be on the field about to kick the ball when a ref would say, “I don’t think boys are allowed to play on this team.” I still played soccer for years, but a lot of love for it was not there.

What else have I just read that’s so good . . . oh: Somebody’s Daughter, by Ashley C. Ford. Fantastic.

The reaction to my transition? I didn’t expect it to be so big. In terms of the actual quality of the response, it was what I expected: love and support from many people and hatred and cruelty and vitriol from so many others. I came out as gay in 2014, and it’s different. Transphobia is just so, so, so extreme. The hatred and the cruelty is so much more incessant.

I think when people say, “Oh, he’ll want to play cis male characters now,” the sensation I get is that the subtext is: They think that would be an accomplishment for me. Versus: I’m trans, I’m queer, and I want to play those roles. When I get asked, “Are you worried about getting typecast?” You wouldn’t say to J-Law or Rooney Mara or someone, are they worried about getting typecast as cis straight women? But at the same time, of course I want a space where trans people are getting cast as cis characters. Of course.

Ace Ventura was like my favorite movie when I was a kid. I was doing impressions. And I’ve been in films with super-problematic things. But it’s funny now when people are like, “You’re too sensitive about jokes.” If you look back, all the stuff that’s so horrible, I mean the ending of Ace Ventura is deeply transphobic. I was going home and watching some sitcom with constant gay jokes after school every day. As were the kids who ended up being bullies.

“You’re too sensitive.” Excuse me? The stuff trans people deal with on a day-to-day basis? Excuse me?

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Tank by Polo Ralph Lauren; jeans by Ralph Lauren Purple Label; ring by the Great Frog; two-finger ring by Sterling Assault.

RUVEN AFANADOR

This article appeared in the SUMMER 2022 issue of Esquire
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This really big dude, less than an arm’s length away, was just screaming at me, “You faggot! Don’t look at me! You faggot, faggot!” I couldn’t even just go, like, I’m not looking at you. It was the one time I’d left the hotel that whole day. I was just trying to cross the street, and I couldn’t because it was Sunset Boulevard and there’s traffic, so I decided in my brain—because he was so tall—that I couldn’t do anything physically. If I said something, he could retaliate. If I turned around, that could trigger something else. So I thought, I’m just going to have to bet on standing completely still and staring straight ahead.

And then eventually, after him yelling, “Faggot! Faggot! Faggot!” some more, he started to walk off and I started to cross the street. And then he just started screaming, behind me, “I’m gonna kill you, you fucking faggot! I’m gonna kill you, you fucking faggot! I’m gonna gay-bash you!” So I ran—I was alone—I ran into a convenience store, and as I was opening the door he yelled, “This is why I need a gun!”

Yeah, I don’t think people really get it.

Why is sensitivity weaponized? I really feel for cis men in regard to the restraints and repression and suppression that stem from the expectations of your gender. When I came out, I posted a selfie with a thank-you note, just to show how much all the love and support meant. And I saw this comment—I should very much not be looking at the comments, but this guy said, “Oh, yeah, as if a guy would ever write something sensitive like that.” I feel bad for that guy. I feel bad that he’s been brought up in a society that equates masculinity with emotionlessness. That’s a really shitty way to live, because it’s going to come out in another direction, and another.

I’ve never worked out more in my life. Working out always felt like such a conundrum, because it didn’t feel good. I walked and I hiked, but that was it. The experience of being in my body now is so different. I’m absolutely hooked. The feeling of being really engaged with it, present, pushing it and getting stronger and gaining weight. It’s thrilling. I feel like a kid doing it.

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Shirt, trousers, and tie by Gucci; two-finger ring by Sterling Assault; ring by the Great Frog; vintage boots, available at Stock Vintage, NYC; socks by Falke.

RUVEN AFANADOR

I have one, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . . nine. Nine tattoos. They’re mostly references to people in my life. One is one of my best friends’ nicknames. One is one of my best friends’ middle names. I have a little coffee cup, which I share with a dear friend. I have friends’ initials, typically from periods of my life when I don’t know if I would have necessarily gotten through them without certain individuals.

spike. Spike Jonze.

wiig.

ep phone home is just a sweet thing.

The word turtles is pretty much a random tattoo. I do love turtles.

The first tattoo I ever got was for Catherine Keener. It’s my nickname for her, which is c keens. That’s just under my top right shoulder. I’ve known Keener since I was nineteen—she’s my oldest friend in L. A., in that whole world. Keener taught me not to take bullshit, to keep my feet on the ground, to live my truth, and to take care of my heart.

When Juno was at the height of its popularity, during awards-season time, I was closeted, dressed in heels and the whole look—I wasn’t okay, and I didn’t know how to talk about that with anyone. But I could with Keener. I was living in a hotel by myself, and she came and got me. I lived with her. For my twenty-first birthday, she had a surprise party for me. I didn’t really know anybody, so everyone wore name tags. I wore one, too. Nobody knew me, and they brought these funny little gifts. It was really sweet. There are people I met that night who are tattooed on my body.

And then also a memoir I just read that is absolutely one of the best things I’ve ever read is called Punch Me Up to the Gods, by Brian Broome. Amazing. A. Mazing. Astounding.

How does money change a person? That’s a dissertation. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it because it just shocks me sometimes.

There are many different types of both sex and love. And that’s what can make it confusing—hence how painful all of it can be. Love is navigating the possibility of: Am I going to be able to love someone who isn’t perfect, and are they going to be able to love someone who isn’t perfect? That nonperfect person being me. And if that love and beauty exists in that space, that feels a lot different from having sex and ignoring the underneath of it all, and not being true and honest, and being afraid to share your real self. I don’t think that could be considered love—or true love, if that exists.

Sex can also just be its own separate, free, fun, healing, curious, hot, euphoric activity that has no attachment. Sex is great is all I’m trying to say.

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Euphoria: Summer, it’s hot out, and I’m just in a white T-shirt that fits me, walking down the street, shoulders back, enjoying the sun and the day. In the past, that would’ve been a very different walk. Instead, you have ideas blossoming in your mind, not constant feelings of shame and self-hatred.

One of my favorite books ever is In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado.

I love being a dog dad. I need that in my life. I don’t even know where to begin with Mo; I’m so obsessed with him. My heart breaks at the thought of mortality whenever I think of him.

Everything that’s being said about us is all the same shit that was said about LGB people: pedophiles, mentally ill, should they be allowed in the changing rooms. It’s the same. It’s the same. But the politicians are saying, Oh, shit! This is working! And that’s what’s scary.

There are people in elected office saying that, essentially, transgender people are going to be responsible for the end of existence. That degree of rhetoric is really alarming and horrible. It’s also endless misinformation—and people buy it. The idea of gender being a binary concept specifically based on genitalia is a very new idea in relation to human history. We existed in every culture throughout history! People don’t learn about that reality. They’re banning kids from learning it. It’s all tactical.

I thought it was impossible how I’m able to feel now. The degree of creativity that’s come out—just a surge of creativity. Mark and I were making those songs; I have just about completed the first draft of a book; I wrote a screenplay with my friend B, Beatrice Brown, who did a lot of my tattoos.

I get up at six. I have coffee and I usually try to write for two hours. I just go into a portal. I sit down, and I am processing, and I’m telling a story—versus when I would hardly allow myself to be aware of it. Then I take my dog for a really nice walk, and then I try to write for another couple hours. In the afternoon, I feel it out. Because you’re writing about intense things—not only full of feelings and trauma and difficulties, but also, this is the longest I’ve ever even sat with so much of that. With the things that have happened. It’s an interesting experience, the fact that writing certain things can trigger a physiological response. It’s so fascinating, the body.

I used to wonder how humans were going about their lives. I’d just look at people. How do you do it?

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Jacket and trousers, Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello; T-shirt, stylist’s own; two-finger ring by Sterling Assault; ring by the Great Frog; vintage boots, available at Stock Vintage, NYC; socks by Falke.

RUVEN AFANADOR

Probably my favorite thing to cook is a big spread of roasted vegetables of all kinds. Fennel, broccoli, cauliflower. Ummm. Japanese sweet potatoes, I love. And then brown rice, I love. And then I just kinda make some tofu in the pan, then steam or boil it—do you know kombu? Seaweed? You boil it, and then—this is funny—and then you mix it all in with some tahini or something, and then you roll it in the kombu. I’m telling you, it’s good.

Then other times I eat like a teenage boy. I’m like, cereal: Good to go. Or I get fancy and make a frozen burrito.

I love making The Umbrella Academy. I’ve learned how special it is to play one character for so long, to evolve with a family of characters. All of us have gone through a lot. Years have gone by, and we’ve changed and grown in our own ways. I love watching the growth happen alongside the show, our personalities interweaving and all of us having our own moments. I’m just learning to love the whole journey of it.

Activism, for me, feels natural and organic. It feels worse when I’m not actively engaged. And I don’t think it stems from feeling some sort of pressure or obligation. I hope it comes from a place of, inherently, empathy. I like to think I’m an empathetic person.

But then on some level, yeah, activism is something I must do. I think we need to utilize all of our privilege in our own ways. We all have some version of it, you know?

I can’t pinpoint a “worst” day. But when Juno was blowing up—this sounds strange to people, and I get that people don’t understand. Oh, fuck you, you’re famous, and you have money, and you had to wear a dress, boo-hoo. I don’t not understand that reaction. But that’s mixed with: I wish people would understand that that shit literally did almost kill me.

I’ve had to have plenty of devil’s-advocate conversations with cis people who were like, “Well, I’m not trans and I could wear a skirt!” And it’s like, cool. Okay. Great. So yeah, in my early to mid-twenties, I didn’t know how to tell people how unwell I was. I would berate myself for it. I was living the life and my dreams were coming true, and all that was happening. And yet, for example, when I was shooting Inception, I could pretty much not leave whatever hotel I’d be staying in.

I struggled with food. Intense depression, anxiety, severe panic attacks. I couldn’t function. There were days when I’d only have one meeting, and I’d leave my house to go to the meeting and have to turn around. Not being able to get through a script—could not. Reading is one of my favorite things to do—I couldn’t read, couldn’t get through a paragraph.

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Tank by Polo Ralph Lauren; jeans by Ralph Lauren Purple Label; ring by the Great Frog.

RUVEN AFANADOR

I could not picture myself as a woman aging. Obviously. It was just like, what is my future? There’s not a future. That’s kind of what it felt like. I would say, verbatim: I’ve never been a girl. I’ll never be a woman.

Can I relate to the suicide problem among trans people? Yeah, I can relate deeply. And not only to the very conscious, direct act of doing it but also certain times when I lost so much weight or when I was having such severe panic attacks and collapsed multiple times—all these things that very easily could, and statistically do, lead to death. And that’s all a manifestation of that trauma and discomfort that’s a disproportionate issue for transgender people.

There were moments of wanting to not be here, but that was just the sensation that I was left with. It wasn’t a movement for action—other than the ways in which I was abusing my body, clearly. I would look out the window of my apartment and think, With everything going on right now and how incredible it all is, this is how I feel? And I’m twenty-two? It was like, I don’t know if I could do it.

I think of times when people actively were like, “No, you need to wear a dress” in very, very, very pivotal moments. I remember the premiere of Juno at the Toronto International Film Festival. Previously, doing press for Hard Candy, or when I went to Sundance for a film, I didn’t know the concept of, like, a stylist. I grew up working in Canada! It’s different. I dressed how I wanted to dress—not dissimilar to now. And I remember going and having the thing I wanted to wear, and then understanding the degree of expectation of how fancy someone is supposed to look. So I said I wanted to wear a suit, and Fox Searchlight was basically like, “No, you need to wear a dress.” And they took me in a big rush to one of those fancy stores on Bloor Street. They had me wear a dress, and . . . that was that. And then all the Juno press, all the photo shoots—Michael Cera was in slacks and sneakers. I look back at the photos, and I’m like . . .?

And it’s easy for people to roll their eyes, but you know what? No. That was really extremely, extremely fucked up. I shouldn’t have to treat it like just this thing that happened—this somewhat normal thing. It’s like: No. Regardless of me being trans! I’ve had people who’ve apologized about things: “Sorry, I didn’t know, I didn’t know at the time.” It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter if I’m trans or cis. Lots of cis women dress how I dress. That has nothing to fucking do with it.

It’s really funny, since the book announcement, I’ve had three random, suspiciously timed apologies pop up. Interesting timing.

People, especially teenage girls, really responded to that character, Juno. The clothing—which was just me taking a producer to used-clothing stores in Vancouver. The vibe—something that was, if not nonexistent . . . it was new for a film that reached the audience it reached, and with her as the title character. It related to my queerness and my transness. And then you have that film have the success it had, and the major, major profit, between the film and the soundtrack—and then you fucking squash that all away. You squash it. So you’re benefiting greatly from this character that connected with people, and then you do that. It’s gross.

I wish I could go back and experience it now. As me.

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Jacket and jeans, Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello.

RUVEN AFANADOR

Why are people making it more difficult? It really breaks my heart. It really breaks my heart. That’s literally all we’re trying to communicate. That’s what’s so funny to me. When people say, Cancel this. Cancel that. No, they get four more comedy specials and have a jillion followers! The people getting canceled are the trans people who are suffering, or killing themselves, or murdered.

I often find that it’s the media that does it. People can actually be communicating in a way that isn’t aggressive, but then suddenly it’s all about creating this tension, and then this person doubles down on that! And, like: No. It’s a conversation—which, by the way, is what you’re saying you’re asking for.

Jokes have an impact that hurts people. I understand that people might think it doesn’t. I understand that they’re not meaning to. But: It’s not a joke. It’s not a joke. You believe what you’re saying. You believe it. It’s not a joke. They believe it. It’s clearly not a joke. And all we’re saying is: Can you just please listen and understand the harm that it causes? That’s all we’re trying to say. That is literally all we are trying to say. And then we get inundated with hatred for saying it. But I’m sorry: You are the ones who don’t want to have the conversation. Youare the ones who are so sensitive, who can’t handle people saying, Hey, can you not do that?

I love hockey. I don’t really have a team, I just love watching it. When I lived in L. A., I’d go to Kings games and cheer for the Kings. But if Toronto came, I’d cheer for both. I was at a sports bar last night watching the NBA playoffs, Memphis versus Minnesota. I’m not someone who is a die-hard fan of a team. Is that strange? I keep meaning to become one. Every year I say this is the year I’m picking a team and I’m staying with that team. And I never do it.

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T-shirt and trousers, Celine by Hedi Slimane; ; vintage boots, available at Stock Vintage, NYC.

RUVEN AFANADOR

I could still skate. It’s been ages, but I’d be fine. I was probably on skates at three. On a pond. Back when things froze.

Liverpool is my mum’s team. She knows all the players, the coach, the drama, everything. Her number-one bucket-list thing was to go to a Liverpool game. I was doing press for Season One of Umbrella Academy in London. There was a Liverpool game. I reached out to the team and said I wanted to bring my mum to a game. They were so incredibly welcoming and kind. I brought my mum over and surprised her. Getting to watch her be at that game was truly one of the most absolute special moments in my life. In the beginning, when everyone is singing, she’s just swaying and singing. I have it on video. When the game was over, they took her down to see the field and the seats where the players sit. She got to meet the coach. Seeing my mum happy makes me so happy.

Alexander Chee’s—maybe you’ve read it—How to Write an Autobiographical Novel? Ohhhhhh. It’s so good.

My mother was born in the fifties. She was a minister’s daughter. You know? She definitely didn’t want me to be queer. That’s where there was a lot of challenge, for years. Until I was in my twenties. But I love her so much, and I totally understand, and forgive. I have a mother who loves me, and not everybody has that.

Forgiveness? Depends on the situation. There are a couple people I don’t forgive. I don’t know what this thing is about always having to forgive. I don’t wish them harm, but I shouldn’t feel obligated or forced to forgive them. Maybe at some point, but there are a couple people I don’t, and I don’t feel bad about it. And there are other people who, absolutely. Of course.

Do you know the book Split Tooth, by Tanya Tagaq? It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. The last two pages of her book are just this whole beautiful piece about: I don’t want to forgive. But I forgive myself. I’ll pick it up every once in a while just to read that.

Kids? No. I feel like I’ve also had to take care of myself so much. I’m obsessed with my dog. That’s my kid. I’m good with that. I mean, if I met someone who had a kid, I’m not completely closed off to the idea that maybe when I’m older, I could adopt a kid who’s older, you know. But no.

For me, euphoria is simply the act of waking up, making my coffee, and sitting down with a book and being able to read. I know that may sound strange, but I can’t stress enough the degree of discomfort and struggle that I was experiencing that got in the way of everything. How could it not?

There is a universality to that. We’ve all experienced similar versions. It would be so nice, the more and more we can realize how much we’re all in this together. The same kind of stuff that comes at me is not not affecting cis people and making cis people be confined in spaces that are expected of them. This affects us all.

Dinner tonight? Good question. I do have some veggies and stuff. I have fennel, broccoli. . . .


Production by Roger Inniss at Boom Productions Inc

Set design by Charlotte Malmlöf

Hair by Thom Priano

Grooming by Frankie Boyd for Tom Ford

Tailoring by Joseph Ting