Growing Up Trans, in the 1960s

It’s a vertiginous moment to be writing a book about the transgender child. When I started my research about five years ago it was a relatively simple task to place the work within the available cultural and medical texts that dealt directly with self-identified transgender children. There were a few, in short, but I could hold them all in my head at once.

What a difference a few years makes. As I work on a manuscript, it’s become an immense relief that I’m not focusing on our historical present for the simple reason that the proliferation of discourse and cultural material on transgender children would make it almost impossible to stay up to date. Yet it also, I would argue, makes the consideration of generational narratives and the critical assessment of awed futurism even more important than ever.

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When PBS released its Frontline documentary Growing Up Trans two months ago, it added such a text to the growing constellation of voices of transgender children. The documentary is not especially revealing, despite its emotional genre of conflict, confusion, and confession. The children it follows are all well trained in speaking to doctors and adults in the discursive idiom of transgender medicine; the parents present themselves as good-hearted liberals, ready to learn how to best love their children (even if they “need time” to understand their hostility to their child); and while there is some passing reference to the cost of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormone therapy, the trans child-friendly medical establishment is simply there, waiting to take the reigns. The feigned fear over whether or not adults are making the “right” decision in allowing children to transition comes off somewhat rehearsed as a result, at least in my viewing of the documentary: the history of endocrinology is filled with far more “experimental” treatments and the sheer plasticity it has cultivated in children’s bodies since the late nineteenth century means in reality that the question of “reversibility” or “changes” that “can’t be taken back” after they are made is not very well reflected in actual medical technique. The endocrine system is incredibly impressible, particularly in children; in fact, the medical field counts on it.

There’s so much more that could be said about the documentary, and I don’t mean to reduce it to any one narrative point (for instance, there’s the implication of a politically conservative desire for a “post-transgender” generation laminated over one eighteen year old’s desire to be done with the transphobia opened up by identifying as trans after completing SRS; elsewhere, there’s the college student awkwardly presented towards the end of the doc as a potential apologist with ostensible regret over aspects of his transition, where we might reply that he was actually articulating a rather brilliant critique of the binary fanaticism attached to children’s transition, so that the demand for the perfect achievement of masculinity or femininity can produce a culture-wide version  of what Avgi Saketopoulou has rightfully called “massive gender trauma“).

Still, what struck me most in Growing Up Trans was its relentless investment in a generational narrative that makes today’s transgender children fare without any history whatsoever. At one point a parent of a child featured in the film wishes we could fast forward 100 years in order to know the “true” effects of transitioning during childhood, assuming that longitudinal studies are all that stand in the way of clear knowledge (in any case, there already are longitudinal studies and they bring good news for transition in childhood). What’s actually the most heartbreaking about the documentary has nothing to do with the specific people it features: it’s the incessant return to transgender as an exceptional category that will never achieve “true” masculinity or femininity, demanding that these children and their parents incorporate failure and loss into their gender identities, while pretending that cisgender identities are not also based on guilt and loss for being inherently impossible. The collective delusion that there really are biologically exclusive men and women hurts each time it is repeated by adults and children, because the conclusion is that the transgender child will never be one of them. The painstaking conversations had over and over about what a “big decision” transgender children have to make works to obscure that the actual “big decision” is a collective one: the unspeakable decision to continue to organize the social through a concept of sexual difference according to which some bodies can actually be a woman or a man in an objectively true sense.

Of course the documentary is also derivative of a long tradition of armchair slumming–it even boasts in its opening sequence that it will take viewers “on a journey inside this new world.” One other moment, however, take us into the heart of the problematic desire (on the part of adults) for the transgender child to be a creature of the present and the future. After the opening scene, where 9-year-old Lia outlines her transition, the camera shifts to stock footage of female impersonators from the mid twentieth century. The narrator chimes in:

“Just a generation ago, it was adults, not children, who changed genders. Usually late in life, and often in the shadows. But today, as transgender adults gain wider acceptance, many children are transitioning too.”

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The imagery is troubling, though not entirely in a negative sense. While female impersonation, well into the 1960s, included many people who may have later gone on to understand themselves as transsexual or transgender, the narrator doesn’t give any hint of the categorical complexity at hand. After the work of Magnus Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis in the 1910s, “transvestism” and “eonism” generally encompassed what was not called “transsexuality” or “transsexualism” with any regularity until the mid 1950s–and “transgender” would not arrive on the scene for another 40 years after that. Given the bizarre and epistemically violent recent decision to ban cisgender drag queens from Glasgow pride celebrations because they might “offend” transgender participants, the historicization seems sorely needed as a public and political pedagogy.

In any case, the narrator’s history is lesson is flat out wrong in other ways. Adults did not all transition late in life or “in the shadows”–as early as the 1940s there were extensive national networks of transvestites in the United States corresponding, hosting social gatherings, and strategizing about how to live openly and politically as women. The narrator’s logic, however, is not even about empiricism: it aims to ground transgender children’s medical and political claim to legitimacy in the precedent of adults who have already paved the way. The move is a common one for the child in Western culture, a creature deprived of our basic political ontology: to be a speaking subject. No wonder Growing Up Trans places so much emphasis on children’s perfect elocution of adult discourses of gender dysphoria. What they say is still not taken as seriously as an adult, but there can nevertheless be no room to stray from an adult-like script.

The effect of the narrator’s move has a second imperative: it makes transgender children valuable, imparting in them and soliciting from them a biological futurity in their endocrine systems, their hypothalamuses, and the surface of their plastic bodies. Transgender children are taken out of history so that they are not seen as politicized bodies, but instead become available for the state and the medical establishment to cultivate alone. In that context, it almost goes without saying, children are reduced to a position of zero autonomy. And so for these reasons I find it helpful to point out that, in fact, children were “growing up trans” as early as “trans” had any signifying purchase. Children understood themselves, presented themselves, and were recognized as transsexual in the 1950s and the 1960s. Some found interested doctors willing to take them on as patients, overseeing their public transition, hormone therapy, name change, and in very rare cases, full sex reassignment surgery. There is no generational shift to speak of, it turns out–at least not in the way that Frontline conceives of it.

As just one example from the archival research going into my book project, consider this letter and juxtapose it with the documentary. After a short, autobiographical article on “transsexualism” appeared in the Evansville Courier in 1966, “L.T.” (pseudonym) wrote to its author, who subsequently forwarded the letter to Harry Benjamin, by then the most well recognized endocrinologist and doctor seeing transsexual patients, including children:

I read the article about you in the ‘Evansville Courier’ Wednesday…You see, the changes which have occurred in your body, have also taken place in me. I’m only 15 years old, but I look, talk, feel, and usually subconsciously act like a girl.

[…]

Mr. Nelson, I do want to be a girl badly! You see, there is this boy whom I am simply crazy about. Sir, I know what you go through! Believe me, I do! Wanting to be a girl and can’t be. It’s hell on earth.

Please send me the names and addressed of your doctors. I would like to write them and see if I too could be changed so as to do greater things in the world. Please answer me! This is not a joke! I swear it!

There are countless other examples, dozens of letters preserved in doctors’ archives from children as young as 12 or 13 (presumably, those much younger did not have the resources to write doctors or other adults, conversant in the medical idiom of transsexuality). The ease of familiarity with narratives of transsexuality and the ability to reach out through letter-writing to a broader community of transgender people in the 1960s make this letter evidence of a far greater range of autonomy and activity on the part of transgender children some 50 years before they are supposed to exist, if we follow the narrative PBS rehearses.

While I watch with great excitement the continuing proliferation of transgender children in the public sphere, then, I am reminded of Susan Stryker and Aren Aizura’s critical insight in the introduction to The Transgender Studies Reader 2: “Transgender…is not an obscure, minor, exotic, or emergent topic. It is a common–increasingly common–feature of our world, and we need to ask ourselves why it is perpetually positioned in the media and public discourse as ‘only now’ arriving” (3).

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