JULY 16, 2021
“IF THE BOOK we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?” Kafka once wrote to a friend. “We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply. […] A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Judging by the flow of commentary on Torrey Peters’s debut novel, Detransition, Baby, there are a fair few trans readers who’ve recently suffered injuries. For me, the punctum came late, when the titular detransitioner entered a batting cage in Queens longing for his lost dog:
Back before all this gender shit, her body was like a good dog. Maybe it wasn’t fully her, but her dog did everything she wanted: she moved so fast, pulled himself up trees, sprinted through forests and across fields, giddy and waggy. […] In his detransition, [Ames] supposed he’d get his dog back, but he didn’t. He has simply lost the vibrancy of both pain and pleasure.
For all that transition has entailed a return to myself, this passage reminded me of how I miss having a companionable relation to an athletic body. At times, keeping an eye on my three-year-old at the playground, my attention will wander to the nearby basketball courts. Picturing them now, I see a steady reel of crossover dribbles and reverse layups. But when I remember playing basketball in middle school, the image is choppier. There’s that shining moment: the half-court shot that implausibly went in. Then there’s the bus ride that left bruises on my back, and the neighboring middle-school gym that’s etched in my memory: as I came out of the women’s locker room for warmups, our best player put his arm around me. A few minutes later, the entire team was laughing. I froze, then slowly looked over my shoulder. He had plastered a sanitary pad onto my back.
Ames’s trip to the batting cages reminded me of embodied pleasures I’d wrapped in bad feelings, but for which I had not entirely stopped yearning. Since finishing the novel, I’ve found myself getting into some pickup games with regulars at the courts, and taking up a mom friend’s invitation to an ultimate frisbee meetup at a nearby park. It’s been a rush getting back onto fields and courts, but afterward I can’t shake the fear that those teenage boys might be laughing at me again, or that somehow it could get awkward with the other parents.
What does it mean that my little arc of athletic redemption was set in motion by a literary depiction of a detransitioner? Ames’s experience in the batting cage spoke to unhealed parts of myself, and helped me at least try to live more fully in my body. In this, it did the work of a good support group. But insofar as the scene was focalized through this specific character, it amplified some unpleasant questions in my mind: will others inevitably see all this sports stuff as drawing me away from trans womanhood, as bringing a new incoherence to my gender? Consciously I know that such questions are rooted in baseless sexist notions, but this knowledge only goes so far in assuaging my spontaneous anxieties.
In 1987, Sandy Stone published her essay “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.” While the title evoked the specter of detransition, the text itself encouraged its readers to affirm more thoroughly and publicly their gender histories. Stone called on passing trans people to abandon the “plausible histories” that gender clinics had compelled them to fabricate — narratives of the past aimed at conveying to casual friends and coworkers the impression that they had lived their entire lives in their chosen genders — and instead to “rearticulate their lives not as a series of erasures” but in ways that could register the “myriad of alterities” they’d inhabited. Stone saw this as a necessary step in the articulation of a trans counter-discourse, which she characterized as “a story disruptive to the accepted discourses of gender, which originates from within the gender minority itself and which can make common cause with other oppositional discourses.”
Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby — already entering the canon of trans culture — is worth reading in relation to Stone’s manifesto, not least because both texts play provocatively upon the specter of detransition, of post-transsexual lives, while simultaneously coaxing from their readers affirmations of trans experience in all its complex messiness. The juxtaposition of these texts can also help us register some of the uncertain prospects for trans counter-discourse in the present.
Peters’s novel tells the story of three characters — Ames, Reese, and Katrina — who are in the process of deciding whether or not to raise a child together. Katrina has just learned that she is pregnant. Ames is game for co-parenting, but he wants Reese — “his transsexual ex-girlfriend” — to be involved. Not surprisingly, Katrina is a bit dubious. Much of the action of the novel takes place in the intervals opened up by Katrina’s requests for some space to think. In these intervals, we are treated to a series of compelling vignettes that sketch out Reese’s and Ames’s backstories.
There’s a way of reading Detransition, Baby that would treat Ames and Reese as doppelgängers. The two characters chart varied life paths as white transfeminine people of a certain generation. Both grew up in the Midwest, having inherited money for college from their families. They both even seem to have played baseball as children, though Reese would rather you didn’t know it: “Reese’s sense of her own gender does not allow her to make sports analogies, but like, Katrina is doing the thing where the guy who throws the ball does so with no spin whatsoever.” Here, the narrative voice, focalized through an indignant Reese, slips into a feigned ignorance: a few sports terms — pitcher, knuckleball — are translated into the prose of an outsider. Moments such as these register a discretion at the level of form, striking for a novel that generally makes a point of being unsparing in its characterizations.
An uncharitable way of reading these moments of discretion would be to frame them as part of an elaborate narrative strategy to shield Reese — the trans woman for whom “detransition” is not a specter — from the shadow of masculinity, and in turn to project myriad masculine-coded embodiments and experiences onto her doppelgänger, Amy/Ames. Amy is the one who punches a cabinet in frustration. S/he also takes a swing at the man with whom Reese is cheating. S/he is shown dissociating while having sex with a woman. S/he masturbates to forced femme porn. S/he has a history with sports. S/he doesn’t always pass, initially putting Reese in mind of an ex-boyfriend. S/he is outed at work and then mistaken for a trans man. And, in the coup de grâce, s/he accidentally gets her girlfriend pregnant. Ames is thus made to carry a host of abject, masculine-coded experiences.
This is not to say that Reese comes off in a flattering light by contrast. Far from it. But even her worst moments — when she sabotages herself, violates others’ trust, or voices retrograde views — generally can appear as “feminine” sorts of mistakes. As a former friend says of her, “Reese is the only trans girl in this city whose incessant drama really has almost nothing to do with the fact that she’s trans. Her drama is just what she makes for herself as a woman.” Or so the novel would have us imagine. Its narrative strategy of shielding Reese from the shadow of masculinity carries a faint echo of the old gender clinics’ “plausible histories.” It’s not that Reese is stealth, or that the novel tries to make her pass in readers’ eyes, but that every vignette from her childhood and early adulthood seems to cast her in a feminine light, in stark contrast to her double, the detransitioner.
This is, admittedly, an ungenerous reading. Perhaps I’m still smarting that the novel held up a mirror for me in the figure of Ames. Regardless, though, it’s hard for me to persist in this negative take, if for no other reason than that the novel does a pretty effective job of interrogating its own narrative strategies:
To say that Amy had never before had sex as a woman was the kind of thing that trans activists would take issue with. Feel free to peruse the Tumblr-Twitter industrial complex for all the ways that “trans women have always been women” — even before they transitioned. But for Amy it was the first time she saw herself fucking as a woman.
Here, the book seems to write against its own approach to Reese’s backstory, aligning its rose-hued portrayal of her past with an overwrought online discourse. Elsewhere too, the book’s protagonists offer caustic assessments of the discourse. Ames observes that his generation of white trans women “basically invented screaming online.”And then, when Reese sends to Katrina a sharply written email about the gentrification of queerness, weaponizing, in a moment of pain and anger, the sorts of arguments that circulate online, Ames texts in reply: “You are such a hypocrite.” The novel, to quote Reese in one of her more winning moments, “remember[s its] own bullshit, thank you very much.”
But it’s not just the novel and its protagonists who are fed a dose of reflexive self-criticism. Readers like me are also invited to reflect on the self-undermining quality of our own suspicion-laden interpretive practices. Early on in the novel, having recently come out to Katrina as a former trans woman, Ames sees his potential co-parent “staring at him across a conference table, her eyes almost unfocused, the way one stares to make sense of an optical illusion”:
She was making him into a woman in her mind, an exercise that he’d done countless times himself but in reverse — the ugly involuntary method by which his hateful vision broke a trans woman’s face down into component parts, then remodeled them in the brain to strip away the apparent feminization and see what she had looked like before transition. His brain was an asshole, because the result of this exercise was to triple his insecurity. Given how easily and involuntarily he did it, even while aware of the high fucked-up quotient, he imagined how frequently other people without his sensitivity had done it to him.
Were we to translate Ames’s “ugly involuntary method” into a reading practice, we’d arrive at something like my uncharitable take on the novel. There, I was essentially breaking down Reese’s face, seeing in Ames’s relatively abject backstory a plausible history of what Reese “had looked like before transition.” But perhaps there are other, more generative ways of reading across these two characters, whose lives variously circle each other, and whose experiences can imaginatively be combined into a range of composite portraits of transfeminine lives.
Beyond offering some resources for reflexive self-criticism, there are other ways the novel usefully pushes at the boundaries of today’s “accepted discourses of gender” — discourses that form less a monolith than a cacophonous field. For one, there’s what the author does with the specter of detransition, not least through her choice of title. In spite of everything, I actually developed a soft spot for Ames and found the rendering of his life’s vicissitudes plausible and compelling. His character was most appealing for me in the moments when he conscientiously demurred from saying much about transness, even as the text’s free indirect discourse made sure we knew he had rather thoughtful things to say about all this gender stuff after all.
With its characterization of Ames, then, the novel did something for me that I wouldn’t necessarily have expected: bring the figure of the detransitioner in from the cold. But to what end? Now is probably the moment to finally bring up the anti-trans online brigades, along with that wretched petition against Torrey Peters’s novel, “signed,” embarrassingly, by anonymous critics hiding behind the names of Emily Dickinson and Daphne du Maurier. I’ve held off discussing this controversy until now because Peters admirably writes as if no TERFs are watching, and this enabling fiction is worth at least trying to sustain.
In anti-trans discourse, the figure of the detransitioner serves myriad functions. That some people apparently regretted their transition or came to experience it as a cul-de-sac is instrumentalized in arguments that oppose trans-supportive health care for young people. More broadly, detransition is framed as the proper telos of trans people’s individual lives, and — in a metaphorical extrapolation — of “gender ideology” more generally. With enough social pressure, TERFs suggest, this whole thing could be put behind us. “TRANS IS OVER! (If you want it).”
In the face of this sort of rhetoric, backed by a drumbeat of social violence, it’s not unreasonable that many trans people would see detransition in starkly negative terms: as a mark of personal failure and a betrayal of the community. For me, this negative view was put under pressure in 2007 or so, when I found myself offering emotional support to a former trans man. Like Ames, my interlocutor had an interest in not remaindering their period of transness, and of finding ways to integrate their “myriad of alterities” into some roughly coherent narrative of a life. Torrey Peters’s novel invites us to consider how those who have unwound their transitions could come to be seen by trans communities, were the figure of the detransitioner effectively disarticulated from its ideological capture by the anti-trans brigades.
If detransition is an ideologically charged notion, motherhood remains ideologically supercharged. In a novel that takes aim at “the accepted discourses of gender,” it’s only appropriate that the question of motherhood should loom large. Detransition, Baby can be read as a transfeminine rewriting of a literary microgenre that found its form in 2018 with the publication of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. In Torrey Peters’s novel, each of the three protagonists — Ames, Reese, and Katrina — grapples with a version of the question, whither motherhood? Katrina, who is pregnant, has to decide whether she wants to co-parent with Ames and Reese, or if, instead, she should go ahead with the abortion she has scheduled. Ames has to decide whether there’s a way to forge, for someone like himself, a sort of parenthood that’s closer to motherhood than fatherhood, or at least that doesn’t collapse into the latter. And Reese has to decide whether she can trust that making a family with Ames and Katrina is a path to the sort of Midwestern motherhood that forms her ego ideal. These plot-driving questions are set against a more specifically trans discourse of motherhood, pertaining to the sorts of care and nurturance that we aspire to provide for each other, and are shadowed by other sorts of reproduction, as in the novel’s opening evocation of bugchasing.
In this context, it’s worth revisiting the aforementioned “bullshit” that Reese recalls in one of her more self-reflective moments. The notion in question was the so-called “Sex and the City Problem,” which “no generation of trans women had ever solved”:
In finding meaning, Reese would argue — despite the changes wrought by feminism — women still found themselves with only four major options to save themselves, options represented by the story arcs of the four female characters of Sex and the City. Find a partner, and be a Charlotte. Have a career, and be a Samantha. Have a baby, and be a Miranda. Or finally, express oneself in art or writing, and be a Carrie. Every generation of women reinvented this formula over and over, Reese believed, blending it and twisting it, but never quite escaping it. Yet for every generation of trans women prior to Reese’s, the Sex and the City Problem was an aspirational problem. Only the rarest, most stealth, most successful of trans women ever had the chance to even confront it. The rest were barred from all four options at the outset.
The Sex and the City Problem is one of two notions deployed by the protagonists of Detransition, Baby to condense broad historical claims about trans experience. The other notion appears in the extended metaphor of the Juvenile Elephants. Reese and Ames’s generation of white trans women — those who came out in the early 2010s — are cast, in this metaphor, as a group of orphaned elephants, whose lack of socialization has caused them to lash out in destructive ways. The missing mothers in this metaphor are previous generations of transfeminine people, who are described as having been taken by the AIDS crisis and other death-dealing forces. Read together, the Sex and the City Problem and the Juvenile Elephants metaphor project an image of a generation lost at sea, struggling to chart meaningful life trajectories with navigation devices borrowed from the straight, cis world.
Friends of mine will be able to confirm that I’m a bit of a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to generational claims. I was probably more annoyed by the OK boomer thing than were my boomer parents. So perhaps I’m unusually predisposed to have trouble with the stark generational stories told by Reese and Ames — stories that seem to be serving for some commentators as interpretive keys to the novel and its protagonists. It probably also doesn’t help that it’s hard to locate myself in the generational frames set out by these characters. I came out during college in 2003 or so. The trans world I knew at the time was populated mostly by transmasculine figures, including people of my generation and a bit older who were attending True Spirit conferences, swapping zines, helping to organize Camp Trans, and keeping in touch over LiveJournal. This was a small subcultural scene, to be sure, but it nevertheless provided ways of understanding gender that resonated with me, offering some sense of shared community. Friends took me along to the annual Philly Trans Health Conference and turned me on to various writers, including Sandy Stone, Susan Stryker, Michelle O’Brien, and Riki Wilchins. These women writers were not surrogate mothers, but nevertheless their words helped my baby trans self to imagine some plausible and even appealing futures.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve received two announcements that babies are on the way from transmasculine friends who came up during this early 2000s moment. These announcements arrived a few days after I’d read an essay by Francisco Fernández Romero about trans people’s efforts at coalition building during the recent mass movement for abortion rights in Argentina — organizing that called to mind similar efforts that Emi Koyama and other US-based transfeminists were doing, on a smaller scale, in the early 2000s.
Over the past few years, I’ve also kept up with a handful of Facebook groups for transfeminine people who are looking to share resources and support on the topic of inducing lactation. A mom friend I know from California regularly responds to new group members’ questions about how they can prepare to nurse their newborn babies. As varied and often painful as our relations to pregnancy, parenthood, or family formation are and no doubt will remain, it’s difficult for me to take on board the notion that thirty-something trans people — including those hailing from the same relatively privileged backgrounds as Ames, Reese, and myself — are a generation adrift when it comes to navigating these questions.
Whether we are tacking toward or away from parenthood, we’re not alone in doing so, nor are we compelled to improvise from scratch. Those who have moved toward parenthood are not singular exceptions, “riding around the mangrove forests on a pair of manatees or something,” as Reese imagines Babs, a transfeminine mom she vaguely knows, to be doing. We’re more likely to be meandering around nearby playgrounds with that vaguely bored look typical of newish parents. Our attention tends to wander. Sometimes we yearn for the ground to shift beneath our feet. But invariably, these reveries are cut short. Our child might ask for another push on the swings. Or one of their playmates might again ask us to explain ourselves, as Riki Wilchins described in 2012.
As a social comedy, Detransition, Baby cuts to the core. But for those who might be inclined to take the characters’ extended metaphors and quickly improvised efforts at family-formation as crystallizing a shared generational conundrum, it’s worth holding in mind the extent to which the novel invites us to read with a jaundiced eye the foibles and formulations of its protagonists. The histories they tell, for better or worse, are of the semi-plausible sort.
Amanda Armstrong-Price is an assistant professor of history at Fordham University. She is on the editorial board of Spectre Journal and is currently working on a book project entitled Domestic Life on the Lines: Railway Paternalism and the Sexual Politics of Labor in Britain and Colonial India, 1851–1922.