There’s a story I know of a young transgender girl from rural Wisconsin, who before the age of 5 made it clear enough to her parents that she was a girl, not a boy, that they changed her name and dressed her in girl’s clothes. When the time came for her to go to school, her parents arranged with school administrators for her to attend as a girl. She used the girl’s bathroom and participated in the girls’ 4-H Club. All in all, she was treated with respect, not bullied or shunned.
Maybe you can picture a girl like that today. But can you picture her in the 1930s?
This girl, whom I call Val in the book I wrote on the history of transgender children, socially transitioned, went to school and participated in extracurricular activities over 90 years ago. And she was hardly alone. In my research, I found stories of transgender children like Val, who were able to transition and go to school despite living in times when their identities weren’t commonly acknowledged. They were not forced into transitioning by adults. And they were certainly not transitioning because it was trendy or socially popular.
The high visibility of transgender youth in this country is quite recent, but transgender children themselves are not. Indeed, as far back as historians like me have found evidence of transgender people, we have found transgender children. So why don’t most people know about kids like Val? One reason is that long before there were words like “transgender” to describe these people’s lives, they passed under the radar.
The past several months have witnessed an aggressive legal assault on transgender youth across the country. Dozens of bills presented in over 20 states — and signed into law by governors in several — seek to ban, or sometimes criminalize, transgender children’s access to health care and organized sports. One of the central assumptions underlying these state-level bills is that transgender children participating in sports or needing gender-affirming health care are new issues that did not exist until a few years ago, or that transgender childhood is a contemporary trend.
In the Arkansas state legislature, Joseph Backholm, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, appeared in front of a House committee reviewing legislation that would ban gender-affirming health care for transgender youth. (The bill was vetoed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday.) Mr. Backholm’s argument in favor of the bill opened with the premise that “the recent increase in those claiming to be transgender can only be described as astronomical” and framed transgender identity as a “cultural phenomenon” of 21st-century teenagers.
The idea that transgender youth are new and poorly understood, and therefore should be treated with intense caution and scrutiny, is reinforced by many opponents of trans children’s access to health care and sports. Perhaps the most literal example is Lisa Littman’s coining of the phrase “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD), for a supposed condition in which children “suddenly” become transgender because of peer influence and experience gender dysphoria without any warning — to their parents, that is.
ROGD is not a formal mental health diagnosis, and the journal that published Dr. Littman’s article issued a correction and an apology after an outpouring of criticism from doctors and advocates. Yet the term is still widely cited by right-wing media and was also offered without context by Mr. Backholm in his testimony to the Arkansas House.
These lines from Abigail Shrier’s 2020 book, “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” capture the tenor of the skepticism floating around online: “Three decades ago, these girls might have hankered for liposuction while their physical forms wasted away. Two decades ago, today’s trans-identified teens might have ‘discovered’ a repressed memory of childhood trauma. Today’s diagnostic craze isn’t demonic possession — it’s ‘gender dysphoria.’”
But Ms. Shrier’s claim is not supported by the fact that children like Val have lived transgender lives long before, not to mention during, each of the time periods that she invokes when girls would have supposedly sought out a different path than transition. Transgender children from every region in the country and many different backgrounds have been able to transition as far back as medical opportunities have been available.
As a 17-year-old girl, Lane, who grew up in a small town in Missouri in the early 1940s, went to see her family doctor for advice. In 1969, Vicki, a 15-year-old trans girl, moved from rural Ohio to Columbus to live with her sister and find a doctor who could provide gender-affirming care. Around the same time in Los Angeles, a teenager named Georgina started hormones, changed her name and enrolled in a new school as a girl. And in 1973, a doctor in upstate New York familiarized himself with trans medicine in order to offer hormones and, when the time was right, a referral for top surgery for a 15-year-old trans boy.
Each of these children’s lives testify to just how possible it was, over many decades and in every corner of the country, for transgender children to flourish when supported.
If transgender youth have gone to the doctor, attended school and played sports for decades, then what reason is there to pursue this kind of legislation other than discrimination? Chase Strangio, the deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU, said to CNN recently about the sports and health care bills, “I think the impulse underlying both is to try to establish governmental policy that it’s harmful to be trans.”
And what will be the outcome if these bills pass? As Dr. Michele Hutchison, a pediatric endocrinologist, explained in testimony to Arkansas lawmakers, “I guarantee you if this bill passes, children will die,” vowing to the state senators that “I will call you guys every single time one does.”
However politicized the visibility of transgender youth has become, with lives now hanging in the balance, Val’s story — and those of other transgender children — raises a powerful counterfactual case of a transgender child who not only transitioned young but also was able to grow up into a successful adult. In fact, Val was one of the first trans women to try (though unsuccessfully) to obtain access to surgery in the United States in the 1940s.
Despite all the obstacles she faced in a period where there was little understanding of transgender people, Val persevered. And so will today’s transgender youth. The question is whether we adults will choose to abandon them — or to care for them so that they can grow up, like Val.
Jules Gill-Peterson (@gp_jls) is an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of “Histories of the Transgender Child,” a comprehensive history of transgender children and their interactions with medicine over the past century.
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