Earlier this week, Arkansas became the first state to pass a bill making it illegal for doctors to provide gender-affirming medical care to trans kids—just the latest piece of anti-trans legislation in a year that has already seen a record number of bills targeting trans youth.
One of the more common refrains of transphobic Republican lawmakers attempting to legislate away trans children’s autonomy is the argument that gender-affirming medical care for trans kids is a “new” concept. Not only is that “belief” predicated on the erasure of trans and gender non-conforming people in the past, but it’s also blatantly false. In actuality, there is a long and well-documented history of trans youth seeking supportive medical care and other advice on medically transitioning.
Trans youth have been searching for affirming medical care and medically transitioning ever since it became possible in the 1930s and 40s, according to Jules Gill-Peterson, the author of Histories of the Transgender Child. Gill-Peterson told the Guardian that her research had found evidence of children socially transitioning during their childhood even before there were medical transition options. “I found evidence in the US that families and communities would accept children as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, let them go to school, use the correct bathroom, all of the things that are being fought over now,” Gill-Peterson said. “We can see that 70 or 80 years ago, we were actually in a more progressive place in some areas.”
“I found handwritten letters from trans kids to a famous endocrinologist, Harry Benjamin, who was known for providing trans healthcare. In the 60s and 70s, they would say, ‘I’m X years old. I’m a transsexual. I read about that in the news’ or ‘I looked up your work at a library, and it describes who I am’,” Gill-Peterson explained. “They were from all over the country and they would ask if Dr. Benjamin could see them, send them hormones, give them a permit to wear the clothes they wanted, talk to their family or teacher. It was young kids knowing really clearly that they were trans and going toe-to-toe with medical professionals. Suddenly, I had not only proof that kids were trans, but that they contacted doctors and tried to transition the best they could.”
In her research, Gill-Peterson found that throughout the history of trans medicine, there have always been significant racial disparities in who was able to access medical care. Black trans youth were historically much more likely to be arrested, institutionalized, or put into the foster care system than they were to receive medical care in support of their gender identity. Specifically, they were more commonly treated as delusional, schizophrenic, or given another diagnosis that violently dismissed their knowledge about their own gender identity. In comparison, white trans youth—specifically, upper-middle-class and wealthy white trans youth—have dealt with fewer barriers to finding gender-affirming medical care. But that’s speaking relatively, of course. “Most trans people do not have access to gender-affirming care,” explains Gill-Peterson. “They never have, it’s never been the reality. We’re not even close... So we’re now facing the proposition of banning forms of healthcare that almost no trans kids even have access to.”
“There is a lot of disposable income and time required to get care. If you have a trans kid, you need to advocate constantly and show up and testify against the bills,” Gill-Peterson said. “So working-class families, families of color, people with less resources are way less able to do what it takes right now to access pediatric gender-affirming care.”