A Portrait of Cis-Trans Solidarity

A Portrait of Cis-Trans Solidarity

Torrey Peters’s novel Detransition, Baby reimagines what we call the family.

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Vampire skin,” Torrey Peters calls it: the “softly estrogenated” epidermis of the trans woman on hormones. Once you have noticed it, the sign of the vampire haunts the entirety of Detransition, Baby, Peters’s debut novel about mothers and the unmothered. Its two central characters, Reese and Amy, are two white Brooklyn vampires (albeit one of them detransitions, becoming Ames) stalking the earth “lonely” and “thwarted”—as are their friends Iris, Thalia, and Tammi (who has “expertly vampiric” makeup). They make up a community of trans people that is not exactly a utopian care commune. They hurt each other, just like everyone else, and they are prone to the same toxic cruelties that characterize heterosexual culture. At one point Ricky, a trans guy whom Reese has recently dumped, opines that Reese is “a sociopath and pathological liar” who “ends up hurting people, so then she’s alone, which makes her lonely enough to do it even more.” In matters of online conflict and social discord, Reese admits, in moments of hurt or outrage, a feeling of “bloodlust gets the best of her and she goes looking for maximum gore.”

Meanwhile, Ames stopped being Amy because being Amy had been too traumatizing; “when you’re a trans woman, there’s almost nothing out there on how to actually live,” he explains. One of Peters’s most horribly unforgettable images in the book is that of Amy, bleeding in broad daylight on the edge of McCarren Park, having been “stomped” and called a “faggot” by a millionaire. Nowadays, he walks in a twilight zone—knowing what it’s like to be both an ex-man and an ex-woman, and still (albeit awkwardly) in this trans community. As the novel begins, Ames’s undead sperm, though declared sterile by his doctor, has fertilized an egg in his colleague Katrina’s womb. Detransition, Baby is the story of the coming-into-being of that potential fetus’s potential three parents.

It is for Reese, not Ames, that “trans motherhood had always been [a] particular obsession.” She has, in her own words, “a gift for mothering.” Once, Reese had a job tending to infants at the day care center of a gym in Manhattan. She performed these maternal labors surrounded by the sounds of Sesame Street, specifically, the song of Count von Count. Moreover, she has “raised a few trans daughters over the years” (albeit this unpaid mothering remains unavowed—“the girls need it, yearn for it, but won’t accept it if they realize what it is”).

When pain and despair are gripping her, Reese mocks the notion that this kind of mothering carries weight and dignity, or is even real, although certainly real enough (for many of us). It is these “dark crevices of her heart” that also generate her private belief that, for example, “if your husband doesn’t beat you, he doesn’t love you,” and that cis women who don’t get hysterectomies are lying when they “complain about the burden of their reproductive ability…secretly cherishing it.” It is Reese who nihilistically voices the capitalist-realist law that “there can only be one mommy. You’ll see. It’ll be the one with the right body for it.” It is Katrina who laughs and says, “Just make a fucking leap.”

In one memorable scene, however, the self-brutalizing ambivalence of maternal appetite, cis or trans, is illustrated in all its gruesomeness. Reese sits on a fire escape with Katrina, then in the early stages of pregnancy. Down on the street, a little girl “jumps and splashes” in the puddles of rainwater, while her mother films her and says, “Okay, wait, one more, now jump, sweetheart, yes good, look at me!” As the moment unfolds,

Reese and Katrina watch in silence from above. The moment elongates like pulled taffy. They are barely breathing, the two of them, their dark shapes two stories above, raptors transfixed by the scene.

Here, Reese and Katrina, a cis divorcée (the novel, by the way, is dedicated to divorced cis women), are both hungry voyeurs of the scene below, which is in fact an illustration of smart-phone-wielding parental scopophilia. The freight of this scene is ambiguous, but like so many in Detransition, Baby, it seems to lay bare the contradictions of proprietary parenthood.

Solidarity blossoms slowly. Katrina, at the outset, has everything to learn about trans womanhood, trans oppression, trans culture, and trans life. But Reese, as Peters insists, has much to learn from Katrina (who is biracial) too, not least the contours of her own whiteness, the similarities between the two of them, how to be accountable to those they hurt. Both Reese and Katrina hunger for a traditional parenthood that is not available to them: Reese because her body has no viable uterus, and Katrina because the “father” of her fetus has turned out to be an ex-trans woman who is proposing to include his ex, Reese, in the future parental unit. Both women, when upset, lose control and say unacceptable things. Peters portrays these women’s violent outbursts—furious e-mails, offensive flubs—as driven by an instinctual maternal compass toward the baby-to-be (or not be): “A strange instinct, one she hasn’t before experienced in such a sustained tone, growls low in her chest, an instinct that other women might call the mama bear instinct.” But I think Peters understands, just as well as Adrienne Rich, that the institution of motherhood is ambivalent, un-innocent, even sometimes violent, and perhaps ultimately bad for society.

As a proponent of mothering against motherhood, I’ve always been a partisan of the feminist killjoy, interested in deromanticizing queer utopias, and committed to grappling lovingly with the mess, failure, and darkness within webs of care. In other words, I am a vampire defender. In the United Kingdom, in 2013, the left was briefly consumed by a fight about vampires in the wake of a furious, despair-filled blog-post called “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” by Mark Fisher. The essay proved extremely—to this day, persistently—potent and polarizing. At the time, the British establishment’s characterization of Black feminism and trans rights activism as “post-structuralist moralizing” was nowhere near as entrenched as it has now become. Fisher did make valid points, naming for instance the widespread aversion to speaking about the depressive affects of working-class subjectivity—the phenomenology of class. Mainly, however, he was decrying all feminist killjoys as “hipster” woke scolds and diagnosing us as “driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn [and] an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake.”

As the theorist Angela Mitropoulos put it, “I do not see how Mark can, on the one hand, rail against ‘identitarianism’ and ‘essentialism’ while, on the other hand, offering a concept of class that is nothing more than identity politics.” I found it both risible and not altogether unappealing to indulge in Fisher’s fantasy of a “vampire-archy,” a world, to quote Ray Filar, “full of angry feminist vampires shouting CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE! at poor, unsuspecting, powerless, innocent, white leftist men.” And I noticed other trans communists and anarchists responded by declaring themselves to be proud vampires, and expressing their preference for life in a vampires’ castle, compared with life on the queerphobic “class-scolding” left.

The language Fisher deployed (“The Vampires’ Castle feeds on the energy and anxieties and vulnerabilities of young students”) was meant to invoke the vampire imagery in Karl Marx’s writings: Capital, in Marx, is a parasite with an insatiable mouth that drips with children’s blood. I think it’s always a bad move to characterize capital as monstrous and parasitism as morally reprehensible. But it has to be said that the way Marx used this trope of monstrosity, to quote Mitropoulos again, was the “inverse” of Fisher’s move, as Fisher reached for vampirism in his denunciation of a leftist culture that would subject the “working-class” comedian Russell Brand to a “witch hunt.” For Fisher, vampirism is a bourgeois “libidinal-discursive configuration,” while for Marx it is the system of relations set in motion by capitalism, or even the circuit of accumulation itself. Or, as Donna Haraway summarizes, the vampire is “the marauding figure of unnaturally breeding capital, which penetrates every whole being and sucks it dry in the lusty production and vastly unequal accumulation of wealth.” Compare this to Reese’s angry statement in her letter to Katrina and Ames: “Transgender is the name selected to recognize a vector of disease.”

I wish Mark Fisher were still alive, for so many reasons. I thought of him instantly and with empathy when Torrey Peters’s fictional trans woman describes herself as “a veteran of the horrific social gore that results when individuals fight personal battles with unnecessarily political weaponry on a queer battlefield mined with hypersensitive explosives.” When Reese pinpoints that “deadly formula…her foe’s delicious ratio of seventy percent irresistible truth telling to thirty percent emotional poison”—I thought of Fisher’s essay.

I would want him and anyone convinced of the argument in his essay to read Detransition, Baby, a novel that is about not just “unnatural breeding,” but also the twinned violence of cisness and outsiders’ thwarted desire for it, and the felt insufficiency of the “queer kinship spiel” in marginalized communities. I think this book might change many minds about vampires. After all, what is a vampire? Crucially, the vampire is not a “finger-wagging” sermonizer of “sour-faced identitarian piety,” as Fisher mistakenly charged. She is a thirsty, needy, dependent, sensuous, vulnerable, constantly multiplying creature full of unnatural appetites—a queer feminine version, surely, of the “cool, sexy” avatar of communism Fisher was so nostalgic for.

Back to Reese, then, a reluctant and unlikely avatar of utopian hunger. Reese, centrally, is possessed by a yearning she defines as “that hunger—for a family, for a child, for others to make a place in their lives for her.” The three phrases that come after the em-dash, it is implied, are near-synonyms. Yet, paradoxically, this triple hunger is explicitly juxtaposed with Reese’s lack of appetite for a political queer community, whereas the community in question is explicitly seeking to make a place within itself for her. In a scene at Riis Beach,

[Ricky] sits beside Reese on her towel and recounts his spring, mentioning a series of protests he helped to organize in response to bathroom bills and the banning of trans children in schools and sports. Reese has not attended any protests. Ricky’s monologue, though seemingly about his own exploits, is a manner of gentle prodding that he has mastered the last few years…. Reese reads his meaning plainly: What has happened to you, Reese? Why don’t we see you anymore? Aren’t you one of us?

After Ricky leaves, Reese fulminates bitterly against the suggestion that she has already existing relations worth mentioning within the activist milieu of New York’s trans community: “She wishes she had said to him: ‘I am angry. I don’t care about your protests. They are not enough.’” Similarly, when Reese’s friend Thalia, who “drag[ged] her to [the beach],” tells her that “queers have kids all the time,” Reese counters cynically, “Not trans women.”

In short, nihilism and insurgent love, conservatism, and queerness ebb and flow and swirl continuously within the bosom of a single vampire. It can take generations to heal fully from depression and trauma, and that’s if one is lucky, alas—perhaps, without revolution, it isn’t even possible. At any rate, the vengeful defensive violence of vampires is structurally produced, much like the violence of Frankenstein’s monster, who goes on a rampage because his mother, the doctor, disowns him. This is the wisdom extrapolated by Ames from facts he once learned about the violent, traumatized condition of juvenile elephants in Africa, which he uses as a neat, tragic analogy (albeit a dehumanizing one) for the failures of the trans community as he experienced it. Elephants, he explains to his cis audience, Katrina, are acting out due to chronic stress caused by their motherlessness: “a total and ongoing breakdown of elephant culture.” Unconvincingly, Ames describes the white trans girls he knew—“the generation that I transitioned into”—as “the milieu that basically invented screaming online.” Ames sums up his White Trans Women Are Juvenile Elephants thesis thusly:

I’m not saying it’s harder for white girls at all. I’m saying [they were] a tribe of motherless women without survival or social skills, prone to destruction, suicide, and romanticizing their own abjection. I’m saying that no matter whatever sloganistic squishy ideology I might have pretended to adhere to, deep down I was ashamed to be one of them, and ashamed of the thwarted life I led.

Yet it is still Ames, whose shame certainly did not disappear after detransition, who harbors a desire for the future sufficient to float “Project Baby”: a proposition that is fundamentally predicated on comradely co-parenting, and on cis-trans solidarity.

Peters’s central subjects’ desire for biological parenthood is not inherently utopian. It is abundantly clear to the reader that the triad’s appetite for a baby is not anti-capitalist, nor is it likely, in the absence of a revolutionary transformation in the mode of production in their society, to prevail against repronormative capture in the future. Yet, at the same time, the invitation to build one’s home through struggle remains alive. As Katrina places a wool blanket around Reese’s shoulders in the final action of Detransition, Baby, the practice of intragenerational mothering tilts to the fore, a suggestion that, as Audre Lorde put it, collectively we can and do learn to mother ourselves.

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