by Chelsea Gallagher (she/her/hers)
The word “transition” can be traced back to the Latin word “transitionem”. Originally used as a noun to describe “going across or over”, but what is the power it holds today? With the evolution of self-discovery tied with gender, we find ourselves free to transition constantly to promote change, growth, and self-love. On the surface, society seems more accepting of people discovering and embracing their truth, but why is there still little to no knowledge on detransition? With Torrey Peters’ debut novel, the conversation is about to change.
Peters’ writing is vulnerable and invites the reader behind the curtain, touching on kink, sex work, body dysmorphia, and the impact of detransitioning within a chosen family. Peters tangibly describes not feeling accepted in the privacy of your bedroom; and how intrusive thoughts will lead to a difficult decision. Through her writing, we hear the ticking pendulum of relief mixed with despair for choosing to detransition and the acceptance of never feeling authentic in your body again. Peters also highlights that even after detransitioning you will continue to hear whispers of “would you do it all over again” haunting your shadows.
Peters creates three characters that guide the reader through this topic. She presents views from a cis-woman, a de-transitioned character, and a transgender woman. Within this scope, the reader is able to take time to process and view different sides of the argument. This is not a book that only speaks one narrative, and is a gift for readers who don’t know where they fall. It allows free thought and the chance to pause and explore while still following an intricate storyline and reaching a pivotal climax.
Two of Peters’ main characters are expecting a child together. When the couple first meet at work, Katrina has no idea about Ames’ queer identity or values, and Ames doesn’t feel the need to disclose their background. They believed due to years of hormone therapy, they wouldn’t be able to father a child and had atrophied their testicles. When Katrina finds out she is carrying Ames’ child, their world is shattered and turned upside down. They don’t know if the role of a “father” is something they can actively participate in, but are willing to support and show up as a parent.
Detransition, Baby focuses on several main themes; self-expression, gender identity versus presentation to name a few. Another main theme is family. What does it mean to curate a family in the queer community and how does it parallel the examples of heteronormativity we grew up around? Can a cis-gendered woman choose to raise a child with a de-transitioned Ames? Would both parties of the couple be able to live authentically and offer a home promoting love? It sparks a fire to break down gender roles in families and highlights communication, but if Peters only had these two characters – we would be missing another view of the conversation.
The third main character, a transgender woman named Reese, has wanted to be a mother for as long as she can remember. It is a feeling in her bones, and throughout her life, she plays a mother role to several people. She is invited into Ames & Katrina’s relationship to balance out Ames’ confusions. Reese would allow Ames the ability to “be a parent without being seen as a father”. However, to Reese, she feels like she will always be second rate to the genetic parents and wants to carve out firm boundaries on her responsibility. These characters look back on their own families to understand what that means to them and their future family.
While we begin to understand Reese’s life, she narrates a poignant society critique. Out of the three main characters she has the busiest social calendar and leads an active dating life. She is unapologetic and manipulative, but still soft and vulnerable. When she speaks about being a mother she emphasizes mainstream acceptance is still so far away. Reese is the first trans woman Katrina has ever met and listens to Reese’s opinions quietly. In their past, Ames has always catered to Reese being dominant, and this dynamic gives Reese centre stage.
While all three characters attend a GLAAD event, Reese narrates her irritation with the focus on “trans women allowed in public bathrooms”.
“These cis-gays buying themselves trips to Africa – their big victory had been domestic. They had rearranged possibilities for the American nuclear family and delivered unto themselves the gift of straight institutions: marriage, parenthood. Reese wanted the same for herself – no actually, she wanted more. Who needs your public bathrooms? We’re already in your bedrooms…and we’ll use the master bath, thanks very much”.
Peters made a choice for all three of her main characters to come from dysfunctional family lives. Their views on the meaning to parent widely contrast and play a role in their gender identity, and their looming parenthood. Ames comes from a traditional household, whose parents are still trying to understand who they are and were unsupportive while they explored and grew. Katrina’s parents divorced after a tumultuous interracial marriage, which cost her mother her ancestry and roots. Reese speaks only about her mother’s unavailability in her childhood and looks to her friends’ mothers as her own role model and how she wants to be seen.
In 2021, are we prepared to take gender out of parenting and accept our partners for their strengths and what is available?
Peters takes time to highlight how society already accepts multiple versions of a transition story. The different reactions you’ll receive to speaking about transitioning from marriage to divorce to growing as a parent and announcing a pregnancy or the struggle to conceive and to transition within your community all highlight an important aspect of society’s bias.
When Katrina goes through a divorce she speaks to Ames and Reese about how people are not as forgiving as you would expect. This doesn’t surprise Reese who views marriage as a transition story. “Divorce is a transition story. Of course, not all divorced women go through it. I’m talking about the ones who felt their divorce as a fall, or as a total reframing of their lives”. If you have chosen to step away from a marriage and end your vows, specifically as a woman in this narrative, then who do you become again? Do you go back to the same person you were before the marriage or begin a new adventure as single with more life lessons? This is especially important for Katrina who never felt like she fit as a wife, and was searching for her own identity. It was through the loss of her previous self that she met Ames and Reese and was fighting to hold onto what she believed to define her.
What Katrina begins to grab onto is her “queer identity”, going so far as to come out to her friends and embrace that this is who she has been the entire time. Personally, this conversation rubbed me the wrong way and read like Katrina was just hopping on a trendy buzzword bandwagon. For all those that are still searching for who they are or are uncomfortable with speaking up, this may be a tough section to read.
When I first began reading this novel, I was completely unaware of what it meant to detransition and spent a lot of time stopping my reading to go and research topics or something else Peters wrote that caught my attention. I appreciate this vulnerability and style of writing that engages me and holds space to reflect. This book was an amazing piece of writing and after re-reading it, I would still go back to study more or highlight different passages. In 2020, Torrey Peters wrote an article “12 of the Best Books by Trans Authors That You Need to Read” for Oprah Daily. Peters is not the first to start this discussion, and I would encourage everyone to continue supporting these authors.
The beauty of Peters’ novel is that every time you re-read it, you will highlight something else and research more about what you don’t know. This book was my starting point to dive into antique constructs and the transition of the family for the future. From start to finish, Peters left me parched, and thirsty for more information, resources, and equality.
About the Author:
Chelsea (she/her) is a queer Canadian living abroad in Vietnam. She co-organizes a queer book club and loves to learn about language. If she’s not stuck in a book then she’s working her way through delicious street food one noodle soup at a time. Contact her through Instagram @karensfault or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read more of her book reviews at Paperbacks in Saigon blog.
 Peters, Torrey. Detransition, Baby. Penguin Random House, 2021, p. 106.
 Peters, Torrey. Detransition, Baby. Penguin Random House, 2021, p. 168.
 Peters, Torrey. Detransition, Baby. Penguin Random House, 2021, p. 168.
 Peters, Torrey. Detransition, Baby. Penguin Random House, 2021, p. 167.
Cover of Detransition, Baby designed by Fritz Metsch.