This post contains spoilers for Detransition, Baby
CADEN MARK GARDNER: Willow, it has been a while since we have done a Body Talk and it is great to return to it and for this subject. While we have made it a focus to center discussions on trans cinema and trans film images, some other works of art outside of cinema are worth talking about. This is the case with Torrey Peters’ novel Detransition, Baby and what it means to see a book that centers trans characters written by a trans woman enter the mainstream literary and cultural discourse. For me this feels like a legitimate breakthrough work and not because it is an accessible read (and I will note that I thought Jordy Rosenberg’s wonderful Confessions of the Fox, that was published in 2018, had a pretty great and subversive premise in its dual trans timelines that deserved a broader readership) but because it seems to have hit at the right time. I legitimately feel like this has the potential to make waves in the way Mart Crawley’s The Boys in the Band was when it premiered on stage in the pre-Stonewall sixties. Trans people have wanted to see our lives told in layered, complicated but truthful ways rather than just seeing a gallery of saints, martyrs, and victims who are whitewashed and baked into respectability politics. We also want those narratives to come from within the community.
Detransition, Baby is absolutely the distillation of a time and place of a certain white trans woman. It tells the story of trans woman Reese who is roped into the prospect to co-parent with her ex and her ex’s new partner. The wrinkle here is that Reese’s ex, Ames, has detransitioned since the dissolution of their relationship and him being able to impregnate Katrina, who is also his boss, is something of a medical miracle. Why Ames has returned into Reese’s life is that he knows she deeply desires to be a mother even as she knows she cannot physically carry a child to birth. At the heart of this story is the yearning for stability, motherhood, and suddenly truly making (and realizing your power in making) decisions that impact more than yourself.
This book is uproariously funny, subversive, and also deeply emotional. It can at times feel like the state secrets of being trans are being let out of the bag by Peters and yet, I respect her as an agent of chaos. Willow, both of us were familiar with Torrey Peters’ work prior to Detransition, Baby thanks to her self-published novellas. I recall you recommending her work to me. Can you get into what brought you to Torrey Peters’ work and your experiences reading recent trans fiction that Peters emerged from?
WILLOW CATELYN MACLAY: I think I became aware of Torrey Peters around the time of Harron Walker’s profile in them. and while reading I kept thinking to myself, “Who is this fucking badass on the motorcycle?”. I desperately wanted to be friends with her, because she almost felt like a rock and roll figure and her style! My god, her style! I came away from that interview wanting to follow her career and so I sought out Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones. I was immediately taken with the specificity of its apocalypse. I had always been interested in the ways horror tied in with transness, and particularly body horror, so this was like cake. In this novella the body horror of dysphoria becomes a worldwide plague, and I could get onboard with that. I understood it. Let cis people feel a bit of our hell. It was dope, but I also felt like the stronger elements of the novella were grounded in realism and I particularly liked the way she wrote about trans women who sleep with cis men. There was a potential goldmine of contradictory, slippery, personification and self-definition in the nature of her characters and we see that in an evolved state with Detransition, Baby.
But in 2017-2018 Torrey Peters was not the only trans person creating. There was a lot of really cool exciting work being made by people our age in all facets of art. There was Imogen Binnie, Laura Jane Grace, Casey Plett and then there were bands like G.L.O.S.S. or artists like SOPHIE who were making anthems for this generation who never really had anthems before. Even in the film world television shows like Pose and Sense8 take off and Yance Ford’s Strong Island ends up being nominated for an Oscar. I think this period of extreme visibility in the arts, and also in the tabloids with the Caitlyn Jenner saga, is a necessary context to look at the arrival of Detransition, Baby.
On the flipside of things we begin having these conversations considering what is or isn’t good trans representation and certain aspects of transness end up softened in the mainstream in the name of a larger “acceptance”, which hasn’t actually happened. It should be noted that most of these works and the talking points around their arrival are bolstered by white cis-passing trans women so even with these examples it isn’t a full scope of what transness looks like. The idea of what transness should be as it is presented in a documentary like Disclosure (2020) suggests a corrective to years of cisgender perceptions of transness, but the charm school attitude of trans people needing to be perfect little angels is also a fallacy. I love what Peters does, because with her work she is attempting to open the hood of transgender femininity, in all its contradictions, and finds grace in writing to the fullness of her characters instead of considering what the perception is of who they should be, and she has done this while working with a mainstream publisher. We’ll get to all the details of DTB, but I’d love to hear about where you were at when this boom of very visible trans art happened and how you feel about that with hindsight and particularly Peters’s earlier works.
CMG: Yeah, I think even just reading recent trans fiction over the years felt like a balm from what visual media was lacking. There was the deeply socialized and embedded latent transphobia or the over-correction in having trans characters visible but without real depth or almost an element of ornamentation that so as long as a trans character appears the work by a cis creator is done. Being tokenized just is not really something I want from brands or Instagram influencers and it is not getting me to watch a soap opera or some reality show. Honestly, seeing Laverne Cox being celebrated for being in Promising Young Woman while her character has nothing substantive to say or do beyond being a diverse presence in the film made me roll my eyes. People are just celebrating the bare minimum of inclusivity (that is still very much stealth casting- which is a casting choice that is celebrated by some segments of the trans community that I personally have mixed feelings about). Given what PYW is about, it seems baffling to have a trans woman of color on-screen and not bring up how many institutions fail victims of sexual violence beyond college educated white women.
As far as music, I am flexing my privilege that I was an Against Me! fanatic since the early 2000s and so I always had this special kinship with Laura Jane Grace for helping me survive the Bush administration. For me as a trans man, it is a little more difficult to go through recent mainstream art and find real connections. Which is why I am honestly not joking about the fact I accept Don Draper from Mad Men as an honorary trans man because his character backstory and trajectory is basically the story of every stealth trans man and trans woman in the twentieth century. I hope our cis readers take that in for a moment. So in a way, I can respect Peters’ source of inspiration for Detransition, Baby being the experiences of divorced cis women in fictional narratives because it is hard to find a perfect 1:1 role model or character archetype when you are trans. So give me the most difficult of men.
I think about Colette Arrand’s really excellent piece in them. about wanting to see ‘trans mediocrity’ on television. The fact that those of us who have survived the odds amid a transphobic society are often burned out or barely scraping by because of how much energy, money, and labor we put into just wanting to live still feels largely unacknowledged by culture. We might not be homeless or dead but we have been flattened by a world that still barely has given us a seat at the table. I remember reading Imogen Binnie’s Nevada and there is so much anger and indignation (I feel like cis reviewers were not ready for the book in that respect) that felt so palpable and relatable. It felt right that the tail end of one of my transformational and draining years ended with reading that book. I later caught up on Binnie and other trans authors’ short stories series through Topside Press’ The Collection. I caught up on Carter Sickels, Casey Plett, and Davey Davis among others. And I cannot wait to read the forthcoming works by Jackie Ess and Jeanne Thornton. But back to Peters, I loved Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones too (Body Talk loves an allegory, it must be said) and was really fascinated by that interview of hers you mentioned earlier. She was a badass but she also struck me as incredibly savvy and discerning. Harron Walker is a great writer but she was awestruck in how Peters has clearly read ‘the blueprint’ of what an interview with a trans creator looks like and very much wanted to (even as she was the subject of the piece) turn that on its head. And I think that type of brash attitude is present in her fiction.
I think what is striking about her as you said is that she really wants to raise the hood and examine what it is not just to have a trans body in this world but be in a world where there are others like you, whether they have transitioned already or you have intuited that there are people around you that have these really deep feelings of gender and transness. You can imagine the potential utopia from ‘finding your community’ through that realization, but I think Peters is extremely, almost effortlessly, matter of fact that these situations get complicated with impulsive decisions and escalations that can disrupt any potential calm. Her characters are accessible in being relatable but not without a wealth of contradictions and actions that could potentially warp your view on them. This is to say they are imperfect humans. Whether it is a cis or trans character in a Torrey Peters work, it is important to remember that character has the capacity to be both a warm blanket of dreams and an agent of chaos. But of course Peters is not making these connections to extend a branch to the cis audience with, “We are just like you!” as I think is so often the potential trap of certain trans narratives trying to go mainstream. What I really admire about her book tour for Detransition, Baby (as best articulated in her appearance on Sam Sanders’ NPR show It’s Been a Minute) is that she is telling a largely cis audience that, “No, no, there are ways in which a lot of you are just like us in your frustrations and sense of being imprisoned by life’s parochial institutions and expectations!” She wants to flip the discussion back to our side where we have control and it is the cis people who are running to catch up with the velocity of what she is bringing in her book.
WCM: I think the clearest example of this is with the relationship between Reese and Katrina, where, in certain sections, their perspectives are treated as mirrors of one another. Neither woman considers the full extent of their privileges when having a conversation. Reese obviously wraps her arguments in the swaddling protection of a kind of trans femme self-martyrdom that she thinks she’s above, and that shrouds her ability to see other perspectives, because she prioritizes her own trauma. Likewise Katrina will turn that around on Reese and ask her to consider how her own body and identity is policed and how certain things are discouraged because she is Asian, but while doing so fails to really consider Reese’s transness. Both these characters are selfish, because we’re all selfish when considering our own bodies. There’s no other way to be. It’s like Torrey Peters has written an intersectional text on selfishness. Detransition, Baby gets prickly when the body and what is capable of doing is shared, as is the case with Katrina’s pregnancy, and the potential family she may form with Ames, who fathered the child, who has his own history of body trauma and transition, and Reese, his former girlfriend. None of these characters know how to be the right kind of woman or person to make their lives as successful or as happy is it could be, and I think that’s true for all of us, cis or trans, and what I like about Peters work is that shared selfishness isn’t a utopian or political mechanism where a bridge is built through mutual assured poor-decision-making. It just is. It makes sense for these characters to act this way, because it’s how they are, and that’s liberating as a trans reader, because so often story-telling about transness is expected to be a certain way. Transgender characters *are* expected to make bad decisions and self-destruct, but it’s rare to see that immolation come from a place where trans people and cis people do so hand in hand. And this is not to suggest that Detransition, Baby is a book where characters make ghosts of themselves, because there’s plenty of those already. This book is electric, sexy, funny and contemplative of all the ways women try and fail to be what’s expected and when faced with failure are forced to reinvent who they are. Even if that reinvention means detransitioning and putting that part of yourself in the back of a musty closet so it can build up a cachet of nostalgia.
Let’s talk about detransitioning. It’s just about the most taboo subject imaginable in our community and yet here it is, as loud on the cover as Laura Jane Grace’s “Tranny”, out there for all cis people to see. As far as films go, there aren’t too many that cover the subject, but there are a few, and I wanted to wrap those into the conversation. I’m thinking about The Salt Mines and The Transformation.
CMG: Detransition, Baby turns back the clock in several phases of the book. Structurally it seems to deliberately shirk the atypical linear storytelling of trans lives- in both fiction and non-fiction- as a series of before and afters. Instead, Peters oscillates back and forth in different time periods for these characters. I think one of the most crucial flashbacks is when Ames recalls going to a party as Amy to then see the first time he ever saw a detransitioned person. He meets William who brings a bunch of cis girls to a party dominated by trans women. His mere presence lets the air out of the room. William is not so pitiable as much as he seems untouchable now to this segment of Brooklyn trans girls. It becomes suspicious as to why he even still wants to be there when he is dressed masculine, is trying to grow back a beard, and goes by William. Ames also really doesn’t muster sympathy for William and the moment takes on more of a cautionary tale for Ames to never crawl back into this trans world as some abject failure. He prefers to disappear from it all and he does.
So detransitioning in visual media. Boy, howdy! The first time I had heard of somebody detransitioning was actually a well-known American sportswriter named Mike Penner whose life story was a segment on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO. It was the early 2010s and the tone around Penner’s story- he committed suicide shortly in 2009 after he detransitioned but not before briefly working as an openly trans feminine sportswriter named Christine Daniels– was of the feeling that this act of detransitioning was already a step into death’s door. I luckily have a photographic memory because it is hard to find that show’s segment online but that story was one of the earliest times I saw trans people having discussions with seasoned, professional reporters in a respectful way even if the subject was so taboo and depressing. The trans women who knew Penner as Christine were interviewed and their testimonies were heartwrenching. In a community that is full of ghosts of lives cut short for various reasons, I can understand why detransitioning for these trans women of a certain age (Penner died in his fifties and these trans women were around that age and older) feels like a really dreadful provocation. In my work in researching trans history and ephemera, you come across stories of how often dead trans women were- largely against their wishes- buried by their family members as what they were assigned at birth and not how they transitioned. Or you have the AIDS crisis and how that halted many trans women’s medical transitions and so they just stopped because they knew they were dying. There are of course many other complicated reasons for why people detransition, but that story will always stick out for me.
I think about the fact that you told me not too long ago that there was a sequel to The Salt Mines that followed up on the subjects called The Transformation and my stomach dropped not realizing these films were related. I had hesitated to watch The Transformation for a while because of the subject being around detransitioning. Add in the fact I had already seen these subjects fight for survival in The Salt Mines only to have some (not all) of them have to detransition and I really dragged my feet. Detransitioning will never be something for me to consider but that doesn’t mean I want to have open dialogues to discuss it, much less with cis people with agendas around the topic. It can just fill you with intrusive thoughts of, ‘What if I lost my job and my healthcare? Will I have to stop my hormones?’ These are kind of absurd, grotesque things that can pop into my brain and yet, I felt that 2020 was just the other shoe waiting to drop for myself and my other trans siblings being put into these dilemmas where “doing trans” is now a privilege only for people of a much higher tax bracket than myself.
As it seems obvious, I do not personally know a detransitioned person. I just see them from afar, popping up in news stories which do have some agenda around them (even if that was never their intention). For me it is easy to see that the individuals who detransitioned in The Transformation have to compartmentalize and sacrifice living as trans to be off the streets. That makes sense to me as somebody who spent years building a safety net to prevent myself from fully bottoming out and to still afford my HRT even if something bad happened. Their situations feel like a reality that happens frequently although is seldom talked about because- again- it is a taboo subject. I think back to a recent documentary that I watched about Brian Belovitch called I’m Gonna Make You Love Me where Belovitch is extremely honest about the fact it became too hard to sustain a lifestyle as a trans woman in nightclubs and regularly being the subject of sexism and assault in the New York City club scene. He is extremely at peace with the fact living as Tish Gervais (a life that included marrying a military man and living on an Army base in Germany) was still an important facet of his life that he does not regret doing or having shame about detransitioning. However, my issue with that documentary is while Belovitch’s cis friends (that include Village Voice mainstay Michael Musto, who also feared Belovitch was going to die when he learned about the detransitioning) are interviewed, there really is no trans person interviewed who knew Belovitch and I found that absurd. He hung out with International Chrysis. Yes, she is dead but there are other trans girls alive from that era who might have something to say about Brian as Tish. That absence of a trans presence came off as maybe- and this is my educated guess- that there was some unspoken community shunning that happened due to the detransitioning but the documentary did not want to or know how to comment about that. But maybe that type of break from that community had to happen to not stew in negativity and other people’s angst. Be an Ames or a Brian and not a William.
I think about Ames in Detransition, Baby and the fact that his backstory circles back to the whole “Glamour Boutique” short story Peters circulated before the book was published. Ames is bewildering in that he makes such assured declarations like some expert cultural anthropologist (Baby elephants!) and yet admits to being captivated by some of the thorniest things I have come across as a trans egg who did cursory web 1.0 searches about FTMs in the aughts. When Ames is playing with his gender identity as a teen and college student, he is almost fine with being labeled and judged as a fetishist rather than affirmed as a trans woman like most of his peers would want. There is something elusive to him that equally frustrates and fascinates both cis people and trans people in the book. Ames tells Katrina him being mugged was a breaking point in that he no longer wanted to “do trans” but he was in a long-term relationship where he was clearly the breadwinner and wanted to build a family with Reese until she does some massive self-sabotage. Peters also throws wrenches into Ames’ narrative where there are these recollections of when he is Amy where there is some level of gender gatekeeping happening and it is so doth protest too much (Ames does some questioning things throughout this whole book, but shitting on Candy Darling is the most unforgivable!). I like that we never really have these characters on the therapy couch in the way Matthew Weiner aggressively avoided ever putting Don Draper on the therapy couch in Mad Men, and I especially feel that way about Ames. There is this air of mystery and something that feels like we along with the characters are trying to catch up to him even as he has this veneer of, for all intents and purposes, a pretty normy dude. He detransitions but he makes a point of not reverting back to his identity before Amy, like not even reclaiming his dead name. Ames enters this next life, possibly in a line of maybe other lives to live. He wants a family but rebukes the notion that he will raise Katrina’s child as a father. He is still open to a queering of something in his life even as his exterior points to extremely vanilla white cisheteronormativity. Still though, I think a lot about his conversation with Katrina where he is no longer “doing trans”, which does leave open this idea there is still something there and not something he rejected wholesale even though he physically re-altered.
WCM: Like you 2020 ruined whatever peace I had in believing that my transition was concrete, because it felt as if we were only a stone’s-throw away from a collapse of society, and I’m still not entirely sure that won’t happen when looking at what’s going in Brazil right now. This forced me to think about things like detransition, not as a choice, but something enforced upon trans people, because I do think if a collapse of some sort did happen we’d be among the first to suffer, and that has really only strengthened my resolve in the fact that I need to get surgery as soon as possible. It’s not even that I feel as if this doom might happen, but the mere existence of COVID has shone a light on how fragile things really are. It’s frightening, but I think we’re all loosely aware that if a body can transition then it can detransition too. It’s not something we really want to ever talk about, because it’s such a horrible proposition for so many, and many trans people already lost so much going through one puberty they didn’t want without having to think about a sequel. The hell of a never-ending puberty is truly a nightmare, but as a tool for a character, it’s really ripe for investigation. By and large, it’s something we want to avoid even thinking about, but Ames is someone who is endlessly fascinating and it’s not like these situations don’t happen where someone does detransition like you’ve stated above.
Of all the characters in the book Ames is the most elusive. He is not easy to pin down and veers away from easier classifications we could pin on a character if they were more forthright in their predlictions toward something like cross-dressing, or even if they were more blunt example of a Fictionmania trans woman. Even with these things I found Ames’s placement in the world very familiar, because he is around my age and grew up hovering in the same trans atmosphere where I found myself. This was a world where Susan’s Place was where you went if you were online, and everyone was vaguely familiar with Fictionmania, Jerry Springer representation and the tidal wave of never-ending shame that came with being closeted and knowing this thing about yourself. For Ames, the book never states as such, but growing up during the time, and feeling the circuits of your own gender identity start to fire up, coincided with the mingling of also knowing that society at large would deem you a pervert for being as much. In that perspective, even with advancements made now, it’s entirely easy to see why someone might make the choice to detransition in the future, because all those internalized issues with the way society treats trans women stains you. In every review of Detransition, Baby I’ve read writers seem to reach for the term “messy” to describe the characters, but I think a more accurate summation is that the subjectivity of these characters is so pronounced that their own complicated decisions, and self-sabotage seems more obvious and honest. I think Peters writing, and this is true for a lot of literature about minority groups, is very in tune with character subjectivity, because we can’t afford ambivalence or an everywoman perspective where a character could encompass everyone or everything, and in the case of Detransition, Baby I think the text is better off for it, and even in the context of trans lit, Ames is different.
But while reading Detransition, Baby I was thinking a lot about The Salt Mines and The Transformation, and the way those movies handled detransition. The response of those very real trans people choosing detransition due to poverty in the 1990s is extremely different from Ames’s situation, but I don’t think they’re entirely separate either. Ames mentions being in a physical altercation and how he was too worn out to continue being a woman. While this is somewhat of a lie for this character, as we know that his detransition was also coupled with his break-up from Reese, and his fleeing from womanhood may very well be an unconscious thing of rejecting all things her, Ames isn’t wrong to suggest that detransition does happen due to exhaustion. I’m very fortunate that my relationship with a cis man has proven to be a long-lasting one where I genuinely feel like I’ve found my soul-mate, but if I did not have him, I don’t know where I would be as a trans person, because I have no other safety net to fall back on. I dropped out of college due to suicidal ideation, then transitioned, which cost me my entire family. I’m vulnerable and I’m very aware of those vulnerabilities where if one or two horrible things happened the life I’ve built for myself would crumble, and that is in large part due to my own transness. Those vulnerabilities are why people detransition. It does get too hard for so many, but it’s not the fault of transness, but a reaction to it. We’re not enough generations past to forget the fact that trans women in their early 30s did grow up thinking they were perverts, and those cis people who put that into our heads are still very much around. For detransition to be less taboo and less rooted in transphobia, but rather, as honest as transition, then minds have to evolve so it isn’t a weapon. Today, it still very much is, and I think Torrey Peters has courage for tackling the subject so we can have these conversations.
CMG: For me there is a definite fearlessness on display by Peters not just in tackling the subject matter but presenting these characters often at their most vulnerable and slippery. Even a book of profane as this, some of the moments that really enraptured me are the quieter, reflective moments. I agree, while these characters are being sold by cis critics as messy people there is an honesty to them and perhaps that feels truest to me relating very hard to where these characters came from. That is on display in the flashbacks of being a trans ‘egg’ or just starting to explore their gender identity. There is something about Reese talking about growing up in the Midwest and taking to ice skating as a child where the moms who took their daughters to the rink become the matriarchy she craved that I found profoundly beautiful. I think some of our earliest signifiers as trans people is that we get drawn to the camaraderie of the group of people we identify with, aspire to be, and romanticize and it has this imprint on the rest of our lives. Like Reese, I felt that same type of yearning through sports with seeing boys and their fathers who loved baseball.
I will say, I came into this book being a trans man who never really thought about having children and I have finished the book with a lot more complicated feelings about that. Maybe I suppressed these feelings but also in being a trans man, fatherhood has not really been on the forefront of my mind for a few reasons. One, I absolutely do not want to be the one who carries the baby in a pregnancy (but it is perfectly fine for the trans men who choose to go that route) because I want bottom surgery. Secondly, trans masculine surgical innovation is severely lagging behind (I found myself nodding profusely with Torrey Peters calling out the lack of innovation in hormones on the podcast Gender Reveal and it is not just hormones but surgery thanks to medical gatekeeping stifling innovation) that even if I entered the realm of stealth presenting from top to bottom, I could not impregnate someone. Well, what about adoption? Thirdly, I am a queer, famously single, trans man with autism in alcohol recovery and due to so many conditions with being trans and the amount of work that comes with just trying to be yourself, I question whether I could have the stamina to raise another life. I can barely take care of myself! And yet, this book made me grapple with the idea of fatherhood more than at any point since socially and physically transitioning. I think to some degree I had Reese-like dreams of achieving a kind of domesticity in wanting to find an ideal partner but because nothing has worked out, I kind of shut down the desires and potential anxieties around ‘raising a family’. My cis male, divorced cousin gets asked all the time if he’s found ‘the one’ or does his latest girlfriend want kids at family get-togethers. I hear none of that. I cannot believe how old-fashioned this is coming off with me being pensive over possibly missing out on being a patriarch, but I think beyond the armor we put around ourselves as trans people- and this especially applies to Reese- there are some vulnerable desires that elude us and yet we find are very close to our core being.
Willow, how did this book hit you on an emotional level related to Reese’s yearning to mother a child?
WCM: It’s interesting that you bring up wanting to be a patriarch while also still having these desires to wear your queerness more loudly, because Reese has a similar crisis of faith over a more conservative mindset when she thinks about how Katrina’s pregnancy has made her pro-life in this one very real situation where she might be a mother to Katrina’s baby. Balancing how queer I want my life to be is a privilege, but it’s something that’s on my mind constantly. I could be entirely domestic if I want to be given my situation, and I do want to be a mother, and have wanted that my entire life, so Reese is a character who I felt very close towards. On a level of transness and mother/daughter relationships I’ve done this somewhat already from the simple fact of having been out for a while. I still have a really strong relationship with one girl in particular, who I talk to almost daily and our relationship is of a mother/daughter type. Harron Walker recently wrote about how Torrey Peters was like her trans mom earlier in transition and how their relationship has evolved with time, and is very much worth a read, and likewise my relationship with every trans girl I’ve mentored hasn’t always been so steady. I’ve had to cut one girl in particular out of my life entirely and I feel like I failed her in some ways, but it wasn’t necessarily my responsibility to make sure she was steady, which highlights how trans motherhood isn’t like cis motherhood.
This is all to say that the coupling of Reese and Ames is so painfully specific to trans mothering that their relationship dynamics are of course fraught with all those things that make mothers and daughters want to tear each other apart. But what I love about the mothering aspect in this book is that it’s tangible on those levels, but also in the very real longing that some trans women have to be real womb-having, pregnancy experiencing, child-rearing mothers, which is not always a characteristic of transness you see in the arts. We do see quite a lot of representation of trans women who fathered a child, for lack of a better word, and then transitioned, but Reese doesn’t want that, and I didn’t either. When I began my transition my regular doctor asked me if I wanted to freeze sperm so I could potentially be a parent later in life, and I told her I didn’t want to, but I did want to be a mom, and she was a little taken aback at that desire, and surprised that I would want those things. When I was a child I used to pray to God to fix me and a lot of that was tied up in playing house with other kids my age, typically taking on the role of mommy while little boys who were my friends would play a husband type.It was very very queer and straight at the same time, because transness complicates matters. But I’ve always longed for that type of mom and pop domesticity and the regular boring heterosexual life that my parents had, and it sometimes makes me feel like a bad trans person to want those things, but I do.
I’m a Reese. Maybe not as self-sabotaging or as manipulative, but all her desires are totally fucking clear to me, because they’re mine too.
CMG: I think there is a Reese in all trans people, particularly the often brutal, critical interiority she displays on the page. Although, I felt read for filth when Peters introduced the trans male character Ricky even if his appearances were so brief. An emotional wreck who is sobbing in the corner at a party because he’s heartbroken even though he ignored all the red flags of his past failed relationship? Couldn’t be me!
I have tried to be a mentor, and I would agree it is fraught. I do not think I was good at it, to be honest. I felt like I could barely carry my own weight a lot of the time, so I really was in no place to be there for others even if it felt like the right thing to do. I am still young and honestly, I prefer to hear the experiences of my elders. I know in the book, and to some degree Peters’ own statements, that there is a sense of trans people of a certain age not having elders or some parental force who shares your experience as a trans person. In some ways that was exactly how our cisheteronormative culture designed it to make it seem like you were the only person to feel this way about your gender and body. And look, the moment there is more exposure about us that shows this to be a falsehood, the right-wing and faux-liberals freak out. But I will say perhaps my most important learning experience of these last few years is understanding I still have a lot to learn about my community. I luckily found an elder who has taught me a lot about trans history and how the communities were always out there. They did not just live stealth or die of AIDS or take their own lives, but they had their networks, newsletters, and magazines. They were just incredibly excellent at hiding out of communal and self-preservation.
I am curious about how this book will read to cis audiences. I know to some degree, I should not care but I cannot help but rubberneck about this. I noticed the moment the book was listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK that several ‘BookTube’ personalities (it goes without saying this is a predominantly cis white digital space) started covering and reviewing the book on their YouTube channels. Whether we like it or not, cis people reading this in droves and getting exposed to this book will drive this toward being a best-seller and awards winner rather than just our community alone buying it and rewarding it. I think the character Katrina is a pretty relatable cis woman with faults and her own case of an identity crisis in passing for white when she is Asian-American, but this book is not designed to flatter cis readers at all. I think Peters has a really good call-out on how cis society reacts to a trans presence and that is in the aftermath of Katrina drunkenly outing Ames’ past as a transsexual. His gossipy office reacts to it like a game of telephone where they think Ames must be a trans man because of his masculine presentation in the office (later in the book, the Brooklyn trans girls crack that cis people can never identify trans masculinity if their life depended on it and I appreciated that truth bomb). I think about that moment because his office responds to this rumor in the most respectability politics by way of a GLAAD handbook on workplace transition. But they got it all wrong and did not bother to really get clarification from Ames, and so it becomes such a shitshow. They all still need to catch up.
WCM: The internet has made mentorship or whatever we want to call it so much easier. I grew up in a really small town and we did have one trans person who was out, but it was a kind of hyper-visibility where they were basically a celebrity due to their differences, but of the laughing stock variety, which almost certainly closeted me longer. When I came out for the first time when I was sixteen there were people online who helped me dose myself for hrt, but they were also hesitant to really engage with me because I was a teenager, and there were certainly implications of breaking the law by even talking to me about transness, because in 2007 it was wrapped up in all these fetishistic undertones. It sat right beside cross-dressing on the internet, and still does, but both these things are a little more defanged now. When I came out in 2011 again, there was one trans girl who helped me a lot, but she’s sadly no longer with us, and Ames’s whole speech about herdless Elephants felt very real to me. I think it’s more truthful for those trans people who grow up away from metropolitan areas, where transness can become hyper visible out of a lack of community and it makes it that much harder. There was another trans girl who I went to school with back home, who I was friendly with when I was younger, who I only became reacquainted with recently and she’s latched onto me as a mother figure. She’s super passable, but because of where she lives that aspect of her life is totally nullified, because everyone knows her history and they know who she was years ago. It’s tough. We do help each other, because we have to, but it’s exhausting sometimes, and doesn’t always work out, because transness is hard no matter where you live, who you are or what your standing is in life.
I love that Detransition, Baby doesn’t sugarcoat those facts and I hope that opens some eyes for cisgender readers, particularly those who maybe don’t even know a trans person in day to day life. Torrey Peters forces the reader to dive into the deeper end of trans life, to a somewhat intimidating effect for cisgender readers, but I think that’s also completely necessary, because the text doesn’t center their own ideas or interpretations of transness. It’s for us and Peters demands that the cisgender audience keep up. I’m thinking about how she begins with the metaphor of Reese sleeping with an HIV+ man being a metaphor for becoming pregnant, because she’s taking something of his and molding it to herself and having it grow in her body. THAT is decadent, sexy in some respects, and totally viable for a character like Reese, whose own flirtations with self-destruction are never too far from her internal monologue. We’re surrounded by death as trans people, there’s even a joke about this when Reese compares funerals to social events, and her thoughts are never too far away from her lack of a future, and the cognizant realization that her time is running out in creating a future where she can be a mother. That of course is the key contradiction in a book full of contradictions. Life and death, creation and self-destruction, trans women and motherhood.
CMG: I definitely think about the ways in which the internet became a window into a world where I could see the possibilities even if my then personal engagement with trans masculinity was still manifesting. Web 1.0, pre-influencers and social media, still had these forums, digital journals, blogs, and video logs that in retrospect were so important to me to really see what was out there when I had no real experiences to go on beyond my own. Those spaces and individuals did a service for putting themselves out there, and it has to be said in a time where nobody could really monetize off of YouTube the way people do now and much more risk than reward. I also think a lot about our elders, and by elders I mean those who belong very much to the analog era of how news and testimonials about gender clinics, surgeons, or special support groups were through print or even VHS and cassette tapes. Being a product of the internet age, we were not really trained to search for things in the same ways that the older generation had to- although I wish there was more frequent acknowledgment and communication with these elders and our age group. Elders like Ceyenne Doroshow are finally getting their dues but there are other incredible people who have done work behind the scenes that will never get the credit they deserve (especially in trans healthcare), because they do not really have a social media footprint beyond maybe a Facebook account or an old blogspot website that has not been active for years. So while I think it is something of an overgeneralization on Reese’s part that our generation has no elders, I do think there is some generation gap that is the product of how deeply transphobic our society is and has been for decades that puts us in the position of being Baby Elephants.
Our community has always been treated differently. While we belong under the LGBTQ umbrella, notions of transness from post-World War II to present have really evolved from a past where our lack of inclusion was in some circumstances the product of these splintered off groups who had very different views of transness and at times were combative against each other. While there were trans people present for gay liberation, it cannot really be said trans liberation happened in the same way as far as impact even if something like Compton’s Cafeteria Riots predated Stonewall and ‘Who threw the first brick?’ discourse. We still baffle certain cis gays and in some cases they have been as hostile towards us as your garden variety transphobe, unable to think of us in terms of gender and so incredibly pre-occupied in what it means for queer sexuality when a trans person is involved.
Detransition, Baby shows a lot of the fluid sexuality happening with Reese breaking her own rules in becoming a T4T lesbian when she sees Amy for the first time. Reese wanted to keep a distance because she wanted to consciously avoid the psychodrama (I would say really ripe for that Miriam Bale chestnut of ‘the persona swap’) where she was the mother, sister, and lover. But she goes in, goes hard, loves hard, and then has a hard out. There is a ton of sex in this book, and the sex scene you mention of Reese and her ‘Cowboy’ being the opener is a real test for the reader of whether they can deal with this really provocative situation in terms of action and its very explicit metaphor or they cannot. Again, Peters is savvy but also wants to eschew being programmatic, prescriptive reading for cis allies reading trans fiction for the first time.
The “Four Funerals and a Funeral” scene is my favorite scene of the whole book. It just goes in and does not pull its punches. It knows it is incredibly pitch black in humor and it feels right that within the scene there is some queer theory-reading scold who shakes their head at Reese’s observations about a dead trans girl who went out in a blaze of glory that was kind of badass. Martyrdom is all over this book and I think defines a lot of Ames and Reese’s actions and decisions, but this scene is exemplary ‘first as tragedy, then as farce’ feeling to that mindset. I think of it also as a section that is completely representative of the fact that no cis person could write this way about us. I mean, they could try but it would not come close. Interlopers like Ariel Schrag tried and came off as assholes for it because the observations were so obviously coming from a gawking outsider. I kept hearing leading up to the release of Detransition, Baby that this book may upset and anger people in the community and yet, I have not read a really strong critique of it from the community. I am sure it is out there and I hope it gets published rather than kicking around corners of the internet, because I want real trans criticism rather than this misconception that we are all supposed to like all the trans works that get made. I think this book is extremely self-aware about the fact that its world of white Brooklyn trans girls is not going to be able to represent the whole community (and Peters shows Reese being fully aware of her very white world and acknowledging the statistics over who gets killed for being trans is overwhelmingly trans women of color). I am curious how the book’s humor plays off to those uninitiated and if cis readers understand why these stories coming from us makes it different and more effective. Like, cis people, please spare me from your Caitlyn Jenner jokes, but Macy Rodman’s impersonation of Jenner is one of the funniest things I have ever heard (and only getting more dadaist thanks to Instagram filters). Patti Harrison’s comedy whether her standup or social media are also other examples of subversive work where I really only want to hear it from her because she is so fucking great, but you know, it is great if she gets attention from cis people too. Or to go from comedy to modern art, I think about Juliana Huxtable’s reclamation of Transsexual Empire, sharing a title with the infamous TERF screed by Janice Raymond (that did actual irreversible damage in the aftermath of its publishing), by making an art print of it. Is Amy Marvin’s “The First Trans Poem” just an amazing community inside joke or do cis people get both the jokes made in that poem and their culpability in engineering these weird spaces for trans people to be seen as ‘the first’ without proper citation? Detransition, Baby is a work that stands out in its subjectivity that while is not a complete reflection of my own experiences, I appreciate that it just goes there and complicates these characters page by page. I might not always see myself, but I see snapshots of our culture, of a certain time, place, and pockets of a community that I recognize.
WCM: I love that you bring up the angle of the persona swap, because I believe there is a psychological basis for its existence in transness. While growing up we’ll say things like, “oh, I want to be this person” or “so and so was transition goals” and then we mold ourselves out of these other people. This becomes even more complicated when we’re talking about things like mothering between trans women, as is the case with Reese and Amy, as each character begins to engage with the traits of the other in a relationship that is one of parental mentorship, sapphic desire and sisterhood all tangled into one. This element is common for trans women. It’s why a director like Jacques Rivette or David Lynch seems to exist in the atmosphere of our conception of whatever a trans canon might look like in the world of film. These directors understand the euphoria of licensing yourself in the skin of another, while learning who you are with that process. Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) is perhaps the best example of these; with its dress-up cinema of magical gesture becoming a thesis of whatever womanhood might want to be. In the real world we collide with this ceiling of what’s expected of women- trans and cis alike- but the concept of reinvention is not separate as an idea. It’s something that we share. Peters even dedicates the book to divorced cis women, because they understand what it means to rebuild yourself from nothing, as a total individual, without the safety-nets we construct for ourselves as part of a larger extension of whatever being a woman might mean, if anything.
The looseness and dexterity of that very thesis is exciting, and it can be seen all over this book. There’s a radical, revolutionary bent to maybe building a family with “as many mothers as possible” as Katrina puts it, and Peters completely follows-through with what that might mean, as a success and as a failure. It almost works out for Reese, Katrina and Ames, but they’re all too self-destructive in totally separate ways in order to see it totally followed through. But I like this shifting notion of what trans women can potentially feel as characters in a story like this one. I think particularly of my favourite scene in the book where Reese realizes that she doesn’t want any child, but this child, and when she realizes her emotions have been linked to this baby that she can now no longer have, because it was never quite hers to begin with, she understands that she’s lost a child. That’s such a brazenly new emotion for a trans woman to feel in an artistic scope. Yes, we’re familiar with the pangs of wanting motherhood and it being denied us, but here’s this totally new concept of miscarriage by association, from the hand of another, through their decision to get an abortion, but Reese fucked up and let herself believe too much that she really could be a mom. This scene, more than anything else in the book, resonated with me, because it allowed me to experience through Reese, the agony of loss that I feel whenever I see a mother with her toddler doing all the little things that come with a parent’s bond to her child. I want this desperately, as badly as Reese, and I am grateful that through this character I was able to tap into some very raw emotions that I usually bury into the deepest parts of me. Katrina interrogates Reese at one point why she so badly wants to be a mother, and it’s an unfair question, and with this entire section where Reese finally says the words, “I’ve lost my child,”, Peters answers. Reese is capable of loving something so much, that if it were taken from her, then the pain would be so severe, that she’d risk death to never know this about herself ever again.
CMG: I think that is important that you underline this feeling of new emotions in being trans and being put in a situation that is not expected for us to ever be in. I think that is why I emerged with these new or rather untapped contemplations about potentially leading a family after reading the book. This type of situation could have been rendered as miserablism (that tragic transsexual trope that is baked into so much media) in the fact that we, due to our circumstances, are often hit over the head with what we cannot do (especially when it involves things we want to do) on a daily basis. But there is a potency to feeling like we are on the cusp of something achievable and viable only for things to turn left. The reaction to that lost potential can be devastating and telling about yourself. Although what Reese does may be the most extreme reaction (that then takes on a little bit of that “Four Funerals and a Funeral” energy), I can pinpoint scenarios, compare, and say, “Yes, I’ve been there”, emotionally speaking. It can happen in many ways- like falling in love- in terms of believing that you can live as this idealized person that you aspire to be for another, but you realize there are still things not in your control to clinch that type of station. The proposition in the book always felt flawed from the moment Ames confided to Reese he hadn’t even told Katrina about the co-parenting idea before he went to her, but goodness, I found myself rooting for Reese to get what she wanted even though nothing ever quite felt concrete. Ames, in the last throes of the book, returns to Reese’s “The Sex and the City Problem” that she presented to the readers earlier in the book, a theory of the choices for women of a certain age that defines cis womanhood (and now trans womanhood) and becomes a question of reinvention for Ames, Katrina, and Reese. It is open-ended what Ames’ suggestion portends, particularly in what we realize is still at play for these characters in the final pages of the book. I have read this book multiple times and I probably would waiver on any predictions for what happens next for these people collectively and individually. But I hope they get whatever they want.
WCM: The ellipsis ending is beautifully rendered, because I think it comes back around to that question or reinvention, or for these three people, of circling back to start. I like that I don’t have a good idea of what might happen next, and the not knowing made me long to spend more time with these people, but more than that, it made me want to be more present in my own community here in Canada. It made me appreciate further the complexities, failures and grace of what living as a trans person may offer. And being ten years out of the closet now, I sometimes need those reminders. In addition to that it made me excited for whatever the next chapter in Torrey Peters career may be and for the future of the art we create going forward. Detransition, Baby is not a first and it is not the first chapter of transgender art, but I do think it will be seen as a key text of this period years from now. I know that I haven’t been able to get it out of my head ever since reading and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
This is such an incredibly rich and thoughtful conversation; thank you!! I especially love the idea of mutually-assured immolation across cis/trans boundaries as opposed to it being a narrative about “messy trans characters”; it really puts Katrina in a more appreciable light. This book is so fucking smart.