Innocent does not mean virtuous. In the preface to Histories of the Transgender Child, Jules Gill-Peterson explains that innocence is partly what “motivates” her groundbreaking history of transgender youth throughout the twentieth century. “[T]he urgency of giving up our foolish attachment to an adult innocence about trans childhood,” she writes, “motivates me in the pages that follow . . . The staggering, nauseating arithmetic of trans youth suicide and the truth that we have just witnessed again, in 2017 more than in any year on record before it, of the murder of black and brown trans women, are two real costs of that innocence and its normative delusions about childhood, gender, and race.”
Gill-Peterson is not interested in recuperating or attaching innocence to trans children (an innocence that is presumed for children who adhere to gender, sexual, and racial norms). Rather, Histories of the Transgender Child reveals how innocence is a position that adults themselves inhabit in order to maintain their own stable notions of childhood, gender, and race. This position isn’t just one of ignorance but one that harms the very children these adults ostensibly declare to be invested in protecting. Innocence isn’t a pure, redemptive, or moral state in this context; it’s inextricably bound up with, and even enables, violence—both material and epistemic—against trans persons.
This “foolish attachment to adult innocence” that Gill-Peterson diagnoses is remarkable because it disrupts the normative link between childhood and innocence that adults work so carefully to preserve. Across political, cultural, and social domains, children are repositories for adults’ desires, hopes, and projections. Adults endow some children with innocence, not because children are inherently innocent but because adults want them to be innocent. This desire for childhood innocence ostensibly operates as a protective gesture; children must be shielded from pain, harm, violence, and trauma, all features that adults desire to be unbound from childhood. Natasha Hurley and Stephen Bruhm have characterized this dynamic as one in which adults see children as manifestations of a “preferred past.” Children are temporally emblematic in multiple directions: healers and receptacles of the past, bearers and recipients of the future.
Yet when it comes to transgender children, adults deny them connections to the past—the “preferred past” is no past. Gill-Peterson reveals how this is not a preference but a calculated disavowal, a tactic used to police trans futurity. She argues that the “central libel[s] that limit . . . the livelihood of trans children [are] that they have no history, that they are fundamentally new, and, somehow, therefore, deserving of less than human recognition.” Denial of trans children’s histories enables present adult naïveté about these children’s existence. When it comes to acknowledging the existence of trans children, adults maintain that they are the innocent ones, reversing the usual pairings of children with innocence and adults with pain (in the forms of knowledge and experience). Adults claim they can’t understand or process the “newness” of trans children. Such claims permit the debate around trans existence to pivot on knowledge and out-of-touchness. Trans children aren’t allowed to occupy the social position of child, or even to be recognized as children, because adults occupy the space of childhood innocence and force trans children to occupy the adult role of educator and laborer. Trans children need to continually educate and perform emotional labor for adults around them—parents, teachers, lawmakers, and doctors—in order to explain and justify the very fact of their existence, as well as ameliorate all of the adult anxieties and confusions presented to them about their existence. At the same time, trans children’s ability to enter trans adulthood is vehemently gatekept by these very adults. Whether trans children can access healthcare, safely attend school, or express their gender identity are all determined by parents, teachers, lawmakers, and doctors, many of whom remain skeptical about these children’s self-knowledge.
Gill-Peterson shows how the denial of trans histories, and specifically the histories of trans children, has enabled contemporary debates to frame trans children as pathological, new, and capable of altering, even threatening, our very conceptions of gender and sexuality. Gill-Peterson’s meticulous work in the archive, however, reveals the absolute opposite. Her research shows that “trans children were central to the medicalization of sex and gender during the twentieth century in a very specific way, [and] made valuable through a racialized discourse of plasticity.” In other words, trans children have been, even if through coercion, producers of knowledge and generators of the modern-day categories of gender. In the contemporary moment, even ostensibly liberal and progressive approaches to trans children look to them as vehicles for bringing us new, universalizing knowledge about the concepts of gender and sex.
This move, Gill-Peterson reveals, is part of a longer history of extracting knowledge from trans children while policing them. According to Gill-Peterson, trans and intersex children had as much influence on medical science as medical science was on them. In other words, while the field of medicine has overwhelmingly been harmful to trans and intersex children, these children exerted an influence on the production of knowledge around gender and sexuality. Gill-Peterson compellingly argues that mid-twentieth-century sexologists, overwhelmed by the ways that trans and intersex children revealed the plasticity of gender, invented the “new category of embodiment and psychology called ‘gender’ that, they hoped, might finally achieve a level of control over plasticity, cementing the sex binary once and for all.” Trans children, paradoxically, have been punished by the very categories they helped bring into existence. They helped build knowledge around concepts that are now seen as naturalized and used in order to deny their existence, in the past and in the present. Trans children’s personhood has been “abstracted” while valuable knowledge has been “extracted” from their bodies to “‘prove something’ about the biological basis of sex and gender or how identity politics have so injured a cis, white, heteronormative imaginary that cannot fathom the obvious fragility of its claims to universalism in the face of a defiant no.” When presented with evidence that categories of gender, sexuality, and race aren’t stable or static, a “cis, white, heteronormative imaginary” clings to and reveals its own fragility. Cis fragility and adult innocence go hand in hand to harm trans children.
Gill-Peterson’s rigorous approach to the archive affirms the existence and presence of trans children across the twentieth century. Gill-Peterson importantly reminds us that this project isn’t, however, an attempt to rescue or romanticize trans children. The inclusion of these children in the archive is possible because of violence, coercion, and an inability to consent, and their inclusion is always partial—not all trans childhoods are in the medical archive, and many trans childhoods are truncated or unable to flourish or access care via the adults and institutions who should be invested in their well-being, protection, and future.
Innocence should not be a guise for deliberate ignorance. Gill-Peterson makes clear that we must refuse claims to ostensible innocence, especially from adults, around the historical and contemporary existence of trans children. Instead, we must insist on histories and presents that don’t allow trans children to be up for debate. Gill-Peterson argues that “[t]rans children are not new, and their lives cannot be deferred to a future by design not meant to arrive.” History can open up futures for a sector of the population violently oriented away from that future or only granted access to that future upon adherence to the strictest of norms. We are at a moment where political, legal, and medical institutions are diverging in their views on trans youth. Gill-Peterson cautions us to be skeptical of the medical model and approach to trans existence, which largely works to domesticate, normalize, and singularize the trans experience in ways that erase the multitudes of ways to be trans. At the same time, healthcare providers are often an entry point for youth and their families into trans discourse and continue to act as gatekeepers for particular types of trans support. We cannot put our faith in the medical establishment entirely and must acknowledge the vexed, violent histories in which trans lives overlap with the medical clinic. We must hold practitioners accountable while continuing to pursue ways to, as Gill-Peterson powerfully calls for, “dethrone institutional medicine and transfer the wealth and authority of insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, and researchers into the hands of communities.”
The trans children of the future should be able to look back on our current moment as part of a longer history and see this as a time when they were allowed to exist, and finally the persons in charge of their well-being were stepping up to protect them and let them be. To do otherwise would be anything but innocent.
Mary Zaborskis is a Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh. She received her PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She works at the intersections of queer, critical race, and childhood studies in twentieth-century and contemporary literature and culture. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in GLQ, WSQ, and Signs, and she edits the “Shoptalk” and “Quizzical” features at Public Books.