Author Shon Faye on the agonising struggles affecting trans lives more than anti-trans feminists
British trans author Shon Faye has written one of the most hotly anticipated books of this year – The Transgender Issue: An Argument For Justice.
Taking its title from the plethora of TV debates, newspaper columns and political soundbites about “trans issues”, Shon Faye’s book attempts to correct the trans-hostile consensus in the transphobic British media by centring trans and non-binary people’s material conditions and struggles.
In The Transgender Issue – published 2 September – Shon provides a clear, comprehensive and accessible overview of how trans liberation is interlinked with wider struggles for social and economic justice.
She does this by directly addressing the actual issues that trans and non-binary people face, including the crisis in trans healthcare; the problems that arise from the criminalisation of sex work; the class oppression faced by the majority of trans people; difficulties securing stable employment; family rejection and homelessness; the terrible treatment of trans asylum seekers and prisoners; and the violence inflicted on trans people, particularly trans people of colour, by the state.
Shon Faye writes about trans liberation, rather than trans equality. The difference, broadly speaking, is between campaigning for trans people to have equality with cis people within society as it currently exists, or recognising that society in its current form is rotten, can never serve trans people, and working to build a new one instead.
However, many cisgender LGB people, and cis-led LGBT+ charities and groups, still back “trans equality” – demonstrated through dogmatic slogans like “trans rights are human rights” and “trans men are men”.
“When we talk about trans liberation, what are the day-to-day struggles of trans people?” Shon says, over Zoom and a glass of wine. “I’m hoping the chapter on trans and LGBT will help [people understand this].
“I can remember being an adult pre-transition and gay men really, really not getting it,” she continues. “I do think there’s been a change in how much cis LGB people want to support trans people, and I think they are starting to get it a bit more.
“But there’s further they could go! They could challenge themselves a bit more,” Shon says. “I’m interested to see what that [chapter] provokes in terms of cis lesbian, gay and bi people thinking a bit more about the connections between them and us.”
The reality of trans lives
The Transgender Issue is a comprehensive oversight of the issues that trans and non-binary people face today, most of which are rarely, if ever, discussed in the mainstream media.
“I think a lot of people have been lost on the feminism question,” Shon Faye says. “Cis people, both pro- and anti-trans, tend to latch on to certain touch points, like trans kids and non-binary people.”
Steering readers away from these and towards the real issues, one of the anecdotes Shon uses in the book is about how trans women have historically been over-represented in the number of volunteers working in charity shops. As she explains, this is because gender clinics would often make trans women “prove” they were “living as women” before doctors would prescribe them hormones.
One of the pieces of evidence that gender clinic doctors would accept as proof of this was details of employment. But it can be extremely difficult for a trans woman pre-hormones to get a job (one in three UK employers admit they’d be less likely to hire a person they know is trans), so many trans women instead turned to volunteering in charity shops to acquire this evidence for their doctors.
“The reason that all of chapter two is on healthcare was because I wanted to make the crisis in trans healthcare legible to people who aren’t affected by it,” Shon says. “Because it’s not sexy, is it – the fact that there’s a long waiting list for the GIC [Gender Identity Clinic] is not the same as getting into a triumphant Twitter war about Graham Linehan.”
She adds: “I wanted to get people invested in what trans healthcare actually is, what it means to trans people, why it’s under attack, and why it’s actually one of the biggest struggles and battles that affects trans people’s lives.
“I’m excited for cis people to get, in a wider way, a grip on the struggles around healthcare.”
Another thing she focuses a whole chapter on is sex work, and efforts to decriminalise it. Shon tells me that while people are preoccupied with trans women in sports or toilets, a lot of her trans friends are currently terrified about the moves by OnlyFans to block sexually explicit content.
“I know a lot of trans people who are really terrified,” she says. “It’s their income gone, which was funding surgeries, rent, their whole livelihood.
“And it’s very easy to say, ‘Oh well, OnlyFans is exploitative, go and get another job’, but actually, some of the trans people I know, they’re not going to get another job.
“And they’re certainly not going to get another job that’s going to allow them the means to access the surgery that they need to have done privately. Because these things are interlinked.
“I’m hoping that to a wider audience, these struggles – which are much more material and affect our everyday lives more than gender-critical feminism, for example – will start to kind of engage cis people in critical thinking about what they mean when they talk about supporting trans equality.”
The Transgender Issue sets out to ‘disrupt the consensus’
In the UK, transphobia in the mainstream media, in politics, in the publishing world, in sporting bodies, and in the women’s sector has reached dizzying heights in the past few years, pushed along by a small but organised network of anti-trans lobby groups.
This has resulted in a strange dualism: trans people as a group hold almost no real power – there has never been an out trans MP, there are no senior public officials who are trans, no trans people edit newspapers or produce TV news, there is only one trans-led national charity focusing on trans people – and yet, it is regularly claimed there is a powerful and sinister “trans lobby” that has “ideologically captured” institutions in the UK, which, in some corners of the press, is also referred to as the “trans Taliban“.
“It’s very frustrating to sit and watch the disinformation that exists,” Shon says. “There’s almost a complete exclusion of trans voices from the media and a consensus that’s quite hostile to us. Potentially disrupting that consensus is exciting.”
She continues: “There’s this bizarre agreement in the mainstream media that all cis people are being silenced and threatened and trans people are so powerful. And it’s a real dissociation, because where are the trans people?”
This is cis people’s issue. It’s not our issue.
The contrast between the mainstream transphobic conspiracy theories with the truth of being trans in the UK is devastating.
As Shon Faye writes in the first lines of The Transgender Issue: “Trans people have endured over a century of injustice. We have been discriminated against, pathologized and victimised. Our full emancipation will only be achieved if we can imagine a society that is completely transformed from the one in which we live.”
The entire book is an argument for justice for trans people; not only a thorough cataloguing of the ways in which current society makes trans people’s lives difficult but a compelling vision of how we might change this – and how this would benefit everyone, not only trans people.
The immediate comparison that comes from reading it is with Revolting Prostitutes, the argument for sex-worker rights within an anti-capitalist and feminist framework, by Juno Mac and Molly Smith.
Shon likes the comparison – it’s one she used, along with Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, when she wrote her book proposal. “I would say those two were the biggest models in terms of precedent for what I was trying to do with this book,” she says, adding that she considers The Transgender Issue to be “in conversation with both of those books”.
“The way that I thought about the book is that this is cis people’s issue,” Shon says. “It’s not our issue. What we are discussing in public life at the moment isn’t actually anything to do with the realities facing trans people, it’s to do with cisgender people’s own anxiety.”
Shon Faye wrote her book ‘for the next 10 years’
Unlike most authors, Shon Faye has a detailed and careful plan for her physical safety and emotional wellbeing as The Transgender Issue is published and promoted over the next few weeks.
While Shon is excited to change the conversation about trans lives, she says she “kind of wishes” it wasn’t her doing it and doesn’t think that the precautions she’s having to take are “typical”.
“To be honest, I’ve had to think quite heavily about what I do around publication, in terms of how I manage that, what I’m doing around it, what my social life is like around it, making sure that I’m sleeping well, and feel mentally robust enough to deal with what’s going to come,” she says.
“I am nervous,” she admits. “This book will make me a lightening rod for a while. I was always aware that would be the case, and it’s part of the reason why I was initially reluctant to write it.”
It feels “kind of like throwing a grenade into a very hostile media environment”, she says. “But my biggest fear, I suppose, was not getting attacked or abused but bringing it out and no one caring. People continuing to have this Twitter war, but no one actually caring about the product of a trans person.”
But the pre-sales figures are really good, and the book is already generating significant buzz. “It’s reassuring to know that even though our traditional media has a consensus, people do have a thirst for an alternative,” Shon says. “People see there’s an injustice happening to a minority group, and they have a desire to better inform themselves from a trans-positive perspective. I’m really pleased about that.”
And while the traditional media is “invested in silencing trans people” and will no doubt tear her and her book apart, Shon says she didn’t write the book “for the next two weeks and what reviews I get in the Times or the Telegraph“.
“I wrote it for the next 10 years, as something people can refer to,” she says. “My intention is for it to be a long-standing text. And I hope it will be.”
The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice is published in the UK on 2 September by Allen Lane