Newsletter #72: Historicizing the Anti-Trans Panic, with Jules Gill-Peterson

By Mack Penner

At one level, Jules Gill-Peterson’s interview with The Dig is a classic, tour de force summary account of the history of trans children. It’s the kind of comprehensive conversation that is unique to The Dig. Running alongside that historical tour, though, is a historiographical argument with important political ramifications. 

Gill-Peterson’s argument runs against the now-rampant idea that the category of the trans child is historically novel, an idea that is central to the right-wing anti-trans reaction that now grips US states from Florida to Montana and which is being copied by wannabe politicians in the Canadian province of Alberta. The anti-trans reasoning invokes, on one hand, the innocence of the child and, on the other, points to the imperilling of that innocence by the supposedly unprecedented availability of medical care for trans children and the supposedly new ideologies that underpin such care. 

This notion, as Gill-Peterson makes plain, is nonsense. But her counter is not simply to say that trans childhood has a longer history. She clarifies that the fact of a longer history of trans children “does not therefore mean that they have always existed in their present form.” Instead, trans childhood has been shaped by varied arrangements of class, race, and gender, not to mention developments in the histories of medicine and science. Instead of a universal category, then, we have a historical one. Gill-Peterson’s historiographical argument could be described in terms of a commitment to Fredric Jameson’s famous injunction: “Always historicize!” 

This historiographical impulse should inform our counter to anti-trans reaction. By rejecting pure, universal social categories and instead embracing the historicity of those categories, our politics must address each of the historical forces that shape the ways that those categories operate in the world. If we historicize our own conjuncture to understand how our gender politics are related to our class politics and our race politics and so on, we can develop a politics grounded in the social totality that we confront today. Perhaps by rejecting universal categories, and instead actively accounting for the historical particulars of our conjuncture, we can open the door to a left politics that would take those particulars and shape them to our ends.

Further Reading and Listening 

When it comes to understanding the social totality of the world, there may be no one greater than Mike Davis. Gabriel Winant’s n+1 remembrance of Davis does a great job of highlighting this point, including a discussion of how reductive universalisms can never accommodate a socialist politics worthy of the name.

In The Dig’s archives, there are some episodes related to Gill-Peterson’s. These include the recent episode, with Max Fox and Chris Nealon, on Christopher Chitty’s Sexual Hegemony, and this 2020 interview with Paul Renfro on his book Stranger Danger.