Review: Detransition, Baby

Detransition, Baby comes out swinging. Reese, self-described “transsexual” woman (the term is not favoured by all trans people), 35, is fucking a married, HIV-positive man. Like the trail of dangerous men she’s been with in the past, he makes her feel like a woman, because, due to his HIV he “could fuck her and mark her forever”. Their dirty talk involves the possibility of him “knocking her up” with the virus, although he is undetectable and she’s on PrEP, so that’s a remote possibility. It’s shocking and a bit sexy and designed to offend heteronormative – that is, straight people – and more delicate queer sensibilities. I confess, I clutched my pearls. And that’s just page three.

In a world that seems to be going through a new wave of collective “trans panic”, the premise of the novel is similarly button-pushing. Ames, Reese’s ex, gets his boss Katrina pregnant. The twist is that Ames is also trans, and formerly lived as a woman when he dated Reese. But Ames doesn’t want to be a “father”, because it would be “the one affront to his gender he still couldn’t stomach without a creeping sense of horror”. He also knows that Reese desperately wants to be a mother, so proposes that the three of them raise the child together. Alternating chapters tell the two stories separated by the comma of the title, Ames’s detransition and the threesome’s conversations about having a baby. It’s a sprawling narrative, featuring funerals, drag shows, affairs and even a classic New York taxi chase, except here the taxi is an Uber. It is sometimes devastating, frequently hilarious, and often revelatory. The characters are a hoot. If you’re wondering what trans women make of all this, check out Emily VanDerWerff’s review on Vox. She writes that she felt “deeply seen, roughly every other page”.

It doesn’t really hang together narratively. It has to spend quite a while convincing us that the premise even makes sense. But it doesn’t matter, because all of this is really just a skeleton to hang Peters’s cutting observations of gender and family. Early on Peters namechecks Sex And The City, raising the four white ghosts of New York women’s past. Detransition, Baby is similarly about the questions of womanhood and family. It doesn’t have the answers (who does?!) but its characters’ pursuit of them is thrilling and queer and discomfiting in the best ways. Reese wants nothing more than to feel like a woman. Sometimes this expresses itself in ways that are frankly hard to stomach. She cites her desire for femininity as a reason she desires abusive men, a reflection of just how deeply misogyny reaches. It’s also why Reese wants to be a mother, at least initially.

To spend time with Reese and Ames is to become hyperaware of all they ways that the gender binary is imposed, particularly by patriarchy and consumerism. When a college boyfriend dumps Reese over the phone, all she can think about is her voice:

She let out a low moan, but then, even in her incipient grief, hated how low the pitch sounded and cut herself short. She needed an unguarded moment, a moment of actual pain. But instead, fear of a non-passing voice shocked her into doing what she always did: Push down her feelings. Get cold.

Interestingly, Reese finds her only true allies, the only people who really understand what it means to transition from one life into another, are divorced cis women (the book is also dedicated to such women).

Offsetting Reese and Ames’s longing for the life that will affirm their gender identities is their queerness. There are joyful scenes of queer family, queer picnics and bars, and a particularly funny/sad excursion to New York’s gay beach. The whole novel is laced with the gallows humour and cynicism of what Reese calls No Futurism. At a funeral for trans woman who suicided, a mourner cracks a bleak joke:

Q: What do you call a remake of a nineties romantic comedy where you cast trans women in all the roles?

A: Four Funerals and a Funeral.

But later Reese’s rage can’t be contained: “the number of victims misgendered in their own obituaries is greater than the number of victims whose murderer has been identified”. That early reference to HIV becomes key to the book’s conclusion, making explicit the tension between queerness and the desire for acceptance. Detransition, Baby isn’t advocating one way or the other, it lives in a grey, Schrödinger’s baby area of possibility. Above all, it yells, our desires are COMPLICATED.

The writing is straight forward and talky. But there are also wonderfully mad digressions on, of all things, wind-surfing, sodium lighting (“Many people think a trans woman’s deepest desire is to live her true gender; but actually it is to always stand in good lighting”) and baby elephants (Reese conceives of the latest generation of young white trans folk as delinquent juvenile elephants, lost without their elders). When I read I want books that shake me to the core; Detransition, Baby is that type of book.

Gay rating: off the charts for queer characters, relationships, families, themes and sex.

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