What Does the Trans Child Offer to Childhood and Youth Studies?

The media frequently suggests that the existence of young trans people is a new phenomenon. This libel about trans children’s newness reinforces the power, authority, and knowledge that adults have over children. Furthermore, this lie allows for trans children’s existence to be up for debate. In Histories of the Transgender Child, Gill-Peterson documents the long history of young trans and gender nonconforming people, arguing that trans children are not new. This history is important for Childhood and Youth Studies as well as Trans Studies, and yet it is rarely acknowledged or discussed. Gill-Peterson raises two important questions for me: What does the trans child offer to Childhood and Youth Studies? And, what does the child offer to Trans Studies?

Gill-Peterson’s work challenges some of the narratives in Childhood and Youth Studies by pushing us to rethink what we think we know about gender development. We often conceive of gender identity as something that a young person develops as they grow up. In order to become an adult, young people are tasked with expressing a stable and constant binary gender identity. Adults begin narrating the gender of their children before they are even born, and through interactions with parents, peers, and at school, children encounter the boundaries of the gender they are supposed to enact. This story of childhood suggests that children are incomplete: not yet fully developed and not capable of knowing their own gender. Numerous social structures insist that one’s sex should align with the gender that one was assigned at birth. Young trans people constantly refute this claim. The existence of young trans people demonstrates the ability of children to understand, advocate, and act as agents in their gender expression and identity. Trans children challenge us to reconceptualize gender. They teach us that gender is not a binary and is not always a fixed or stable category. Trans children’s ability to articulate their needs and advocate for their rights reminds us that all children have agency and self-determination. The self-knowledge trans kids have also challenges the notion that young people don’t know what’s best for themselves—a belief that seeps into many of the legal structures that impact the lives of young people.

The trans child is having an impact on how Childhood and Youth Studies scholars think about medical decision making and the child. Recently, an increasing number of young people who do not identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth are receiving puberty-suppressing hormone treatment. Hormone blockers pause normative gender narratives, offering young trans people a break from the development of secondary sex characteristics and providing parents and medical providers more time to develop confidence in the young trans person’s understanding of their gender. Hormone blockers are also described by medical providers as offering an opportunity for the families of gender variant children to have more time to decide what is best for their child. Discussions about hormone blockers seem to reveal a wish among medical providers and parents to give gender variant children more agency, and pose questions about when a child understands their gender and can make a decision about their future gender identity. What’s often left out of these discussions about hormone blockers is that many trans children and youth are not given access to this treatment because the way they present their gender does not align with medical understandings of transness; they are considered “not trans enough.” Trans children with disabilities are also often denied access because they are unjustly seen as not having the ability to know their gender and what is in their best interest. Most medical providers and parents want the best for children but struggle to conceptualize the trans child and remain gatekeepers to trans kids’ access to services and resources. The desire to protect the child and determine what is best for them gets in the way of supporting the needs of trans kids and listening to their experiences of being a young trans person.

Ever since trans people were invented by the medical institution through the development of definitions and diagnostic criteria in the early 1900s, trans people have been met with medical authority figures who determine whether or not they are trans, trans enough, or are fit to access services. This history of the development of the trans subject continues to impact how trans people (including kids) are required to narrate their gender in order to access services. This required narrative has remained the same since the 1900s and is reinforced through trans people’s repetition of their lived experiences in ways that appeal to and reinforce common tropes. The experiences of young trans people have been collected into an archive that appeals to medical institutions—notably, those who hold power over them. Medical institutions remain in control of who has access to medical intervention, and adults remain in control of the services they will offer to kids. As in any instance of a single story, this required narrative rings true for some trans people but certainly is not representative of all trans people. Medical institutions exploit this narrative and use it as evidence to support their claims that they know what it means to be trans, and in turn, who should have access to services. The racism in the history and current practices of the medical system means that it is typically white, middle-class, able-bodied trans youth who have the greatest access to medical and social services.

The last connection I want to make between the study of trans youth and the field of Childhood and Youth Studies has to do with the recent increase in the visibility of trans people and the effects this visibility has on narratives about trans children and youth. Cultural commentators are calling our current moment a “transgender tipping point,” and the increased visibility of trans people is cast as a sign of greater social acceptance. However, the visibility of trans youth has not always been determined by trans youth, which demonstrates the power of the medical establishment and adults in the construction of childhood and gender. Positive representation often gives little support or protection to most trans people. Why might trans children be more visible now, and who are they visible to? Is this visibility serving trans children? And are they choosing this visibility?

This visibility is having material consequences for trans youth. For example, in the last decade, battles in the U.S. have focused on trans students’ rights to access to bathrooms, and it was only recently that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled in favor of trans student Gavin Grimm, determining that it was discriminatory for a school board to ban trans students from using their preferred bathroom. In Ontario, Canada, debates about the inclusion of trans issues in the Health and Sexuality Education Curriculum have dominated the media over the last five years. Both sides of these debates in the U.S. and Canada use narratives about protecting cis-gender students as a way to advocate for the needs of young people: protecting cis-gender students from exploring and understanding gender outside of the binary at too young an age, and protecting trans students from bullying and harassment. Both of these narratives position young people as not fully formed, as vulnerable, and as requiring adults to intervene on their behalf. These fights for trans student services and inclusion are limited in that they demand that young people become increasingly visible in order to gain rights, but the rights of trans people should not depend on their visibility.

In the edited collection Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley and Johanna Burton discuss the politics of visibility and argue that “positive representation” gives most trans people little support or protection. Visibility is positioned as “the primary path through which trans people might have access to livable lives,” and yet the “doors to resources, to recognition, and to understanding” that are offered to trans people are almost always traps; trans bodies, histories, and cultures are accommodated only insofar as they can be forced to be understood through a white cisgender heteronormative lens. Gill-Peterson’s analysis of the ways trans children are cast as new or emergent points to these trap doors.

Discussions about the visibility of trans children also remind me of the 2015 TSQ special issue “Making Transgender Count.” In the issue’s introduction, Paisley Currah and Susan Stryker note that “one makes trans count by counting it or making it visible” and that “one makes or compels trans count by forcing atypical configurations of identity into categories into which they do not quite fit” (1). They argue that the standardization of a category is a normativizing violence on trans subjects and recognize how the definitional lines of the term are always being renegotiated. This history of the medicalization and pathologization of trans people impacts the voices of trans youth, affecting how they frame their gender experiences and whom they trust. Drawing on Stryker and Currah, I am thinking about how one makes trans youth count, and how the definitional boundaries of trans and youth are being constructed by, imposed on, and negotiated by trans youth. For me, questions about visibility, representation, and agency always come back to how systems of power—like medical institutions and even education—come to determine whose lives are livable and grievable. I question the legitimacy of leaving decisions about trans bodies to institutional systems because of the ways these systems of power perpetuate the marginalization and erasure of racialized, poor, and disabled trans people (and especially children).

Young people should have the ability to define their own genders, although, systemically speaking, it is adults who currently control these definitions. This can even be problematic when those adults are trans. A large part of the archive of stories about young trans people in trans studies are by trans adults. They are retrospectively constructed narratives, which may or may not align with young trans people’s experiences. This leaves me questioning whether the new trans child will identify or disidentify with the transgender histories that came before them. How might trans adults and the field of trans studies engage with the history of trans children? How do histories of trans children impact our understandings of childhood? How is the discourse of childhood resistant or in relation to the histories of trans children? These questions ask both trans scholars and Childhood and Youth Studies scholars to rethink the archive of gender-diverse experiences among young people.

Julia Sinclair-Palm (she/they) is an Assistant Professor in Childhood and Youth Studies at Carleton University. Their research explores how conceptualizations of young people are tied to concerns about violence, risk, and mental health often at the exclusion of other, more complex narratives of identity and gender. She examines how young people forge new identities and navigate structural inequalities in the midst of these larger, and sometimes restrictive narratives about youth.

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