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  • Transchildren and the Discipline of Children’s Literature
  • Jody Norton (bio)

Oh, if you were a little boy,   And I was a little girl— Why you would have some whiskers grow    And then my hair would curl. Ah! If I could have whiskers grow,    I’d let you have my curls; But what’s the use of wishing it—    Boys never can be girls.

(Kate Greenaway, “Wishes”)

In 1992 a delegation from the Colombia Human Rights Committee of Washington, D. C. and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights interviewed a group of transvestite sex workers. One of their complaints was that the police would round up people like them and take them to a site known as the “road to Choachi,” a winding road with sharp precipices, from which they were thrown to their death.

(Juan Pablo Ordonez)

“Children’s literature” is a deceptively simple term. In the United States, among other things, it names a commodified, politically charged body of texts created, produced, and selected for use with children. Children’s literature also describes a field of academic endeavor that is in part complicitous in the discipline (regulation, constraint) both of the corpus of children’s texts and of the ideological body of the child within those texts, and in part committed to the critical interrogation of the multiple political investitures in and around “the child” as cultural construction. My concern in this essay is, first, to analyze the multiple relations between children’s literature and a particular gender minority, transchildren; that is, children whose experience and sense of their gender does not [End Page 415] allow them to fit their sexed bodies into seamless accord with a congruent, conventional gender identity. The disciplinarity (in both senses) of these relations, I will argue, has permitted us, as readers, occasionally to play among such children, but almost never to recognize them. 1 Secondly, I want to illuminate the liberatory role that children’s literature, conceived as a matrix of creative texts and critical inquiries, can play in creating interpretive strategies, curricular revisions, and pedagogical interventions that will contribute substantially to the amelioration of the condition of cultural, institutional, and political neglect through which transchildren have been denied their reality, and their worth. Finally, I will suggest a theoretical reconceptualization of gender that would make possible an aesthetic transumption of romantic and realist impulses in children’s literature into what I will call sublime realism. Such a transumption could occur either as a reading of existent texts or a writing of new ones.

The historical desire to deny, by one means or another, the reality of alternative forms of sex and gender vividly reflects the intrapsychic as well as the institutional stakes involved in the maintenance of the false binary male (“adult,” dominant) / non-male (“child,” subordinate). 2 The threat of the loss, through contamination or degeneration, of the a priori symbolic value of masculinity creates unprocessed anxiety, and unexamined, or rationalized, antipathy—the necessary conditions for the efflorescence of gynephobia or transphobia. According to the hysterical logic of transphobia, insofar as transgendered persons do not accommodate themselves to a heterocentric ideology of gender that interprets reproductive functions as the naturalized basis of differential power relations, they must be made to do so. They must, that is, be institutionally and discursively disciplined, since masculinity is not a matter of anatomy but of meaning.

In Gender Shock, her exposé of the institutional maltreatment of transchildren, Phyllis Burke writes:

If a doctor believes that there is a link between gender nonconformity and adult homosexuality, something that has never been proven, and further believes that adult homosexuality is a mental illness, [a gender-nonconforming child] will be aggressively treated with behaviorism, psychiatric drugs and counseling. This is known as “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, and the American Psychiatric Association has yet to forbid the practice. . . . As a result, hundreds of adolescents, either suspected of being gay because of gender nonconformity or self-declared as gay, are involuntarily locked into psychiatric hospitals.


It is partially for the sake of such children—that their moral and material existence not be denied—and partially for the sake of our other children’s education toward joyful acceptance and...

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pp. 415-436
Launched on MUSE
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