Gender theories reveal our attachments to certain ways of seeing and being in the world. In many cases, our attachment to specific ideas about gender rests in their ability to confirm what we want to know. Being open to theory requires the possibility of seeing differently, a reorientation, which might also require us to admit that we have given ourselves over to a powerful myth of gender.
Such is the case with how we speak of transgender children today. They are new; they are now—so the story goes. Jules Gill-Peterson’s Histories of the Transgender Child contests the familiar story of the newness of trans children through an analysis of trans children in the medical archives. The most immediate value of Gill-Peterson’s research, beyond the critical evidence it offers of trans childhoods of the past, is reorientation. We are able to see the histories of childhoods that would otherwise escape our view, even our own histories, which might also get erased in a wave of belief about the newness, even suddenness, of trans kids today.
Being a trans kid today means being an artifact (or evidence) in a history already written. This is because the passion around the newness of trans children creates its own discourse on etiology—the science of causes—and today’s children will predictably “fit” or “challenge” new, but rigid master narratives of being trans kids. How do trans kids today experience being the new, or being told that they are so radically different from kids in the past? What of the old kids of yesterday, who are not the new, whose childhoods become somehow distinct from trans childhoods today, but whose bodies still matter, perhaps more than ever, as artifacts of the before, the before kids today?
I came of age during the so-called butch/FTM border wars, before the trans child today, but in the midst of a growing visibility and rethinking of transmasculinity. This time also ushered in a feeling—sometimes anxious, sometimes melancholy—that continues to circulate today, over the perception that lesbians, and lesbian culture, are in decline. In its most reductive form, this feeling is structured by a set of beliefs: trans men are abandoning butch lesbian identities; patriarchy directly underpins this choice; today’s health care providers, with their new medical technologies, together with queer and trans theorists, with their deconstruction of what counts as real sex and gender, are handmaidens to the process. My intellectual community was actively critiquing these reactionary ideas, and yet I still found sustenance in the nostalgia for butch lesbians. I had limited to no health care with very low expectations for medical/therapeutic gender care. From what I knew at the time, I felt certain of two things: I felt trans, but I also felt that by not pursuing medical/therapeutic options, I was indirectly announcing that I was not trans. In staying butch, I gradually became a thing of the past. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I took comfort in the sometimes anxious, sometimes melancholy feelings about butches.
Queer and trans people often share the experience of remembering our first encounters with queer and trans terms, when we learn what we are, when we are put into words; this process is built for misrecognizing what came before, before we knew for sure what to call ourselves (now nothing). The more pronounced the encounter (if you can remember the first time you felt possible in language or, conversely, the first time you felt erased by a metaphor of being or becoming whether medical or otherwise), the more likely you might be to oversaturate that encounter with meaning and ultimately with your own subject formation. Sometimes the details of specific events stand out.
In the 1990s in Maine, I attended a book talk for Body Alchemy, Loren Cameron’s collection of trans male portraits first published by Cleis Press in 1996. During the event, one audience member expressed anxiety because she believed that puberty blockers were becoming too available, a small bit of evidence of trans children in the past. Others critiqued Body Alchemy because they felt that it represented a too narrow depiction of masculinity. A butch in the front row stood up, put their body in front of Cameron’s, and asked the audience a question: what about men like me? Some attendees applauded, which seemed to confirm that they also felt erased by Cameron’s vision of masculinity. At the time, I felt that they viewed Cameron unfairly, as someone who had single-handedly changed the embodied surface of transmasculinity through the documentation of a small community of trans men who had access to trans health care. Even still, I identified with the question what about men like me because of the new realities that it opened for me. I also needed to be told that being butch was revolutionary in order to do it. That’s the brutal irony. I am angry when I become an artifact in someone else’s history, evidence that “there’s nothing wrong with being a girl” (and the brutal irony persists because this utterance brings dysphoria when the speaker expects me to feel a shared feeling of triumph).
If restrained by childhood’s temporary plasticity, then my becoming was already complete, and I arrived on the scene as an adult in the borders; but I’ve realized since that I am somehow still plastic, still a trans possibility, and to others still a flight risk. I remember very few encounters with medical epistemologies, and, so far as I know, I never saw a doctor or used a clinic for gender care (or “treatment”) as a child. Doctors and medicine are hardly noteworthy when compared with the pushes and pulls I felt on my body from within feminist, queer, and trans communities. Some of us become rich sites for the border wars, not just kids. This is also a history of class and race. It’s odd that I am only now able to see the great range of voices making claims to and for me and my gender—feminist teachers, trans elders, queer mentors, students, lesbian bosses, lesbian therapists, and lovers, differently invested in how I will move, what I will choose, who I will become, and what this means for the theories of gender that they hold close. This investment in my gender began with the university, and in queer and trans spaces, not the clinic. It could be my class background that kept me far from the clinic, or a more complicated landscape of what parents are taught to fear and where (I grew up in rural Maine, which has more than its fair share of female masculinity); if anxieties about the future of queer and trans children are always filtered through “possible” adults, then tomboys cause less alarm in lands where few high femmes dwell. My whiteness has kept the meaningfulness of my gender in play, and, trapped as I am in a generational borderland—between lesbian feminism and trans kids today—what I choose becomes an artifact in two very different histories of gender.
Our narratives and myths of trans history in the U.S. are by and large the story of one socio-economic class and one race category: the white, middle-class child—a child with a condition and a child without a history. We can only imagine the landscape for trans kids today if they were given access to trans history—if the next TV special on trans youth began by documenting a century of trans resistance to medical injustice and political violence. This is a deliberate withholding. Trans history, when reconstructed through a singular legitimizing lexicon, elides trans of color genealogies along with the vast history of trans lives that exist on the margins or just out of reach of medical discourse. We will now wait for this new generation to tell their own stories, to reclaim meaning, to have some say in what kinds of artifacts they become. Gill-Peterson’s research is a reminder to listen closely for this in the histories that are already written.
Julie Beaulieu is a Lecturer for the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program. She received her PhD in Literature with a certificate in GSWS from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research and teaching interests include the history of sexuality, global LGBTQ studies, transgender studies, eighteenth-century British literature, queer theory, feminist theory, and affect theory. She is currently working on her first book manuscript, entitled, Obsessive Love: A Queer History.