Research

You can download my curriculum vitae here: Gill-Peterson Julian CV August 2017

My research takes place at the intersections of transgender studies, queer studies, critical race studies, and the medical humanities. I focus on history, particularly the trans twentieth century, the growth of trans of color studies, and the problem of the archive.

My current book,  Genealogies of the Transgender Child: Sex, Race, and Plasticity, uncovers the history of transgender children in the United States and the medicalization of their racial plasticity from the early to mid twentieth century. This is the first book, academic or trade, to establish the historical existence of transgender children prior to the twenty-first century. It shatters the widespread myth that transgender children have only existed for the last few years and argues that they do have a past. From the 1910s, children with “ambiguous” sex were medicalized and experimented upon by doctors who sought in their unfinished, developing bodies a material foothold for altering and, eventually, changing human sex as it grew. In the 1930s, some of the first trans people to seek out American doctors connected their requests for medical support to reports that “sex changes” on children were being regularly performed at certain hospitals. In the 1940s and 1950s, five decades of experimental alteration of children’s sex directly led to the invention of the category gender, setting the stage for the emergence of a new field of transsexual medicine and the postwar model of binary transition. And in the 1960s and 1970s, as that field of medicine became institutionalized, children took hormones, changed their names, attended school in their preferred gender identities, and even underwent gender confirmation surgeries. Yet the stories of these children have never been told because trans children were central to the medicalization of sex and gender during the twentieth century in a very specific way, made valuable through a racialized concept of plasticity, the capacity to generate and take on form during growth. Examining the history of trans children through the shifting terrain of that plasticity helps to explain, precisely, why trans children’s history has so easily gone unnoticed. By limiting trans children’s value to an abstract biological force through which medicine aimed to alter sex and gender as human phenotypes, those children became living laboratories, proxies for working out broader questions about human sex and gender that had little investment in their personhood.

My next book project, Gender Underground: A History of Trans DIY, further rewrites the trans twentieth century by framing it not through institutional medicine, but the myriad do-it-yourself practices of trans people that forged parallel medical and social words of transition, and a critique of the gender normativity, racialized biopolitics, and privatization of US medicine. Beginning in the mid century, when doctors would not provide surgeries requested by trans people, it uncovers a rich underground tradition that found inventive access to hormones, alternate routes to surgery, and care for the self and others. The book also examines some of the first clinics and counseling organizations formed by and for trans people, many which maintained intimate connections to trans of color activist groups. DIY is not just the object of the book, but a theory and a method for transgender studies. I argue that a “DIY trans studies” affirms practices of survival, archiving, and creative making from the least visible and enfranchised positions, particularly those of trans of color and economically vulnerable people. The aim of DIY trans studies is not the recovery of normative agency out of what is in reality historical oppression, but the problematization of what counts as empirical knowledge about trans life. A trans DIY perspective deforms the category transgender, its rationality, and its modernity from the inside, telling a different story about how we arrived at today’s racialized and economic disparities in healthcare and the academy. Underground Gender shows that DIY, not institutional medicine, has been the actual forefront of knowledge about trans life.

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