“Histories of the Transgender Child”
by Julian Gill-Peterson
©2018, University of Minnesota Press
You have to start somewhere.
Indeed, few things begin in a vacuum: you need an idea, then experiments and practice to create a masterpiece. Nothing magically just appears. And in the new book “Histories of the Transgender Child” by Julian Gill-Peterson, you’ll see that that’s true, too, about knowledge and change.
The study of endocrinology had a fowl beginning.
In the 18th century, scientists, determined to learn more about what made “male” and “female,” removed the testes from birds, observed a certain amount of feminization, and then transplanted the gonads back into the birds. Alas, because they put the organs in the birds’ stomachs, little was learned; even so, it led them to think about kids and the male-female characteristics children possessed. They began to believe that male-female identification was pliable, and that children didn’t fully become either until they reached a certain age.
By the 20th century, better understandings of human anatomy, psychology and hormones led to new ideas that spurred doctors to take bold steps to help children with genitalia that didn’t fit the norm at birth and didn’t match their sexual identity later. Those kids underwent treatment that seems invasive, almost horrifying, but that gave at least some relief from the feeling of being bodily trapped.
These operations were supposed to have been kept quiet, but that was impossible. This, says Gill-Peterson, led to an influx of adults who sought American doctors for “sex change” operations. In the years surrounding World War I, those who were successful in their search told tales of themselves as children, making do with the resources they had, being isolated, yet sometimes enjoying a surprising amount of support from family who let them choose the gender in which they felt comfortable.
In the introduction to this book, author Julian Gill-Peterson indicates that the current narrative paints today’s transgender children somewhat as pioneers. Nothing can be further from the truth, as you’ll see here, eventually. Maybe.
Maybe — because “Histories of the Transgender Child” is written very much for scholars in concept, with medical jargon and words that will send the most casual reader dictionary-bound. Doctors should grasp this book easily; non-medical professionals, conversely, may be tempted to put it aside.
But don’t. Yes, it’s a challenge to read, but it does get easier as actual personal anecdotes become more plentiful. These tales also serve to show how society, shame and social mores affected children and former kids who had few places to turn; it also shows how understanding of transgender individuals grew while attitudes at large worsened. Here is the peek that most casual readers want from this book, one that’s more relatable and more social-history-based; these same angles also bring unsettlement as readers see racism creep into this overall tale and Gill-Peterson explains how doctors often saw patients as mere experimental vessels.
And so don’t ignore this book. Just be aware that it’s scholarly, so it needs more time to develop appreciation. Give yourself that, and “Histories of the Transgender Child” could be a book to start.
“The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) are Creating a Gender Revolution”
by Ann Travers
©2018, New York University Press
Boy or girl?
That’s a common enough question, if you’re an expectant parent. You might’ve even wondered it yourself: will you need pink things or blue, and what name will you choose? For generations, it’s been an exciting decision for prospective parents, but Ann Travers asks in “The Trans Generation” if it’s a prudent one. Maybe letting the child decide would be a better choice.
Fifty-six years ago, when Travers was born, their mother’s doctor unwittingly caused a lifetime of hurt: “It’s a girl,” he said, and Travers spent years trying to “untangle” what it meant. That, they said, is part of what drives this book. The other part is the desire to improve the lives of transgender kids through understanding.
Getting to that point is harrowing: Ninety-five percent of transgender kids on one study felt unsafe in their schools. Many report that physicians misunderstand kids who are gender-nonconforming. Transgender kids attempt suicide and/or self-harm at very high rates and, says Travers, “… many grow up hating their bodies…” Most employ several kinds of coping mechanisms to live their lives.
In writing this book, Travers says, they interviewed a wide variety of transgender kids from the U.S. and Canada — 19 in all, ages 4 to 20, plus 23 parents. The children mostly came from middle-class families, which allowed them privileges such as better access to medical care and chances to change schools if they needed to do so. Other children Travers interviewed lived in poverty, their stories illustrating how being a transgender kid can be socially and medically isolating, and how lack of access to needed resources can affect their well-being.
Parents, of course, can affect that well-being, too, but it takes a “phenomenal amount of care, advocacy, and activism… to push back against cisgendered environments,” schools, sports, binary-only bathrooms, social activities, medical facilities and politics. It takes a willingness to learn, listen and lean in.
Not just for parents, but for teachers, advocates and loved ones, “The Trans Generation” is one heavy-duty book.
Writing with a bit of a scholar’s voice and occasional, relatively advanced, science and law studies, author Ann Travers also offers readers plenty of eye-opening chats with transgender kids, which turn out to be the most helpful, useful and even entertaining parts of this book. From the mouths of babes, as they say, those interviews give insights that adults will find to be wise and thoughtful, even monumental. They’re also heartbreaking, but considering the kids readers are introduced to, and the singular interview with a 16-year-old who made her own hormone treatments in her high school’s laboratory, they’re a good indication of hope for the future.
While you could be forgiven for skipping to those case studies, you’d be missing out. The thicker parts of “The Trans Generation” are worth reading and reflection and are deeply instructive on pronouns, on gender fluidity, and on being transgender in a cisgender-based society. They are also serious and weighty, but that kind of rock-solid information could make this book the right choice.