Content warning: abuse, miscarriage
Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby focuses on ‘being trans and doing trans’. The novel considers the questions of ‘being’ and ‘doing’ trans by exploring motherhood within the trans community.
The novelist has spoken about the use of trans as both an adjective and a verb in interviews. The author shared with Dazed magazine that: ‘For me, there’s always been a question of being trans and doing trans’. Peters states that ‘Whether or not you’re living as a trans woman’ that question still applies.
Detransition, Baby focuses on the lives of Reese, Ames and Katrina. Reese is a transgender woman in her thirties who lives in New York and longs for a child. Ames is Reese’s ex, and they formerly went under the name of ‘Amy’ before they detransitioned. Both characters are white. Prior to the detransition Ames was mothered by Reese. The novel reflects upon trans motherhood and the kinship structures that are used to bond older and younger members of the community.
Reese and Ames lost contact with each other following Ames’ detransition. The novel sets this past relationship alongside Ames’ entanglement with Katrina. However, Katrina is both Ames’ boss and baby mother. Katrina is mixed race and discusses how she’s been able to ‘pass’ in white culture.
Katrina and Ames work together on projects at a corporate marketing firm. The relationship between the two moves beyond the strictly professional as it takes on a romantic dimension. Katrina becomes pregnant in the course of the novel. The decision to keep the child and start a family is agonised over. Katrina’s anxiety over the baby stems from her career and whether Ames is willing to start a family. However, Ames’ concern stems from the pressure he feels to conform to a ‘father’ figure role.
Ames would prefer to parent a child rather than father one. So, he suggests they form a trans family support network. The family structure Ames proposes involves both Katrina and Reese as the mothers of the child. Ames has detransitioned, but he strongly desires to adopt a trans family formation which moves beyond the heteronormative nuclear family model.
‘Divorce is a transition story’
Heterosexuality as an institution is interrogated throughout the novel. Katrina is a divorced woman who is experiencing what is medically termed as a ‘geriactric pregnancy’. The anxiety about the pregnancy stems from a multitude of factors for Katrina, including her own age.
Reese and Katrina are both aware of the fact this might be their one chance to be mothers. During their first meeting Reese professes her love for divorced women. Reese says that ‘Divorce is a transition story’.
Katrina cites the reason for her divorce as ‘the Ennui of Heterosexuality’. But, she shares that people find it easier to accept her miscarriage as the cause of the split.
Peters has openly spoken about her love for divorced cis women. This love is reflected in the dedication of Detransition, Baby which speaks ‘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.’
Throughout the novel the past, present and future of the characters is discussed in depth. Detransition, Baby plays with time and temporality by centering on the conception of the baby. The chapters which focus on the present deliberations over the baby are framed by the conception date. For example, ‘Six weeks after conception’. Whereas the chapters which focus on the past and Ames’ and Reeses’ past relationship are recorded as ‘Eight years before conception’.
The chapter titles highlights the significance of the pregnancy to all three characters. In particular, Reese and Katrina are brought together as a result of the pregnancy.
The Women’s Prize for Fiction and online attacks
Detransition, Baby advocates for a form of trans-feminism which unifies female cis divorcees and trans women. The feminism the novel promotes sits at odds with the conservative attack of the novel by the Wild Women Writing Club.
The critique of the novel by the Wild Women Writing Club has been depressingly ‘bitter’. However, Torrey Peters’ novel Detransition, Baby has received an outpouring of support following the online attack. The digital open letter was explicitly transphobic and directed at the inclusion of Torrey Peters’ novel on the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021 long list.
The narrow-minded attack which focuses on Peters’ identity as a transgender woman puts forward essentialist arguments about gender. The letter was condemned by the Women’s Prize who defended their decision to include Detransition, Baby in the list. However, the novel did not make it to the shortlist which Aileen Loftus covered for the Mancunion last week.
‘The whole reason transsexuals transition is because gender matters so incredibly much’
The open letter shows how conservatives in the twenty-first century remain obsessed with binary ideas about gender and sex. Detransition, Baby examines this obsession from a detransitioned perspective. Ames chats about his past with Katrina following the announcement of the pregnancy. During the conversation Katrina says that ‘it seems like trans people are starting to be everywhere, that maybe gender doesn’t matter that much’. But, Ames replies that ‘The whole reason transsexuals transition is because gender matters so incredibly much’.
The attack from the Wild Women Writing Club reinforces the hyper-fixation on gender. I feel ‘bitter’ that such gender binaries are being viciously reproduced. However, I am also uplifted by the support Detransition, Baby has received in the aftermath of the letter.
Torrey Peters’ novel reflects on motherhood, race and transphobia. It is worth taking your time to sit with the novel and digest it because it contains powerful dialogue.