Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice, published by Penguin next week (2 September 2021), is far more than a single-issue polemic in favour of trans rights. While it offers a detailed account of the various problems facing trans people in the UK, as well as charting the disturbing rise of the anti-trans movement in recent years, it’s also about class, migration, sex worker rights, prison abolition, and liberation in the broadest possible sense. It fits into a tradition of political writing which views our freedoms as indivisible and our struggles connected. What’s good for trans people, Faye argues, is good for us all.
Sadly, I fear that the majority of committed transphobes are too far gone at this stage to have their mind changed by anything, but I can’t think of a better book to give someone who’s on the fence or thinks that “it’s all too complicated” to have an opinion. If you know anyone who’s ever mused whether the anti-trans crowd might have a point, please thrust a copy of The Transgender Issue into their hands. As a cis person who’s invested in the cause and is reasonably well-informed about it, I still found that the book deepened my understanding of trans liberation. In that sense, the book works two-fold: it’s a solid introduction to the topic, but it’s also thought-provoking and complex enough to be a fascinating read no matter your knowledge level going in.
Faye’s career has included working as a writer, as Trans Engagement Officer at Stonewall, podcast host, and stand-up comedian. This is her first book, and it’s one of the most hotly anticipated of the season, already set to be a best-seller and endorsed by everyone from Judith Butler to Jameela Jamil. The refined red-and-black cover alone is going to make it a certainty you’ll be seeing it slapped all over your Instagram feed before long. I caught up with Faye over Zoom to discuss the world view which has shaped The Transgender Issue.
James Greig: Why do you use the term “trans liberation” rather than “trans rights”?
Shon Faye: When you talk about “liberation”, it’s about the idea that you wouldn’t want to be an equal within a society that’s already corrupted. It’s not just thinking in terms of personal advancement with society left unreconstructed, but using trans as a lens to view other ways of liberating society from all these various systems. It’s a much richer term and it’s not the language that the media has been using. I didn’t want to use the language that people have come accustomed to like “trans rights are human rights”. The language of ‘trans rights’ isn’t necessarily left-wing and is easy to depoliticise.
JG: The book is pretty uncompromising in its commitment to a socialist framework. I imagine there’s a fairly large constituency of people who would find “trans people deserve equal treatment” a more palatable idea than “we must abolish capitalism”. Did you worry that you might alienate people by being too radical?
SF: Yeah, I did worry about it, and I think the structure of the book slightly reflects that. I feel like most radical arguments emerge towards the end of the book, which was probably slightly by design. At the beginning of writing it I wasn’t sure quite how radical I wanted it to be, but it ended up being informed by the fact that the bulk of it was written during the first lockdown. The resurgence of Black Lives Matter was happening at the same time. We were suddenly seeing a massive restructuring of how we live. Suddenly after ten years of austerity, we could have a furlough scheme. Homeless people were being housed. There was even talk about decarceration (releasing prisoners), which I discuss in the book. In the end they just kept prisoners in their cells for 24 hours a day, but there was a point when that was not viewed as a laughable idea in the mainstream. All of these quite radical ideas seemed to be having a resurgence. It would have felt really off to write something milquetoast, because that wasn’t where society was at.
“I wanted to make the case that fundamentally, anything that’s ever benefitted trans people has come from the left” – Shon Faye
JG: There’s a specific kind of transphobia – which is I think perhaps more common on the American left – that positions being trans as a kind of bourgeois, middle-class affectation. Why is it important to refute that?
SF: The first public work I did as a trans person were the videos I used to do for Novara Media in 2016 and 2017. Every time that I saw comments on them, even though they were shared a lot by LGBTQ people, there would also be some like “why are we bothered about this? This is identity politics. This isn’t left-wing.” It frustrated me that I wanted to be taken seriously as a left-wing thinker and would often encounter that. It’s not quite as present on the British left but it is there. [The trans-exclusionary group] Woman’s Place UK can claim to be a left-wing organisation – a lot of the women who set it up are from the trade union movement. I really just wanted to refute all of that and make a specifically left-wing argument.
Back in 2017, Theresa May tried to use GRA reform in the same way David Cameron used equal marriage, in order to get this liberal boon by going “look what we’ve done for LGBTQ rights” – which obviously blew up in her face. But as a hangover from that era, it was easy for people to say, “well, the GRA reform is being proposed by the Tory government, so trans rights isn’t a left-wing cause.” And there was a time when organisations like Stonewall kind of went along with that. They weren’t going to make it sound like a left-wing position when the left wasn’t in power. But I wanted to make the case that fundamentally, anything that’s ever benefitted trans people has come from the left.
JG: The book is explicitly not a memoir, but nonetheless you do reveal certain personal anecdotes. How did you strike that balance and decide what you were willing to reveal about your own life?
SF: From the beginning I knew it wasn’t going to be a memoir, partly because there’s an expectation of memoir from trans writers, especially trans women writers. And the whole point was that I didn’t want to do that. When I was doing the proposal and thinking about the kind of books I wanted mine to be like, two of them were Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith, and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. In Revolting Prostitutes, Mollie and Juno do allude to the fact that they are sex workers, but they weren’t going to do some confessional “high-class call girl writes a memoir” thing. And with Reni, I noticed that she often wrote about professional anecdotes rather than personal experiences, and I liked that. So I had a bit of a roadmap there.
But, for example, I open the chapter on feminism with this horrific incident that happened to me during the Amnesty Festival. [Faye was subjected to an extended campaign of transphobic harassment after being asked to present the charity’s ‘Women Making History’ event]. I just thought that was the best way to illustrate it because I hoped by the end of the book the reader would have built up enough of a relationship with me as a narrator to see that that sort of abuse is unacceptable. So in some instances I was quite happy to talk about myself, but it’s quite sparing and strategic.
JG: The tone throughout the book is measured and dispassionate – it’s not really an angry, tub-thumping polemic. How were you thinking about the register as you were writing it?
SF: I always wanted it to have a calm tone. I didn’t want it to sound angry, partly because trans people are often dismissed for being angry, and also because I feel people switch off to anger slightly, especially in extended prose. Judith Butler said in their endorsement of the book, “one learns here how to distinguish between arguments that merit a response and those which should be refused because they are either cruel or stupid.” But the thing is, as much as I’d love to say these arguments don’t merit a response, they are getting traction. There are people who do find them convincing, and I feel you have to treat them with respect as arguments, even if you don’t respect the sentiments behind them or the motivations of some of the people making them. Trans people are always accused of not being willing to debate by transphobes, but that’s normally because it descends into being insulted. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have thoughts about the arguments or what’s wrong with them.
When it comes to the more difficult questions, such as “what about trans people who commit heinous crimes?”, it was important to work out what I actually think. Because it would not have been comforting for me to have retreated into this sort of “oh well, we’re still a vulnerable minority! It doesn’t matter that there are these exceptions!” [way of thinking] because ultimately, that’s not going to be persuasive to anyone, including myself. If I’m bringing a book out on the subject, then I have to have a certain sense of moral conviction. And for me that flows from my intellectual reasoning with the counter-arguments.
“Why is it a trans woman getting lip fillers that’s always the problem?” – Shon Faye
JG: In the book, you write about the necessity of deconstructing gender itself. What would transition look like in such a world?
SF: It would take place under very different conditions. I think body modification or medical transition probably would exist in a liberated future, but it might not be constrained by the same things or understood in the same way. Presumably we just wouldn’t care. People would do it as fulfilment, basically, rather than as treatment for a disorder which is how it’s often viewed now.
But I do think the rise of the term “gender critical” has somewhat ruined true gender abolitionist arguments. In a liberated future would I even need to call myself trans or a woman? Would it even matter? Gender critical feminists purport to believe in abolishing gender, but actually all they do is blame trans people for upholding it. Actually, cis people as 99.4 per cent of the population could start dismantling gender first. Where it becomes a soft transphobia is when people are basically implying that transition is a spurious practice, and that it’s uniquely reinforcing of gender. But I’m not really willing to take that from anyone who’s taking their husband’s name or wants to have kids in a nuclear family, or any of the things that we do which reproduce gender all the time. Why is it a trans woman getting lip fillers that’s always the problem?
For a lot of trans people, it’s also hard to know how much their dysphoria is connected to social beauty norms, feelings of safety, and to the fact people treat you a lot better the more you conform to cis-normativity – they just do. It’s really hard to separate your dysphoria from those things. And if those things were mitigated, I don’t know. I can only speak for myself, but I’m never that convinced by the idea that I’d experience dysphoria in the same way in a liberated future, because it doesn’t make sense to me.
JG: What do you want to write next? It occurred to me that you’re known for being a funny writer but, while it’s witty in parts, this book isn’t really a vehicle for cracking jokes. Would you want to write something lighter?
SF: If I was asked my defining personality trait in one of those stupid Twitter quote games, I would definitely say “funny”. And then perhaps my biggest career moment is something that isn’t that fucking funny! But I don’t know, I want to be surprising with what I do next. I definitely don’t want to write another political book that’s like a sequel to this but worse. But I definitely feel like I’m interested in more personal writing, and I’m interested in writing screenplays and things for TV, and that might allow more space for humour. I don’t want to get a reputation just for writing serious political books.
The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice by Shon Faye is published by Penguin, and available from 2 September 2021.