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Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby
Illustration Callum Abbott

Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby skewers the detransition taboo

The author’s incisive full-length debut looks at motherhood, family-making, and the affinity between trans and divorced cis women

The thing about exes is, they don’t always stay ‘ex’. Sometimes they come back to haunt you in strange and surprising ways. In Torrey Peters’ debut novel, Detransition, Baby, for example, Reese is taken aback when her ex phones to ask if she will consider co-parenting with him and his new flame.

When she and Amy were together, Reese felt like she was within reach of everything past generations of trans women could only dream about. But then Amy was attacked and decided to detransition, taking Reese’s best shot at motherhood with her. 

Detransition is often weaponised by transphobes to undermine the push for trans rights, as they claim that its occurrence means people are being brainwashed by ‘gender ideologues’, or pushed into transition by trigger-happy doctors. Nevermind the fact that detransition is statistically uncommon, or that many people who do it remain committed trans allies, or even come to retransition further down the line.

In her novel, though, Peters shows how detransition can be a defensive response to an exhausting and hostile environment. Here, detransition doesn’t necessarily represent a clean severance from transness. Now living as Ames, Reese’s ex finds himself unexpectedly expecting with his boss, Katrina – and is unable to envision himself in the gendered role of ‘father’. He wants Reese to help raise the baby, believing her involvement will allow him to occupy a queerer position. 

Before Detransition, Baby, Peters published two novellas, The Masker and Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones, both of which present radical approaches to transness. In The Masker, a young sissy finds herself at a crossroads, as she must choose between her internet fantasy of forced feminisation or the difficult reality of transition. Meanwhile, Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones envisions a future in which transphobia is met with a vengeful plot to prevent anyone from naturally producing hormones – forcing everybody to decide for themselves which body best fits their gender. Both written when Peters was living in Brooklyn in the mid-2010s, the novellas were her attempt to write into a trans literary scene where authors could discuss topics that weren’t a fit for mainstream presses.

Naturally though, writing and publishing novels is a slower process, making it difficult to produce work in conversation with others in real time. So Peters went in a different direction. Detransition, Baby is her incisive full-length debut, looking at motherhood, family-making, and the affinity between trans and divorced cis women. In turns bruising and brutally funny, Detransition, Baby is a richly textured look at connection and family-making. Below, Dazed talks to Peters about motherhood, queer roleplay, and the gap between ‘being’ trans and ‘doing’ trans.

One of the refreshing things about the novel is that you directly address a trans readership without having to explain. Was that something you’d settled on from the beginning?

Torrey Peters: I often think about Toni Morrison when I talk about this. She wrote explicitly for Black women, but it turns out everyone else can keep up. We all have Google these days. So I felt like, OK, I can just write speaking to trans readers. When I speak to trans readers, it makes me a better writer because the bar is set higher. If I’m writing for a cis readership, there’s things I can tell people that they’ve never heard before and they’re impressed. Whereas, if I try to talk about hormones to a trans woman, they’re yawning.

But I dedicated the book to divorced cis women, because I was reading Elena Ferrante and Rachel Cusk, and I realised that the trajectory of their story of divorce is the same as a transition story. You realise the things you’re doing aren’t working, you make a decision, and then you have to start over without getting bitter. I was like well, these women are talking to me. I feel like I have something to say back. The boundaries of my audience in my mind expanded to being about affinity. 

When addressing trans readers, you’re able to present trans characters behaving badly, because you’re not trying to prove our humanity. Do you think it’s important we allow space for that?

Torrey Peters: The premise of any discussion I have is not to debate my humanity. I refuse to engage on that level. It makes for a disappointing conversation, and it makes for bad art. If you read a book by a cis woman, there’s a full range of people doing things for all sorts of different reasons. If you have to present a narrative that says, ‘I’m a worthy human’, you’re locked into making art that’s less interesting. For me, it’s less a question of where trans people are, than it is I want to make good art, with all the tools that other artists get. 

“The premise of any discussion I have is not to debate my humanity. If you have to present a narrative that says, ‘I’m a worthy human’, you’re locked into making art that’s less interesting” – Torrey Peters

Detransitioned people often get pointed to as evidence that transition is being forced on people who were never trans. But the book takes a very different perspective on that, doesn’t it?

Torrey Peters: For me, there’s always been a question of being trans and doing trans. Whether or not you’re living as a trans woman, that doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t. The times that I personally considered detransition haven’t been where I was like, ‘Did I miscategorise these feelings?’ It was that my life is a lot harder now, and I lost a lot, and maybe I could get those things back if I detransitioned, and I think that’s the question for Ames. 

The problem with the way it’s been politicised is that it makes the conversation taboo. People need the conversation. People are going to make mistakes no matter what because that’s what being human is. But to have people saying, ‘Let’s talk about the full range of things and admit to things like regret’, to me is the way that I would like to see the conversation approached. 

There’s both a frankness and tenderness in how you describe trans women’s bodies, and these aspects that are often either fetishised or dysphoric. Was that something you were conscious of countering?

Torrey Peters: For me, it’s about finding the middle ground. Trans bodies are hypersexualised in the way they’re represented, so the response to that can be, ‘Well I don’t want my body sexualised at all’. But I don’t want people to not find trans bodies sexy. If somebody came into the bedroom and was unable to deal with my body for fear of hypersexualising, or even just sexualising, then it’d be like, ‘Well, this is just not that hot’.

(In the book), there’s a discussion of ‘chasers’, where it’s like, ‘I don’t want anybody who wants my body because they’re into trans women’. To me, it’s like, why would you do that? All I want is people who want my body. To pathologise people who want my body, to me, misses the mark. But at the same time, what I actually want is a basic level of social awareness and respect in how you find my body hot. It doesn’t matter if you’re trans or not, if some guy is after a woman and all they can talk about is one of her body parts, it’s not respectful. It’s not interesting. 

Katrina is essentially accessing queerness via Ames, and often trans people are seen as a gateway into same gender or same sex experimentation - were you thinking of that as you were writing her?

Torrey Peters: I see a lot of heterosexual women who are like, ‘This isn’t working for me’. And it’s not that they don’t find men attractive, it’s that they’re like, ‘I’m not getting my needs met’. So then they’re like, ‘Well, maybe queerness is the answer’. I don’t know if it ever actually is. But I do think a certain kind of trans thought may be something of an answer. I talked about this in the book – if you want a man who wears flannel and can chop a stump of wood with one blow, you can have that. But consider having it as roleplay. If you actually find the man who lives in the woods, is taciturn, and doesn’t know what to do except hit things with objects, you’re not gonna have a good relationship. But you can find a nice man who is well adjusted, and you can dress him up in flannel. Buy the flannel for your man.

When people are like, ‘Heterosexuality isn’t working for me’, they think that means their sexuality is wrong. No, you may well be attracted to masculinity – expand what masculinity means. I think what Katrina is trying to figure out is not, ‘Should I be with a woman?’ It’s, ‘What is it that I actually want? And in what people?’

In the book, both cis and trans women express fears of legitimacy around motherhood. Is that common ground you’ve seen reflected in these real life discussions? 

Torrey Peters: Totally. I think the interesting conversation is why one wants to be a mother. When I was first like, ‘Why do I want to be a mother?’, I thought it must be about validating my gender, because I don’t have a biological clock that’s ticking. But then I started talking to cis women, and lots of times I found that they were having babies to confirm to ideas of themselves. They’re having children not because they necessarily like the idea of a two or three-year-old crawling around their living room, but they’re like, ‘This is the kind of person I see myself as, and this is a choice to confirm it’. 

When I started thinking about motherhood in those terms – how it’s one of the most loaded choices for women but can be broken down into these different parts – (I realised) that they’re the same types of thought processes that led me to transition. I’m going to make a big change to my body, forever – that’s pregnancy. The book is dealing with (motherhood) in the abstract, the question of ‘why’. Once you are a mother I think the abstract changes, but for the period I’m focussing on, I think it’s actually entirely the same for why people do it. 

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters is out with Serpent’s Tail now