DETRANSITION, BABY features the type of queer representation I’ve only dreamt of reading: chaotic, complex, dazzling, not particularly redemptive, and so excruciatingly honest that it would have made Carrie Fisher proud. It’s honest enough that, at times, I felt like it would only be polite to look away and grant its characters some privacy.
The true marker of representation isn’t mere inclusion in a story, but whether you are permitted to be seen in all of your messy, ugly glory; if your truth is considered to be acceptable for public consumption, or if by simply existing, you’re likely to cause mass pearl-clutching. Unfortunately, this type of inclusion remains hard to come by, as the mainstream market shies away from stories about diverse characters who aren’t packaged in a way that they’re comfortable with.
But in DETRANSITION, BABY, one of the first books written by a trans woman to be published by a big-five publishing house, Torrey Peters refuses to reduce herself and her gloriously messy story for the sake of cisgender comfort. LGBTQ+ authors and authors of color are often subjected to respectability politics, encouraged to make their characters and situations as unoffensive as possible to avoid scaring white, cisgender-heterosexual readers away. This isn’t only demeaning, as creators are told that they must censor and tame themselves in order for majority audiences to be willing to hear their stories and consider their characters human, but it also makes for bad art. Such characters may be lovable and popular, but are often also shallow and bland. (A prime example of this is Steven Yeun’s character, Glenn, on the TV show The Walking Dead.)
Peters outright rejects this notion and instead embraces her community in its entirety, allowing her trans characters to not only be lovable, kind, generous, and compassionate, but also spiteful, selfish, bitter, and cruel. No matter their faults, they are still worthy of empathy and respect. In a 2018 interview, she explained her approach to storytelling, saying, “Trans women are fucked up and flawed, and I’m very interested in the ways in which trans women are fucked up and flawed.”
DETRANSITION, BABY is the realization of this interest; the book fully embraces the complicated, painful, and joyous chaos that makes up many queer lives. It centers on the relationships between three (or, as Peters puts it, two-and-a-half) women: Reese, Ames, and Katrina. Reese, a transgender woman prone to self-destructive behavior, was once in a relationship with Ames (formerly Amy), a transgender woman who has publicly detransitioned but still considers himself trans. Ames has just gotten his boss, Katrina, a straight cisgender woman who’s initially unaware of his past, pregnant.
The three are brought together when Ames finds the idea of being a father (not a parent, but the gendered implication of being a father) too much to bear, but thinks he could manage if Reese were to co-parent with him and Katrina, creating a queer family rather than one in which he would be the masculine half of the parental unit. Reese, who desperately wants to be a mother, agrees. They approach Katrina. Hilarity, headaches, and tears ensue.
Peters’ brilliance is in exploring concepts of transition and detransition through the lens of a pregnancy — just as Reese has always known she wants to be a mother, she has always known that she is a woman and wishes to live as one. Ames knows he is a woman, but has found that it’s too exhausting to live as one; by becoming Ames, he had to terminate Amy. Katrina wants to be a mother, but doesn’t know if that’s what she is. She’s afraid of becoming one alone. Birth, rebirth, termination. Cisgender people may not understand the intricacies of transitioning and detransitioning, but can likely empathize with the turmoil of an unplanned pregnancy.
DETRANSITION, BABY delves fully into the messiness of both detransitioning and pregnancy, asking difficult questions along the way: What does it mean to be a mother? What does it mean to be a father? Who’s allowed to be one? What does it mean to be neither?
This book is at its strongest when Peters is unconcerned with how cis readers may react to her honesty. Reese, who entangles herself with violent, controlling, unavailable men, bluntly states that she never feels more like a woman than when she is dominated, owned, treated like property. She understands that historically, womanhood has been intertwined with men’s violence and acts accordingly, explaining,
“Reese wanted […] to get hit in a way that would affirm, once and for all, what she wanted to feel about her womanhood: her delicacy, her helplessness; her infuriating attractiveness […] The quiet dignity of saying ‘ow’ anytime a man gets a little rough—asserting that you are a woman and thus delicate and capable of sustaining harm […] She didn’t make the rules of womanhood; like any other girl, she had inherited them […] The New York Times regularly published op-eds by famous feminists who pointedly ruled her out as a woman. Let them. She’d be over here, getting knocked around, each blow a minor illustration of her place in a world that did its gendering work no matter what you called it. […] Hit Reese. Show her what it means to be a lady.“
It’s fucked up and difficult to read, but it’s her truth. You can take it or leave it, but Peters insists that Reese has the right to say it.
Ames speaks of his detransition — and the taboo of detransitioning — rather simply: He admits that it was too hard, too exhausting. He was tired of trying to pass and being punished for it. Peters doesn’t force him to explain himself beyond that, because there’s nothing to justify. The desire for life to be just a little bit easier when it’s been difficult for so long is enough. Peters doesn’t care if her cis readers won’t understand; in fact, she knows they probably won’t — at least, not fully. She doesn’t even care if her other characters don’t understand. She chooses to tell his truth anyway. This, too, is remarkable.
Of all the relationships in this book, I actually found the complicated one between Katrina and Reese to be the most compelling. Reese’s “mom-crush” on Katrina is a very realistic depiction of the balancing act between platonic, romantic, and sexual attraction in that most queer people fail to completely master. Katrina, on the other hand, is intrigued by queerness, the idea of a queer family, and Reese. She’s carrying Ames’ child and is determined to make a relationship with him work, but she doesn’t not take opportunities to blur the lines between a co-parenting arrangement and not-quite-platonic, not-quite romantic relationship with Reese. Like I said — it’s complicated.
But DETRANSITION, BABY falters when Peters deviates from her unapologetic, immersive storytelling. The book is littered with mini-essays on a number of topics, including womanhood, gender, motherhood/fatherhood, and identity, and while they’re interesting and insightful, they fail to integrate with what’s happening in the world of our characters. The resulting narrative breaks are as jarring as catching sight of a boom mic in the corner of a movie frame; they disrupt the story and leave you feeling discombobulated.
An example of this occurs when Reese, Katrina, and a friend and trans woman, Thalia, catch sight of an anti-trans slur painted on the side of a wall:
“Reese can’t make sense of it. She and Thalia have come fresh from a funeral. As she stands there gaping, anti-transgender bills ferment in various state senates. Even the liberal media—The New York Times and The New Yorker and New York Magazine—have taken to publishing anti-trans screeds penned by conservatives, the editors disingenuously wringing their hands and pleading ‘balance’ or ‘wait for the science.’ Radical feminists and Christian fundamentalists have teamed up to insist that trans women are all pedophiles, that such predators can’t be trusted around children or in women’s spaces. Every year, the list of murdered trans women, most of color, grows longer. Among those cases, the number of victims who were misgendered in their own obituaries is greater than the number of victims whose murderer has been identified.”
This paragraph interrupts the conversation that Reese, Katrina, and Thalia were having, and while it’s well-written, it breaks the flow of the scene and left me feeling like I had just stepped away from the book and read the first paragraph of an op-ed.
The mini-essays themselves aren’t the only problem, as Peters introduces their topics in ways that feel artificial and render her characters as mere mouthpieces for her to deliver her own thoughts on a number of issues. In the midst of an emergency conversation about a character who has been outed, Peters introduces a large block of text on the topic of detransitioning by having another character ask,
“So in all earnestness: Does detransition count the same as transition in terms of the respect it has to be given?”
This is how we’re supposed to believe a character spoke in the midst of an emergency. I’m sympathetic to Peters likely feeling pressured to make an entire lexicon of trans vocabulary, history, and politics accessible to those unfamiliar with it, but at particularly unsubtle points like this one, it felt like she was less invested in telling a story than she was in creating scenarios that would allow her to write out her own thoughts on various subjects.
Peters also comes across as being uninvested in both Ames and Katrina (Reese, on the other hand, she seems to adore) but especially neglects Ames — which is interesting, considering how critical his storyline is to the entirety of the book. The present version of himself appears relatively infrequently throughout the book; once he introduces Katrina and Reese to each other, he fades into the background, arguably acting as more of a supporting character than a main one. When Peters does write about him, she largely focuses on his past as Amy and his life with Reese, examining the circumstances that led to his deciding to detransition — beyond the first few chapters of DETRANSITION, BABY, we don’t see much of his wrestling with the idea of being a parent, or learn about how his feelings about Reese and Katrina evolve throughout the book, or understand the type of future he wants to have. And although this provides insight into why some trans people choose to detransition and raises questions about what “transitioning” and being trans really means, it mainly results in his being The Character Who Detransitioned rather than Ames, a well-developed character as carefully crafted as Reese.
And not only is Ames as a character unconvincing; his relationship with Katrina is, too. Peters doesn’t take the time to portray them behaving as a functional couple, or even a couple at all. We’re told the following about Ames’ and Katrina’s relationship: they have good sex, Ames got Katrina pregnant, and they’re apparently in love with each other. But we don’t get to see anything for ourselves — there are no conversations about why they want to be parents together, and they never engage in actual conflict. Even when one of them does something profoundly shitty to the other, the issue is never meaningfully resolved; one isn’t given the space on the page to forgive the other, and it feels less like they moved on and more like they were forgotten by their author.
I was glad to find out that DETRANSITION, BABY is being adapted into a TV series, because I do think that the nuances of Reese’s, Ames’, and Katrina’s stories and relationship dynamics will be more easily conveyed through the screen. I suspect that this may be a NORMAL PEOPLE situation, in which the Hulu show, by virtue of its strong cast, arguably did a better job of depicting the complicated chemistry between its characters than the book does. Some things are just more easily felt when they’re seen. When DETRANSITION, BABY was good, it was brilliant, and I hope the show is picked up by a smart network that will understand how to fill in its blanks.
Ultimately, though, I do think that DETRANSITION, BABY deserves all the praise and attention it’s received. It’s painfully honest, refreshingly immodest, one of the queerest books I’ve ever read, and a striking addition to the canon. I’m hopeful that its mainstream success will push publishers to be more ambitious in their acquisition of non-straight, non-cisgender, non-white stories, and cease demanding that diverse characters be respectable in order for their stories to be told. As Peters has demonstrated, respectability is too often dishonest, simplistic, and just plain boring. Forget being unproblematic and wholesome; bring on the shitshow, baby! I think we’re finally ready for it.