etransition, Baby strikes to the heart of the moment. This conversation-shifting, taboo-busting novel is set to catapult its author, Torrey Peters – a Brooklyn-based trans writer whose two self-published novellas drew a cult following – into the mainstream.
Her themes could hardly be more timely, as controversy rages around the issue of detransition, following a UK High Court ruling limiting the administration of puberty blockers to under-16s. The decision has major implications for young people experiencing gender dysphoria, eliciting criticism from trans rights activists and praise from the successful claimants – a woman who has detransitioned, and the mother of a teenage girl awaiting treatment.
Since, in June, J. K. Rowling weighed in, alienating many of her fans, the debate over transgender rights has become increasingly polarised in this country. In September the government dropped plans for trans people to be able to self-identify, meaning medical diagnosis will still be required. And now, delivered right on time, Detransition, Baby is born – a nuanced, New York-set portrait of trans feminine culture that challenges preconceptions of motherhood, family and misogyny.
If you thought you were analytical, wait till you meet Torrey Peters’ characters. Reese, a 34-year-old trans woman, is entangled with yet another married alpha male exorcising his fantasies. He’s HIV-positive, so their sex replicates the “frisson of danger” cis women experience when running the risk of pregnancy – a poignant aphrodisiac for Reese, who yearns for motherhood, and the unassailable gender affirmation she believes it would bestow. She might have had a shot at adoption with ex-girlfriend Amy, but Reese strayed and Amy detransitioned, and now they’re back to square one.
Then her ex – now Ames – calls with a proposal. He’s impregnated his boss, Katrina, but isn’t ready for fatherhood, “the one affront to his gender that he still couldn’t stomach”. Could they reinvent parenting and raise this baby as a trio? The novel charts the evolving dynamics between Reese, Ames and Katrina – and the latter’s journey, from anger when Ames reveals his transgender past, to a zealous embrace of their queer family.
All three are compromised by circumstance, but Ames is arguably the most torn: dissociated from his body, isolated by his past, secretly longing for recognition from trans women, yet unable to bear the daily bruises of living as one.
Meanwhile Reese dreads fading into “futurelessness”, attributing her bourgeois aspirations to the so-called “Sex and the City Problem”, the ubiquitous female dilemma of how to carve out a meaningful maturity, whether through career, art or family – uncharted territory for trans women. The book shares the show’s irreverent, zeitgeist-nailing quality, without diluting complexities.
Reese is hyper-alert to her own deprivations, but Katrina challenges her assumptions of others’ privilege, telling Reese that many cis women – including her Chinese immigrant grandmother – don’t feel entitled to motherhood either. “Oppression Olympics” perhaps, but this encapsulates what makes Detransition, Baby such a bracing study of perspectives.
It starkly illuminates the courage required to live as a trans woman, for whom the simplest interaction is fraught with the potential for abuse or ridicule. Suicide is rife in Reese’s milieu, where coping mechanisms include gallows humour and sisterhood, the seasoned “moms” nurturing the “babies” through a second puberty. There’s a pervading sense of persecution: the growing list of murdered trans women, most of colour; the liberal press publishing anti-trans diatribes – yet the novel doesn’t preach or idealise, reserving some eye-rolling for “those Twitter girls eager to offer theory-laden takes on gender”.
The one taboo in Reese’s circle? Detransition – for “to discuss the possibility … gave hope to the lunacy of bigots who wished that trans women would simply detransition (i.e., cease to exist …)”.
That’s why this book is so bold. Detransition, Baby should be on your reading list. It’s an exuberant novel of ideas, desire and life’s messy ironies – all filtered through Peters’ astute, witty characters.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters (Serpent’s Tail, £14.99)