A 17-year-old girl grew up in a small town in Missouri in the early 1940s and went to see her family doctor for advice. In 1969, a 15-year-old trans girl moved from rural Ohio to Columbus to live with her sister and find a doctor who could provide gender-affirming care. Around the same time in Los Angeles, a teenager started hormones, changed her name and enrolled in a new school as a girl. And in 1973, a doctor in upstate New York familiarized himself with trans medicine in order to offer hormones and, when the time was right, a referral for top surgery for a 15-year-old trans boy.
Each of these children’s lives testify to just how possible it was, over many decades and in every corner of the country, for transgender children to flourish when supported.
If transgender youth have gone to doctors, attended school and played sports for decades, then what reason is there to pursue this kind of legislation other than discrimination? Chase Strangio, the deputy director for transgender justice at the American Civil Liberties Union, said to CNN recently about the sports and health care bills, “I think the impulse underlying both is to try to establish governmental policy that it’s harmful to be trans.”
And what will be the outcome if these bills pass? As Dr. Michele Hutchison, a pediatric endocrinologist, explained in testimony to Arkansas lawmakers, “I guarantee you if this bill passes, children will die,” vowing to the state senators that “I will call you guys every single time one does.”
However politicized the visibility of transgender youth has become, with lives now hanging in the balance, Val’s story — and those of other transgender children — raises a powerful counterfactual case of a transgender child who not only transitioned young but also was able to grow up into a successful adult. In fact, Val was one of the first trans women to try (though unsuccessfully) to obtain access to surgery in the United States in the 1940s.
Despite all the obstacles she faced in a period where there was little understanding of transgender people, Val persevered. And so will today’s transgender youth. The question is whether we adults will choose to abandon them — or to care for them so that they can grow up, like Val.
Jules Gill-Peterson (@gp_jls) is an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of “Histories of the Transgender Child,” a comprehensive history of transgender children and their interactions with medicine over the past century.