Meet the much-hyped author uniting trans women and cis divorcées while breaking the detransition taboo
“Torrey Peters goes there”, was the title of New York Magazine’s review, which appeared on the cover of the culture section. Grace Lavery, in The Guardian, called it “irresistible […] Perhaps Detransition, Baby is the first great trans realist novel?”
The Evening Standard: “Bold”, “exuberant”, “strikes to the heart of the moment”. The LA Times: “That rare social comedy in which the author cuts people up not to judge them, but to show how we fail to fit together”.
Kirkus advised bookclubs to “take note”; Roxane Gay made it the February pick for her bookclub. Peters’s writing is “emotionally devastating, culturally specific, endlessly intelligent” (Autostraddle), and her book is a “vivacious comic novel” that is “terrific: smart, socially generous, a pleasure, a gift” (4 Columns).
Set in New York, the novel is about two things (there are no prizes for guessing correctly from the title): detransitioning and pregnancy.
It goes like this: Ames, formerly Amy, accidentally gets his boss, Katrin, pregnant.
Ames thought that he was infertile because, as Amy, he took oestrogen for six years. When Katrin discovers she is pregnant and asks Ames for his input, Ames realises that, despite now living as a man, fatherhood – specifically, being the dad in a straight-passing relationship – would be a step too far. He comes out to Katrin – “I was a transsexual woman” – and turns to his ex, Reese, a trans woman who yearns to be a mother, for help. Does either woman take it well when Ames suggests they parent the baby as a trio? Nope.
And so Detransition, Baby sets off, unconcerned with showing only a palatable version of transness, traversing back and forth through time and Ames/Amy’s gender, cracking irreverent jokes (“Many people think a trans woman’s deepest desire is to live in her true gender, but actually it is to always stand in good lighting”) and, possibly, expanding the common ground shared by cis and trans women of wanting to be a mother.
Speaking to PinkNews on Friday (8 January), when her extensively reviewed book was out in the UK but not yet available in the US (aside from an excerpt published in Esquire), Torrey Peters was “counting down the days” until people could read Detransition, Baby and the book would begin existing as its “own entity, separate from me”.
“I’ve been living with these characters for five years,” she says. “It’s like a whole epoch of my life… I’m really looking forward to the free space in my brain. Who am I now?”
Detransition, Baby: Who is Torrey Peters?
Torrey Peters is the author of two self-published novellas, The Masker and Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones, which are available for free to trans women and very firmly in the “writing trans characters for trans readers” camp.
While Detransition, Baby is also in this camp, it’s published by Penguin Random House – one of the first books by a trans author to be published by a “big five” publisher – and so will have a larger, cis audience than Peters’s devoted trans readership. And while it’s a novel by a trans woman, about trans women, Detransition, Baby is specifically dedicated to divorced cis women in their 30s “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”.
Peters already had her trans following. What she wanted by going to Random House, she explains, was for them to get her book in front of a new audience. Random House “knows where to find divorced cis women, knows how to talk to them”, she says. “The conversation I wanted to have between trans women and cis women was one that Random House could facilitate.”
And while Peters is being heralded as the breakthrough star bringing trans fiction mainstream, there are five or six other trans authors who will be published by a big publishing house in 2021.
A lot of hype for Detransition, Baby stems from this “crossover appeal”, which was successful because Torrey Peters is, according to author and AIDS historian Sarah Schulman, “everything that works”.
“She’s pretty. She’s very smart. She’s charming. She’s bold and brash. She’s blonde,” Schulman told New York Magazine. Schulman was not sure that having trans authors cross into the mainstream, published by the big houses, was a good thing; though she did enjoy Peters’s book.
What was Peters’s response to reading this? “Well, I was the one who gave [the journalist] Sarah Schulman’s contact, and you don’t give Sarah Schulman’s contact without expecting a Sarah Schulman quote,” Peters says.
“People have pointed it out to me and asked, is this shade? And the answer is, yes, but it’s also shade that I’m totally happy to have out in the world.
“The idea that something is lost when you take a minority of literature and make it accessible to the mainstream, I think is a fair argument,” Peters adds, pointing out that Schulman articulated this argument in great detail in her book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America.
They differ on what the book is supposed to be, though, Peters thinks: “If you conceive of this as a trans conversation among trans people, then there’s a way in which maybe it doesn’t belong on Random House, maybe it should stay with trans people.
“But since about halfway through writing it, I never conceived of it as solely a conversation between trans women. The references in there are Sex and the City. I conceived of it as a conversation between different types of women, or women who were struggling with certain things. And a Sex and the City reference belongs as much to a trans woman as it does to a cis woman.”
The Sex and the City problem is this: there are four options available to women in their thirties. Be Miranda (motherhood), Charlotte (marriage), Samantha (career), or Carrie (a bit of everything, but mostly making art). It is new for (some) trans women to face this problem, when historically most have faced solely the problem of survival.
But it is precisely how (white, privileged) trans woman today face this problem that Detransition, Baby grapples with so beautifully.
Breaking the taboo of detransition
Detransition – when a trans person reverts gender, changing a name or pronoun or stopping taking hormones – is very rare, with multiple studies finding a detransition rate of less than one per cent of people. Many detransitioners say experiencing transphobia or losing family support was the reason they detransitioned, and some go on to retransition later.
Detransitioners have been weaponised by transphobic campaigners for many years now, to try to restrict trans people’s access to gender-affirming healthcare and surgeries. Most recently, detransitioner Keira Bell, backed by some of the most prominent anti-trans hate groups in the UK, took the only gender clinic for trans youth in England and Wales to court. She won her landmark judicial review, successfully arguing that under 16’s cannot give informed consent to puberty blocking medication, effectively forcing young trans people in England and Wales to seek court approval before being able to be prescribed the lifesaving medication.
In Detransition, Baby, what Torrey Peters makes crystal clear is that Ames has not stopped being trans. He has just stopped doing trans. The inner conflict of presenting as male is less than the difficulties of living as a trans woman; but the inner conflict gets loud when he gets Katrin pregnant.
Clearly, a cis author could not have written this. “In order to detransition, you have to transition,” Peters says. “And so therefore, transition belongs to those of us who have transitioned, and for whom detransitioning is a looming option.”
“During hard times in my life I’ve considered detransition, and therefore it belongs to me,” she continues. “It’s an option for me to speak about, and the idea that other people can weaponise it and make it theirs to speak about, that doesn’t feel right to me. If detransition doesn’t loom for you, you don’t get to use that trans experience to try to shut up trans people.”
For trans people, detransition is “full of pain”, she says. And a way of handling this is to talk about it; to feel free to talk about “what led to it, how it happened”. Detransitioners, Peters knows, often want desperately to talk about it, to make art about it, to feel understood.
“Instead, what’s actually happening is the discussion around it is a distraction. It’s shallow, it’s weaponised, it’s silly, it’s sensational.
“And this is how a lot of oppression works: You distract from what’s really important. The whole conversation about transphobia… I try not to engage in it because it feels to me like absolute distraction. I know so many trans people making gorgeous, beautiful art saying amazing things, things that are so deep and so moving. And we’re having conversations about like, where do you pee? That’s a distraction. That’s ridiculous.”
After being briefly distracted comparing trans healthcare struggles in the UK and US, we return to Peters. Now that Detransition, Baby is out, being read around the world, no longer truly hers, what will she work on next?
“I have – and this is going to sound like a weird series of words put together – I have a queer financial thriller,” Peters says. “I want it to be like the The Big Short, but for queers and money.”
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