Review: A social comedy on ‘detransitioning’ asks: Who is anyone to judge?
On the Shelf
By Torrey Peters
One World: 352 pages, $27
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Social comedy is a genre usually served cold. Novelists like Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford and Tom Perrotta spread their characters out on a slab and dissect them for amusement, emotional impact or the rough justice of irony. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” Austen says with a wink. “It was always gratifying when friends from different parts of your life hit it off, a reflection of your own good taste,” Perrotta replies. Those sentences are honed to skewer pretense, presumption and self-deception with one and the same period.
“Detransition, Baby,” a new novel by Torrey Peters, has its share of stings too: “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.” Peters often aims her barbs at transgender people like her. As she said in a 2018 interview, “Trans women are [screwed] up and flawed, and I’m very interested in the ways in which trans women are [screwed] up and flawed.”
Peters doesn’t just eviscerate, though; she also eviscerates the impulse to eviscerate. “Detransition, Baby” is in part about how ironic distance is itself a social feint, fraught with self-deception and peril. For Peters, there’s no safe space from which to judge the foibles of your fellow flawed and screwed-up strivers. Even the ironists have secrets in their closets, fleshy gender suits hanging on racks, waiting to shame or liberate or maybe a little of both.
The detransition in “Detransition, Baby” refers to Ames, who in the past was Amy, a trans woman, but is now back to being a man, for complicated reasons. Ames is sleeping with his boss, Katrina, who becomes pregnant, much to Ames’ dismay. Though he generally uses he/him pronouns and has reconciled himself to masculinity in most respects, the thought of being a father seems unendurable. He decides, though, that he can handle having a family if Reese, whom he dated when he was Amy, agrees to be a co-parent. Reese, a trans woman, is desperate to be a mother. Katrina, meanwhile, finds herself unexpectedly intrigued by queer parenting. The three tentatively agree to the plan, as the novel leaps back and forth between the present day and Reese and Amy’s painful past relationship.
For trans people, detransitioning is an explosive and controversial topic. As Peters’ characters make clear, anti-trans writers and organizations have used the existence of a small number of detransitioners to delegitimize the decisions of the vast majority of trans individuals who maintain their transitions. The concept of detransition has even been used to argue for limiting access to gender-affirming medical interventions.
Reese is angry at Ames, who she believes is not being true to himself. And when Ames reveals his past to Katrina, she exclaims, “Deceived! You deceived me!” That’s a common transphobic reaction. Trans people are frequently accused of being duplicitous if cis people don’t immediately recognize them as trans or even if they do. Like Reese, Katrina believes Ames is hiding his real gender; they only disagree on which gender that is. Both Katrina and Reese believe they’re the authors and judges of this social comedy, rooting out Ames’ hypocrisy.
But Ames detransitioned precisely to remove himself from such judgments. Though Ames never stops thinking of himself as a trans woman, in the wake of his bad breakup with Reese he believes transitioning back will protect him from vulnerability. “[Amy] had, of course, long come to understand that masculinity dulled her, that it dissociated her from herself,” Peters writes, using she/her pronouns to describe the past. Detransitioning gave Amy the double-paned armor of distance from herself and invisibility from others: “A pocket of space to separate herself from the bright emotions of shame and fear, a veil between herself and the curious eyes on the subway and at work.”
Reese, in contrast, has no veil. Her sex life is a mess. She seeks out controlling men, often married, who treat her badly, which for her is part of the appeal. “She had long since discovered that most talk about owning her turned her stomach liquid with desire.” Her sexuality is tangled up with outdated notions of femininity, dependence and weakness. This is only more humiliating because it fits ugly stereotypes of trans women, whom some feminists have accused of reinforcing patriarchal roles or caricaturing femininity.
People have been concerned about Rowling’s feelings about transgender rights for some time. The release of her latest detective novel shows those feelings seeping into her work.
But as Peters shows, it’s not just Reese whose sense of self hinges on gendered stereotypes. Reese is fascinated and repulsed when a cis woman tells her that her husband is going to a bachelor party in upstate New York, and she anticipates him returning home “smelling of woodsmoke and replenished masculinity, to ravish her.” Reese wonders why “a bunch of New York men wearing flannel and slamming whiskey is seen as a sorely needed release of their barely tamed and authentic masculinity, but when she, a trans, delights in dolling up, she’s trying too hard.” The point isn’t just that gender is performance. It’s that desire is so bound up with gendered performance that people often can’t even notice it. Until a trans person does it, at which point they are judged.
Reese frequently feels alienated and irritated around cis woman, but she also finds herself strongly identifying with Katrina. “The only people who have anything worthwhile to say about gender are divorced cis women who have given up on heterosexuality but are still attracted to men,” Reese tells Katrina. “The ones who have seen how the narratives given to them since girlhood have failed them, and who know there is nothing to replace it all.”
Katrina, who is half-Asian, does in fact see the potential three-parent family as a kind of escape from white heterosexuality. Reese, for her part, develops what she calls a “mom-crush” on Katrina — a romantic swoon that is not sexual but not exactly not sexual either. It’s complicated. It’s queer.
As often happens, though, crushes crash. Katrina discovers something about Reese’s sex life that panics her, and heteronormativity (a word Katrina has started to use a lot) reasserts itself.
The novel’s ending could be construed as a cop-out. And yet the denial of closure functions as a note-perfect withholding of moral clarity. Reese, Ames and Katrina can’t be slotted into a typical happy ever after nor into its opposite. They make their lives from the bits of gender and love and culture they’ve been given, and there’s no place to stand outside that messy process and anatomize, dissect or categorize them. “Detransition, Baby” is that rare social comedy in which the author cuts people up not to judge them, but to show how we fail to fit together.
A man is charged with attempted murder as well as hate crime and gang enhancements against transgender women in MacArthur Park, authorities say.
Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.
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