The Queer Art of Divorce

Composer Ethan Philbrick and novelist Torrey Peters discuss what it means to make art and community after a marriage ends.

Haley Mlotek
February 17, 2021
Still from the 1934 film The Gay Divorcees. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Five years ago, while in the process of getting divorced, the composer Ethan Philbrick began writing a lot of short songs. “Little refrains, like affirmations in the mirror,” he said in our conversation, “about having the strength to leave.” Philbrick’s affirmations eventually led him to form The Gay Divorcees, a group of nine musical collaborators described on their website as “a band of real-life queers who got gay married and gay divorced.” This month, the ensemble put out a self-titled album and hosted a Zoom performance on Valentine’s Day to celebrate its release; until the end of February, one way to access the album is by calling a hotline, 1-855-GAY-DIVO. “You can leave what isn’t working,” the phone number sings in your ear when the call connects. “You can leave what you don’t think you can.”

Around the same time Philbrick started composing his songs, the writer Torrey Peters began working on a novel about an unexpected and fragile love triangle. Detransition, Baby—written in the years following Peters’s divorce and released last month to widespread acclaim—subtly explores the relationship between divorce, desire, and reinvention. The novel follows a pair of exes—Reese and Ames, who were together when Ames was Amy, and whose lives diverged around his detransitioning—and a divorcee, Katrina, with whom Ames is in a fraught relationship. When Katrina gets pregnant, Ames presents her and Reese with an unlikely plan for the three of them to raise the baby together; Reese, a trans woman who has long wondered what it would mean for her to become a mother, is uncertain but willing to listen. Like all the best divorcee literature, the novel is a romance in the truest tragic sense: a graceful excavation of hurt feelings. 

Like Philbrick and Peters, I am also divorced and also began working on a project about divorce—in my case, a work of nonfiction—about five years ago. In the years since I started writing I have accumulated a trove of coincidences like these with divorcees who shared the timing of an ending, the circumstances of a breakup, even where we went when we left. After a marriage ends, you desire a sense that what has happened to you is not yours alone; talking to other divorcees is how you learn that this experience of having and then losing is not a failing, but a gift. You can join in what Philbrick describes as the “ongoing practice” of divorce—a strange sort of narrative without a beginning or a middle, an endless story of endings that becomes something like a chorus: a repetition whose rhythm gradually emerges. 

As Valentine’s Day approached, I spoke with Philbrick and Peters about what it means to talk, sing, perform, and write about being divorced. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and, somewhat regrettably, for length; divorcees, once we get started, can really talk forever. 

Haley Mlotek: Let’s start by talking about The Gay Divorcees, and how it became a collaboration with so many different artists.

Ethan Philbrick: I didn’t initially have plans to make work around my divorce, but then I started talking with more divorcees. I love divorcees. I spent two years just tracking down divorcees and emailing them, like, “Do you want to get a drink? Do you want to start a band?” I was particularly talking to queer people who had gotten married in the era of marriage equality, and then gotten divorced. Many of us had already had a critique of marriage as an institution and had done it for bureaucratic reasons, but then found ourselves capital-“M” married. Weirdly, in this situation, you might not think of yourself as married until you have to get divorced. 

Once this ensemble came together, the idea was to stage a live event. But throughout the pandemic, we kept meeting over Zoom, and we wrote songs alongside each other. Not everybody was a musician, so we would tell stories and write lyrics based on them, or ask each other what genre we wanted to work in. I served as a sort of song doula, but the project has a real shared authorship—we were trying to collectivize around the scene of divorce.

HM: Torrey, your novel Detransition, Baby opens with a dedication: “To divorced cis women, who, like me, had to face starting their life over without either reinvesting in the illusions from the past, or growing bitter about the future.” The book includes a lot of beautiful writing—I want to call it a theory—around how divorced women exist in the world. I wondered if a perception of divorced cis women—who they are and what they represent—was an idea that served as a starting point for you, or if it developed over the course of writing the book.

Torrey Peters: It happened for two reasons that came together. First, I was looking for role models because I was feeling stuck after transition, unable to see clearly how to actually live in an ongoing way. The trans women of the generation before me had a lot to teach me, but in some ways things had changed so fast for trans women that they were figuring out their lives all over again. At the same time, I was having a hard time naming the audience I wanted to talk to in my work. I had self-published some novellas specifically for trans women, and when you publish specifically for trans women, the borders of your audience become identity-based. But I realized later that I wasn’t really writing for trans women as such—I was writing for a certain kind of trans woman, or trans women with a certain experience of transness. I was asking myself: What is that experience? Who actually is my audience?

In the midst of all this, I started reading books by Elena Ferrante, Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill, and I was like, “There’s a way of seeing the world that these women seem to have.” Which was: to take stock of yourself, to be honest about your failures. These writers weren’t writing about transition—they were cis women writing about divorce, how to not be stuck in the place divorce left you. But they seemed to find a way out of their stuckness in a way that also seemed like it could work for getting out of the stuckness of the post-transition period.

I wound up finding my audience through that discovery—because I thought, “This is actually a conversation.” These divorced women had a ton to teach me about how to live, but I also felt they had [more thinking to do] about gender, about what it means to be a man or a woman. I felt like I could say that to them, and that it could be a real exchange. At the same time, I realized that the trans women I wanted to speak to were the ones wondering about how to move through stuckness. Divorce had become the key.

Later, I thought, “Wait a second. When I transitioned, I also got divorced.” Transitioning was so loud that I almost couldn’t hear the divorce beneath it. To what degree did I make divorce into an analogy, when in fact I was dealing with the fallout of a literal one? 

HM: Queer organizers and critics have often made the case that—despite the many reasons to advocate for marriage equality—marriage, by definition, is never going to be liberatory. I wonder how many of us went into our marriages knowing the blunt truth that the institution seems to gain strength regardless of the meaning an individual gives to their own marriage. It’s not so much that divorce changed the way I feel about my marriage, or about the concept of marriage in general, so much as what Torrey said: that it allowed for the possibility of other futures. I’m wondering if, as you were both collecting references and looking for role models, you also found yourself examining beliefs that had previously gone unquestioned.

TP: Like you said, we thought we could make the marriage our own, that the state had nothing to do with it. I found very quickly, though, that the institution was much more powerful than us. Before we were married, my ex, Olive, would go out and no one would ever ask where I was. If I was out, no one ever asked where she was. But then we got married and it was like, “Torrey, where’s Olive?” The first time it happened, I gave a big speech: “Just because we’re married does not mean I am her keeper, we are free people!” But by the tenth time I started saying, “I don’t know.” And by the twentieth time, I was like: “Yeah! Where is Olive?” Suddenly I had the institution showing me it was what I had sworn it would never be.

People imagine marriage as being what opens you up to the world, and divorce as isolating. But in a lot of ways, marriage made me an antisocial person, while divorce made me open-hearted. It made me want to have an affinity with many people—to gather them together and share a way of seeing the world.

EP: Marriage is often thought of as a ritual for creating something new, for instituting a new family, but for so many people it’s a consolidation of continuity: “I want my ideas about the future to stay the same.” When we get married, we marry a person, but we’re also marrying a set of ideas about what stability is, what safety is. One member of our ensemble, Lauren Bakst, has this line from a performance of hers: “You think you can change the form, but the form changes you.” 

For me, part of it became a question of how to leave something I didn’t really think I was in. I kept thinking I wasn’t really married, but I didn’t know how to get out. Divorce is this act of rupture that makes you reckon with what you’ve been disavowing and say, “No, this has to change.” When we get divorced, we’re divorcing ideas and investments. In this way, divorce is an ongoing practice, and I think we have to figure out some new rituals around it. 

HM: You’ve both referenced, in some way, this idea of romance or yearning. I have started thinking of divorced people as the truest romantics I know. Is that real, or is it just us?

TP: I think that’s true. Maybe something is wrong with me, but when I think of a really torrid romance, I don’t think of picnics on the beach. I think of breaking dishes and fucking on the table and running away in the rain. A lot of what seems romantic about divorce is the intensity of emotion you have during that time—sometimes what I miss is that depth of feeling. It’s romantic to live intensely, to fall in love, get a quickie marriage and then slowly fight your way to divorce over the next year. Maybe that’s why I need divorcees around me to be like, “No, girl, that’s actually not good.”

EP: I think there’s also a kind of remaking of romance in post-divorce intimacy. My relationship now doesn’t feel as much like an attachment to some idea or fantasy of intimacy because that idea has been shattered in some way by the painful experience of my marriage. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just means post-divorce intimacy is more focused on the person themself. After I got out of a relationship that was so much about the idea of being in a relationship, now I get to be in a relationship because I’m actually experiencing the surprise of the person I’m with, and that means that there are new romantic genres we have to invent. I think I can say I know that differently as a divorcee.

Haley Mlotek is an editor at SSENSE and an organizer with the Freelance Solidarity Project, a distinct division of digital media workers within the National Writers Union. She is currently working on a book about romance and divorce.