Solidarity and Differentiation in Detransition, Baby

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side by side series of the cover of detransition baby

Detransition, Baby, Torrey Peters’s 2020 novel, follows the lives of Reese, a trans woman living in New York; her ex, Ames, who detransitioned shortly after their relationship ended; and Katarina, a cis woman who is pregnant with Ames’s child. In casting three people with different gender experiences in the book’s central roles, Peters, a trans woman, explores the inevitable comparison between the three, outlining their common struggles as well as their individual ones.

In an interview at the West Cork Literary Festival last year, Peters said that while she is always writing for her trans peers, she is also not afraid to criticize her community. This is clear from her depiction of the tensions between Ames and his former community. Detransition is rarely talked about, often popping up in conversation only as a reason to deny trans people the ability to transition in the first place. Peters is acutely aware of this, and, through Ames, she attempts to create understanding between detransitioned folks and the trans community, and demonstrate how trans, detransitioned, and cis communities can find common ground.

Despite having once been welcomed with open arms into the trans community, when the novel begins, Ames is no longer in contact with any of his former trans friends, having been ostracized for detransitioning. Even Reese is resistant to interact with him, misgendering him and calling him by his former name, Amy, both to his face and with her friends. One of the primary intentions of Detransition, Baby appears to be shining a light on the rift between trans and detransitioned people, allowing Peters to both reveal the hypocrisy of it and the underlying trauma that causes tensions to manifest. Peters does this by drawing clear parallels between Ames’s detransition and a typical transition story, primarily demonstrating Ames’s internal reflection on his changing gender identity through a clever use of pronouns.

Throughout most of the novel, pronouns appear to be used as we’d expect: to refer to the gender identity held and expressed by the individual at the time a scene takes place. Reese and Katrina are referred to as “she” throughout, for example, as they both identify as women throughout the duration of the time encompassed by the book. Ames’s pronouns initially appear to shift as his gender identity does, as well: in the present day, Ames is referred to with the pronoun “he,” whereas in flashbacks to times when he identified as a trans woman, Amy is referred to with the pronoun “she.” (Ames and Amy are also presented as distinct, separate people; the characters are reconciled only at the end, when we discover why Amy detransitioned.) In one sequence, however, we enter a third, earlier time: Ames’s childhood and adolescence, when he began to discover cross-dressing and suspected he may be trans. It is expressed very clearly in these scenes that Ames—here going by his birthname, James—does not identify at this time as a trans woman, but does identify as a cross-dresser. It’s implied that he may be in denial about his trans identity, but at no point does he express a feminine identity outwardly. We are to assume that at this point in his life, James goes by his given name and he/him pronouns. But the narration does not honor outwardly expressed pronouns here: instead, James is referred to as Amy, and given she/her pronouns.

As this flashback is occurring in Ames’s present-day mind, this use of pronouns appears to indicate that he sees his pre-transition self—James—as a woman, and that this was part of his life as Amy, rather than another distinct identity. Ames, rather than seeing two distinct transformations in his past (his first transition from James into Amy, and his second into Ames), instead sees a before and an after solely with regards to his detransition. He sees himself as having always been Amy, always “she” until he made the conscious decision to be a man. His adolescent past is, after all, just another part of his life he wants to leave behind, indicated by the fact that he takes on a new name, Ames, rather than reverting to his given one. He wants to discard his entire past and be a new person; as such, he places his adolescent self under the umbrella of Amy’s life, a life he can compartmentalize and leave behind.

In utilizing pronouns, a central element of trans life, in this way, Peters presents Ames’s detransition not as a return to his former identity but as a transition into his present-day self. Just like a trans person might, Ames sees his life as divided into pre-transition and post-transition; when mapping Ames’s detransition onto a typical transition story, his lives as both James and Amy are pre-transition. We see little of James’s transition into Amy, but the entire novel seeks to demonstrate the differences between Amy and Ames, the primary transition in Ames’s life.

Going forward, we therefore see other parallels between Ames’s detransition and stories of transition we might be familiar with. After detransition, Ames is excluded from the trans community, his found family, just as a trans person may find themselves distanced from friends or family after coming out or transitioning. Ames also faces discrimination and misgendering after detransitioning, ironically enough from his former trans sisters, who see Amy as his “true” identity, and Ames as merely a cloak to avoid femininity. In this way, Reese and Ames’s former trans sisters see Ames the same way that some trans-exclusionary radical feminists (known as TERFs) see trans men: as “lost lesbian sisters” trying to escape the plight of womanhood by becoming men. Although we don’t see much of Ames’s first transition, into Amy, or in fact any trans women’s transitions, we see in Ames’s detransition the stigma, misgendering, and disrespect we would expect of TERFs manifesting in the people who have experienced that same treatment. While Peters acknowledges the pain and trauma that this attitude arises from, she also isn’t afraid to criticize the hypocrisy here. Through the parallel journeys that transition and detransition entail, she suggests a few areas of common ground that trans and detransitioned folks can unite upon.

These areas of common ground are also extended to cis women, through discussions in the novel about Katarina’s divorce and pregnancy. Like both Reese and Ames, she, too, experienced a change in identity—in the process of her divorce, she experienced a change in both name and the role she saw her life filling. Katarina also experiences physical changes as a result of pregnancy, which entails a transition in identity from “divorced woman” to “mother.” The stigma Katarina faces around having a “geriatric” pregnancy is in many ways linked to the restricting gender roles and expectations that lead to transphobia. Reese openly acknowledges that divorce is a kind of transition story. Similarly, Reese and her partner refer to her PrEP medication as “birth control,” making the potential of her getting HIV from her HIV-positive partner the baby of the analogy; Reese equates here the anxiety that cis women face with regards to accidental pregnancy with the fear in LGBTQIA+ communities of contracting HIV and AIDS. These examples all mark areas of common ground that cis and trans women can unite on. Interestingly, however, Reese appears more willing to find common ground with Katarina, a cis woman, than with Ames, a former trans woman.

Though common ground is plentiful, Peters is careful to avoid equating the experiences of trans, cis, and detransitioned people, instead writing with nuance, and exploring the ways in which her characters are very different. Reese and Katarina, for example, are openly confrontational about the differences between trans and cis women’s issues. The differences between Reese and Ames, however, are more subtly conveyed and appear mostly through the slight differences in how the novel and its narration presents them.

In Reese’s flashbacks, we learn that she doesn’t see her former self as distinctly different from her present-day self. In flashbacks to times before her transition, Reese is still referred to with the pronoun “she,” despite her identifying at that time as a man and using he/him pronouns. In this way, even if we equate Reese’s transition to Ames’s detransition, the two still have very different views of how that transition manifests in their memories. Reese, here, represents the trans people who see themselves as having always been their current gender, regardless of physical or societal labels. This “woman-in-a-man’s-body” approach is typical of transmedicalists, but not exclusive to them—many trans women see themselves as having always been women, but either not realizing it or not expressing it. Ames, meanwhile, sees his former self—the identity using she/her pronouns and living with both the names James and Amy—as distinct from his present: he was a woman, now he is a man. Although in Ames’s specific case this may be a method of compartmentalization, this also represents a legitimate approach to gender and trans identity, whereby gender is dependent on expression. According to Judith Butler, gender is a socially constructed identity, and as a result, a trans person may only see themselves as having become their current identity once they began expressing it. This is known as gender performativity theory.

In the subtle way Peters uses pronouns in flashbacks, we thus are presented with an underlying discussion about what “trans” really means. Throughout Detransition, Baby, we see the seeds of this conversation being sown in Peters’s exploration of the ways in which trans, cis, and detransitioned people are similar, but also the ways in which they differ. This simultaneous commonality and differentiation is summed up beautifully at the end of the book, at which point each of the characters “contemplat[es] her tenuous rendition of womanhood.” Here, each identifies with some form of womanhood—even Ames, who is no longer a woman, but says that he may be in the future—but they relate to this word in vastly different ways. As a result, Peters manages to, as she states in her acknowledgements, present “trans feminine culture in the new millennium,” teasing out the nuance in discussions about how people of all gender identities can relate to one another and show solidarity while still acknowledging their differences.