In Detransition, Baby three New Yorkers consider having a baby together – a trans woman, a woman who has detransitioned, and a pregnant bi-racial cis woman who’s over white heterosexuality.
It took decades for gay novelists to feel safe or brave enough to question their own agendas in the search for more complex truths about how to live in the world. Torrey Peters acknowledges the urgency (as trans women continue to die) and tackles the controversies head on: detransitioning, being a bad feminist, or maybe even breaking the rules of trans womanhood in order to survive.
"Who needs your public bathrooms? We're already in your bedrooms, fucking your husbands, and we'll use the master bath, thanks very much". She gets away with it by laying bare the inner-thoughts of her characters with absolute and disarming honesty. Who are we to judge?
As queer culture lurches into the mainstream, powered by civil rights, the entertainment industry and corporate appropriation, it becomes better understood and accommodated, its rough edges polished by inexorable waves of capitalist consumption, political correctness and apathetic conservatism.
One day we may look back at Detransition, Baby as a quaint artefact from a time when gender was still mostly binary and two-moms-and-a-kid was considered a social innovation. In the meantime, Torrey Peters drives a trans-flagged monster truck of down 6th Avenue, joyfully scattering the palatable rainbow-hued bestsellers that had accumulated near the middle of the road.
Not that Detransition, Baby isn’t accessible. It’s a sassy, breezy, frequently hilarious read, a subversively mainstream ticket to a rollercoaster of hard-earned trans truths, dished out with an explosive mix of shade, wit and empathy. Its genius is to open readers’ eyes to the challenges faced by trans women as well as what they might have to teach us as a society – about motherhood, say - and to do so with irreverence and authenticity.
Peters is at her most brilliant when she unpacks how desire – an unruly and irresistible tyrant - messes up woke agendas and opens you up to contradictions. To have a body in synchrony with your mind requires a constant questioning of the rules, even those created by your peers. Peters is the first to weaponise queer politics to assert trans needs, yet also quick to admit that "a nimble mind can always uncover the politics to justify its own selfishness."
Feminist politics are useful, for example, but they weren't designed to serve trans women, who have their own specific shit to deal with. Sisterhood is great, but not if it means putting up with "those Didion worshipping bourgeois white girls who subscribed to a Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain." Allyship is wonderful, until "you get people thinking that in order to avoid offending trans people, you must locate and follow a secret guidebook filled with arcane rites, instead of just thinking about them decently, as you would anything else."
And, in this narrative, the biggest question of them all: is sharing a baby a revolutionary act against heteronormativity, or just "an elaborate exercise in the gentrification of queerness"?
As a cis white male reader, I got schooled in a big way, but I was there for it. In spite of the snark, it’s done with generosity and a real grasp of the messiness of life and its so-called lessons: moral clarity is an illusion, as makes clear the ambiguous but perfect ending. Absolutely sensational.
Detransition, Baby is published by One World (Penguin Random House) in the US and Serpent's Tail in the UK. Her previous novellas are available pay-what-you-can from her website, www.torreypeters.com.