A couple weeks ago I sent a script I wrote to dozens of random trans people on Twitter. It’s about a teenage trans girl who body swaps with her cis sister and I wrote it explicitly for a trans audience. I wanted trans people to have it even if the cis people who decide if movies get made never anoint this one. I did this because of Torrey Peters.
In her intro for her novella The Masker — available pay what you want on her website! — Torrey says she glimpsed the possibility of trans women writing for trans women from Sybil Lamb. I don’t know who Sybil glimpsed this possibility from but there’s a line in Torrey’s debut novel Detransition, Baby about how half the trans women in Brooklyn are awaiting a well-deserved recognition that will never come and maybe it was one of them.
When I first read Glamour Boutique — the novella that now acts as chapter four of Detransition, Baby — I felt this principle with the comfort of finally getting warm. I’d never read something that seemed so wholly unconcerned with a cis readership and it filled me with life I hadn’t realized I was missing. It was so acutely attuned to the trans experience that it taught me things about myself that I didn’t even realize were connected to the trans experience — or any experience except my own. It taught me that I’d been dissociating during just about every sexual encounter I’d ever had. It taught me that my thoughts about other trans women that felt either too positive or too negative were just sort of regular. It taught me that even when a trans woman is not much like me at all — as the Amy of the story is not — to read the interiority of a trans woman in fiction in the talents of someone like Torrey Peters is an experience of sublime recognition.
The truth is I don’t know how to review Detransition, Baby. Torrey was too successful in what she set out to accomplish. If trans women have been and remain her primary audience then I, a trans woman, don’t know what to say from a place of supposed objectivity. The fact that this is not a PDF free on her website but a hardcover book garnering an immense amount of buzz fills me with a joy I can explain and a terror I cannot. It’s like having a secret that wants to be told but isn’t quite ready. It feels like a coming out.
Detransition, Baby has a bold title and a bold premise. Reese is a trans woman in her mid-thirties who wants a baby. Her ex-girlfriend Amy is a trans woman who has detransitioned and now goes by Ames. He’s been having an affair with his boss Katrina and she — a cis woman — is now pregnant. Ames does not want a baby. Or, rather, he does not want to be a father — it’s one step too far in his attempt to hide within masculinity. But he decides that maybe he could raise the child if Reese was involved. Maybe he could queer his couple and with a parental throuple find something that works for him, and for the two women he loves.
Much will be made about the book’s focus on a trans woman who detransitions, but Torrey makes it clear to even the least knowledgeable cis reader that Ames never stops being trans. “I don’t think it’s something you outgrow,” he admits. The entirety of Ames’ reasons for detransitioning are revealed throughout the novel and say more about the hardships even the most privileged trans women face than they do any sort of TERF narrative around detransition. No, the ways this book is controversial are far more nuanced and interesting than the titular word. They are found in the stickiness of the book’s takes on trans community and motherhood, its fearlessness in trusting its characters’ emotional truths to at the very least be emotionally true.
The book understands that trans women know more about being women — and more about being men — than any cis person ever could. To be a trans woman who doesn’t transition as a child is to spend years — often decades — studying men as a defense and women as an aspiration. And yet with this knowledge comes a certain sense of failure — the failure at living up to your given sex, the failure at never quite being who you know yourself to be. Transness is a state of perpetual dissatisfaction and biological yearning. I think this is what I mean when I say Torrey writes for trans women. Sure, it’s the cultural references like trans lady picnics, t4t romance, and the idolization of Candy Darling, but it’s deeper than that. It’s the way she writes about that failure — that festering dissatisfaction.
The book is dedicated to “divorced cis women” — a dedication that acts as much as a thematic prologue as it does a declaration of a new audience. It emphasizes that cis women have to get divorced or be infertile to fail at womanhood like we do — and at least when cis women face these kinds of failures our culture has a language of sympathy. “The wanting of children seems to be an accepted universal fact for women everywhere,” Reese tells Katrina. “It’s not the same for transsexuals. It’s not considered natural when I say that my biological clock is ticking, because I’m not granted the biological clock in the first place.”
Of course, neither Torrey nor I think divorce or infertility are failures. Of course, a trans woman’s inability to conceive children does not make her any less of a woman. But it can feel that way, right? Can we acknowledge that sometimes it feels that way? Not even in the sense of proving your womanhood to others. It’s a personal failure. A personal want. A personal lack. It hurts. Detransition, Baby is about many things but to me it’s most about that hurt — and how coping with that hurt can lead to something else, something possibly even better.
The other thing about this emotionally devastating, culturally specific, endlessly intelligent novel is that it’s really, really funny. It’s not just funny — it’s funny about transness. Reading the book is like hanging out with your most wonderfully sardonic trans friend. “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.” That’s not even a standout line — though I did take a picture and post it on my Close Friends — every page is filled with that level of softly subversive teasing humor. I don’t know how lines like that will read to a cis reader. I frankly don’t care. But I have to imagine for many cis women, there will be a certain amount of relief in realizing that their oft-repeated liberal declaration that Trans Women Are Women is, in fact, quite true — even in the silliest, most undesirable ways.
Torrey Peters writes about bad trans women. She writes about trans women who fuck people over, fuck themselves over, fuck other trans women over. She writes about trans women who are judgmental and self-pitying and want love so bad they’ll create a world of destruction. She writes about trans women who can’t even hack it as trans women, who give up, who start going by Ames. Torrey Peters writes about trans women as we are, not as we are so often forced to be. There is room for inspiration and aspiration. But there’s also room for the reality that we are a deeply traumatized community of people and deeply traumatized communities of people are fucking messy even in our best moments. “In Ames’s formulation, trans women knew what trans women were, they knew how to be, but they didn’t know how to do,” Torrey writes. “All the intra-trans fights online, all the arguments with cis people: All of it was just to define what it meant to be a trans woman; to say what she was. But when you’re a trans woman, there’s almost nothing out there on how to actually live.”
The book doesn’t make excuses for its characters, but it provides a lot of explanations. And the explanations are as painfully comforting now as they were when I first read Glamour Boutique. We just so rarely get that. We so rarely get the validation of seeing ourselves as the fuck ups we often are. And with love. That’s the important part. Lovable fuck ups. Who can someday be less of fuck ups. Maybe.
I’m making a lot of generalizations about being trans. Detransition, Baby makes a lot of generalizations too. It puts them in the point of views of fallible characters and often has other fallible characters point out the fallacies. But these generalizations aren’t wrong — at least not wrong wrong. And there is something truer about the book’s not wrongness than the many, many hard truths we’re forced to collectively repeat without worry. If there’s one thing this book does it’s that. It allows space for the many not wrong very true things that are the daily burden of being a trans woman. It allows space for the daily joys as well. It says that these things are real. There has been so much conversation around transness the past decade and yet so little that allows the space for these kinds of truths.
Detransition, Baby is a book about trans women. It is a book for trans women. It is a book about the things we feel when nobody is looking. Go ahead. Look.