Jules Gill-Peterson is a 2023–24 Radcliffe fellow and an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.
Jules Gill-Peterson is a 2023–24 Radcliffe fellow and an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. By Marina Qu

Fifteen Questions: Jules Gill-Peterson on Trans DIY History, Deep-Fried Memes, and the End of the World

The historian sat down with Fifteen Minutes to discuss modes of transition and the current political moment. “Despite every attempt, people have been remarkably bad at stopping people from transitioning,” she says.
By Bea Wall-Feng

Jules Gill-Peterson is a 2023–24 Radcliffe fellow and an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of “Histories of the Transgender Child” and a general co-editor of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. She is working on her next book, “Gender Underground: A Trans History of DIY.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: Introduce this book that you’re writing — what’s it about?

JGP: I’m working on a book about the history of do-it-yourself transition — or DIY, as it’s called in the trans community — which is a very broad umbrella term for all of the ways that people transition gender when they don’t have access to a formal doctor, or don’t have the sanction of the law, and don’t have access to gender-affirming care.

Probably the most widely known version of that is the self-administration of hormones without a prescription. But part of what my book is interested in is the fact not only that DIY long predates this present attempt to criminalize transition, but actually the real kind of question I’m working with — and the thing I kind of want to confront not just scholars but the public with to think about — is actually the fact that most people have always transitioned DIY. That’s the predominant mode through which trans people transition because there’s never been any widespread accessibility to clinics or to doctors.

FM: Access to hormones specifically is maybe one thing, but then there are also all of these other ways that trans people learn from and teach each other how to present and how to act.

JGP: I mean, the only way you can have a concept of DIY is for there to be something that is the opposite of it, for there to be formal medical transition, gatekept transition at a doctor’s office. Before there was formal trans medicine in the U.S. — so before the 1950s — technically everyone transitioned DIY, but they would never have called it that.

Using DIY as a bigger lens helps us draw attention to the material context in which transition really happens because transition isn’t just “Did you get the hormones you wanted?” It’s, do you have a place to live? Can you hold down a job while you’re transitioning? How will you deal with interruption of your hormones if you get arrested and put in county jail?

FM: How did you come to this project?

JGP: There’s zero scholarship on DIY’s history. I mean, there’s basically no writing whatsoever. And as a trans woman, I had heard so many stories handed down, especially from elders, about DIY practices, about all of these ingenious methods I had never personally experienced — about smuggling hormones from Mexico, or this barn in Washington state where trans women were performing orchiectomies for free in the early 2000s.

I wanted to see if it would look different if I actually centered trans people themselves, and not the gatekeepers or so-called experts who controlled all the records.

FM: I’m curious how you would characterize the shift from what you’re describing as trans people’s initial skepticism of these treatments to where we are today.

JGP: Part of what has happened since the 1950s and 60s is this medical model did achieve incredible institutional power. People at Stanford are integral in forming what is today the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. That stuff all happened in the 60s, in the 70s, and that gatekeeping version, that medicalized transition, is what wins out in the respectability game — but also, it authorizes itself to be the only legitimate, legally sanctioned way to transition.

Part of what WPATH went on to do is say, “Hey, private insurance, Blue Cross or Aetna, if you’re going to cover trans procedures, and you don’t want to just give them away because they’re expensive and you would like to deny coverage as much as possible — boy, do we have a good deal for you. Our standards of care actually exclude most people from accessing surgery, because you have to meet all these requirements.”

FM: That’s so fascinating, and also, I feel like, kind of bleak.

JGP: We’re living in this era where a central political plank of a lot of the right is, we should stop and we can stop people from transitioning. That’s a very scary proposition. It’s a very dangerous political rhetoric. Maybe the one silver lining is, they’ll never succeed. If I can say anything from my vantage point as a historian, despite every attempt, people have been remarkably bad at stopping people from transitioning. They slow them down, they’ve made their lives miserable, they probably stopped some people, but actually, trans people find a way.

FM: Have you studied trans history for your whole academic career?

JGP: I tend to teach classes in the history of sexuality and the history of gender. And interestingly enough, I tend not to call them trans history. To me, that’s actually too limited of a way of framing this.

There’s this course I really love teaching that’s about the history — what is the title of it? — “The Gender Binary and U.S. Empire.” And so that class asks, “Hey, we use this phrase gender binary. Okay, what are we talking about?”

In U.S. history, the way I understand it is, it slowly was created over hundreds of years as a process of empire. Because the first settlers in the Americas, one of their original justifications for overthrowing Indigenous societies and political structures, stealing their land, enslaving people, stealing their resources, was that they would arrive and Spanish chroniclers would say, “Ha, there are men dressed as women in this society, that is a sin against God.”

So it’s like, that is a trans history class, but you wouldn’t necessarily see that in the title.

FM: The majority of Americans don’t support laws that restrict trans people or trans kids from transitioning — they never have, they don’t now. But that’s still a big part of the political platform of everyone on the right, and I’m curious, I guess, what does that accomplish for the state, other than cruelty?

JGP: Five years ago, none of these politicians had ever heard of a trans person. They had no idea! And also maybe if they had heard of trans people, they did not know what a puberty blocker was. They did not know what top surgery is. Now all of a sudden they talk about it like it’s the number one thing they care about most in the world.

All of that is pushing trans people out of the public sphere, but legally, the strategy is all about creating a kind of gendered police state that can compel people to live their lives in conformity with a certain ideal of gender. But also — just the same legal principles here — it’s about creating the conditions for minority rule.

The issue is not that everyone needs to be educated about trans people and learn to accept trans people in their heart and learn to become okay with medical trends, or whatever it is sometimes we’re told is our mission. No, it actually doesn’t matter! I don’t care if you know anything about trans people or if you even like trans people. Do you like democracy? Do you like having any minimum freedom over your body? Do you want the right to vote? Well, then you gotta get mobilized on behalf of trans people, because all of the rights being taken away from them will be the pretext for taking away other people’s rights.

FM: I’m curious also about how you would characterize the way that the liberal, center-left establishment has responded to this movement.

JGP: I think the liberal defense of trans people, which has been the project of trans inclusion, has been an abysmal failure. Not only has it failed to stop a single escalation in attacks on trans people — and we’re at the point where trans people are subject to extreme violence and sometimes extrajudicial violence in this country — it has completely failed, not only to stop that, I actually think much worse. I think the liberal defense of trans people on the project of trans inclusion has played right into the hands of extremists. I actually think they rely on one another. And this is partly why I’m so hard on liberal institutions, because what has been the dominant response to anti-trans attacks? It has been, “Don’t worry, trust doctors, trust scientists, trust experts. Don’t trust trans people. Let’s just make sure trans people are very carefully managed and controlled by existing gatekeepers, and then we don’t have to stress about this anymore.”

Harvard also played a really important role in the emergence of trans medicine in the 1940s and 50s, has a horrific legacy of harm. Universities invented the gatekeeping regime of medicine. They popularized it, they gave it institutional resources, they created those clinics, they are responsible for it. And today, they all have very beautiful websites with rainbows that say “We love gender-affirming care.” Well, are they going to, one, take any responsibility for that past set of harms? And two, what are they doing proactively right now?

FM: Just yesterday, Harvard hosted a talk with Riley Gaines.

JGP: It’s so funny to me that the right has identified trans people with university campuses, because actually, university campuses are very conservative, and are actually predominantly extremely transphobic, extremely anti-trans. Both because that’s the history of medical schools and the health sciences, which are still doing unethical research on trans people, but also because major things like anti-trans feminism were a largely university-based phenomenon. Like Harvard, right, you know who was hanging around Harvard in the 70s and the 80s? Mary Daly and Janice Raymond, the arch-TERFs of the world.

FM: Is your tattoo a brontosaurus?

JGP: Oh, yes it is! I feel like it’s the most trans girl dinosaur, if I may. Like, very soft and sweet. A herbivore, of course. But she has the height, you know; never has a creature been so tall.

FM: How would you characterize the shifts in people’s understanding of transness in the last five years?

JGP: Online community is language-based, inherently. And I love Tumblr as the example here, not just because it’s infamously trans. Obviously, there are images on Tumblr, but the structure and form of Tumblr in the way that it aggregates text and moves things down in chains, the form of this social network itself, started to condition people’s experience of identity and of sociality.

It’s always kind of been a thing that trans people are trying to figure out, what kind of trans are you? Like, sure. But the number of possibilities and the intensity with which people are asked to scrutinize themselves, look at the available menu of options, have long discussions with strangers online about, “Okay, are you this? Are you nonbinary or not? Are you ace or are you not? Are you this or are you that?”

One thing that I learned in grad school that’s just bedrock is well, actually, you can’t control the meaning of words. Literally, there is no such thing as inclusive language. Language is inherently exclusionary, but there’s a choreography and a dance to that that’s sort of amazing and beautiful and poetic, if you’re in a position to play with language. And so it’s been really interesting to watch this very rules-based, very online, very language-based version of trans culture kind of take off. But it makes a lot of sense, I think, when we slow down to examine how and why that happened. And then, of course, it generates all sorts of fun stuff too, like memes.

FM: There was this interview that you gave with the New Inquiry where you were talking about the “feeling” that the trans movement is embodying, or should embody, and meme culture was the first example that you gave.

JGP: There are a lot of trans girl memes, which are like, part of what makes them so great is that they are kind of cartoonish and simplistic, low-resolution, low-tech. They’re a little deep-fried sometimes. But the reason why is that the enormity of the impossibility of being a trans woman in the world is so crushing.

You can’t fully unleash that beast, because it might be so terrifying and exhausting it’ll annihilate you. But what you can do is draw on this sort of distanced goofiness of a meme to get at a deeper truth in a way that’s manageable and tolerable. It’s so low-stakes, too, I feel like it’s really undramatic, and there’s something I really love about the sincerity and coolness of Gen Z sometimes, where it’s like, we need to keep things really chill because shit is too hard and the world is ending.

FM: What do you do in your free time?

JGP: A lot of outdoor stuff, definitely. I’ve been trying to check out the region before it gets too cold. Probably my only claim to a serious hobby is I’m a rock climber — which, seems I am in good company in this city.

FM: What has living in Cambridge been like this year?

JGP: It’s a very pretty, beautiful little setting right on the river here. And it’s kind of nice being in New England and having access to the coastline, because I’m a big ocean person, and even going up north, like I said, to the mountains, because I love to hike.

Like a lot of Northeastern cities, it’s very pretty, very expensive. And that really changes what public space is like, and we really feel that — not just on campus, but, I think, walking around where everything is so tidy and expensive and manicured. And there is a kind of antisocial aesthetic there, where it’s very, like, don’t ask my property value. But don’t we all get along in our beautiful little progressive city with no parking and lots of bike lanes?

FM: In terms of gender, and putting political considerations aside, what does the future that you want look like?

JGP: Ironically, the more I know about trans history or trans lives, the less I feel like it is my task to prescribe what would be best for all of us, the more I realize my experience is just one. And that in the kaleidoscope of trans people’s lives, there is just this incredible untapped reservoir. There are galaxies of possibilities in there that I have had the privilege to brush up against in the course of my work, that glimpse for me better worlds — worlds where freedom is the condition of transition, not constraint, where being trans is not a tolerated and tragic state of affairs but a celebrated and desired one, where trans people aren’t front-page news anymore, where trans women as a group get the opportunities and possibilities that I have individually enjoyed in my life, and where, you know, we move on. And maybe we go through the portal that the memes are taking us through and arrive in a kind of strange world that you can only hear a little bit of when you’re listening to trans girls’ music.

I actually think the conditions for that already exist in the world. They’re just dispersed. They’re not connected. We can’t sense them all in their totality, because there’s so much struggle to be dealt with in the meantime. But I think because of that we’re already living in the midst of it. I think we brush up against it every single day.

— Associate Magazine Editor Bea Wall-Feng can be reached at bea.wall-feng@thecrimson.com. Follow them @wallfeng.

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