obliquity, pain itself is not, language
about pain least of all, but the shame itself
of privacy should give place with a thud
of longing to this much, this good, attention”
-Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “A Poem is Being Written”
*** Listening ***
Jules Gill-Peterson’s Histories of the Transgender Child is a book that grows fat on listening. In her bracing “Preface,” Gill-Peterson demands that we recognize the ways that children have been made into figures for adult ideas but are, in fact, not so plastic that they might take on whatever figural labor adults happen to require.
Her specific subject is the long twentieth-century history of trans and intersex childhoods and the experimental medical practices that constituted and were constituted by those children. Contrary to contemporary discourses that enshrine transgender children as an unprecedented sign of our culture’s growing liberalism, Gill Peterson demonstrates that trans children’s lives underpin contemporary medical practice, trans- and otherwise. By erasing that history, celebrations of the uniqueness of twenty-first century trans children cut off those same children from the richness of the past and fail to warn them about its brutality. Medical science studied the child’s body because of its capacity to change, often associating the young body’s physiological malleability with underdevelopment and thus with threatening, primitive formlessness. The child’s biological plasticity, however, also led doctors to make unprecedented, medical breakthroughs. The trans child became the perfect experimental subject, available for medical intervention, surveillance, and control all backed by the alleged medical necessity of fixing the “mistake” of gender nonconformity.
In the interstices of these medical discourses, Gill-Peterson recovers the voices of the children who populate sexological research. Many were children who petitioned for services from specialists like John Money, who established the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins University. The irony is that the trans-child’s seductive plasticity was often banked against the obduracy of their own self-knowledge. Only to the extent that they could claim enduring cross-gender identification could their malleability be fixed into form. Shapeshifting through these etiologies, ideologies, and cultural codes, the children insisted again and again on the specificity of their experiences and the legitimacy of their desires, finding paths toward partial signification within the resources of popular and scientific studies.
Gill-Peterson listens to the voices of these children, and they thicken the text with unaccountable detail. There’s the boy who heard the voice of God telling him to become a man and the boy who idolizes David Bowie. There’s the girl who fooled doctors into thinking that she might harbor the biological explanation for transgender when she was really just stealing her mother’s estrogen pills. There’s the textile worker from Alabama, with his sophisticated understanding of the language of intersex medicine, and Val whose parents (in the 1930s) made special arrangements with her school for her to use the bathroom. There are children who suddenly disappear and those who could not be stopped from writing. The latter group includes Vicki, who narrates, along with her desire to transition and her struggles with depression and bullying, her weight, measurements, and diet plans. While Vicki wished to slow the growth of her body so that it might take on a girl’s form, her body grew despite her intentions, fishtailing into and out of feminine fleshiness. Of Vicki, Gill-Peterson asks:
“What modes of autonomy or nonteleological vitality were occasioned or could have been cultivated by Vicki had those forms not been so quickly extinguished by medicine?”
The voices of the children jut out of the book’s argumentative structure like Vicki’s fleshy excess, jamming up its logics, turning it in unexpected directions. Turning it, more pointedly, against argument.
*** Loving ***
For a book so dedicated to affirmative listening, Histories of the Transgender Child is deeply and surprisingly committed to a politics of unknowing. The “Preface’s” ringing rejection of the idea that children can be made in the shape of adult desires repeats in various forms throughout the book. We should not look to children’s plasticity, Gill-Peterson reminds us, to find models for our resistance.
The trans child’s body … moves ever so slightly sideways out of the rigid constraints of medical discourse … [but] it never achieves the stability or intelligibility that might warrant well-worn terms like resistance…There is no scene of resistance in the writing of trans children.
Histories of the Transgender Child, in other words, offers the voices of trans children but no reading of them, at least insofar as a reading would mobilize their instrumentalization, retooling them once again as the raw material for another round of learned discussions among adults. For Jules Gill-Peterson, trans children aren’t symptoms of something from our murky cultural depths; they aren’t articulations of a social field; and they aren’t forged from the sediments of habit. They are not the shaped products of a discursive milieu, a notion that repeats the underlying metaphor of plasticity. They are already formed. In fact it is Gill-Peterson’s persistent unknowing and insistent longing that most resists any theorization and leads to the closing argument (in “How to Bring Your Kids Up Trans”) that we should stop making trans children represent something. Instead, we should just love them, for the world is infinitely richer and more delectable because of the queer and trans people in it.
*** Liking ***
I sort of wish I could leave it there, but while Gill-Peterson seems not to experience a state of unknowing as a loss, I am not so sanguine. I confess: I like meaning. As I was turning over my thoughts about Gill-Peterson’s beautiful book, I started to think about happiness, about those things that are happy-making. If we are to affirm, with Eve Sedgwick, an ineradicable happiness among the lush varieties of queer life, aren’t we saying something as sweetly simple as, “We like it”? And is there truly nothing to say about such liking? These thoughts led me back to another essay in Sedgwick’s Tendencies, not “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” but “A Poem is Being Written ”: her meditation on childhood, anal eroticism, and her own self-description as a gay-male identified woman. I love this essay; it is ancestral to my thinking, and so of course I have never used it in my own writing, and perhaps for the very reasons we are talking about now—a positive desire for unknowing. And yet, here it goes.
In this context, it’s worth remembering that “A Poem is Being Written” begins with an archive of Sedgwick’s own pre-pubescent poetry. Even more than Sedgwick’s work generally, this essay is a textile woven of many pieces—poetry, autobiography, criticism, analysis. It refuses to fully name its intentions. It is possible to say that the essay is about shame, but I think it’s better to say that it is about liking. Specifically, it is about Sedgwick’s liking for gay men (a strangely shameful thing to say) and the relationships between such a liking and her desire for meaning. And not just hers! Part of Sedgwick’s point in the essay, and indeed throughout her work, is that plot as such in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is coextensive with the scandalously desirable and always already known act of male homosexual revelation. That is what motivates narrative pleasure. Sedgwick is keenly aware that this desire for the drama of the closet does the work of homophobia as easily and as fully as it indulges homophilia. That she persists in this desire anyway has everything to do with what she names
homosexual reading—a well-taught skepticism about the representative adequacy of language, consorting perhaps not oddly with a pressing sense that there was something somewhere else for it to be adequate to.
Why did this utopian horizon come to have a homosexual meaning? In other words, how did gay men come to signal (for her, for me, for us) the existence of another order of reality, another mode of feeling and being, glimmering through this one? In Sedgwick’s telling, the point of contact is the ass—in particular, the upturned and exposed rump of a child being punished, which Sedgwick analogizes to both poetry and childhood ballet lessons:
In many ways ballet itself functioned for many girls, including me, very much as poetry did for me, as another archmediator of one’s relation to half-ritualized violence: like poetry, it was rhythmic, prestigious, exhibitionistic, and highly theatricalized way of choosing the compelled and displayed body.
In the shamed derriere of the punished child, meaning grows. Sedgwick continues:
The aptitude of the child’s body to represent, among other things, the fears, furies, appetites, and losses of the people around it, back to themselves and out to others, is terrifying perhaps in the first place to them, but with a terror the child itself learns with great ease and with a lot of help. And this leakage or involuntarity of meaning, the seat of this form of vulnerability, is easily located in the behind.
If, as Samuel Delany writes, we find our desire in the constraints that surround us then the scene of incorporation that Sedgwick recounts (by which the child makes sense of claims of caring that come in the form of violence by repeating those scenes as if they were chosen—through the rhythm of poetry and the eroticization of the always unseen, always meaningful backside), this scene and its fetishistic adult variants grows desire and identification, and happiness and liking, from the inescapable everyday of heteronormative family life.
Gill-Peterson’s refusal of these adulterated pleasures, her conviction that the world is already adequate to itself and needs no missing language to mark the utopian horizon, may be her book’s most decisive break with something that was once called homosexual reading, and the one from which I find myself the most, if you’ll excuse me, left behind.
Rebekah Sheldon is Associate Professor of English at Indiana University and author of The Child to Come: Life After the Human Catastrophe from the University of Minnesota Press.