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 eighteenth 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 twentieth 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 trans 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, 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 trans 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.


“Histories of the Transgender Child” by Julian Gill-Peterson

c.2018, University of Minnesota Press        $24.95 / higher in Canada            288 pages