Vital, clear and
powerfully humane -
The Transgender Issue
by Shon Faye
There's no two ways about it; The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye is a landmark work that should be read far and wide, which signals the beginning of a new, healthier conversation about trans life. Available now in paperback, and with praise from the likes of Sarah Schulman, Juno Dawson, Owen Jones and Mark O'Connell, Faye's writing is deeply researched and experience-based, whilst also sparklingly precise, inspiring and and truly forward-thinking.
Especially for Foyles, Faye has chosen an extract from her book to share on our blog, and has also written an introduction giving insight into her motivation for writing this powerful, very necessary book.
After a new wave of visibility in popular culture in the mid 2010s it seemed that society was beginning to move towards a new acceptance of trans people after decades of engaging in public displays of ridicule and cruelty. More and more trans people, like me, seemed to be open about their identities and the media in Britain and beyond gave those of us who work in journalism more space and platforms to shed light on issues facing trans people. However, this was to be short lived. As the campaigner Christine Burns has pointed out, trans people committed the ultimate crime for any minority group: being more visible. As a result, right wing and conservative forces from the US and the Murdoch media became intent on generating a backlash against the political progress trans people had made and began manufacturing a campaign of hostility and moral panic towards and about transgender lives.
As a writer who occasionally wrote positively about trans people and their lives, I suddenly found my attempts to report on the discrimination and hostility the most vulnerable trans people face across their lives - from school to healthcare, from the workplace to the care home – drowned out by a committed campaign of disinformation which treated us as inherently suspect, secretly powerful, proponents of a harmful “ideology” which was creating all sorts of problems for people who are not trans: particularly women and children. Occasionally, I would be commissioned to write corrective pieces but the obsession with ‘balance’ and the lack of informed cisgender people and other trans people in the media or politics meant the power imbalance was simply too great.
This is why I wrote ‘The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice’. I wanted to start a new, different conversation that centres the actual lived experiences of trans people and in doing so I found that, despite welcome progress in social acceptance, trans people remain marginalised in many areas of life. Trans experiences are diverse – but certain trends emerge and in the book as I lay them out what emerges is not a powerful, dangerous, lobby, as a lot of commentators seem to think, but rather one of the most vulnerable and misunderstood communities in the UK, and around the world. Too often British trans people continue to experience significant discrimination, harassment, and social exclusion: 1 in 4 trans people have been homeless, for example. It is my hope that readers will find the stories in the book help them to understand this community better and will generally help to create more empathy in public discussions of trans lives. In the following adapted extract from the book’s introduction, I explain how the book sets out to do this.
The liberation of trans people would improve the lives of everyone in our society. I say ‘liberation’ because I believe that the humbler goals of ‘trans rights’ or ‘trans equality’ are insufficient. Trans people should not aspire to be equals in a world that remains both capitalist and patriarchal and which exploits and degrades those who live in it. Rather, we ought to seek justice – for ourselves and others alike.
Trans people have endured over a century of injustice. We have been discriminated against, pathologized and victimized. Our full emancipation will only be achieved if we can imagine a society that is completely transformed from the one in which we live. This book is primarily concerned with explaining how society, as it is currently arranged, often makes trans people’s lives unnecessarily difficult. Yet, in posing solutions to these problems, it does not limit itself to thinking solely about trans people, but also encompasses anyone who is routinely disempowered and dispossessed.
Full autonomy over our bodies, free and universal healthcare, affordable housing for all, power in the hands of those who work rather than those privileged few who extract profit from our vastly inequitable system, sexual freedom (including freedom from sexual violence) and the end to the mass incarceration of human beings are all crucial ingredients in the construction of a society in which trans people are no longer abused, mistreated or subjected to violence. Such systemic changes would also particularly benefit everyone else forced to the margins of society, both in the UK and across the world.
The demand for true trans liberation echoes and overlaps with the demands of workers, socialists, feminists, anti-¬racists and queer people. They are radical demands, in that they go to the root of what our society is and what it could be. For this reason, the existence of trans people is a source of constant anxiety for many who are either invested in the status quo or fearful about what would replace it.
In order to neutralize the potential threat to social norms posed by trans people’s existence, the establishment has always sought to confine and curtail their freedom. In twenty-¬first- century Britain, this has been achieved in large part by belittling our political needs and turning them into a culture war ‘issue’. Typically, trans people are lumped together as ‘the transgender issue’, dismissing and erasing the complexity of trans lives, reducing them to a set of stereotypes on which various social anxieties can be brought to bear. By and large, the transgender issue is seen as a ‘toxic debate’, a ‘difficult topic’ chewed over (usually by people who are not trans themselves) on television shows, in newspaper opinion pieces and in university philosophy departments. Actual trans people are rarely to be seen. This book intentionally and deliberately reappropriates the phrase ‘transgender issue’, in order to outline the reality of the issues facing trans people today, rather than as they are imagined by people who do not face them.
Today, representational equality and true redistributive politics elude trans people, even as more and more trans people are coming out than ever before. Trans people have now become one of a number of targets in right-wing media, alongside, for instance, Muslims, immigrants generally, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, Black Lives Matter, the fat acceptance movement, and feminists challenging state violence against women. All these groups and more have been reduced to issues in a toxic and polarized public rivalry between value systems. The past few years have seen discussions around trans people become not only poisonous but, crucially, banal. The ‘topic’ of trans has now been limited to a handful of repetitive talking points: whether nonbinary people exist and whether gender neutral pronouns are reasonable; whether trans children living with dysphoria should be allowed to start their transition; whether trans women will dominate women’s events in the Olympics; and the endless debate over toilets and changing rooms.
This book will not regurgitate these talking points yet again. I believe that forcing trans people to involve themselves in these closed-loop debates ad infinitum is itself a tactic of those who wish to oppress us. Such debates are time-consuming, exhausting distractions from what we should really be focusing on: the material ways in which we are oppressed. The author Toni Morrison once spoke about how precisely this tactic is employed by white people against people of colour: ‘The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction,’ she told students at Portland State University in 1975. ‘It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being . . . None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.’ In much the same way, the public discourse over trans people’s experience is distorted and derailed.
With this book, I want to change the trajectory, to move beyond this discussion of trans people as framed by those who want to stoke a so-called culture war, and to start a new, healthier, conversation about trans people in the UK and beyond. Something that this book is not: a memoir. You don’t have to know the intimate details of my private life to support me. Don’t worry about the ‘why’; act on the ‘what’. What does being a trans person in a transphobic society produce? At the moment, too often, it is still violence, prejudice and discrimination.
Throughout this book, cis (non-trans) readers will recognize inequalities often endured by trans people that they personally, or other minority groups they are familiar with, are also experiencing. This is a good thing: the framing of trans people as ‘the transgender issue’ has the effect of cutting us off from solidarity and making us the ‘other’. A new conversation, then, must necessarily start to undo this estrangement and consider what we share and where we overlap with other minorities or marginalized groups. It is only through solidarity, compassion and radical reimagining that we can build a more just and joyful world for all of us.
Shon Faye was born in Bristol, and is now based in London. After training as a lawyer, she left the law to pursue writing and campaigning, working in the charity sector with Amnesty International and Stonewall. She was an editor-at-large at Dazed, and her writing has been published by the Guardian, the Independent and Vice, among others. Faye recently launched an acclaimed podcast series, Call Me Mother, interviewing trailblazing LGBTQ elders. The Transgender Issue is her first book.
Author Photo © Paul Samuel White