On Wanting Trans Women and Children (For Better or For Worse)

When I was a little boy, I can’t remember ever consciously thinking that I wanted to be a girl. And when, as an adult, I was finally beginning to grow into a girl, I became even less certain what in my childhood had prepared me for this. When I was a little gay boy, I did think that I wanted to be a lesbian. But when, as an adult, I could finally be one, I found that I wanted something else altogether. All along I never knew what it meant to want to be brown, perhaps because brownness has always been represented to me, at least in comparison to gender and sexuality, as the least plastic fact of my embodiment.

The incommensurability of these wants in my childhood—and their unassimilability into a nameable whole, even in adulthood—was likewise never on my conscious mind while I wrote Histories of the Transgender Child. Yet as I marvel at the rich engagements with the book thoughtfully gathered in this issue of The Rambling, I’m reminded of one lesson that writing this book provided me. Just when you think a careful history might laminate chronology onto autobiography, or when the history of a life becomes inextricably (but not literally) the history of a category, the opposite happens. There is no scene of identification, or even disidentification, to be had. Actually, there’s nothing much at all to be had?—something else is blocking it. The thing is, I would take some misrecognition here in place of the non-recognition that so often greets the announcement of trans life in its feminine, childish, and racialized forms. Absent that, I can only say that I feel myself in the shadowy space between the discourses and concepts that Histories of the Transgender Child takes up. The nowhere, in other words, of a trans of color girl that I never was, and who never appeared in the book, either—who could have been, but not in this world, not in this book.

I’m channeling here what Tony Wei Ling beautifully describes in his essay as the feeling of time “slipping together.” It would take nothing less, as Wei Ling aptly puts it, than “physics-breaking events” to give trans of color girlhood the kind of basic reality that the past (or present) never will. This bears an important structural similarity to the situation of trans women of color, a subject position whose lack of reality has preoccupied me in new ways since my book’s publication. In Histories of the Transgender Child, I refrained from speculation on what that kind of affirmative reality would look like, now or in the past—what Wei Ling calls a project of “historical fiction.” As Rebekah Sheldon thoughtfully points out in this issue, the book hopes instead to listen to, and not so much to read, the voices of trans children from the past.

I’d like to take some time to explain both why I did so and why that choice has me somewhat alarmed now. My motivation is admittedly a bit grim, but I’ll use the playfully off-color phrase “women and children” to get at it throughout. It has to do with the radical insufficiency of the world to trans women and children, above all those who aren’t white. And it collapses in on itself in the field of trans studies, where I feel ashamed of the sheer lack of want for trans women and children, especially those who aren’t white, unless they are dead. As Julie Beaulieu’s essay poignantly reminds us—and reaches right into the heart of how I also approach scholarship—our academic theories are always about our attachment to what we want to think we know, or don’t know.

But before I go further in that line of thinking, let me express my gratitude and love to the people who have contributed to this issue. Histories of the Transgender Child calls upon trans studies and trans of color critique to hold open a critical divergence from the violent capture of dominant discourse about trans people, so it’s especially exciting to see contributors carry the book with them into so many domains, including disability studies, queer studies, Childhood and Youth Studies, speculative comics, theory, and poetics. It’s also a little overwhelming to take in such careful, generous, and substantial engagement with my work. Simply put, I’ve never experienced anything like it. Each of the contributors in this issue—Julie Beaulieu, Travis Chi Wing Lau, Tony Wei Ling, Julia Sinclair-Palm, Rebekah Sheldon, Jean-Thomas Tremblay, and Mary Zaborskis—has my gratitude. Rebekah and JT, my kin in so many ways, helped me launch this book in 2018. I can’t thank them enough for conceiving, editing, and inviting me to respond to this issue.


My approach to trans studies and trans of color theory is to develop methods for treating gender, axiomatically, as a racial formation. In Histories of the Transgender Child, it falls to the concept of plasticity to hold open the formal entanglement of race and gender, which historically found force in the trans medical model. The story my book tells is one in which a discursive shift in sex and gender accomplished through the operationalization of childhood plasticity in the first half of the twentieth century created a shockwave for trans children trying to access medical care in the second half. The argument of the book assumes that plasticity itself is too volatile a phenomenon to be enlisted in trans-affirmative politics. However, the stress of this trans of color method is dual: visiting as much destruction as possible upon medicine’s regulatory concept of transsexuality (and not, I’d like to say explicitly, transsexuals), while in so doing producing a listening-space in which the voices of trans children during this era might be heard.

At a particular moment in the research for the book, when I fully committed to entering medical archives that are tightly regulated under the law, I realized that this would force the book’s hand somewhat in its thinking about race. The time it took to get permission to access and work through medical records practically precluded doing research in non-medical modes, like oral history. One of the effects is that Histories of the Transgender Child risks amplifying the whitewashing of trans history by relying on an archive that grossly misrepresents the past. The truth is that most trans people in the past had no interaction with institutional medicine at all. In that sense, the trans children that appear in this book are incredibly unrepresentative of trans children as a whole. The value of paying such close attention to their experiences in the clinic is something other than comprehensiveness. As Travis Chi Wing Lau details in his essay, what this frame can do is illuminate the eugenic logic of medicine into which trans medicalization fits. I’m captivated by Lau’s provocation to think, under these circumstances, about what it would mean to reject the subtractive fantasies of eugenics, to work towards conserving “transness as a category of identity and and embodiment worthy of life.” What is there of trans life, and especially trans of color life, to be conserved in the archive, much less in today’s world? And I’ll ask it directly to the field of trans studies: How can we conserve trans women and children while they are still alive? These questions form my concern about the absent reality of that trans of color girl with which I opened.

The representational precarity of the trans of color kids that appear in Histories of the Transgender Child doesn’t offer an answer. As Sheldon explores in her essay, I propose the opacity of trans childhood as an alternative to a deficit model of historical knowledge. The idea, as she explains, is that there is no need for an “epistemology of trans life.” That epistemology would be impossible to retrieve in the archive anyways, because “there isn’t a single thing to know about trans childhood beyond its opacity.” Nonetheless, as Sheldon goes on to say in an electrifying reading of Eve Sedgwick, this is not a decision without its frustrations. Sheldon asks after a vital dimension of what it is we are called to do as scholars: make meaning because we like, or want, the things and people we write about. I hear that. And I’ll say more about my desire in a moment, but let me affirm here that I’m torn up in how I feel about which kids I could listen to best in this book (the white ones) and which ones were held too tightly in the grip of discourse to be heard clearly (black trans and trans of color kids, but girls above all). The trans of color girls whose lives are heard in the archive, mostly as whispers, were excluded from the discourse that forms the central attack point of the the book: transsexuality. In many cases, the archive could bear only a trace of the violence of that exclusion, which easily took the form of incarceration, psychiatric misdiagnosis, and brute, eugenic racism. In bringing trans of color theory into the medical archive, working to show how deeply and utterly the category gender was remade through plasticity as a capacity of whiteness, the trans of color exclusions effected by transsexuality sit uneasily, partially preserved, in the book’s chapters.


Of course, one of the things about being excluded from a discourse as awful as transsexuality is that it also afforded trans of color girls and women a certain opacity that might have been immensely enriching and rewarding. But we won’t ever know about that from the kind of historical project that Histories of the Transgender Child mounts.

Julia Sinclair-Palm’s essay has me thinking in the widest aperture about this dynamic. Her careful exploration of what the trans child could offer to Childhood and Youth Studies confronted me with a hunch I’ve carried in the pit of my stomach for some time. I’d like us to consider very seriously how to take a position against offering—against the trans child offering anyone anything. This is another place where Sheldon has seized on something important. The unwillingness of Histories of the Transgender Child to make trans children a model for anything, full stop, is its political gambit as much as its methodology. Whether that dissent from modeling can be accompanied, as Sheldon puts it so well, by a “conviction that the world is already adequate to itself and needs no missing language as utopian horizon,” was a nice, if utterly unrealistic, idea when I wrote as much. In my classroom I often encourage students to be bold and vulnerable in what they think because the stakes are not too high: mistakes are part of the process, including in thinking gender, sexuality, and race. Outside the classroom, and about trans women and children, I couldn’t feel more different. As a brown trans woman I feel no substantial safety in thinking. What that means for academic trans studies is hard to say. Not because I don’t know what to say. But because it’s largely too painful to say it. (If I were to try nonetheless, for a moment: it has something to do with what Eva Hayward has described as the active, organizing desire of a world that black trans and trans of color women follow the injunction to not exist. And so in trans studies, it’s an active desire animating the center of gravity of the field to guarantee that the best way for a trans woman to appear, whether as object of study or as a scholar, is dead. And then we wonder: why are there so few trans women in prominent positions in the field?)

This is also what I meant to say in the preface to the book when I argued that trans kids, very simply but profoundly, are not ours. They can’t be, both in a negative and positive sense. But for the same reason, they can’t be, all on their own, either. The maneuver—or compromise, really—that Histories of the Transgender Child makes in the face of that double bind is to try to reduce the harm of possession in knowledge, of offering meaning out of the flesh of children’s lives. Not because there is, finally, much else to behold that could redress the violence of meaning-making the book catalogs; much more modestly, it felt like the only thing I could do. I continue to wish desperately for others to do better.

What I’m getting at here is the illusory horizon of gender self-determination for non-subjects in the world in which we live and in the field in which this book moves, built as they are out of a past that the book inventories. Several essays in this issue explore how Histories of the Transgender Child underlines children’s existence as metaphors, or figures. While I don’t argue for abandoning figurative modes, as if realism were a perfect alternative, I admit that I’m more fearful, now, that it’s just too crushing to live inside a metaphor. Gender self-determination is necessarily figurative in its most affirming modes, as Jean-Thomas Tremblay explores so elegantly in their essay, but that’s dogging me even as I know it’s true.

Call it naïve state-phobia; call it phobia of the social, for that matter; call it some kind of fantasized trans separatism masking an even more problematic protectionism; or, call it a phobia of a certain masculinization of trans studies that really likes its dependents, women and children, dead. Whatever it is or isn’t, I find that in spite of what Histories of the Transgender Child says, I really do wish that I could protect trans children from the violence of state power. I really do wish I could shelter them from the casual pleasure with which adults in trans studies regard them as simultaneously spoiled beneficiaries of a lack of suffering in their access to childhood transition and most interesting when they commit suicide. And I really do wish I could protect them from the regime of gendered power that authors the dominant narrative of the world in the grammar of cis. I can’t, and so I don’t have to be on the hook for that desire, but its persistence in the face of its many problems says something that the essays in this issue have sharpened for me. I fully agree with Tremblay’s characterization of gender self-determination, in a poetic register, as “disrupting the self-identicality of the I at the source of [its] claims.” (Call that one horizon for a trans of color girlhood that could bear the reality that I conjured at the outset of this response.) But it’s Tremblay’s last sentence that really haunts me. “For better or for worse,” they write, “it demands different figurations: more synecdoches, more metaphors.” For better or for worse. What hangs in the balance between those two is what Histories of the Transgender Child shied away from, out of a preference for both loudly critiquing the medical model and quietly listening to the voices of trans children that could be heard in the archive.

I didn’t write a book in order to agree with all of it, but regardless, I have the creeping feeling that even trans studies is a kind of Titanic where the women and children are being loaded onto the lifeboats first, as if that benevolent gesture were actually life-preserving. Call this a new desire for the same old adult and masculine innocence—and Mary Zaborskis’ essay so carefully unpacks the form of that particular trap. I’ll be honest: what hangs there, between for better or for worse, is everything to me. And if this isn’t really about innocence, then it’s almost certainly about shame. Shame over this world into which trans children are thrown, without a choice, and left to survive. Shame over how little that world’s fundamental threat to their lives has waned since the time period Histories of the Transgender Child covers. Shame over the active switch-point between transmisogyny and infantilization that, even in polite circles, remains largely unspoken because the powers that be really do prefer that trans women and children not exist. And shame, too, in knowing that a book can’t move the world nearly enough to relieve any of those dangers.

Recently, at a reading, someone asked me and the authors gathered what our experiences had been like in publishing books in trans studies in this historical moment. My answer remains the same: profoundly painful. Not because I mean to minimize what a book might be able to do in returning histories to trans communities, in challenging anti-trans discourses, or in putting pressure on the conservative center of so-called progressive allies. It has to do with what a book cannot do and what it is never intended to do. In the face of the sustained attack that marks trans life in the world today, especially for women and children, but even more so if they are of color—like me—the radical insufficiency of thinking and writing feels, however else it is worthwhile, downright shameful.

Eva Hayward is right to say that what trans studies ought to concern itself with is not ontology, but want and desire. For better or for worse, that makes my overwhelming want for trans women and children in this field and world a desire replete with shame. And I hate that. In the same way, it also registers as an especially sweet love (one that is the furthest thing from maternal) for the trans of color girl who, beautifully, could have been—but, shamefully, not in this world and not in this book.

Jules Gill-Peterson is Assistant Professor of English and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Histories of the Transgender Child (Minnesota, 2018).

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