Abstract

This section includes eighty-six short original essays commissioned for the inaugural issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Written by emerging academics, community-based writers, and senior scholars, each essay in this special issue, “Postposttranssexual: Key Concepts for a Twenty-First-Century Transgender Studies,” revolves around a particular keyword or concept. Some contributions focus on a concept central to transgender studies; others describe a term of art from another discipline or interdisciplinary area and show how it might relate to transgender studies. While far from providing a complete picture of the field, these keywords begin to elucidate a conceptual vocabulary for transgender studies. Some of the submissions offer a deep and resilient resistance to the entire project of mapping the field terminologically; some reveal yet-unrealized critical potentials for the field; some take existing terms from canonical thinkers and develop the significance for transgender studies; some offer overviews of well-known methodologies and demonstrate their applicability within transgender studies; some suggest how transgender issues play out in various fields; and some map the productive tensions between trans studies and other interdisciplines.

What is a transgender child? These days, it depends on whom you ask.

A relatively new social form, we see no references to transgender children prior to the mid-1990s. Previously confined to medical and psychiatric discourses and labeled “effeminate boys” and “masculine girls,” children who transgress gender norms in their surrounding social contexts were understood primarily as inverts and more recently as protohomosexuals (Bryant 2006; Sedgwick 1991). In the early twenty-first century, however, multiple constituencies are vying to define the terms of the transgender child and to secure explanations of the etiology, prevalence, and characteristics of this emergent identity group.

The first generation of parents actively supporting and facilitating gender nonconformity in their children wasted no time forging local, national, and international communities. From the advocacy organizations they form to the blogs, websites, and listservs they populate, they are devising their own collective answers to that question. Some parents use the term transgender only in reference to children who have made social and/or medical transitions from one gender category to the other (Brill and Pepper 2008); others ascribe to the more conventional notion of the transgender umbrella and seek to loop in kids across the spectrum of gender fluidity. These labeling processes are not merely symbolic. They mirror a series of difficult decisions families face: Will they facilitate social transitions for their very young children? Will they seek out and endure the stress and expense of providing gender-confirming medical care for adolescents? How will they explain their child to relatives, to other parents, to social service agencies and schools? Is it possible, and what would it mean, to make the “wrong” decisions?

The psychiatrists and physicians who treat these youths and families also seek more secure and reliable mechanisms for determining which children are truly transgender, which will become gay or lesbian, and which may exhibit no gender nonconformity at all later on. Over the last two decades, professionals have developed specialized clinics for treating gender-nonconforming children, and parents and children often submit to a vast battery of tests as a condition of their treatment. An international consortium of gender experts collaborated on producing standardized measures for gender, along with a robust research agenda that includes theorizing the causes, incidence, and developmental trajectories of atypical childhood gender behaviors and identities. It appears that while puberty-blocking hormone therapies offer relief to many children, these and other, newer medical technologies simultaneously exert their own normalizing pressures to order, taxonomize, and measure gender transgressions.

Older transgender adults initially resisted the efforts of the parent activists and advocates who first began agitating for support from schools and doctors in the late 1990s and early 2000s, fearing political repercussions from the public endorsement of social transition for young children. While many have since come out in support of gender-nonconforming children and their families, trans adults must cope with the deeply different trajectories and life chances of the smallest gender outlaws. Some of these children may elect to be stealth (maintain total privacy about their gender histories) as adults; some may never identify openly as transgender; many will never go through their natal puberties or retain childhood memory books filled with pictures that do not mirror their gender identities as adults. For these reasons, this new generation may have wider latitude to disidentify with transgender history and with those who came before them.

A central paradox animates all of these efforts to define the transgender child. While most adults understand gender development teleologically, they still struggle with whether and how to distinguish childhood self-knowledge from adult identity. They labor to determine if gender is ever fluid or stable, unfinished or finished, a property of the self or a creation of the outside world. Woven through these projects are countless other questions: Politically and personally, what does it mean to label a particular child transgender? If what an assigned male child tells you is that she is a girl, does the term transgender truly represent her personal identity? Does it represent a shift in social category, or is it merely a signifier of how other people understand her history? Is a significantly gender-nonconforming or masculine girl transgender if she still identifies as a girl? Is being transgender distinct from being a “blend” (Brill and Pepper 2008: xiv), a “gender prius,” “gender creative,” “gender independent” (Ehrensaft 2011), or any of the host of other new terms for gender fluidity in children? Do these words even demarcate a particular form of personhood, or do they simply rebrand deviance while implying that the vast majority of children are safely gender normative? Fundamentally, do we, the adults, get to decide the answers to these questions?

References

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