The title is distinctly weird, resolutely of our time, but not something anyone would actually say. Detransition, Baby: disparate registers ironically combined, in a standard format, to make a little pun. The word ‘detransition’ is specific; it’s not a word whose general definition gets an extra tweak of meaning in context, like ‘pass’. You can’t detransition unless you’re trans, though in the future, we might describe detransitioning from a career or a marriage – any big change we’d thought permanent. For now, to detransition means to pause, stop or reverse the steps a person has taken – by legal, social or medical means – to change their gender presentation. For those who occupy the ‘Tumblr-Twitter industrial complex’ which Torrey Peters treats with compassionate disdain in this novel, even to discuss detransition risks feeding the right-wing narrative which suggests that anyone considering gender transition will eventually change their mind. The title can be read as a playful imperative: ‘Detransition, baby!’ But it’s also a description of what happens in the book: someone detransitions, and then there’s a baby. (Maybe.)
The title is compelling in the same way the novel is: Peters asserts herself confidently, but without accosting the reader. She extends a hand to those who might be nervous, or sceptical, about reading 340 pages about trans women in present-day Brooklyn. Peters is not patronising – she has said that she writes for trans women and assumes other readers can ‘keep up’ – but the mainstream success of her novel has a lot to do with its conventional style, and the way she gently introduces a general survey of contemporary trans issues. Peters’s mastery of plot and pacing allows her to move easily from descriptions of the effects and logistics of hormone replacement therapy to passages about the politics and pleasures of sleeping with ‘tranny chasers’ to discussions of the near impossibility of adopting a child as a ‘double-trans couple’. It’s about as open and accommodating as a novel can be, while leading with a scene in which a trans woman engages in impregnation roleplay with her married HIV-positive lover, whom she refers to as ‘her cowboy’. (They fantasise her PrEP tablets are birth control pills.)
The naughtiest thought I had while reading was that the novel recalls the work of Jonathan Franzen. Among young writers online, this is more controversial than any sex thing you can come up with. But less au courant readers will find the careful rendering of emotional detail, and sweeping narrative arc, comfortingly familiar from other good realist novels about relationships and family. In a profile of Peters published in New York magazine, Sarah Schulman wondered if the novel’s accessibility would signal the end, rather than the beginning, of a period in which trans literature has flourished. Those concerned about the death of counterculture and the flattening of difference might be annoyed, or indeed enraged, by sentences like this: ‘It felt radical for her, as a trans woman, to luxuriate in the contemplation of how bourgeois to become.’ But even with the widespread commodification of queer culture, from ‘pinkwashing’ to the laundering of kink through Fifty Shades of Instagram, there are still many ways to upset certain factions of Peters’s ostensibly left-liberal target audience. I recently heard a story about a mother who objected to the book on the grounds that, in the opening pages, Peters ‘compares babies to Aids’.
The novel focuses on a trans woman called Reese and her ex, Ames, formerly Amy, who has detransitioned after living as a woman for several years. We meet them three years after they have separated, and neither is fully over it. Reese desperately wants to be a mother (hence the impregnation roleplay with the cowboy). Meanwhile, Ames, who had assumed he was sterile after years of hormone replacement therapy, has just got his boss, Katrina (a high-powered cis woman with whom he is having an affair), pregnant.
This fluke probably isn’t the fault of Ames’s ‘gentle, elderly endocrinologist, who had taken on trans patients not because of any special interest in gender, but because trans patients were, in his words, “so happy to come see me for treatment”’. It’s more likely to do with the lack of research on the long-term effects of hormone replacement therapy. Regardless, it’s a problem. Katrina’s marriage ended after a miscarriage led her to discover that she ‘didn’t want to be with [her husband] anymore and if we had a kid together I would have to be’. But now, given how well her relationship with Ames is going, she is considering keeping the baby.
Thoughts of fatherhood fill Ames with dread. For one thing, he still has to explain his past to Katrina, with all the anxiety and possibility of rejection this entails. (He told her that he couldn’t have children but ‘not that he’d been a transsexual woman with atrophied balls’.) For another:
After all the lessons of transition and detransition, fatherhood remained the one affront to his gender that he still couldn’t stomach without a creeping sense of horror. To become a father by his own body, as his own father was to him, and his father before him, and on and on, would sentence him to a lifetime of grappling with that horror.
He also still misses Reese, ‘in a way that talking about her, thinking about her, remains dangerous to indulge in – as an alcoholic can’t think too much about how much she’d really like just one drink’. This is something deeper than romantic longing; it’s tangled up with Ames’s self-conception: Reese ‘had taught him to be a woman … or he’d learned to be a woman with her. She had found him in a plastic state of early development, a second puberty, and she’d moulded him to her tastes.’ Although he has detransitioned, he still considers himself trans, and, to Reese, ‘he would always be a woman.’
Ames concocts a scheme to build a queer family with Reese as a third parent: ‘One way to tolerate being a father would be to have her constant presence assuring him that he was not actually one.’ When he first approaches Reese, she expresses doubt that Katrina will agree to ‘split her unborn child with a transsexual’. ‘You come up with the most fucked-up shit,’ Reese tells Ames. ‘You are so weird and devious, even when you were doing that Martha Stewart thing you did with me, and definitely while you’re doing this fake cis thing.’ But she really wants a baby, and still feels connected to Ames, so she agrees to think about it. Despite Katrina’s superficial ‘basicness’, and her initial anger that Ames has lied to her, she’s ultimately willing to consider the idea too.
Throughout the book Peters alternates between the present-day narrative – in which time is running out for Katrina to decide between an abortion and the new life Ames proposes – and the history of Ames and Reese’s relationship. The backstory is full of all the good adjectives you want in a novel. In the present, things get a little bogged down. The situation Peters has constructed depends on the characters having a lot of tedious conversations, carefully explaining their perspectives to one another. The dialogue sometimes has the air of a table read for a Netflix series about life in the Big City – then again, real people often sound that way too. (Which came first? They probably have a symbiotic relationship.) The go-getting feminist’s desire to ‘have it all’ – to balance a great career, relationship and family without difficulty – is taken a bit too seriously. There are a few too many free-indirect interjections: ‘God, Reese couldn’t take her eyes off the baby trans sitting there with Felicity.’ Elsewhere, Ames’s lifelong struggle to know himself is often described in clichés borrowed from the online union between social justice and therapy discourse: ‘God, he’d hidden so much of his past from her … It tired Ames, despite erasure having become a second nature mode of dealing with his past.’ Katrina is made to represent most of the novel’s perfunctory concerns with race because she is half-Chinese and half-Jewish, though all three characters’ various anxieties about passing are fruitfully contrasted. (At one point, Katrina tells Reese that she feels like ‘a vessel for someone else’s dreams’, enabling Ames and his ex-girlfriend to become ‘like all the other nice white couples with your adopted Asian baby’. ‘Let’s be honest,’ Reese thinks in response, ‘Katrina looks white … Are they playing Oppression Olympics?’)
If the novel sometimes approximates the gossipy melodrama of chick lit, then perhaps it could be considered ‘radical’ in the way a trans woman becoming a Brooklyn basic might seem radical. But Peters is up to something more interesting. (Devious, even.) The book is full of swaps, reversals, projections and scenes that challenge the conventional wisdom of the left while simultaneously provoking transphobic crusaders of all political persuasions. Peters’s treatment of her two central themes – the detransition and the baby – injects realism into some of the most frenzied debates around trans issues. Detransition is not only taboo because it can be misrepresented by right-wingers who wish that trans people didn’t exist; in the novel, trans women themselves also have an uneasy relationship with the idea. An early flashback shows us Amy’s first encounter with a person who has detransitioned. Hanging around at a queer party, he seems ‘pitiable’, ‘contagious’ and ‘untouchable’. ‘He’d lived as a trans woman for seven years. But it was too hard. Too hard. He didn’t pass. He wanted to die. He was still a trans woman. Everybody saw it, no matter what he did.’ At the same time, the unexpected pregnancy at the centre of the novel subverts the cautionary tale about people who transition coming to regret the decision because they aren’t able to have children. (Consider the title of a book published last year: Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. Incidentally, there is slightly more research on fertility after female-to-male transitions than the reverse; it shows that some women who detransition, or trans men who pause their hormone replacement therapy, can indeed get pregnant.)
The most daring of Peters’s interventions belongs to the basic outline of her plot: it’s a story about two queers who try to convert a straight, cis woman to a queer lifestyle. To a reasonable person, wanting others to live the way you do is a normal, if perhaps misguided, impulse. Freelance journalists encourage frustrated friends to quit their office jobs. Parents coo seductively at the child-free: ‘You would be a great mom.’ The more difficult path is the more difficult path: we want more people on it in hopes they might help us finally reach the life we imagined when we struck out. Being trans – or ‘doing trans’, as Ames has it – is hard. This is not something that Peters wishes to elide: it’s the ‘boring’, ‘never complex’ reason that many people detransition – even if, like Ames, they still consider themselves trans. Usually it’s the queer person who must suffer the efforts of conversion. In their quest to enlist Katrina, the trans characters in this novel reverse that dynamic.
Peters self-published three novellas between 2016 and 2017. ‘The publishing industry doesn’t serve trans women,’ she wrote at the time, explaining the decision to ‘give her work away for free to other trans girls’. Her early books did not capitulate to what she saw as the simplified narrative arc that characterised mainstream trans literature: adolescent torment followed by hard-won self-empowerment. While Detransition, Baby represents a craving for that arc, the characters in Peters’s novellas are stuck, confused about how best to balance their desires with the demands of circumstance. They also suffer intense pressure from other queer characters to do things their way.
In Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones (2016), two trans women develop a vaccine that stops sex hormone production, stab the unsuspecting narrator with it, and inform her that she’s contagious. ‘I was thinking that I want to live in a world where everyone has to choose their gender,’ the sensitive molecular biology PhD, whose mentor dropped her after she transitioned, explains. The story alternates between the events leading up to ‘the Contagion’ – this is also what being trans is called in Irreversible Damage, without irony – and the post-Contagion dystopia, where ‘Antediluvian trans women’ are reviled because ‘everyone knew’ they had started the Contagion and now there’s a black market for oestrogen. (The rumour is they did it because ‘they were jealous everyone else could breed.’) Peters envisions a scenario designed to both provoke and assuage the worries of her ideological friends and enemies: trans women really do make everyone else trans, and, in so doing, they destroy the world.
To be clear , I think this is very cool. The trans women had their reasons. After living for some period of their lives in psychological distress, they are laughed at, insulted, beaten up, murdered, accused of perpetuating harmful female stereotypes, and told they are not welcome in public toilets, which no one likes using in the first place. They comprise a tiny portion of the world’s population and are blamed for 50 per cent of its problems; they are a little like billionaires in this way. Unlike billionaires, however, they haven’t actually destroyed anything, and many live precariously, unable to find steady work or afford medical care.
When Detransition, Baby made the longlist for this year’s Women’s Prize, a group called the Wild Woman Writing Club published an ‘Open Letter to the Women’s Prize’ on its blog, bringing together a number of transphobic arguments disguised as literary criticism. The letter expressed concern for ‘teenage girls who lack a cultural and historic context for such a work’ and summed up the novel’s plot like this: ‘Two men collude to break the bond between a woman and her baby, exposing mother and child to harm, for the sake of indulging their fetish.’ The book’s examination of the ways ‘women confirm their genders through male violence’ was cited as proof that Peters had written ‘a culturally regressive, sadomasochistic, misogynistic’ book, feeding what was already a dangerous ‘cultural atmosphere’. (‘In the UK, men are currently murdering women at the rate of three per week, and hunting us like prey in the streets.’) The letter ends with a long list of signatories that includes the names of several dead female writers, and, bafflingly, the male pseudonym used by Charlotte Brontë.
The proponents of trans-exclusionary radical feminism unite conflicting concerns for children – who might be both seduced by the transgender ‘craze’ and traumatised by the presence of transgender people in public toilets – with the threat of ‘female erasure’. In April, Katie J.M. Baker wrote in Lux magazine about her ‘culture shock’ on moving from New York to London and encountering ‘the British media’s hysterical obsession with trans women’.
I’d turn on the Today programme … as I made my coffee and hear debates over whether trans women were actually just men who thought they were women … I’d read headlines in both the Guardian and the Daily Mail questioning whether trans women have the right to identify as women. Then there were the protests: women diving into men’s bathing pools wearing fake beards and ‘mankinis’, yelling ‘dykes not dicks’ at Pride parades, wielding graphic post-surgery posters at LGBT youth conferences. I was confused to find that the protesters were often middle-aged, middle-class women, some of whom wore mysterious badges proclaiming they had been ‘Radicalised by Mumsnet’.
The most charitable interpretation of such behaviour is that TERFs believe in a zero-sum attention economy, whereby trans women are ‘appropriating’ cis women’s struggle and distracting from more pressing feminist issues. Baker suggests that these middle-class mothers, who ‘never felt marginalised until they gave birth and came to feel isolated in their nuclear households and (rightfully!) outraged at the lack of support for mothers in the UK’, have found a ‘convenient scapegoat’ for their problems in trans women, who are much easier to target and villainise than overwhelming structural issues like austerity.
It is often said that reading fiction fosters empathy and understanding, but only if the reader is willing to let it. Detransition, Baby is a book ‘about’ trans women, about varieties of trans experience, but it is also a story about the possibilities and limits of what Peters calls ‘affinity’. While she links transition with divorce throughout the novel – which 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’ – she also articulates what happens when you run up against someone who is not like you. Sometimes the results are hopeful and invigorating; other times, not so much. When Reese admits that she resents Katrina for being able to get pregnant, Katrina responds: ‘Being pregnant isn’t as magical as you think.’ Reese scoffs privately: ‘Cis women were always complaining about the burden of their reproductive ability, while secretly cherishing it. Hysterectomies are widely available, but even women who don’t want children aren’t exactly lining up to get them.’ Elsewhere, Katrina expresses frustration with Ames as he’s explaining his conflicted feelings about his gender. ‘I can’t stop being a woman just because it’s hard,’ she says, ‘not that I would even if I could.’
The irony is subtle yet poignant: Ames’s life is evidence that she’s wrong. But Peters is not arguing that everyone is or should be trans. Why does one woman see invasive surgery as impossible when, for another, it’s a dream? Why are some people punks and others squares? Why do some people crave change and others fear it? These questions are great inspiration for what Peters calls ‘theory-laden takes on gender’ (or race, or class), but they are also unanswerable. The social pressure her characters experience doesn’t negate their desires, or alter who they are – it just makes their lives harder:
Trans women knew what trans women were, they knew how to be, but they didn’t know how to do. All the intra-trans fights online, all the arguments with cis people: all of it was just to define what it meant to be a trans woman; to say what she was. But when you’re a trans woman, there’s almost nothing out there on how to actually live.
In the end, this is true for everybody. No one wants to live a theory. Conceptions of the good life always leave out all the conflicts and contradictions that make for a good novel – the way that difference can feel threatening to anyone who may be dissatisfied with the path they took, or that some people may be irreversibly terrible. You can’t have it all. It’s unhealthy to think about utopia for more than thirty minutes per week.
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