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The History Of Trans Children In Medicine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Earlier this week on the program, we heard the Republican governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, explain why lawmakers in his state and others seem to be targeting transgender youth with bills that outlaw gender-affirming health care.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, there's a sense that we're losing the traditional culture that we have and that there's undue influence in having young people reconsider their gender by birth, and so there's that sense.

SHAPIRO: But as historians have pointed out, trans children didn't come out of nowhere. Jules Gill-Peterson is one such historian. She's a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of "Histories Of The Transgender Child." Welcome.

JULES GILL-PETERSON: Thanks so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: As a historian who has researched this, what context can you bring to our understanding of this?

GILL-PETERSON: You know, one of the things I'm really glad to have been able to prove is that there isn't really anything new about trans children. As long as there have been trans people who we can identify in the past, there are children amongst them. And as long as there have been, in fact, any kinds of medical therapies available to trans people, you know, as far back as the 1930s and '40s, we actually see young people amongst the trans folks who are trying to get access to that medical care.

And so in a lot of ways, I think what's happening right now is people are being introduced to the idea of trans kids probably for the first time, but also, they're starting to hear a little bit about trans medicine for the first time and aren't really aware that there's actually a long history to this because, of course, histories of people who are very marginalized are not something that are easy to access.

SHAPIRO: So just to take one specific example that you've written about, tell us about a woman named Val.

GILL-PETERSON: So Val was someone who, in the 1950s, found herself at a hospital in Wisconsin hoping to get access to gender confirmation surgery. And at the time, she tells this psychologist that, you know, this was so long ago, there were no words to describe what it meant to be who I was. But, you know, before I was even 5 years old, my parents could understand that I was a girl and not a boy, as I had been assigned at birth. And they were OK with that. They came to some kind of understanding about it. And Val was allowed to live as a girl - dress as a girl, change her name. And when the time came for her to go to school, her parents actually arranged with the local school officials. They talked to a local magistrate to figure out what the sort of administrative considerations were. And she was able to attend school - enter school as a girl.

SHAPIRO: So to bring the conversation closer to the present day, we've recently seen a lot of anti-trans bills focused on adults - I mean, the so-called bathroom bill in North Carolina and more. What do you make of this current shift to a focus on children? Why do you think this is happening right now?

GILL-PETERSON: It's really disturbing when we look at what these bills are trying to do. I mean, they're legally mandating harm against kids. They're putting children in dangerous situations. But I think, unfortunately, the kind of cruel political calculus here is that it's a lot harder to attack trans adults these days because there is more cultural acceptance and tolerance of trans people in this country. But children don't enjoy that same kind of protection. And because there isn't as much public awareness about trans kids or how trans children's transitions work, I think it's been a real opportunity to kind of stoke a moral panic, a kind of fear that children are in danger when, in reality, what these bills are doing is actually putting trans children in danger. So it's quite ironic but really in a very cruel sort of way.

SHAPIRO: Jules Gill-Peterson - historian, professor and author of "Histories Of The Transgender Child" - thank you for talking with us.

GILL-PETERSON: Thank you so much, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.