In her now-classic 1984 essay, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” Gayle Rubin uses the term “fallacy of misplaced scale” to describe how “sexual acts are burdened with an excess of significance.” As Rubin explains, the state pathologizes and criminalizes “benign sexual variation”: those preferences or behaviors that do not align with a unique standard. “Sex law is the most adamantine instrument of sexual stratification and erotic persecution,” Rubin continues, observing that “the state routinely intervenes in sexual behavior at a level that would not be tolerated in other areas of social life.”
In 2019, gender discourses, perhaps even more than discourses of sexual preferences and behaviors, exemplify the fallacy of misplaced scale. The mere fact of existing-while-trans (or gender nonconforming) is seen as a danger to society. Trans children, in particular, are at the core of North American and European moral panics. Disproportionately targeted by medical and legislative regulation, trans children are under assault—although this assault often mislabels itself as “concern” or “responsibility.”
The moral panic produced by the fallacy of misplaced scale obscures the fact that trans children are nothing new. In Histories of the Transgender Child, Jules Gill-Peterson recovers trans children’s history. More specifically, Gill-Peterson focuses on the role that trans children played in the development of medicine and science. Histories of the Transgender Child sketches a loose chronology. Its first half examines trans childhood in the medical and scientific debates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while its second gathers case studies of trans children’s interactions with medical and scientific systems from the 1950s to the 1970s.
In the late nineteenth century, biological models shifted from mechanist understandings of the nervous system to an endocrinological conception of growth and development. When in 1891 Hans Driesch separated two embryonic sea urchin cells, it was with the expectation that each would be malformed since each lacked the parts the other cell contained. Instead, each cell in Driesch’s experiment formed a whole embryo on its own, proving that cells do not contain miniature versions of the organs they will become. Cells are indeed reserves of potential. Sex characteristics also showed surprising degrees of freedom from any presumptive endpoint in morphology, strangely unmoored from the binary system they allegedly produce. For example, a castrated bird will be feminized, but surgically inserting the testes into the stomach results in remasculinization. What matters, in other words, isn’t the body’s original shape but its willingness to adopt new form in response to specific conditions.
These nineteenth-century experiments inaugurated the hormonal theory of the body and introduced a structural ambivalence that only grew stronger when it leapt the barrier from experimental science to medical application. On the one hand, biological plasticity promised medical science unprecedented access to the body’s living systems. On the other hand, plasticity strongly implied that many different bodies might be understood as natural. In asserting originary plasticity, these doctors hinted at the radical claim that anatomy does not have a destiny, let alone gives us ours.
In Histories of the Transgender Child, Gill-Peterson explores this transformation in scientific models, paying close attention to how the invention of gender as a new conceptual category in the middle of the twentieth century stabilized the growing crisis in the two-sex system that biological plasticity introduced. That stabilization was achieved through the trans child. Gill-Peterson argues that medical science scripted trans and intersex children into a double role. The child provided doctors access to experimental knowledge in these emerging fields and, at the same time, enabled sexological researchers to conserve the binary model of gender. Under the sway of the new endocrine theory and preoccupied, therefore, with how the child’s body hardens into form after puberty, medical scientists figured the property of sexual malleability as a temporary aberration on the way to a proper adult gender. In the case of intersex children in particular, sexologists suggested that binary form might be grown out of the living material of the intersex body and that it should be so as to preserve the stabilizing social force of gender.
Transgender children, in other words, have a cultural and institutional history that begins well before the twenty-first century—but it is a history that cannot be scripted into a narrative of increasing liberation. This history is instead composed of profoundly ambivalent and often failed struggles for and with medical attention. And it is a racial history as well. In her archival work, Gill-Peterson found that the trans children who received medical care were almost universally white, while Black trans kids who advocated for themselves were more often neglected or institutionalized. Echoing work by Kyla Schuller, Jayna Brown, and Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Gill-Peterson ties this difference in treatment to eugenic understandings of the Black body as both hypo- and hyper-plastic, too formless or too fixed. By contrast, trans and intersex medicine sedimented whiteness as synonymous with malleable plasticity: plasticity that consents to manipulation and is neither too formless or too rigid, according to medical standards. Considering this history, Gill-Peterson contends, as C. Riley Snorton and Benjamin Kahan also recently have, that the “invention of gender” was a process of racialization. Today, white trans kids are the public face of trans acceptance and advocacy. In 2007, Jazz Jennings, then a child, was interviewed by Barbara Walters. Four years later, the documentary I Am Jazz: A Family in Transition premiered on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Jennings would go on to star in a reality show also titled I Am Jazz and write a memoir, Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen, in addition to serving as a Human Rights Campaign Youth Ambassador. As a powerful emblem of futurity, the iconic white, middle-class trans child of contemporary figurations laminates racial innocence onto the history of deeply coercive and violent exploitation of children’s bodies.
The contributors to this issue of The Rambling work in, and more often than not across, various fields, including gender and sexuality studies, childhood studies, literary studies, media studies, and the medical humanities. The pieces underscore and evaluate Gill-Peterson’s contributions to medical and scientific history as well as to trans studies, especially trans-of-color critique. Moreover, the authors practice speculative scholarship, contemplating how new contexts and new objects energize—or challenge—Gill-Peterson’s arguments. Throughout, we are motivated by the belief that Histories of the Transgender Child’s turn to the past is timely: the book traces the long arc of discourses that often, and perniciously, insist on their own novelty.
Jean-Thomas Tremblay is Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico State University. They are completing Breathing Aesthetics, a study of the role of breathing in contemporary aesthetic responses to the uneven distribution of vitality and risk. An excerpt from this project, on the respiratory rituals of Black and Indigenous ecofeminisms, is forthcoming in differences.
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.