‘Detransition, Baby,’ a book about trans women and queer families, has opened up a larger discussion of gender roles
This piece originally appeared as part of Rolling Stone’s 2021 Hot List, in the July/August issue of the magazine.
When Torrey Peters, 39, was writing her debut novel, Detransition, Baby, she imagined how “trans girls talk to each other” — about sex with bad men, jobs, babies — and used the Trojan horse of domestic novels to examine assumptions about what it means to live in America.
“So the project was to ask, what happens when you put a trans woman into one of these domestic American social novels?” Her sardonic answer: “You may keep your KitchenAid stand mixer, but you may lose your nuclear family.”
The story is centered on Reese, a 35-year-old trans woman living in Brooklyn who longs for motherhood — but is in a rut of risky sex with married men. Then her ex, Ames, adds a snag by asking her to help him raise a baby with his new girlfriend. Reese isn’t just angry at the request, she’s furious because she was in love with Ames when she was Amy, before she decided to “detransition” and go back to “living as a man,” as Peters says, because of the transphobia she faced.
Peters tackled the taboo subject because she knew from experience that it was a lingering possibility. “I don’t think ‘detransition’ is a bad word, but for some people it is,” Peters says, understanding that it could fuel transphobia. “I’d written some hedges in early drafts — characters using words like ‘multiple transition’ — but I was like, I’m just going to be brave.”
Her approach resonated with filmmaker Zackary Drucker “Paradigm shattering” is how Drucker, who’s been developing more trans stories in Hollywood since being a producer on Transparent, describes her friend’s novel. “She’s been able to communicate trans experience in a completely transcendent way,” Drucker says. “It’s maybe one of the most-effective examples of a trans narrative being able to completely shatter people’s notions of transness.”
After much critical and audience praise, it’s being developed for TV, with Peters executive-producing and writing the pilot episode. She spoke to us about the subversive radicalism of depicting trans women in a casual way. And what it means to be the voice of a new queer generation.
Rolling Stone: To start off, I noticed most of the profiles of you and reviews of the book have been by cis or trans women. I wondered if you had noticed that, too. Am I the first cis gay guy that you’ve talked to in this whole process?
Torrey Peters: Let me think… It’s been very divided in terms of U.S. and U.K. and, in fact, in the U.K., I’ve talked to a lot of men, but I think in the United States, you may be the first American cis guy. [Laughs]
I do identify as American. That’s true! [Laughs]
[Laughs] I’m sorry that I assumed… I shouldn’t have assumed….
But I do think it’s important to note, since, even when we first started talking about assigning this piece for our annual Hot List, we immediately were like, “Oh, we should find a great trans woman writer or somebody who identifies with the community more directly. But then I was like, “Actually, why?” In fact, I think this book appeals to so many people, and I know you’ve talked about that: You’re not just writing for trans people, but also a wider audience. So I wondered if you were concerned after Detransition, Baby was released in January, that people think, “Oh, this is a woman‘s book.”
That has never totally a troubled me; I really like “women’s books.” It’s sort of like my concerns that it’s in a genre: If you love sci-fi, I’m not like, “Oh, it’s just a sci-fi book?” If you love sci-fi, that’s great! So it was not something that troubled me. I’ve always been very interested in honing in on something really specific that actually opens things up in ways that are more universal.
And I do think: It turns out men also have a gender and may want to talk about it, so that a lot of the gender performance and the sort of “rules of gender” are much more unspoken and therefore more restrictive, I think, for cis men. And if anybody actually might be interested in a language of gender, it would be cis men.
For example, I was talking to one of my friends, who’s a straight cis man, about his Tinder profile. And he was like he had he was like one of his pictures with him holding a fish that he’d caught. And I was like: “You don’t fish! You fished, like, twice in your life! Why are you holding a fish in your Tinder profile? And he was like: “I don’t know, it seems like the thing you should do as a guy, like hold a fish: Look I can provide: here’s a fish! [Laughs] It was so obvious that it was a gender performance. Then he sort of understood it was ridiculous and that he was never going to, like, slap a fish down on a date and be like, “I fished for you, dear lady.” [Laughs] But it was, for him, a [big realization]: “Oh, I’m doing a gender.” Once he understood that — I have a picture of a fish on Tinder because “I’m doing a gender” — it suddenly became funny for him and he was able to name a bunch of stuff he was doing. And I think it was actually a bit of a relief to him. So I think if men can read stuff like my book, and if they’re able to say that this is a book for everybody, and it’s sort of speaking across lanes, speaking through analogy, then I think that there’s a lot in there for men.
You start off right away with that in the book: with gender performance and sex and sexuality. That’s probably the thing that hooks some people, who are like, “Oh, wow, I’ve never read these things written about in this way, with these words before. I have to say, I think you’ve written about sex better than most. But what I found fascinating is that you’re not always getting into the physical act as much as you are getting into the emotional reasons behind it and the ideas of performance or vulnerability. I would assume men, women — not just trans or non-binary people — but everybody can relate to that in some way because “good sex” is what most people want. But we don’t know how to get it.
So tell me: It takes a lot to decide that you’re going to reveal all the secrets and the parts that people don’t like saying out loud. Did you meet any resistance along the way? Did people say, for example, if you just left this one part out about Reese being a bug chaser — [someone who purposely tries to become infected with HIV] — that it will make it easier to sell and publish the book?
Part of it was, when I was writing it, I had no conception that it would be read by as many people as have eventually read it, so it made it pretty easy for me to write it — because I had like three people in mind who I wrote that scene for. You know, the funny thing is that the response has not been like you shouldn’t have written this; it’s been like: “This is for me, but not for other people. Everybody seems to say that: trans people are, like: “Oh, this is for us, but not for cis people,” or women to be like, “This is such a “woman’s book.” And I think that happens when you’re really specific. The bug chaser/pregnancy role players that’s really the most specific sex you could probably describe. It’s unique to maybe those characters or a few characters like them, a few people in the world. But because it’s so specific, what people then recognize is a sort of eroticism and power — which becomes universally recognized. I might not recognize the sex act, but I recognize the power and the play that’s behind it. And therefore, I relate to it. The resistance that I’ve gotten has mostly been people being like: “This is for me, but it makes me blush because I feel revealed, and I wish other people wouldn’t see the fact that I’m feeling revealed by this. That’s kind of, like, a sleight of hand, I think. A lot of writing is everybody being revealed, but the reader should feel like only they are being revealed.
I also noticed several reviews and other pieces labeled the book a “bourgeois comedy of manners.” I don’t know how much you read of your own press, but I wondered if you were surprised or annoyed by that sort of idea.
No, not really. I think, in a really technical sense, one of the things I was trying to do with the book was to think about it in a bit of a genre. A lot of the big American social novels are just these domestic novels, like Jonathan Franzen or whoever, They have these domestic themes which are usually around a bunch of assumptions about what it means to American: nuclear families, middle class-ness, and all of these things that are sort of unexamined assumptions built into these books. So the project was for me to ask: “What happens when you put a trans woman into one of these domestic American social novels?” What happens to the nuclear family? What happens to the idea of gender? What happens to just a lot of the structures that are assumed in that? I sort of figure: You put a trans woman in, and a lot of it just blows up and a lot of it actually stays the same in ways that I think would surprise people.
Like the fact that what Reese really wants is like a butcher-block table and a KitchenAid stand mixer. People don’t think people don’t think of trans women going to PTA meetings. But, in fact, a lot of trans women do want just that. At the same time, also, ideas of nuclear family — with trans culture — those maybe blow up. So you may keep your KitchenAid stand mixer, but you may lose your nuclear family. Seeing the ways of that shuffles through was an interesting project for me, so that people recognized the kind of conventions I was playing with and labeled it bourgeois in the sense, I don’t know, Flaubert is also writing bourgeois novels. I am not at all offended — yeah please, compare me to Flaubert!
It is definitely about a sort of social class, and society in Brooklyn, and a certain period of time that you’re exploring. The scene when they go to the house for the doTERRA gathering — where the woman is trying to sell the essential oils to her friends — it reminded me of moments when my mom would drag me to Avon or Tupperware parties. I was a little gay kid with her, and was fascinated by watching these women interact. So in your book, you have a trans woman added into milieu, witnessing these gender performances. And later Reese and others are experiencing other rituals and events — the GLAAD Media Awards party, a funeral of a trans friend — and we see how they interact differently, code-switching depending on the situation.
Those settings weren’t in the first draft of the book, and then I began to think of the setting as a fourth character. In any scene like that, the setting is actually interacting with the characters as a sort of “fourth person,” with a series of opinions and assumptions built into it. And the setting can kind of comment on the things with the characters.
In the second draft, that’s when I said: “I’m going to start doing things like going to Buy Buy Baby.” I faked that I was pregnant, registered, and was like, “If I was to do this, how would I feel?” And I found that the consumer experience, going to Buy Buy Baby, is a really specific thing that actually has its own opinions in a certain way about motherhood, or its own assumptions. Having the two women talk about motherhood [there], was actually commenting on itself: This is how you be a mom. Same thing with the GLAAD Awards [scene]: It’s commenting on how one can be queer. So the settings have assumptions and opinions themselves, and that was really fun — to think of them as a character.
I read the piece published by Vulture in which writer Sarah Schulman said that this book was “both unimaginable and entirely inevitable.” I wondered what you thought about her reaction.
I think that’s accurate. Especially coming from from a certain time and place, I think a lot of trans literature as one of a series of “minority literatures” that are kind of doing a literature of liberation. And most of the moves that trans literature is doing are actually — those are paths that were created by writers of color, I think especially black women or black writers.
So when I first met Sarah, I was self-publishing; I met her through the Topside Press scene — which imploded around things like scarcity. That was why it was self-publishing, because there were so few slots for trans writers. And I was like, I have this project where it’s self-publishing to create more slots. You know, instead of being at Topside, where they could publish, what, two books a year? And they’re at a loss? You know, all the other tiny publishers that are publishing trans women and they were publishing at a loss.
So that mirrors a lot of what was happening in literature — let’s say black women, the Combahee River Collective, which started out as a small press. Then the people who were on that press, it was probably unimaginable in the Seventies to think that now, that every major award last year was won by a black writer. Granted, there all all sorts of inequalities in publishing, but the things that they’re winning, that they worked for, these books are [mainly] domestic novels with catchy plots. Like, The Vanishing Half [by Brit Bennett] was the bestseller this year, and it’s a domestic novel, catchy plot.
So I think that at the time that I met Sarah, it was unimaginable that in 2021 there would be a book like Detransition, Baby on any bestseller list. But what we know about the trajectory of the minority literature makes it in some ways inevitable. Right? Barring some sort of huge state repression or something.
I was talking to R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwall about that because they edited and put out the collection, titled Kink, which was also on bestseller lists. And the fact that that’s out from a major publisher. Does that mean kink is mainstream or that these niche and fringe topics and subcultures that we’ve been told by agents and publishers and editors were unpublishable a few years ago by major presses are now acceptable? Or is it just the market looking for something new?
I agree with you, and I also think it’s interesting that a lot of the stuff that is in my book, and that is in similar books from my peers, is the type of thing that — it’s not like we invented it, right? Thirty years ago, you could find these same things, they would just be published as, like, pulp and smut. There were political critiques in smut; you’re reading for the smut but you’re absorbing these political critiques. I’m really interested in the way that genre and pulp and smut — my first two books were novellas that I self-published for genre, because that felt like a place, in a horror book, I could say things that seemed unpalatable. And then eventually I began to think of domestic novels as sort of soap operas, as another genre — which is sort of like a Trojan horse genre that can then be seen as literary.
Absolutely. Your book is political. And I think you intended it that way. Oddly enough, I haven’t really seen many people talk about that and the fact that you start off immediately using transsexual, which obviously many people will find either inappropriate or aggressive in some way. And it’s not until almost the end of the book that you actually directly state the difference between transgender and transsexual and why you’re using the latter. I kept thinking the whole time, “Wow, this is a word I’ve been told is dirty and that I’m not allowed to use.” Tell me a little about that.
I think there’s a couple of different ways that I would think about it. One is I was writing the book in a sort of mode and tone of trans girls talking to each other like that. That was sort of the viewpoint. So if trans girls are talking to each other, we’re going to use the words that we use; that was the artistic decision to use the words that we already use.
And then I can talk a little bit about why I think we use those words, which are sort of two separate things. I think the reason that we use those words is that transsexual is just a much more fun word. You know, it has the word sex in it, and a bunch of different syllables. You can kind of slur it in a way that makes other people uncomfortable to say, like transssssexual [she says with an extended lisp]. And that is a fun thing, to have this word. So it’s just fun, is the first thing. I think that’s one of the reasons trans girls do this — because it’s fun! But then I think there are all these political things built into it: The idea that transsexual is a bad word, I think, comes from a kind of respectability politics. Transexual is a word that was associated with porn, and the words that are associated with porn are the words that we’re not supposed to use, there’s a kind of sex negativity and anti-sex work bias built in to it. The word transgender was invented to deal with vectors of disease. It wasn’t invented by the CDC, by the CDC chose it. So I’m like: “Why do I want to use the word that was chosen, basically, by the CDC?
The other thing is [to have] more of a historical awareness of these terms. Every generation — every microgeneration — has the terms that they think are OK. So, like, I don’t know, 10 years ago, you were supposed to put an asterisk after trans — nobody does that anymore, but you would get told that that’s wrong. Ten years ago, the word transsexual as we use it now is not actually how it was originally meant: it meant anybody who’s had surgical or hormonal intervention. But in the Fifties, when it was used, it meant someone who was going through a medical transition, but hadn’t “completed” it — basically, if you had breasts and had not had bottom surgery, you were a transsexual — but if you had bottom surgery and top surgery, then you were [called] a “Sex Change.” And that was a noun: “a sex change.” But now if you were to call somebody “a sex change,” you’d be hounded off the Internet. So these words we use, they change through time and the meanings are like an accretion of all this different stuff, which is important to me. What’s ultimately important to me is not what the correct word at the correct moment is, but whether or not you come with respect to whether or not you come with a kind of like good faith.
A lot of people who read this book are women in book clubs who’ve never met a trans person, and they come to me and they get words wrong. And it’s like: I’m not going to tell you, here’s an etiquette book that you have to read [before you can read my book]. You’re reading my book; you’re engaging with my art; you’re engaging with my ideas. You don’t know the exact words. But you’re making a good faith effort and you’re coming through with respect. Like, I don’t really care what word you use.
You’re not interested in a dogmatic trans 101 hot take.
Right. I’m trying to just get across ideas, open up conversations. The most important thing is to just be normal and respectful. Like in that scene at the office where the HR person doesn’t just ask Ames what Ames wants — which would be like the easy, respectful thing to do — instead she creates gender neutralizing bathrooms. And then is, like: “I’m an ally! That is not necessary! You can just be normal. All of that for me is built into the word transsexual.
There are so many special moments where you do that. I mean, when the women are walking around Greenpoint and see the Laura Jane Grace poster and Katrina says the title of the book, Tranny, and they’re shocked at first. Why did she say this slur? Tell me a little about that critique.
I mean, I also named my book Detransition, Baby, and people act like detransition is a bad word, but the thing that Laura Jane Grace did — there’s more layers of irony, like, a kind of meta-thing built into it. Laura Jane Grace made a strong choice, I made a strong choice, in our titles. But I think it’s also worth thinking about your readers and thinking about where the book is going to circulate, where it’s going to show up.
I thought about the title Detransition, Baby, and I thought about how it would feel to hold that book on the train. I remember being closeted when I was young and wanting to read books about trans people and being scared to have them on myself and have people come in and [judge] — especially in the Aughts when everything was like a trans pun? Like Transparent?
So Laura Jane Grace’s book was posted all over my neighborhood. I didn’t know what the book was when I first saw it. I just knew Trump was being elected, and there was a slur all over my neighborhood. The book’s title didn’t feel considered. Like, “I get to use whatever word I want because it’s punk?” Well, it’s not very punk to, like, not consider oppressed people.
You mentioned Transparent, and Sex and the City is mentioned several times in the book, and you’re working on a TV adaptation of this book. So I wondered what goes through your mind as you’re trying to develop this for a television audience and trying to avoid cliches and pitfalls.
I think in this day and age, you have to think about your audience as people who consume narratives on television. As a writer, I’m not just competing with other prose writers, I’m competing with TV. So I think a lot about the timeline and just assume now that readers and audiences aren’t necessarily looking for something literary — they’re used to chopped up timelines. So my approach to it is that I’m talking to audiences whose tastes are already shaped by TV.
And I actually comment on TV and how stars appear in the text, like Sarah Jessica Parker shows up and Werner Herzog. There are some TV rhythms that I actually really loved getting to write with, so I think that’s why people think it lends itself to TV as those rhythms were actually part of the writing process.
Then there’s the question of Transparent, which is partly the difference between what a show does and how the show is made. And I think that Transparent itself is a good show; it’s solid. It tells good stories. There’s some things about the centering of it that’s a little strange — like it’s this story of how hard it is when you have a trans person in your family, and the travails of the cis children. But the question for me is also, like, how does a show get made? Who’s actually in control? Who are you hiring? How are you protecting various people or how are you navigating power? I think why people have a hard time talking about Transparent, because of all the sort of offscreen antics around that show that were the problem. So, how do you put together a show that can say provocative things and execute on dicey premises while not treating people horribly? Those are the distinctions that I’m learning.
I think the idea that there could be, like, a Trans in the City would have been unimaginable until recently. And it’s still unimaginable for people to treat trans women with the same casualness and to think that they might have the same sort of lives and concerns of the Sex and the City women. So it’s exciting; there’s a sort of subversive radicalism for me to be getting to do that.
I know that it comes up in the book several times, you acknowledge that it’s a very “white story.” Do you think that when it’s onscreen, that you’ll need to adapt or change it? Because when it’s even in a visual medium, people obviously will critique it that way.
I think that onscreen, one of the things I’m excited about is that I actually get to collaborate with people who are different than me. My job is to have a vision, but to let other people offer what they know as well. The other thing is that it’s not my job to represent everybody in prose. There are black trans writers, there are Latina trans writers who are all capable of telling their own story. They don’t need me to try to represent everybody. It’s my job to tell my own story and tell the stories that I can do well. I’m not saying this is the universal trans experience — this is a really, really narrow subsection of the trans experience. It takes the responsibility off of me to try to represent all the people. Instead, I get to be funny; I get to be bitchy. So my voice is one in a cacophony of voices.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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