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Lit “Detransition, Baby” doesn’t reflect the trans experience (but that’s okay)

Mar. 11, 2022

When my book club decided to read Detransition, Baby, I was overjoyed. The Twitter discourse about Torrey Peters’ 2021 novel had been unavoidable, blowing up my feed for months. Everyone wanted to weigh in on Peters’ big break into the literary scene, her take on detransition, and her lovable, dramatic characters. Even more than that, everyone wanted to weigh in on other people’s opinions. 

Detransition, Baby follows three characters: Reese, Ames, and Katrina. Ames, a former trans woman who has detransitioned back into a man, discovers early on in the novel that Katrina, his girlfriend and coworker, is pregnant. Treating the possibility of fatherhood as impending doom, Ames begins reflecting on his former relationship with Reese, a trans woman. The relationships between these three people function as the lynchpin of the novel, alongside their differing viewpoints on queerness and family.

When it comes to style, Peters offers many charming moments of humor that keep this from being just another trauma-centered narrative about trans people. Reese even makes the offhand assertion that “many people think a trans woman’s deepest desire is to live in her true gender, but actually it is to always stand in good lighting.” This humor keeps us on our toes and buoys the more serious topics pertaining to the characters’ humanity. 

Peters also doesn’t shy away from poetics in her prose, making the novel engaging all the way through. Oftentimes, this is thanks to Peters’ propensity for surprisingly beautiful one-liners such as “when you’re old and alone and feeling sorry for yourself, your daughter will roll her eyes at your theatrics and bring you in from the cold” in her discussion of trans mother-daughter dynamics. The novel’s timeline is fragmented and constantly retrospective, nodding to the ways that queer storytelling can break literary rules. It’s clear that Peters has firsthand experience in trans communities because of her narrative style. Her storytelling employs extensive inside knowledge of these communities, specifically as it relates to the delayed adolescence of queer people, lost archives of queer people following the AIDS crisis, and queer people’s oral and performance traditions. These are the kinds of things one learns from being there.

Detransition, Baby’s strength lies not in its description of detransitioning, but in its recognition of our discomfort in discussing detransition. In trans and cis communities alike, no one knows how to talk about it. No one knows what to say or what’s safe to criticize. How can we validate the experiences of those who detransition? What is the detransitioned person’s relation to queerness and transness?

Peters makes salient points about the difference between being trans and living as trans; Detransition, Baby is a novel about both. Being a trans woman is something one feels, something one knows to be true about herself. Living as trans, Peters argues, requires a conscious choice to weather the storm and persevere through the isolation which cis culture creates for trans women. One can be trans without choosing to live as trans. Reese does both in her open identity as a trans woman. Ames’s position is a bit more complex, having lived as trans and then consciously chosen to detransition. His character continually interrogates whether he is a trans woman—even when he isn’t actively living as trans. Ames uses his connections to women to ruminate on this question, his relationship with Reese being one such cause for reflection. When Katrina, the token cis character, gets pregnant, fatherhood challenges Ames’s comfort with his newly rediscovered masculinity.

The fact that Detransition, Baby is being publicized on such a large scale means it’s telling all types of readers about these aspects of trans experience. For me, this visibility feels both good and bad. On one hand, being able to talk about these kinds of things without censorship and with general collective permission is a huge step for queer discourse. 

On the other, this disconcerts me as a trans reader. Peters details subversive topics—trans people’s relation to kink, material wealth, community hierarchies, dating abuse as a method of gender affirmation—in clear, unavoidable prose. In this, I also see my communities. Yet where my communities are closed and kept entirely outside of the cis gaze, Peters’ imagined community is laid bare for anyone to see. Nothing protects these trans experiences from the outside, cis opinion. The novel has many moments that err on the side of oversimplification, pandering to cis readers’ need for education.

The most dramatic of these simplifications is the elephant metaphor, an extended analogy about elephant communities which Peters employs to discuss the eclectic and ever-sacrificing nature of queer families. She writes, “Trans women are juvenile elephants… With our strength, we can destroy each other with ease. But we are a lost generation… [Older generations] left behind only scattered exhausted voices to tell the angry lost young when and how the pain might end—to tell us what will be lost when we lash out with our considerable strength, or use the fragile shards of what remain of our social networks to ostracize, punish, and retaliate against those who behave in a traumatized matter.” The analogy is repeated multiple times as the novel continues, perhaps intended to be compelling and inspirational. Ames later asks Katrina if she “would put a traumatized juvenile elephant back where the poachers killed her mother.” 

Frankly, I don’t believe that Peters expects enough from her readers. I find this metaphor to be an upsetting, strange way of talking about HIV and trans experience—comparing trans women to great beasts of the wild who also happen to be too young to hold their own. The elephant analogy is elementary, a way to explain transness to young kids instead of the book’s critically engaged readership.

Detransition, Baby obviously doesn’t lack all types of depth. The novel does a startlingly good job of considering relationships between mothers and daughters who aren’t blood-related, partners who must reckon with dishonesty, and ex-lovers attempting to rebuild platonic bridges. Peters has found challenging material in each of these relationships and the forgiveness, devotion, and discernment necessary to maintain them. Yet while these relationships have beautiful nuances in actions and plot events, the way that the characters contemplate these relationships doesn’t do them justice. The dialogue feels cliche at times, like Katrina’s startlingly clunky line, “Ugh…This is what I get for freshening my makeup before you came in. Backfire!”

Peters makes trans communities look a little too surface-level, reducing them to one-on-one relationships without the context of trans collectivity. Her emphasis is on gender presentation and the way gender manifests in dating, which are trans topics. Still, with this narrow focus, Peters loses any opportunity to challenge topics beyond the individual, leaving larger conversations about trans media, trans mutual aid, and trans futurism at the door. Peters remains far from the heart of queerness within the novel. The book closes, the characters meet their resolutions, and I realize how little empathy I have for every one of them. I had nothing big-picture to hold on to. I couldn’t take any life lessons with me. Every action taken by the characters was shallow and devastatingly subjective, incapable of reaching outside of the work to tell me something new about developing selfhood or interpersonal connections.

Yet Peters doesn’t do the trans community a complete disservice. Detransition, Baby is most definitely not a great work of trans literature, but it is a stepping stone. Ames is right in his articulation of the great lesson of (de)transition: “Maybe, if you don’t know what you want, you just do something anyway, and everything will change, and then maybe that will reveal what you really want.”

Peters doesn’t seem to be trying to articulate all aspects of trans identity. Rather, Detransition, Baby makes a move. It isn’t a perfect move, but it’s one that’s starting conversations. She sticks to what American audiences know in literature: one-on-one relations and somewhat surface-level storylines in known, traditional family structures. With little subtlety but much specificity, she uses this collective familiarity as a vehicle for showcasing trans identity in one of its forms. Most importantly, she gives us the language to begin talking about it. 

The trans canon should involve a congregation of queer people who love each other in a way that isn’t individualist, doesn’t grant power to the image of the traditional American family, allows the trans community to truly speak, and doesn’t overexplain but illustrates. Peters doesn’t achieve that—but hopefully, she’s opening up the conversation so that someday, someone can.