Republican lawmakers pushing to restrict transgender children’s lives have repeatedly argued that trans kids are a “new phenomenon” and that gender-affirming treatments and policies are “experimental”.
But Jules Gill-Peterson, a professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at the University of Pittsburgh, has found extensive evidence of trans youth in the US living as themselves and fighting to transition in decades-old archival documents. The records from American hospitals and clinics date back to the early 20th century, with examples across the US well before the existence of contemporary language on trans identity.
The Guardian recently spoke to the Histories of the Transgender Child author about her research and its implications as Republicans push legislation to restrict trans youths’ access to sports teams and outlaw gender-affirming healthcare. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why was it important to you to research the history of trans kids?
In the past 10 years, we’ve seen this sudden visibility of trans kids. There’s a lot more representation. But the common refrain is, ‘Trans people are so new’ and ‘Trans kids, my gosh! They didn’t even exist until recently.’ And I started to think about what happens when you’re part of a group that gets framed as brand new. There’s this cloak of caution and fear around trans kids, this idea that ‘We don’t know what it means for a child to transition’. That ‘this is all an experiment’. I had a sense as a historian that these ideas were probably not true and wanted to do historical research that would challenge this, by showing that trans kids have been around for a long time.
How far back were you able to find documentation?
What I uncovered in the research is that children and youth have been finding access to trans medicine and transition as long as there has been medical transition – as far back as the 1930s and 40s. But even prior to that, children certainly lived trans lives where they would socially transition in childhood. I found evidence in the US that families and communities would accept children as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, let them go to school, use the correct bathroom, all of the things that are being fought over now. We can see that 70 or 80 years ago, we were actually in a more progressive place in some areas.
What pieces of evidence were particularly telling?
I found handwritten letters from trans kids to a famous endocrinologist, Harry Benjamin, who was known for providing trans healthcare. In the 60s and 70s, they would say, ‘I’m X years old. I’m a transsexual. I read about that in the news’ or ‘I looked up your work at a library, and it describes who I am’. They were from all over the country and they would ask if Dr Benjamin could see them, send them hormones, give them a permit to wear the clothes they wanted, talk to their family or teacher. It was young kids knowing really clearly that they were trans and going toe-to-toe with medical professionals. Suddenly, I had not only proof that kids were trans, but that they contacted doctors and tried to transition the best they could. It speaks to the remarkable ingenuity and resilience that trans young people have had for a really long time. And it’s pretty unimpeachable evidence that this is not a new social phenomenon. It’s not some trendy thing that kids are picking up now.
Are there specific stories that stuck with you?
One of the other incredible archival finds was this woman Val, a trans woman who in the 1950s was trying to get surgery in Wisconsin. In the hospital, she did an interview with a psychologist and talked about her childhood, growing up in the early 1930s in a small town in rural Wisconsin. She says from as far back as she could remember, she knew she was a girl. There was no trans language in that household, but her parents accepted her. There was an understanding of what that meant, socially, without any need for a medical diagnosis. So her family raised her as a girl and arranged for her to go to school as a girl. Now, there are dozens of bills that claim we have to restrict trans kids because ‘we’ve never seen kids like this before’, but in reality we can look almost 90 years ago and see a trans kid who was accepted by her family.
What did you learn about who has actually had access to care throughout the history of trans medicine?
One of the biggest lines of difference was racial. White trans people were seen as having a problem in their gender development that could be corrected, and in fact must be corrected because of this inherently racist idea that white civilization must have its gender norms. So right from the start, we see that white trans kids get way more access to medical care.
Black trans children in particular are almost completely shut out. Instead of receiving medical care, they are much more likely to be arrested or institutionalized, put in the foster care system or juvenile detention. And they are much more likely to be diagnosed as delusional, schizophrenic or something else that blatantly ignores what they know about themselves.
How does that legacy of exclusion tie into the current efforts to outlaw gender-affirming treatments?
Most trans people do not have access to gender-affirming care. They never have, it’s never been the reality. We’re not even close. It’s primarily upper middle class and white well-educated families that actually have the time and the money to access care. So we’re now facing the proposition of banning forms of healthcare that almost no trans kids even have access to. The possibility of making things better and writing historical wrongs will stop with these bills.
And it’s a direct continuation of this history that is also a racial history. There is a lot of disposable income and time required to get care. If you have a trans kid, you need to advocate constantly and show up and testify against the bills. So working class families, families of color, people with less resources are way less able to do what it takes right now to access pediatric gender-affirming care.
Why do you think trans kids in particular have become such a culture war target?
Mainstream LGBT organizations for a long time weren’t trans-inclusive, and trans activists long warned that focusing on gay marriage would leave behind other LGBT people who are vulnerable and wouldn’t be protected by marriage – like trans people and youth. And that seems to really have come true. Trans rights have been turned into a wedge issue. And children are really easy targets, because we don’t grant them the privilege to speak for themselves and defend their own interests. So they are used as pawns.
Rightwing conservatives have been recycling the same language that we saw 15 to 20 years ago around gays and lesbians – the language of “child endangerment”, “grooming”, “pedophilia”, the need to “protect children” and “protect schools” through really restrictive laws. The focus on children is part of a coordinated effort and it’s not just in the US. We see it in the UK where there is no real access to gender-affirming treatments if you’re under 18. There’s a media campaign to shift the discourse to focusing on children’s transitions with all sorts of moral panics. It’s a really disturbing coalition, because you’ve got rightwing white supremacist evangelicals, but you also have politicians in the mainstream and people on the left who are trans-exclusionary and claim to be feminists. It’s a perfect storm.
How do you think people should be responding to Arkansas passing the first trans healthcare ban in the US this week?
This should be a wake-up call for a lot of folks. It’s no longer hypothetical. This is the time for people to reach out to the governor of Arkansas, but also to get involved in their own states and ask what they can do now before we see another passage of one of these bills. We should also be thinking more broadly, so we’re not just reacting over and over again to these bills. In some ways trans healthcare is analogous to reproductive rights and abortion. If you make it illegal, the need for care doesn’t go away. So we should be thinking about how we make this kind of care available to young people and how to show up for these children and their families, and not just make these laws the be-all-end-all.