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We’re All Failing at Being Women

Photo: Natasha Gornik

The Cut

A weekly audio magazine exploring culture, style, sex, politics, and more, with host Avery Trufelman.

There is so much to say about Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters. Lauded as the first book by a trans author to be released by a major publishing house, it’s a novel about queerness, motherhood, and, ultimately, the way we all present our genders. This week, Torrey speaks with The Cut host Avery Trufelman about how the Kardashians have “transitioned” from female to female and how the common feeling of “failing at gender” can bridge divides between cis and trans women.

To hear more about the impossible performance of womanhood, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also find the full transcript below.

AVERY: Suddenly it seems like everyone I know is reading Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters. It’s lauded as one of the first novels by an open trans author to be released by a major publisher. And it’s so good. It’s a delicious and deeply queer novel that is about — as an extremely crude top-line summary — three people trying to learn how to create a family together.

TORREY: Three people, two couples, one baby.

AVERY: That is author Torrey Peters. And to try to summarize the whole plot of Detransition, Baby would really do the book a disservice. The story is dramatic and convoluted and hard to capture. It’s about family, it’s about motherhood, it’s about mothering, but at the molten core of it all, it’s about the way we all present our genders, including cis people.

TORREY: You can change genders inside of a larger umbrella of womanhood because you’re born with a certain type of body and you have a certain kind of presentation, but you decide that you want to be a different kind of woman and you essentially transition the same way that male-to-female transsexuals like myself have transitioned. And that transition happens, because usually it’s something that doesn’t feel right internally to you, that the expectations that you’re putting on yourself to be, for instance, the kind of woman who shaves her legs every day, don’t feel like the right expectations for what is your gender at the moment. And so you have to do a transition.

AVERY: Is that okay language for cis people to use?

TORREY: “Transition”? I mean, yeah, I don’t know. I’m hardly the person to … I get away with it because it’s like, “Well, she’s trans, so she gets to say whatever she wants,” but really I don’t know. And for me, the thing is, I think the language that is most useful is the language that people should use. For so long we’ve had this idea of sort of “Stay in your lane.” You know, like, “You don’t get to do this if you’re outside of your lane.” And part of the work that I wanted my book to do is to actually create connections across difference through analogy.

AVERY: Torrey Peters is a trans writer, writing about trans characters — mostly white trans women. But Peters is also writing about cis characters. And in comparing and contrasting their experiences, she shows trangender-ness as a lens to see the whole world.

TORREY: I always refer to the Kardashians as “female-to-female transsexuals.” Everything that they do in their presentation actually seems to come from sort of drag and from sort of trans-feminine culture. A lot of the aesthetics, like super-cut cheekbones and things like that, because it was like you’re trying to make your face look more feminine so you contour really heavily. The Kardashians are an interesting example, because in some ways you can trace the origin of everything that they have put on themselves to be like, “Okay, here’s all the stuff from Black culture, here’s all the stuff from drag culture, here’s all these things that they’ve taken.” But I would kind of argue that no one is more “Kardashian” than the Kardashians. They’ve created their own genre. They’re not trying to be what they’re referencing. They’re trying to make something new and be authentically that new thing. Whether you like that thing, or whether you think that thing is appealing, is another question.

AVERY: It’s a huge question. There’s a lot of internalized misogyny that comes up when I confront the Kardashians, or even in myself, when I sort of femme myself up and wonder why I’m doing this. Or when I judge other women for how we are or aren’t performing our womanhood. If we’re doing it too much too much or not enough.

TORREY: Early on, there’s a trajectory for a lot of trans women where you transition and there was a time where femme-ness was a kind of armor to me, like I would put on my makeup to go to the supermarket, even if I was just going to buy something for ten minutes. And it was more like, “This is my shield against the world.” And slowly, over the course of years, the idea that that’s especially obligatory to me as a trans woman has sort of faded, as I just sort of live. It’s like I think the ways in which it’s obligatory for me become the ways in which it’s obligatory for cis women or the idea of women in general. There’s a basic pressure to look a certain way or perform a certain way. And as a result, there’s ways in which I purposely deviate from that.

AVERY: Oh, totally. It’s trying to thread that needle between like, “I’m not like other girls,” and “I am a girl!”

TORREY: For me, a big thing in my time in Brooklyn was buying a motorcycle. I felt so meek. I felt like I didn’t make eye contact with people. I was just quiet and meek. And I was like, I remember what it felt like to take up space. I want to try and take a little space. So I bought this big motorcycle, this KLR, and then everybody asked me, “Is this your boyfriend’s bike?” So I painted it pink, which is, I think, actually a lot of where the idea of me as a femme comes from: I ride around on a pink motorcycle, and I painted my helmet pink, and for a while I borrowed my friend’s small dog, and then I was the person riding a pink motorcycle with a small dog. And then I was like, If the dog’s on the motorcycle I should probably get a small pink helmet for the dog. I didn’t do it. But it’s like, This is how you become a femme stereotype. Each step along the way is like, This makes sense.

AVERY: It’s like the extended Barbie play pack: You have the house, and the pink bike, and it just stacks on top of each other.

TORREY: But it actually was an accidental aesthetic that was largely, in some ways, defensive. There’s so many different ways of being a woman. And any time that you start trying to pick Well this is what it means to be a woman, to do this thing, you can find exceptions to it. Arguing about what makes a woman immediately becomes so politicized and can become so ugly, whereas arguing about a femme, you can make jokes about it.

AVERY: Do you identify as a femme?

TORREY: I identify as a low-femme. I also think the idea of “high” and “low” within these gender categories is funny. It reminds me of like Lord of the Rings or something, like, “You’re a high elf. You’re a high femme.” I don’t know. I’m femme. I wear makeup most day. But I also have a motorcycle and stuff. All of this, at some point, it becomes like a funny game. But yeah, I guess in the end I’m a category of femme.

AVERY: And this is a huge part of Detransition, Baby: navigating womanhood and femme-ness. The ways we do and don’t present our genders and the decisions we make around it. One of the main characters Peters writes about, a trans woman named Reese, badly wants to become a mother. And it’s because she loves children. But also because, as she sees it, when you are a mother, no one doubts your womanhood.

Is motherhood femme?

TORREY: I wouldn’t say so, no. Especially if you have the definition of femme that I move with, which is “queer femme,” which has a lot to do with a certain presentation on sexuality that has to do with navigating ideas of availability in the world. And being a mom, maybe problematically, people see that as, “Well, now you’re not the same level of available as before.”

AVERY: Like sexually available?

TORREY: Yeah, sexually available, or even emotionally. You’ve got a child, right? That’s now your priority. You have a child. And so you’re not as available for everything else that the world needs. And that same idea carries over, like prejudices in the workplace. If you tell people that you’re a mom, they might not give you a job, because you’re going to not be available to work extremely long hours. That’s sort of what I mean by less available. I think it’s distinct in some ways from the work of motherhood, which is considered extremely feminine.

AVERY: If you are a woman who is a mom, maybe you have found yourself transitioned out of who you thought you were, with different habits and different presentations. Whoever you are, maybe the pandemic has changed how you present and how you feel about your gender. Maybe your hair is longer. Maybe you shaved it all off. Maybe you learned how to put on makeup. Maybe you haven’t had any time for makeup at all. Maybe your body changed. Maybe these changes feel right. Maybe they don’t. I know that I always feel I’m not quite living up to what I think I should be as a woman.

TORREY: When I was transitioning, I assumed that cis woman had it down somehow, that they’d had this childhood and they understood what it meant to be a woman, and that they weren’t troubled by their failures or that they didn’t even have failures as women. Just whatever they did was magically what a woman did, axiomatically. Figuring out that so many cis women are walking around feeling like they’re constantly failing as woman in all these different ways, in terms of their bodies, in terms of their presentations, in terms of are they ingratiating enough … honestly, I think it was realizing that everybody is failing at gender that made me feel healed. The ways that I began to relate to other women as a woman wasn’t around “We’re so fierce,” or something like that, but around small failures around like, “I see that you feel like you’ve had this failure in this way, and I feel like I’ve had this failure in my way.” And now we can commiserate, and we can realize that the whole idea of this was unfair to begin with, and that who we are is totally fine. It’s the failure, actually, that I felt bonded me to people.

So I actually dedicated this book to divorced women, because I feel like the sort of parallel there is the break — that you live your life a certain way and then there’s a break, and you have to move forward without getting bitter or reinvesting in illusions. And so there’s a way in which I really related to divorced cis woman as a trans woman. For me, the big break was transition. For them, the big break was divorce. But in a certain way, both of those things were a moment of failure. You’re not supposed to frame a divorce as a failure, but the relationship in some ways has failed. My performance of gender over a period of years, it came to a point where I was like, This has failed.

AVERY: So many trans women have had to try to find role models and community among cis women. Partly because they didn’t have a lot of other choices. But in Torrey Peters’s fictionalized world, the energy flows the other way too, where cis women have a lot to absorb and learn from the trans women. Especially the moms.

AVERY: Detransition, Baby is a book very much about friendship. And family. And romantic love. And how the boundaries of these categories are porous in queer relationships and chosen families. You have this idea in your book of the “mom crush.” What is that?

TORREY: So many moms I know feel alienated and alone and isolated, and there’s so much put on them. And then you see them with each other and they’re so happy to share in the labor of taking care of children. I began to think about the affection that moms can have for each other when they’ve got this shared project of raising children. I have a stepson now, but in some ways I guess I have mom crushes around it.

AVERY: Oh, that’s interesting. So a mom is more of a lateral move than the love and respect one has for an elder.

TORREY: Yeah, the mom crush in the book was between moms. It was definitely horizontal as opposed to, “You are my mom.” But I think when moms are involved, it gets really confusing because mom-daughter always has sort of hierarchies of like, “Can you for a moment let your mom take care of things?” And maternal care inherently has a vertical structure.

AVERY: And in a maternal way, in a friendly way, in a mom-crush way, trans women have had to learn how to mother each other. Even women who are basically the same age. To check in on each other and nag each other and be the people you can call at 2 a.m. in a bind. Peters has a metaphor she likes to employ about why this is, comparing trans women to baby elephants.

TORREY: I said that trans women are juvenile elephants, in that we’re often traumatized. The original idea came from a journal in Nature magazine. Elephants are a matriarchal culture. The juveniles are raised within 15 feet of their mom for the first seven years of their life, and they’re close to their moms and aunts all these elephants that basically teach them how to live. Because elephants are, you know, 15,000 pounds, incredibly powerful. And if you just let these elephants run wild, they’ll hurt themselves or hurt other elephants. There’s a long period when moms and aunt elephants basically teach young elephants to control themselves, to control all of this rage —because elephants are full of hormones, too — the rage and power that an elephant has. And what ended up happening is, in the game parks when you had poachers, they would kill the mother elephants and chain the baby elephants to the carcasses of their mothers. But what they ended up creating was a lot of really, really traumatized elephants, elephants who’d seen their moms killed before them, and then also had all of this rage, had all this power, and didn’t have anyone to teach them how to control it. So what you had in the game parks in the ’90s were these violent gangs of elephants that would kill rhinoceroses for sport, would attack humans, and would have huge conflicts between elephants. Elephant-on-elephant violence skyrocketed. Elephant-on-human violence skyrocketed. We’re just like these angry elephants attacking everything around them. It became a metaphor for me for what happened with trans women in my generation. We lost our elders to HIV, but also suicide, substance abuse, and going stealth, which means I’m just passing as a cis woman and then disappearing into society without any trace of your transness. We had an entire generation that disappeared from us. And so it was difficult to be transwoman. We have no elders to teach us to control ourselves and we’re in some ways running rampage, not so much on cis people, because cis people aren’t really vulnerable to us, but on to each other. We can attack each other. We can say, “You’re not doing trans right. You’re embarrassing as a trans woman to us other trans women.”

AVERY: How do we square that now? How can two traumatized baby elephants learn to be in a room together now?

TORREY: There’s a reason why I dedicated the book to divorced cis women. I’m kind of saying to the divorced cis women, “Look, we have something to offer you.” Like, you just asked, “Can we use all these gender terms?” And I’m like, “Yeah, you should use it. Use all this stuff.” But, in turn, help take care of us. There are a lot of trans women out there who could be great friends to you, who could need your help. Our generation doesn’t know what it means to be “thriving in your 60s.” So if you’re a cis woman in your 60s, take a second to tell a juvenile elephant trans lady, “Hey, here’s how you set up your life for more than just this year.” I think that there’s an opportunity for exchange and an opportunity for healing for both cis women who are maybe looking for new ways to think about their gender that can be liberating to them that trans people have had to develop, and certainly trans people need the resources that cis people have.

AVERY: This is a beautiful and idealistic world that Torrey Peters is imagining. And of course, no, we’re not there yet. While all kinds of women have so many universal lessons to give each other, being a trans woman is a particular experience. It carries a lot of wounds that cis people cannot know. And it’s different across race and across class. But this book is a tender companion to these divides and to these commonalities. Detransition, Baby is a starting point for that new beautiful, idealistic world which Torrey Peters is mothering into existence.

TORREY: When I look around at a lot of the trans women around me, they’ve got all this trauma and they’ve got all these coping mechanisms. And I was like, “Well, I’m going to write a book that creates a picture of where you are. And then I’m going to strip everything away from someone who’s like you. And then I’m going to ask, ‘What are you going to do next?’”And that is absolutely a kind of annoying mothering thing to do to an entire generation of people. To me, writing lets me be the ur-mom where I don’t just talk to one or two trans girls. I’m going to talk to an entire generation of them and tell them. It’s an act of incredible ego on my part, but also in some ways just being a mother in the traditional way is an act of ego.

We’re All Failing at Being Women