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Torrey Peters Goes There

The author’s debut novel, Detransition, Baby, wades into two of the most vulnerable questions for trans women.

Photo: Dawit N.M.
Photo: Dawit N.M.

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; a trip to the grocery store entailed two hours of makeup. “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 trophy-wife 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 big-five 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 pre-detransition, 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 book-club 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 hot-pink 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.

Photo: Dawit N.M.

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.”

When she was in her mid-20s, her then-girlfriend — soon to be her wife — stumbled upon a cross-dressing website on her computer. “I wasn’t honest with her. I wanted people to think that was just another cool facet of my personality — like, This person travels, and also they wear heels! I was still spinning it.” Peters spun it further in an essay that ran in Gawker in 2012, “The Crossdressing Room.” “I don’t think that I’m a woman,” she wrote. “I just think that parts of my psyche are female, resulting in a deep-seated need to act that out.” She was at the Iowa Writing Workshop at the time, and, looking back, she views much of her writing then as dishonest. “I never got better because I never understood what writing was for. I thought it was about telling a compelling story, but I didn’t understand it was about telling the truth.”

Peters sent the essay to an agent she had met at Iowa, who thought it could be expanded into a book. When she handed in a few chapters, the agent’s assistant said they didn’t see it reaching a mainstream audience. “The email was polite, but the inference was that right-thinking non-perverts would not enjoy this.” After that rejection, Peters gave up on writing. By then, she was studying theory at Dartmouth. “I was always making moderate changes, hoping it would fix things,” she said. But living in New Hampshire in isolation with her wife made everything worse. During the long, cold winter of 2014, she met two trans women at the nearest gay bar, an hour’s drive away. They were in their 50s and had been on hormones for six months. “I didn’t like these women,” she said. “But I was so jealous of them. And if I’m jealous of these women I don’t like, what does that say about me? It was a weird moment of clarity.” It was a Friday night in February. That Monday, she went to the student health center and began taking hormones. “By June, everything was falling apart,” she said.

Not long after, Peters moved to Seattle, where she met a trans man named Tom Léger. He was the editor at Topside, an early and influential press dedicated to publishing trans writers. As a graduate student, he had studied under Sarah Schulman, the author and academic who had made a career and an art out of writing for underground queer presses. Her approach to writing was a guiding light for Léger and the writers he published. Schulman recalled co-leading a workshop Léger had organized for trans women and telling the students they didn’t have to justify their perspectives. “Once you get rid of that requirement to justify, then people can actually write,” she said.

Léger invited Peters to give a reading on a tour he was organizing and told her it didn’t matter if her writing was good. “You’ll learn something by reading in front of a room of other trans women,” Peters recalled him saying. When she read part of what she had submitted to the agent years earlier, a revelation swept over her: “I had been shaping what I said about myself for an imagined cis readership. It’s one thing to tell a roomful of cis people, ‘I’m a cross-dresser, I know I’m ridiculous, you can still trust me.’ But when I’m talking to a room of trans women and telling them I’m ridiculous, I’m calling them ridiculous.” When she looked out into the room, no one would make eye contact with her. The other writers invited her out to a bar afterward. “They understood this was part of the initiation,” she said.

Peters and Léger began seeing each other, and she fell further into his orbit. At parties, she met other Topside writers, who cultivated a separatist vision of the world. The scene was punk and a little nerdy — leather jackets, Old Crow whiskey, arguing about Stone Butch Blues. Cis people were rarely present. Her new friends partied together and wrote for one another. Peters felt creatively reinvigorated. Along with some friends, she got a tattoo that read T4T — the Craigslist shorthand for “trans for trans” — on her ankle. The tattoo shows up on the cover of her novella Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones. T4T “is a promise,” one character explains. “You just promise to love trans girls above all else.”

Peters started working on Infect Your Friends in 2015 and followed it with another novella, The Masker. The next year, she left Seattle to move in with Léger at his apartment in Brooklyn. Their relationship had always been volatile, and it soon fell apart, as did Topside. Léger didn’t respond to emails for this story, but some people I spoke with suggested the press had shut down because of infighting, disorganization, and financial strain. Writers of color criticized it for mostly publishing white women. “It was the only outlet for trans writing, which meant it became a resented gatekeeper,” Peters said. She moved in with an old friend from college and, using what she had learned from Topside, published her books herself. She gave them away for free to any trans woman who wanted to read them.

The novellas quickly caught on. Peters was dealing with topics that earlier generations of trans writers had often considered taboo. “They were so twisted and sexual and unapologetic,” Casey Plett, another Topside writer, told me. Although Peters wrote them for trans readers, her protagonists struggle to live up to the T4T promise. The Masker is about a cross-dresser obsessed with sissy porn, a genre of erotica in which a dominant man forces an unwilling boy to become a submissive girl; in the story, the protagonist must choose between an older trans woman who wants to help her live an authentic life and an abusive married man who wants to fuck her in a frilly dress. She chooses the abuser. Peters dedicated the novella to “my former self at her most afraid.”

In 2016, Peters took a trip to Guadalajara to help a friend who was getting facial-feminization surgery. Without thinking too much about it, she pulled an old suit out of the back of her closet to wear on the plane — a remnant of her life before transition. Her ex-wife had recently visited New York, and she was reminded of how much easier things had been back then. “I had all the advantages of being perceived as a decent-looking, fairly smart white man in America,” she said. Now she was broke. Her novellas were taught in a handful of college courses on queer literature around the country, but they weren’t paying the bills, and her prospects felt bleak. Peters’s luggage was lost in transit, so she spent a week wandering the city in the suit, drinking and smoking cigarettes in a dissociated haze. “The trip was like a test run for detransition I couldn’t quite admit I was doing,” she said. When she got back to New York, she was relieved to take the suit off. She didn’t want to detransition after all, but the trip gave her the insight she would need to finish Detransition, Baby. The title came out of that moment. “The comma is a knife’s edge. If you could just find your way to having a baby and finding motherhood, you would be legitimate, or if you could just figure out how to live as a man and detransition, you’d be okay,” she said. “The hard part is you’re stuck. That was the split in my psyche for a long time.”

In the novel, Reese and Ames represent two visions of the future. For the third character, Katrina, Peters had been thinking about the parallels between her and her ex-wife’s lives. “So much of what I thought of as ‘transition’ was the same for her — starting over, where to find meaning — only she called it divorce.” She finished writing at the end of 2018 and dedicated the book to “divorced cis women,” thinking some of them might be interested in reading it. While her first two novellas belong to the genres of sci-fi and psychological horror, Detransition, Baby, is part living-room drama, part bourgeois comedy of manners. Her agent, Kent Wolf, saw the book’s commercial potential and turned down an early offer from an imprint that wanted to position it as a niche work of LGBT fiction. Wolf pointed out that the book wasn’t about transitioning but about “the business of living. It’s a novel about a difficult woman written by a difficult woman in the tradition of popular novels about difficult women written by difficult women.” Two editors from different imprints at Random House, one cis and one trans, made an offer together. They gravitated toward it for different reasons. Victory Matsui, the trans editor, was struck by Peters’s honesty. “She is not afraid to explore our deepest shames and our most tender, vulnerable dreams,” Matsui said. Caitlin McKenna, who is cis, was pregnant and had just gone to a baby shower when she read the manuscript. “I left feeling disoriented by the gender-performance aspect of the event,” she said. “Then I read Detransition, Baby, and I was able to look back at the shower with a more empathetic heart.” Other cis readers of Detransition, Baby, experienced something similar — an epiphany about the role gender plays in their lives. Peters had been aiming for this reaction. “We’re coming to a stage of trans literature where cis people come to know themselves through a trans lens,” she said.

Peters’s crossover appeal didn’t surprise Schulman. “She’s everything that works,” she said. “She’s pretty. She’s very smart. She’s charming. She’s bold and brash. She’s blonde.” She added, “There would be no Torrey without Topside. It always works this way. In the early development of a minority literature, dominant-culture people cannot universalize from marginalized protagonists because of their prejudices. Cis people are now becoming interested in trans consciousness because of the work the trans community has done.” This year, several other works by trans writers will be published by big-five houses. Schulman, who once wrote a book mourning the loss of rebellious queer culture, isn’t sure this is a good thing. When I asked whether she thinks the trans literary world is entering a renaissance, she laughed and said, “We might be leaving it.” Still, she’d enjoyed Peters’s book, calling it “both unimaginable and entirely inevitable.”

Peters envisions a wider audience for her new work, but she’s still speaking to trans women. Back when she published her novellas, people would write to her and ask for advice about whether they should transition. “I’d tell them, ‘You have to live your truth. Your life is a lie,’ ” she recalled. Since then, she has been to three funerals; she knows trans women who have overdosed or drunk themselves to death. “I don’t prescribe a dogma anymore,” she said. “The fact that you may find your life as a trans woman too hard doesn’t invalidate your life as a trans woman.” But she no longer entertains thoughts of detransitioning herself. Writing the book, she said, gave that fantasy “a place to live that wasn’t inside of me.” At the beginning of the year, while cleaning her apartment, she threw away the suit, along with an old pair of heels and a sweater she had grown tired of. “It was just a piece of clothing that no longer suited me,” she said.

*A version of this article appears in the January 4, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Torrey Peters Goes There