Torrey Peters calls it the Sex and the City problem: when a woman reaches her thirties and decides she wants to make something meaningful out of her life, she finds herself limited to only four options, find a partner (like Charlotte in the show), have a career (Samantha), have a baby (Miranda) or express herself through art and writing (Carrie). Peters noticed this when she was in her mid-thirties too but her situation was different, she had just finished transitioning.
“The hard part of my transition had ended — the taking hormones,” says the American novelist, 39, who came out as trans aged 26 and started taking hormones to transition at 30. “I was looking around and thinking ‘how do I live?’ I was friends with a lot of cis women who were getting married, having babies, their careers were taking off, and then I was looking at the trans women around me, including me, and we were not doing these things. I thought ‘what’s going on?’.”
She continues: “A lot of trans literature deals with the questions people ask right after they have transitioned: will your parents accept you? Who will love you? What will sex be like? I call them the young adult questions. But there is nothing about what comes after that. If you transition young, you have 40 or 50 years ahead of you and there are not a lot of models of how to live.”
Peters has changed that with Detransition, Baby, an elegant comedy of manners which has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, making Peters the first trans woman to be up for the prize. Akwaeke Emezi, a non-binary author, was longlisted in 2019. The novel delves into two of the most sensitive areas for trans people — having a baby and detransitioning. It is about what happens when Reese, a trans woman living a comfortable but chaotic life that has been compared to Fleabag’s, decides she wants a baby. Her ex-girlfriend Amy has detransitioned, become Ames and is sleeping with his boss, Katrina. When Katrina gets pregnant, a question emerges: could the three of them raise the baby together? It is now being adapted for TV, with the same showrunners as Grey’s Anatomy, which Peters is pleased about “because I wanted the novel to be dishy and soapy like Grey’s”.
Peters has a straight bob, streaked with blonde, wears a sparkling nose stud and is engaging company. She is speaking to me from her flat in New York where she lives with her fiancée, who has an 11-year-old son. She is pragmatic about criticism of her nomination. “The first of any minority group to do something never has a great time. It is not much fun but it important to realise that if I spend a lot of time thinking about it, it hurts and is scary but it doesn’t change anything.
“There’s a Toni Morrison quote that I’m fond of and I’m paraphrasing but it’s that the very serious function of racism is distraction - instead of being to write and say what she does, she spends time fighting these stupid racist battles. Things like debates over which bathrooms trans people use; it is incredibly undignified to have to stage your Human Rights Campaign about where you pee and it expends energy that could be used to build each other up positively.”
When I ask about JK Rowling — her tweet protesting the politicisation of the word “woman” — Peters says: “I have a lot of empathy for Rowling. She isn’t my enemy. She clearly has experienced a lot of pain. I do however think that the projection of that suffering onto trans women is misplaced but unfortunately you can’t really have those sorts of arguments intellectually and this is one of the reasons I write fiction and I don’t write think pieces. Saying you should feel a certain way tends not to register.”
Peters was born near Chicago, in an area that “wasn’t particularly socially liberal but it wasn’t religious or anything so there wasn’t a strong ideology I could reject”. Her father was a professor and her mother a lawyer. Growing up, she didn’t know the word trans. At 18, she had sex with a man while dressed as a woman but thought it was a fetish. Her then-girlfriend found a cross-dressing website on her computer but Peters made it seem like that was a hobby.
Instead of addressing her feelings, she moved around a lot; living in the Dominican Republic as an exchange student, Cameroon and Uganda. “I was trying to figure myself out and instead of changing who I was, I changed where I lived. I was married. And then slowly in my twenties I figured out it was not my lifestyle, it was not who I was with, it was me.” When she returned to the USA, and completed an MFA at the University of Iowa’s writing workshop, she began transitioning.
The character Ames and his detransition are based on thoughts she had in 2016 when she was thinking about how much easier her life had been before she transitioned, when she had all the benefits of being a white man in America. She went to Mexico but her gender had not yet changed to female on her passport so she wore a man’s suit on the flight, “to avoid questions from customs, because I couldn’t face them.” But the airline lost her bags and she had to spend the whole trip in the suit. “It was a skeezy Reservoir Dogs-style suit. I appeared formidable in it so people avoided me and in that receding, which was like a mini detransitioning, I felt the voice of Ames.” She has since thrown away the suit.
The novel has been called “brave” by trans activist and actress Cecilia Gentili who says that trans people never talk about detransitioning in case it is seen as ammunition for transphobia. It came out in the UK shortly after a High Court ruling limiting the administration of puberty blockers to under-16s. Keira Bell, 23, who was born female, brought the case to court because she believed she should not have been encouraged to transition at 16. Trans rights activists criticised the implications for young people with gender dysphoria.
“I have a lot of sympathy for people who detransition,” says Peters, who wants to stop the word being “weaponised”. “People should be allowed to have that conversation [about detransitioning] without becoming a standard bearer for a political cause. What I worry about is not so much detransitioning but if you create a precedent where you say you can’t do this with your body; it opens the gates for all sorts of other precedents that affect everyone. The big one I think about is how it would affect abortion.”
“Most people I know who have detransitioned have a kind of regret in that they tried something and it didn’t work and it was hard. It’s like if you move country and it doesn’t work out, you have regret but that doesn’t mean nobody should move. If you think you are the only person this happened to, you will have pain; if people are talking about it there is not this big shame and you can cope with it.”
This rationale is why Peters dedicates the book to divorced cis women. She says: “They are also in a place where they need to make a series of hard decisions to move forward so they don’t stay stuck or bitter or living in the past in illusion.” Speaking about these hard decisions is part of what drove Peters to write Detransition, Baby. There is a passage in the novel where Ames compares trans women to young orphan elephants. They have been through trauma, they are stronger than they think but they have no role models to teach them how to cope so they behave erratically.
While navigating delicate ground, Detransition, Baby is also funny, full of astute observations about bourgeois thirty somethings (and a hilarious scene involving the Wim Hof method - Peters didn’t realise he was so famous and thought she was putting in “a bit of esoteric cultural detritus”, she has done cold water swimming but says she “isn’t into pain, personally”). Peters smiles as she says that she is interested in “the slow questions, like how do you earn enough money to buy a butcher’s block table and how long do you have to commit to living somewhere to justify that purchase?”
When she first started writing, she was part of a Brooklyn press called Topside, who believed in trans people writing for trans people. “Not to keep quoting Toni Morrison, but she said she writes explicitly for black women and everybody else can keep up. So you don’t need to explain things, you write at full speed and your writing is better. And it sets the bar higher because you have to tell the audience something they don’t already know.”
Now, though, she thinks of her audience “more in terms of affinity than identity”. Detransition, Baby’s story is timeless, she says: “There are three ideas about this baby and nobody can get their way. Whether it’s a child or a heist movie, that’s a classic plot.”
So has she thought about who might play Reese, Ames and Katrina? “I secretly wrote Ames for Taylor Swift, as a psychic projection of a gendered ideal.” Fingers crossed Swift gets in touch.
Detransition, Baby is out now (£14.99, Profile Books)