As trans people, we are often hungry for the stories of other trans people, including those who came before us. We may be particularly attracted to stories of early resilience and successful living. It was those stories that I was hoping to find when I eagerly snatched up Julian Gill-Peterson’s Histories of the Transgender Child (University of Minnesota Press, 2018). The back cover promised:
Despite transgender rights being front and center in American politics, media, and culture, the pervasive myth that transgender children are a brand new generation – pioneers in a field of new obstacles and hurdles – persists today. Histories of the Transgender Child shatters this myth, revealing that gender nonconforming children preexisted the term transgender and its predecessors and played a central role in the medicalization of trans people.
Unfortunately, in my eagerness to read about “early” transgender children, I ignored some of the other back cover remarks that clearly “situated” the book in trans studies and other academic fields. In the words of one commentator (Susan Stryker), the book is “sophisticated theorization.” What does that mean to the average reader? This book is not for you.
There are stories of trans children from the 1900s to the 1970s in this book, but their stories are told only via medical notes and letter snippets. We do learn about Agnes, a 1960s teenager who “made a resentful enemy” out of Robert Stoller by not informing him that her femininity had been partially advanced by the years-long theft of her mother’s hormones. We also read about Val, for whom ‘special arrangements for toilet, etc. were made” in her 1930s rural Wisconsin school. But we don’t read much more about either of them. These children existed, but we don’t get any sense of who they are. Sadly, they are used chiefly as fodder for the author’s theorizing about trans lives, even as the author critiques the transgender specialists for doing the same.
It seems like those of us who are hungry for stories of the transgender children who came before us are going to have to wait a little longer.