“Imagine What We’ll Build for One Another”: an Interview with Jules Gill-Peterson

Health justice scholar Beatrice Adler-Bolton speaks with historian Jules Gill-Peterson about anti-trans policy, eugenics, and the material stakes of desire

 

Since 2020, over 400 bills have been proposed at the state level that eliminate or ban trans people from accessing public life, education, and gender-affirming care. Historian Jules Gill-Peterson has called these laws out for what they truly are: not moral issues at play in a culture war, but echoes of eugenics policymaking. Eugenic policy making is an idea from disability studies, and it is a policy that dictates what kinds of life are acceptable, which should be promoted, and which should be subject to what abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organized abandonment,” in which the state makes itself through policing, surveillance, and denial of the resources people need to survive. 

Gill-Peterson, co-editor of Transgender Studies Quarterly, is a queer theorist and historian of the twentieth-century medical archive. In her extensive work, she has reconstructed a lost history of trans childhood which contradicts the popular narrative that social and medical transition for minors is a new and experimental fad. In her first book, Histories of the Transgender Child, Gill-Peterson writes that the book’s aim was to “visit as much destruction as possible upon one central libel that limits…trans children: that they have no history, that they are fundamentally new and…therefore deserving of less than human recognition.” Thinking of history as a means of striking back against institutional devaluation is why Gill-Peterson’s writing and advocacy have been so important for understanding the true material implications of recent attacks on trans childhood in state legislatures.

Reflecting on decades of connection between queer and pro-trans politics and disability justice, a long-standing affinity of surplus populations, I spoke to Gill-Peterson about her new work on the trans DIY underground, austerity, identity politics, and how we can use history to inform our desires for a better world, one in which life isn’t needlessly cruel, brutish or short. 


 

Beatrice Adler-Bolton  

If every anti-trans law was defeated tomorrow, why would we only be “celebrating a return to an already transphobic status quo”?

 

Jules Gill-Peterson  

Many states have moved to ban access to public education, sports, healthcare, bathrooms, and identity documents. Some have taken the more extreme step of criminalizing medical care for trans youth, not only through legislation but through administrative policy as well. These attacks will have a devastating impact on trans people’s quality of life from childhood. But in the face of such dire circumstances, it’s stunning that some of the most visible criticisms of these laws have reduced them to the realm of identity politics, as if the difference between pro- and anti- trans is whether or not you rhetorically bless trans people. Identity politics has become derogatory. At its best, supporting trans youth takes the form of a material politics focused on providing housing, redistributing resources, and removing the police from our communities. Rather than responding to the right’s endless litany of moral panics, which sap attention and energy from the central problems facing many trans people, we need affirmative visions of a better future.

 

BA-B

In the past, you’ve said one of the biggest problems you think movements for left liberation are facing right now is a pervasive sense of “political depression.” What do you mean by that and how do you see these recent legislative attacks on trans life fitting into our political-depressive mood?

 

JG-P

I feel a lot of political depression in our ranks. It might manifest as a kind of cynicism, burnout, resentment, or feeling done with things. Feeling overwhelmed, feeling hopeless, feeling powerless. It can come from feeling subject to right-wing, authoritarian “death spiral” politics reveling in unreason, sure. But it can also come from realizing that the limit of the liberal democratic response is to minimize or ignore the real danger of that libidinally invested, destructive death spiral for a fantasy of enlightened civility. In our current moment, the two loudest speaking positions are egregious and excruciating, but they are complementary in their antagonism. One burns our homes down; the other tells us not to protest in front of the ruling class’s houses. “Political depression,” which is a term I’m happy to borrow from affect studies scholars and others, is the feeling of not knowing how to get in the middle of that screaming match when there’s so much actual destruction, loss of quality of life, and death hanging in the balance. There’s a pressure towards limiting our imagination and it reinforces a false division between so-called “cultural politics” and “material politics”—between identity and materiality.

 

BA-B

This reminds me of something I call “austerity mindset,” in which politics, and particularly left, liberatory, or socialist politics, are subject to tremendous pressure to not exist. We’re told our goals are too big, too impossible, which leads some people to feel that the proper response to this pressure to not exist is to beat the mainstream parties at their own game (austerity). Why is that not enough?

 

JG-P

Austerity, which is something that started as a politics in the neoliberal middle and on the right, has, over time, deeply affected the left. Do we know how to value our lives, in their many social differences, outside of its lose-lose economy? We have become easily dismissed as the avatars of identity politics. Even though our identity politics might have something really important to say. Our experience of possibility has been structured by almost fifty years of neoliberal torching. Maybe one of the side effects of having lived under austerity for so long is that we have internalized austerity mindset more than we may want to admit.

 

BA-B

It’s something that frustrates me a lot in my own experience of disability generally, or medical vulnerability and the pandemic. COVID especially shows how identity shapes economic life and is actually a really important structural component of how we should be thinking through our political theory. As theorist Charlie Markbreiter wrote recently in a piece on trans politics and cringe for The New Inquiry: “If there is significant overlap between [the] surplus class and the populations which the right finds cringey, this should not surprise us, because it’s on purpose.” But an austerity mindset should have no place on the left. 

 

JG-P

Disabled people, sexual minorities, and trans people are cast as bourgeois and decadent in part because their subjectivity has been reduced to cultural value. These perspectives have been de-materialized, as if people’s experiences of identity aren’t also directly the product of class stratification in a particular moment in capitalist society. Yet “inclusion” and “exclusion” are degrees of separation from formal economies, and from either state care on the one hand and/or state violence on the other; sometimes the difference between the two isn’t even quite clear.

That’s why pointing out that reactionary politics are hypocritical, logically inconsistent, or based in irrational belief is the most lukewarm critique. What’s helpful to me is to first reject moral panic on arrival, and say, “I have no need to reply to easily falsifiable moralizing—that’s not the terrain in which I make political demands. It’s not the terrain in which I value my life.” I think that can be a very tricky lesson to learn for an austere left afraid of losing even more. And unfortunately, we are collectively learning it in a negative sense. We have learned it through unprecedented mass death and suffering. But here we are, right? And on the other side of that horror is irrefutable evidence and empirical urgency to think differently.

 

BA-B

Yes. We have an overabundance of evidence, I’d say. Can we flip the script for a second and talk in a purely affirmative way? “Rationality,” and “feasibility,” and cost benefit analysis be damned: what is the world that you want to live in, Jules, and how do you see us getting there?

 

JG-P

Yes. Yes! I wish everyone could see how I’m cheering right now. We have what we need here right now: all the ingredients that we need for a good enough world. We don’t have to completely tear down the world that we live in, nor do we have to wait for the second coming or for a utopian world that doesn’t exist. 

Power is very anxious all the time. So is the ruling class. They aren’t happy. They know very well how weak their positions are; they know how much stronger we all are together. I’m glad we don’t have to invent concepts bigger or newer than solidarity and collectivity. Those still work. That’s been true for a really long time, and that makes it even more true today, not less true than it used to be. It’s not just comforting, it’s actually galvanizing. We have what we need here to start with the “good enough”—as Argentinian travesti activist Marlene Wayar might put it—and then to let our desire guide us to what is even better. And perhaps that isn’t entirely rational. Perhaps it requires a certain level of trust. Trust in one another, trust in our desires, trust in what is unruly and ungovernable about us.

 

BA-B 

I think you make a really important point here, about desire and deservingness being in tension under capitalism. It sounds like you’re saying that big ideas and big desires can and must co-exist with our narrow political reality?

 

JG-P

Once you realize that there are no limits on what we’re allowed to want, wanting is what we deserve to do. It is an active process without finality. What’s valuable about your life is your ability to desire beyond even your own wildest dreams. Otherwise life would be predestined and fossilized. Let me put it via my own biography. I grew up in a working class, immigrant suburb, and I was trained in the immigrant arts of stoicism, self-renunciation, and survival. It’s a very conservative worldview conditioned by scarcity: about setting aside what you want, and what you know to be true, in order to have just enough to get by. You hope the future will be better. One of the ways that I have found myself at odds with that sentiment is in my queerness and my transness. 

In being queer and trans, the most powerful thing that I have learned is to think about the virtue of where desire unexpectedly leads in life. That desire can lead to building alternative kinship structures, or modes of care and solidarity, but it also builds the very materiality or flesh of my body. I don’t frame myself through a deep internal identity that must be satisfied, or some sort of moral dilemma. I don’t agree to say that I only deserve to transition because I have suffered. It’s far more wondrous and enjoyable—and actually far more effective—to think about it based in “want.” What kind of life do I want? And as a subsidiary of asking what kind of life do I want, “What kind of body do I want?” Not “What kind of body do I deserve?” I had to set aside that moral quandary so long ago to take myself seriously in a world that wasn’t taking my desire seriously. 

 

BA-B

I really appreciate the way that you explain this as accessing a type of collective desire that is normally deemed irrational, decadent, or not-necessary under conservative political conditions. It’s a way of thinking that is discouraged because our desire is powerful. It makes us want more, and wanting more is very bad for the status quo, unless it is coming as a consumer choice. Theory is just thinking through the ways that your life intersects with various systems of the state and how you are interdependent with other people. How do we facilitate this type of thinking? 

 

JG-P

Once you scale desire up out of your individual life, you start to realize that, well, it’s going to be hard for me to get the things that I want. So, one, I need the help of others to get there. But two, whatever I end up getting, it doesn’t make me feel selfishly pleased that I’ve got it, it makes me want everyone to have the same possibility. That’s one way that moving through the world as a queer and trans person of color can inform your understanding of affirmation. It’s about caring for not just your flesh, but your soul. Not just for your mortality on this earth, but for what strives beyond the boundaries of how we live today. Because how we live today, collectively, is miserable. And it is the misery of our own historical creation. We’ve known for a long time we have enough food, we have enough medicine, we have enough technology, we have enough to care for everyone. Anyone who grew up under colonialism, or who has worked low wage jobs knows this: there’s more than enough for everyone. It simply has been unequally structured, for reasons that we can learn about together. 

It’s not just that I deserve free access to top surgery on demand. It’s that everybody should be getting the titties or the flat chests that they want. That is a powerful articulation of desire that leads directly to concrete material politics. It comes from the subject position of my identity, but it moves outward. And it abounds. If you grow up one way, and you have to teach yourself that not only are you right—that you, Jules, are a girl—but that you also deserve to want to become that real woman. And then you actually do it. Well, then you know something about the alchemy of desire and matter that goes way beyond the Excel spreadsheets of neoliberal capitalism and goes way beyond tired old western ideas about the difference between reason and magic, between matter and form, between desire, reality, and fantasy. There is a beautiful kind of magic here, right?

 

BA-B 

Absolutely. Is that the kind of magic you’re trying to bring to the projects you’re working on now, like Gender Underground: A History of Trans DIY which rejects the medical archive you’ve explored so much in your past work?

 

JG-P

Yes. I think of this in some of the work I’m doing right now that is less focused on trans childhood, and instead about trans women, the poorest of street queens. What they have taught us is that you can turn water into wine: you can turn impoverished male flesh into feminine, resplendent, gorgeous beauty. And that is not a metaphor, it takes money to make it real. That’s why every vocabulary of poor trans women and trans women of color in the US is about work. It’s all about labor. They know it takes money to make magic happen. But in succeeding, they’ve unlocked a different way of life in the world that begins with the deep, deep dignity and respect for the power of desire, desire that can deliver you beyond your comfort zone. Desire that can take you beyond your own self. Desire that can lead you to others. Desire that, when you scale it up and aggregate it, is powerful as a political force at the collective level. 

These feelings of want, which we have been commanded to see in the language and in the economy of deprivation and scarcity: let them overflow. Imagine what we’ll build for one another. Bringing those desires into the world by materializing them collectively is a much more powerful beacon and vehicle than the language of austerity that we have been told to accept for so many years.

 

BA-B

No pre-limits as a point of solidarity?

 

JG-P

We’re not even going to decide in advance, or once and for all, what is worth living. We are committing ourselves to the project of continuing to discover what is worth living. That is the only politics that can float the immense power and promise of our desires.

 

BA-B  

For me, as a disabled person, that’s a desire to live a life that refuses to consent to the cultural perception that I am worthless because I am too sick to work. That I am worthless because of my identity-based exclusion from the economy.

 

JG-P

We like to think that if we assemble around the right people, or if we hold up the right sign, or say the right names, or if our politics are righteous, for the right reasons, then our perfection will secure our deservingness. But perhaps it’s more important to say that we’re all good enough. 

As an historian, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the 1960s and 1970s. And I’ve thought a lot about, not just what was different in the political imaginary of people joining the counterculture, or women’s liberation, or gay liberation, or the Black Power movement, but also what was so different in the political mood of the time. In the emotional atmosphere that greeted people. I’ve read stories about young queer and trans people who heard a rumor, in the beginning of the 1970s, that something was happening in San Francisco. And so, they hitched a ride across the country on a whim and a desire. There was this kind of belief that, despite the chaos and the violence of the era, that something was about to happen. And that wasn’t necessarily a romantic experience. But there’s just something about that grammar, that mood, that sense of what is okay to feel in the face of a world that, you know in your bones, is deeply, deeply unjust, and inadequate. I’m not arguing for a kind of left nostalgia, where we need to reclaim that feeling from that era, but what is our feeling about what could happen? What is our “feeling” in this era? 

 

BA-B

Where do you see our “feeling” coming from?

 

JG-P

Maybe it’s going to come in ways that are very of the moment. I hear whispers of it, I feel flashes of it in things as mundane as meme culture. In group text chains and in conversation with friends and comrades. I know we still have that energy, but it’s going to take a different form. I think we have to feel prepared to claim that. The goal of wanting things isn’t just getting them. It’s also teaching yourself that you’re deserving and teaching yourself that the people in your life are deserving. And therefore, thinking bigger and bigger about what you know, would allow you to have a life worth living, not just to be alive instead of to be dead, not just to save people whose lives are under attack, but then to turn around and say, enough is enough. Enough killing, enough letting die, and here’s our counteroffer: lives worth living on our terms.

***

For more: check out Jules Gill-Peterson and TNI Managing Editor Charlie Markbreiter on a recent episode of Beatrice Adler-Bolton’s podcast, Death Panel. They discuss Emily Bazelon’s New York Times Magazine cover story,  “The Battle over Gender Therapy.”