The (Semi-Hidden) History of Queer Pregnancy in Literature
Alicia Andrzejewski on Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby, and the Future of Queer Families
I had read, taught, and watched William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream countless times before noticing the pregnant Indian votaress. Scholars and directors alike have often ignored her presence and might argue that, because she is nameless and easy to miss, she is inconsequential. Yet, her pregnancy is crucial to the problem that incites action in the play—Titania’s attempt to keep taking care of a boy, “stol’n from an Indian king,” whom Oberon, the fairy King and her husband, wants to make part of his “order.”
In a memory that involves no husbands or fathers, Titania claims the Indian votaress was part of her order—and that, consequently, she will bring up the woman’s son. The monologue quickly evolves into a wandering, warm memory, one in which Titania and the pregnant Indian votaress gossip by night. On a beach in India, they laugh at traders who steer ships with “big-bellied sails”—sails filled with air alone. The pregnant Indian votaress, in contrast, sails across the land and returns to Titania after these voyages, belly “rich” with her unborn son.
Titania, lost in these warm memories, reveals that the votaress died in childbirth and that she raises the Indian boy for his mother’s sake—she “will not part with him.” When her husband protests again, Titania responds, “Not for thy fairy kingdom,” and leaves.
As fans of Midsummer know, Titania is eventually drugged into submission. Despite the King of Athens’ early claim that companionate marriage and reproduction are “happy” choices for women, men like him continually terrorize and poison women in this beloved comedy. Dare I say the only vision of happy women in Midsummer occurs in Titania’s monologue, a memory that centers pregnancy and love between women—a memory that offers us a blueprint for a different kind of future.
Is conceptualizing this transaction of sex, love, and child between Titania and the Indian votaress as a queer pregnancy—a pregnancy that resists heteronormative visions of reproduction and the family —a bad reading of Shakespeare? Perhaps, depending on how you see Shakespeare’s plays enriching his, and our own, world. But in the absence of clear representation, or in the presence of ambiguous representation, I ask: Why make heterosexual sex, conception, pregnancy, or families the default when there are so many silences and gaps in premodern literature and the archives? These assumptions are not only unevidenced, they are irresponsible.
Those of us invested in queer futures, literary or otherwise, have often been exhausted by the project of addressing queer pregnancy and its role in either the past or present. As A. K. Summers writes in Pregnant Butch, a graphic memoir detailing her experience with pregnancy, pregnant queer people should expect a tepid response and general lack of support from the queer community, and curiosity at best—hostility at worst—from everyone else.
I most recently read Lee Edelman’s No Future, a manifesto that supports this kind of lukewarm community response, when my daughter was ten months old, pumping breast milk at 4 am. Edelman and some of his contemporaries argue that queer people should reject the future, which is more often than not mobilized through the figure of the c/Child in whose name, he argues, queers “are collectively terrorized.”
At the time, I was writing my dissertation on queer pregnancy in Shakespeare’s plays while working full-time in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Plugging and pumping away, Edelman’s text felt like a slap in the face. I was not only a bisexual cis woman married to a man, but I had a baby—willingly. The contraption attached to my breast had always felt ridiculous, Edelman’s decree aside. Now, it took on a new hostility. I imagined him smirking at me from the corner of my living room, watching the machine work my breast, raising his eyebrows as if to say, “See? Don’t you feel terrorized?”
I certainly felt exhausted, ridiculous, and incredibly straight.
Today, in a world uncomfortably close to the world Shakespeare constructs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, all kinds of queer people have to fight for individual and collective futures. This is why Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby is a revelation. The novel’s inciting incident is an unexpected pregnancy and the possibility, however fraught, of a different kind of family structure and a different kind of future. After one of Peters’ protagonists, Ames, detransitions, he trusts the doctor who tells him he’s sterile and ends up impregnating Katrina, a straight ciswoman. Ames is terrified of becoming a father, given the toxic masculinity that frames this role—toxicity he’s spent his whole life negotiating. Katrina has no idea Ames lived as a woman for years and must (at times violently) work through her feelings of betrayal. And Reese, Ames’s girlfriend before his transition, desperately wants a child. Ames’s solution is to propose the three of them raise this child together—and the novel’s plot ensues.
I gasped when Peters directly took Lee Edelman to task in the opening pages of the novel. Peters’ writes:
And so, trans women defaulted into a kind of No Futurism, and while certain other queers might celebrate the irony, joy, and graves into which queers often rush, that rush into No Future looked a lot more glamorous when the beautiful corpse left behind was a wild and willful choice rather than a statistical probability.
Here, Peters’s narrator reminds the queer community that trans people don’t have the choice to reject the future when no future is a “statistical probability” as opposed to “a wild and willful choice.” These lines also emphasize Reese’s relative dearth of options as a trans woman who wants a child, as well as a trans woman who depends, in this narrative, on a cis woman to commit to motherhood with her. In so many ways, Detransition, Baby offers readers visions of how trans people in particular, and queer people more generally, fight for love, intimacy, and—yes—children outside of what too many people consider a traditional family.
Detransition, Baby goes on to offer concrete representations of queer people, pregnancies, and families that are consistent with my research on premodern queer families. Combing through the Folger Shakespeare Library’s archives, for example, I found an aside in Micrographia (1665), an early modern medical text, that promises to explain the “secrets of generation” of “Hermaphrodites or of Androgynes that are both man and woman.” To my delight and surprise, genderqueer people are at least mentioned, in print, in this early modern text (though it never actually reveals the “secrets” it gestures to in this passage). As Micrographia suggests, as far back as 1665, queer people have reproduced against the odds and outside of the medical knowledge of their time, much like Ames in Detransition, Baby.
Around the same time Micrographia (1665) was circulating, Katherine Philips was writing exquisite love poems to her female friends about their love ascending a “dull angry world.” As a queer woman in an unhappy marriage with a man, Philips’ body of work offers a response to classical and early modern tracts that characterize relationships between women as inconsequential. Like Detransition, Baby, and Micrographia before it, Philips’ poems suggest that family formations are far more expansive than the crushing onslaught of heterosexual representation would have us believe.
Along with these erotic poems, however, and her poem advising women to avoid marriage at all costs, Philips wrote a devastating poem, “On the Death of My First and Dearest Child, Hector Philips” about an “unconcerned world” that “neither can nor will” give her comfort after the loss of her firstborn child. As Detransition, Baby’s harrowing climax demonstrates, this “unconcerned world” still haunts queer people who love and desire out of bounds. Philips is often a staple in classes on lesbian fictions and queer representation in early modern literature. These erotic poems are rarely considered alongside her poems about pregnancy, loss, and motherhood.
As Detransition, Baby suggests, though, bringing these distinct areas of study together—queerness and motherhood—would show us a more expansive view of the queer premodern world. The book attends to the urgency of these representations by asking readers to expand our own ideas of what pregnancy, reproduction, and family look like—and to invite that expansion into the narratives that shape our respective lives.
In other words, there are many premodern precedents to Detransition, Baby beyond Titania’s monologue in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In The Winter’s Tale, another Shakespeare play, queen Hermione returns to court after spending sixteen years with another woman. Instead of clearly reuniting with her husband, Hermione does not speak a word to him and both women claim Perdita, Hermione’s daughter, as their “own”; another suggestion of a queer family. Or, the uterine surgery Reese imagines in Detransition, Baby, a surgery that would allow trans women to carry their own children, conjures new possibilities, new visions of queer pregnancy—much like a fleeting moment of expansive imagination in one of Thomas Middleton’s plays, when a dance-master watches a pregnant boy go into labor and, instead of assuming this boy is a young woman in disguise, simply accepts the possibility that he’s “with child.”The world Detransition, Baby offers readers matters; it’s a world I know will make many people who know nothing of its premodern precedents feel held.
In addition to bringing these histories into focus, Peters’s novel calls on the queer community to offer more support to trans people who want to have children, as well as queer people in general. In so many ways, Peters’ trans protagonists are as terrorized by the promise of a child as queers who don’t want one are; what oppresses them is, specifically, the lack of options available for having a child outside a limited selection of heteronormative pathways.
In exploring queer people’s sometimes terrifying and often dismissed desires to have children, Peters affords representational rights to her trans characters that have always been afforded to cishet characters struggling under the weight of the “happy family.” Peters’ characters are flawed, messy, and even villainous at times, but as Carmen Maria Machado writes in In the Dream House, “queers—real-life ones—do not deserve representation, protection, and rights because they are morally pure or upright as a people. They deserve those things because they are human beings, and that is enough.” Peters’s novel fearlessly responds to Machado’s call, especially in its argument that queer people have every right to become pregnant, to have and raise children, and to have these choices respected—even celebrated—by the queer community.
The world Detransition, Baby offers readers matters; it’s a world I know will make many people who know nothing of its premodern precedents feel held. Peters’s generous attempt to build bridges with cishet people, her wicked sense of humor, and her page-turning narrative have already drawn a large readership. I would add that Detransition, Baby also brings lived experiences across time together, offering a narrative of pregnancy that resists traditional ideas of motherhood, femininity, and the heteronormative family. And, for me at least, these representations are worth more than a fairy kingdom.