Torrey Peters Goes There
New York magazine|January 4-17, 2021
The author’s debut novel, Detransition, Baby, wades into two of the most vulnerable questions for trans women.
Lila Shapiro

AROUND THE TIME the novelist Torrey Peters transitioned, she was spending more and more time talking to strangers on the internet. She was 32 years old, in an open marriage, and in the midst of a fellowship program in comparative literature at Dartmouth when she realized she no longer wanted to be a professor. She had an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa’s writing workshop, but she didn’t want to be a writer anymore, either. She met a wealthy tech guy on Facebook a while back who wanted to fly her out to Seattle for a long weekend. By the end of that visit, she had settled on a new vision of her future. “I wanted to be a trophy wife,” she recalled. “I wanted to take care of a man and have a dog we walked together. It all seems ridiculous to me now, but at the time I was dead serious.”

The tech guy was married, but Peters decided to move to Seattle to become his mistress. She bought a wardrobe of sundresses and heels. “It was a wonderful time. It was also the most insecure I’ve been in my life.” The relationship didn’t last (Peters’s marriage collapsed too), and after a year, the trophy­wife fantasy fizzled out. By the time she sat down to write her first novel, in the summer of 2016, she was entertaining a previously unthinkable fantasy: a family, maybe kids. The book was an attempt to imagine how that life might be achieved. “It was a thought experiment for how to live as a trans woman,” she said.

The novel, Detransition, Baby, is among the first written by a trans woman to be issued by a big­five publishing house. It follows three New Yorkers in their late 30s as they face various life crises and contemplate an unconventional solution to their problems: raising a child together. One of them, Katrina, is cis and unexpectedly pregnant. Her partner, Ames, is a trans woman who has decided to detransition and live as a man again. Reese, a trans woman who dated Ames pre­detransition, is gripped with longing for a baby. “Trans women will be matching their experiences against Reese’s, but so will cis women,” reads a Kirkus review of the book. Roxane Gay, who chose Detransition, Baby, as her February book­club pick, predicted in a Goodreads review that it would be “polarizing.” “I thought it was incredibly brave,” said Cecilia Gentili, a trans activist and an actress (Pose), on a recent chilly night on the back patio of a Brooklyn restaurant where Peters and her friends had gathered. “Because detransitioning is one of the topics transphobic people use against us. Sometimes I think about detransitioning, but we never talk about it.” Harron Walker, a writer for Jezebel, nodded. She really appreciated a character like Reese, she said, “a trans woman grappling with the idea of motherhood.” To bear children, Peters said, is to be “unquestionably” a woman. “I will never have that unquestionableness.”

Peters, now 39, lounged back against a snowbank. Barefaced save for a hint of eyeliner, she wore a long black vintage fur coat made from nutria (“big rats,” she said). Confident and charismatic, Peters is the kind of woman who can inspire despair in others. Walker’s first thought on meeting her was “She’s so hot I want to jump off a cliff.” In New York, she has cycled through various phases: trans separatist, queer party girl, proud owner of a hot­pink motorcycle, cozy domestic. (She’s now engaged to a cis woman, a law professor with a son.) She has always been able to fit into any milieu, but that evening she seemed to glow with the security of a woman who had arrived after a long, difficult journey.

AT A QUAKER BOARDING school in Iowa, Peters had played soccer and learned to be popular by studying what the popular boys did. She had two Facebook pages, one as a boy and one as a girl. “I was so compartmentalized,” she said. She first had sex with a man while dressed as a woman when she was 18. Similar encounters soon followed. She told no one about her secret life. “I didn’t know the word trans. I thought it was a sexual fetish.”

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