Type
Review
Category
Trans rights

Torrey Peters Detransition, Baby

When, in late 2020, I first heard mention of a forthcoming novel called Detransition, Baby, I felt a jolt of alarm. A book with ‘detransition’ in the title? Surely this would be a TERF diatribe, companion to Abigail Shrier’s 2020 ‘social contagion’ screed Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. Based on the title alone, I quailed at the thought of a novel that deployed the rare phenomenon of detransition to cast doubt on the reality of trans identities. I had already witnessed this rhetoric online: anti-trans voices would extrapolate from an isolated case of detransition and/or transition regret to suggest that transness itself is a dangerous delusion. A whole novel based on this trope could only be bad news. I girded my loins, preparing for a fight.

As it happened, my fearful lizard brain was miles off the mark. Detransition, Baby is not an anti-trans polemic penned by a TERF or ‘gender critical’ feminist, but rather the debut novel of New York trans writer Torrey Peters – making it the first trans-authored novel published by a ‘big five’ publishing house. It’s a spiky comedy of manners that shines a light on white millennial trans femme culture in 2010s New York – think Girls or Fleabag, only trans and intersectional, sharpened by arch asides reminiscent of Jane Austen. In a word, it’s delicious. At a moment when mainstream publishing remains more TERF than trans (see, JK Rowling), Detransition, Baby is that rarest of unicorns: an insider trans text with breakthrough appeal to a cis audience. Since publication in January 2021, it’s become a New York Times best-seller and has sold out in Australian bookshops. (At the time of writing, my social feeds are awash with talk about the impossibility of securing a copy. The fortunate few post images of their book-bounty, as though it were the rarest of tulip bulbs.) The novel has also been longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction (the first inclusion of a trans woman) and will be adapted for TV, with two writers from Grey’s Anatomy on-board.

While my initial fears were misplaced, that gut reaction to a ‘detransition’ book reflects the hijacking of this concept by anti-trans voices. As Peters herself notes, detransition has been ‘weaponised’ into an invalidation of transness, making it taboo terrain for actual trans people and their allies. The word alone has become a metonym for transphobic sentiment, prompting a Pavlovian flinch among any trans veteran of internet trolling. Detransition, Baby is – among other things — Peters reclaiming the topic of detransition, wrestling back this much-misunderstood trans experience from TERF hands.

At the heart of the novel is Ames, a thirty-something former trans woman called Amy, who detransitioned after four years on hormones. Having been assigned male at birth, then transitioning into womanhood, Ames is once again living as a man. In the novel itself, detransition has a straightforward explanation: ‘Life as a trans woman was difficult and so people gave up.’ It is positioned as a reaction to stigma and transmisogyny, not an admission that being trans was a mistake. ‘I got beaten on the street and no-one helped me. It was the last straw,’ Ames relates. ‘Living as a trans woman just seemed too fucking hard after that.’ Even so, Ames knows he never stopped being trans, despite his retreat into the ‘defensive cocoon’ and ‘numbing…armour’ of masculinity. ‘I am trans, but I don’t need to do trans,’ he explains.

Now, living as a man, Ames has inadvertently impregnated his Chinese-Jewish boss Katrina (having incorrectly believed that HRT rendered him infertile). Not long ago a woman, Ames suddenly finds himself a prospective father, patriarch to a heteronormative family – the ultimate masculine rite. Hence: gender panic. What to do? To baby or not to baby? This question frames the novel. (And hence the double-entendre of the title Detransition, Baby – both an exclamation and concise plot summary.) Ames decides that the solution lies with his ex-partner Reese, a trans woman desperate to become a mother. He proposes that Reese join Katrina and he as parents, thereby turning a normie straight couple into a queer triad. This, Ames imagines, is a win for all involved: Katrina gets to share the mothering burden, Reese gets the baby she always wanted, and Ames swaps out the terrible spectre of ‘fatherhood’ for the more-palatable ‘queer parenthood’. Detransition, Baby is the story of this unlikely trio and their adventures queering the family – a fictional and funnier cousin to Maggie Nelson’s meditations on queer motherhood in 2015’s iconic work of autotheory The Argonauts.

Behind these camp hijinks lies the existential quandary that confronted Peters in her mid 30s: how to be an adult trans woman? How, once you’ve transitioned and foregone your presumed cisgender script, is one to live? Detransition, Baby articulates this dilemma via what Reese calls the ‘Sex and the City Problem’. When cisgender women reach their thirties, they must choose between one of four sources of meaning: partner (Charlotte), baby (Miranda), art (Carrie) or career (Samantha). You cannot have it all; you must pick one path and (largely) forsake the others. For trans women, however, this problem is purely aspirational. Due to the barriers created by transphobia, most ‘were barred from all four options at the outset’, and so ‘trans women defaulted into a kind of No Futurism’. There is simply no adult script for mature trans women to follow – at least in part because trans women too often die young from suicide, homicide, poverty or AIDS. There are precious few matriarchs to emulate. The result, according to Peters, is a ‘lost generation’ of (white) trans women who stomp through life like orphaned ‘juvenile elephants’. Without mothers to comfort and guide them, without a future to aspire towards, they live as wild and wounded creatures who endlessly act out their pain, unaware of their own considerable strength, leaving behind a trail of destruction. ‘We are fifteen thousand pounds of muscle and bone forged from rage and trauma,’ Ames explains.

This raw and rather unflattering vision of trans femininity is a far cry from the respectability politics that loom large in trans culture. As any publically trans person knows, we face implicit demands to be palatable; nice. To repress our anger and pain, lest it frighten the horses or reinforce existing stigma. To insist that we are ‘just like everyone else’ (reader, we are not). Too often, respectability is the price of acceptance. In this climate, there is little scope for the frank truth: not only are trans people as messy and fallible as any other human, but we also tend to be shaped by our trauma – both for good and ill. For Peters, the medium of fiction provides scope to voice such otherwise unsayable truths. Whereas trans memoir tends to be locked within a well-worn redemption arc (‘I was broken and now I’m fixed’), and internet discourse is limited by reactive pile-ons (the repeated cancellations of trans YouTuber Natalie Wynn being a case in point), the novel remains a place where difficult truths can be dramatised without necessarily damning the author herself. Peters is able to hide behind her characters, using Reece in particular to voice the underbelly of transness in all its glorious contradictions and hilarity. For example, a funeral scene is rich in gallows humour, opening with the observation that ‘funerals for dead trans girls number among the notable social events of the season’. The mourners wear ‘some shade of goth’, because ‘in goth apparel you can look sad while also showing off fishnets and boobs’. After the service, Reece and her friend crack jokes. ‘What do you call a remake of a nineties romantic comedy where you cast trans women in all the roles?’ The answer? ‘Four Funerals and a Funeral.’

Seven years on from 2014’s ’trans tipping point’, this kind of glimpse into trans feminine subjectivity remains vanishingly rare. The past decade has indeed seen an explosion in trans representation, but too often trans women remain the object of the gaze rather than fully-fledged humans with complex interiorities. Whereas transmasculine people lament their relative cultural invisibility, transfeminine people are saddled with hyper-visibility: a hangover from entrenched transmisogyny engendering objectification and heightened risk (‘visible prey are easier to hunt’, as Anne Boyer writes, and trans women, especially women of colour, certainly constitute the vast majority of trans victims of violence). Trans women are ‘to be looked at’, in film theorist Laura Mulvey’s iconic formulation; always the spectacle, never the spectator. Even the most beloved examples of transfeminine culture of recent years – TV series POSE and Euphoria, the film Tangerine – are visual texts, structured around a presumed majority-cis audience gazing upon trans women. Against this backdrop, Detransition, Baby’s window onto transfeminine interiority is nothing short of revolutionary. We don’t look at Peters or her trans characters; we shut up and listen. For over three hundred pages, we bear witness to their desires, their pain, their foibles, and their distinctive culture and idiom. It’s cultural rocket fuel packaged in the deceptively frothy exterior of ‘gals in New York’ storytelling – an intervention reminiscent, in the Australian context, of Wiradjuri author Anita Heiss’ ‘chick lit’ with First Nations protagonists. For both Peters and Heiss, the familiar conventions of ‘women’s fiction’ provide a Trojan horse to centre the agency and subjectivity of oppressed women.

Peters knows all too well that trans women must fight to be heard. A graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she soon realised that mainstream publishing didn’t serve trans folk. Inspired by Topside Press, a New York trans publisher championing ‘own voices’ texts (including Imogen Binnie’s celebrated Nevada (2013)), Peters eschews the cis gaze and writes for trans women. She self-published two novellas, The Masker (2016) and Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones (2016), that tackled taboo topics like trans separatism. These novellas, described by trans critic Harron Walker as ‘messy stories about messy girls’, were available to freely download from Peters’ website and soon achieved cult status (the latter is credited with popularising the phrase ‘t4t’ – slang for trans-on-trans attraction). Then came Peters’ Cinderella moment: she secured a book deal with publishing hegemon Penguin Random House. Yet, although now very much inside the tent, Peters has lost none of the unapologetic outsider energy that characterised her earlier work. Detransition, Baby beguiles precisely because it refuses to sanitise itself. Like a world-weary diva with no fucks left to give, Peters’ novel stalks ahead of its readers, demanding they keep up or go home. The result is strikingly charismatic.

It’s also razor-sharp. As is so often the case, Peters’ outsider perspective affords a clear-eyed view of the ‘norm’. Trans experience is a masterclass in gender, making trans folk aficionados of the gendered performances in which we all engage — whether cis or trans. Like gonzo anthropologists, we transes are forever taking mental field-notes, building a vast data set of how ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are enacted in the world. As Ames notes when meeting up with Reese after a long separation, ‘I forget what it’s like being around trans women … That for once, I’m not the only one constantly analysing the gender dynamics of every situation to play my role.’ This constant analysis makes for devastating social critique, and Detransition, Baby is rich in memorable satire of normative gender performance. A dōTERRA soiree – a Tupperware party for overpriced essential oils – caters for ‘the anxiety of those wellness-obsessed women who are just a little too beholden to middle-class propriety to permit themselves to take up crystals and anti-vaxxing screeds.’ One party guest, whose husband is at a bachelor weekend upstate, ‘works herself up by describing her husband in flannel, drinking whiskey, and tacitly, of the anticipation of his returning home, smelling of woodsmoke and replenished masculinity, to ravish her.’ Everyone does drag, everyone plays dress-ups – even or especially the ‘manliest’ of cis men. The emperor, as it were, has no clothes.

Salty takes aside, Peters’ engagement with cisgender experience is deeply empathetic. After a dalliance with trans separatism, she’s now invested in building solidarities across the cis-trans divide – recognising that transition and reinvention are not unique to trans experience (on the podcast Gender Reveal, Peters describes the Kardashians as ‘female to female transsexuals’). Detransition, Baby is dedicated ‘to divorced cis women, who, like me, had to face starting their life over without either reinvesting in the illusions from the past, or growing bitter about the future.’ The character Reece expands upon this idea, describing divorce as ‘a transition story’. Like gender transition, divorce is ‘a fall’ or ‘total reframing of their lives’, in which conventional gendered scripts collapse beneath us. The cis woman who loses the role of ‘wife’ undergoes much the same identity shock as the male-assigned person who realises they are a woman. For Reece (and Peters), this makes divorced women ideal allies and mentors. As Reece puts it, ‘since I don’t really have trans elders, divorced women are the only ones I think have anything to teach me, or who I care to teach in return.’ Hence her unlikely bond with Katrina, the cynical divorcee who’s lost faith in the marriage-motherhood fantasy. Both women see through the empty promises of cis-heteronormativity and are together striving to live otherwise, one baby registry at a time. This, then, is perhaps the elusive solution to the Sex and the City Problem: to find meaning in community and solidarity across borders of identity, rather than individual aspiration. Outsiders of the world, unite!

 

 

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Dr Yves Rees is a historian at La Trobe University and a proud member of the trans community. They live and work on unceded Wurundjeri land.

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