Torrey Peters has written a complex and deeply moving novel about the ties that bind us – ties that govern our choices about who we love, how we love, and the costs. Detransition, Babyfollows a trio: Reece, a trans woman; her ex, detransitioned Ames (formerly Amy); and Ames’s new partner, a cis heterosexual woman, Katrina, as they each struggle with the idea of parenthood.
The narrative moves between two time periods, chapters named for the years before or weeks after conception.
Reece and Amy meet eight years before conception. Reece is trailing a history of (sometimes abusive) relationships with cis men and Amy, a ‘baby trans’, is overwhelmed by her new knowledge that she is ‘a girl in love with a girl’. The conception in question is Katrina’s – Ames has found that his ‘atrophied testicles’ are, after all, capable of impregnation.
The novel is among the first by an openly trans woman to be published by a big-five publishing company. Torrey Peters received some vicious criticism when it was longlisted for the UK’s 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, but the judges publicly affirmed her right to enter the prize.
The novel interrogates traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. Our world devalues femininity and its identifying behaviours, which are seen as submissive and weak, and are ridiculed when adopted by men. In her influential book, Whipping Girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity, first published in 2007, biologist and trans activist Julia Serano asserts that defining masculinity and femininity as a ‘non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires’ harms us all. The reclaiming of femininity makes trans activism a feminist movement. Detransition, Baby is a profoundly feminist book
This familiar story, the introduction of a baby into a relationship, is wrought here in a context that strips away contrivances. The politics of birthing and raising children, a cradle of feminist struggle, is finely rendered by Peters’s three characters. Reece wants a baby, Ames struggles with the idea of ‘fatherhood’, knowing that Amy is still a vital part of his identity, and Katrina is torn. Peters observes motherhood’s myriad contradictions: expanding in love while simultaneously exhausting and impoverishing women; its very private anguish and joy while also being a public service – a duty on which all have an opinion; and its privilege, which is granted and withdrawn by public policy governing access to contraception, abortion, adoption, and reproductive technologies.
Katrina challenges Reece on some of her assumptions about who is considered a ‘deserving’ mother.
‘Think about black women, poor women, immigrant women. Think about forced sterilization, about the term “welfare queens” or “anchor babies”. All of that happened to enforce the idea that not all motherhoods are legitimate … I’m not criticizing your feelings, Reece … I’m telling you that I feel the same. Because everyone gets criticized about how they should or shouldn’t be mothering.‘
Motherhood may be presumptive for cis women, but when these women do not adhere to the procreative norms, they are ‘treated like silly whores, obsessed with themselves, lacking some basic capacity to love’. Julia Gillard is a case in point, labelled by her political enemies as unfit for leadership because she was ‘deliberately barren’.
Peters brings us up close to the reality of living outside gender norms. It is to live with exhaustion: constantly alert, ready to defend, or retreat. It is to live with shame. You are not worthy of love, from a partner, or a child; you are not worthy of a job; trans women are tricksters, untrustworthy. Reece applies ‘in stealth’ for a job in childcare. When she and Amy go to an adoption information evening, Reece says, ‘I feel naughty. Like we’re passing ourselves off as just a normal lez couple.’
It is also to live with sorrow, to be hardened by another death, another suicide, another funeral. In Australia, the LGBTIQ Health Alliance 2020 reports that 35 per cent of transgender people aged 18 and over have attempted suicide in their lifetime.
But cis and trans women share much, including a fear of cis men. A violent assault is a trigger for Amy’s detransition and she begins this path with sorrow.
[Amy] had, of course, long come to understand that masculinity dulled her, that it dissociated her from herself. But honestly, that’s all she wanted at that point.
Patriarchy has no time for sentiment, ambivalence or uncertainty. The humouring of the male ego is so internalised in cis women that Reece is floored by a man’s off-colour joke about his penis, and the muted reaction from the audience of cis women who ‘laugh politely’.
Something else shared is class privilege, a theme woven throughout the novel. Wealth is a protection racket buying safety in housing, medical care, influence. Reece is enraged when she sees ‘Tranny’ plastered all over a wall as part of a book promotion.
Those rich trans bitches. These fucking assholes who transition with hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to protect them from ever hearing someone say ‘tranny’ to them on the street, so that one day they can write tranny on the streets themselves, and congratulate themselves on being so punk. As if, in a climate of political dread, no one has ever written Jew, or faggot, or hung a noose, or painted a swastika where some poor target tried to pass a small life.
Detransition, Baby is all this, and also so funny, poking fun at our rituals, our clothes, our allegiances; it is a glorious journey about friendship and facing our truths. Torrey Peters has written a story about how to live.
Torrey Peters Detransition, Baby Profile Books 2021 HB 320pp $33.75