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9 September 2021updated 12 Oct 2023 11:27am

Shon Faye wants a “deeper conversation” about trans liberation

The author of The Transgender Issue on the questions that really matter to trans people.

By Sarah Manavis

Sometimes Shon Faye has to remind herself that what she’s doing isn’t normal. It’s a thought that struck her as she recorded the audiobook for her non-fiction debut The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice, while reading aloud stats on the murder rates of trans sex workers, or comments that have been made about her face and body by bloggers and journalists in the mainstream British press.

“Really distressing things are happening to people like me across the world and awful things are said about us: that we’re rapists, paedophiles, Ian Huntleys,” she tells me. “And I had to read through it all in one day and just, like, have an hour’s lunch and come back. I have to remember that it’s not normal that someone should have to do this.”

The Transgender Issue is a detailed overview of the systemic violence and discrimination trans people face in Britain today – from access to healthcare, to poverty and homelessness –that asks and outlines what it will take for trans people to achieve true liberation. It is historiographic, exploring trans people’s existence as far back as 2,000 years ago, and is left-wing in its outlook, arguing that trans liberation cannot happen under capitalism. The title itself is tongue-in-cheek, a reference to how most of the media speaks about trans rights; as though it is an intellectual debate, rather than members of a minority group fighting for their lives.

When I speak to Faye, she has just finished a photoshoot. She calls me, in full glam, from the bedroom of a friend who happened to live around the corner. She’s sanguine, relaxed, and funny while eloquently delivering complex philosophical arguments which, as she explains them, sound so obvious that you wonder why you’ve never thought of them before. It’s clear she knows what she’s talking about: every detail and fact is accessed easily. But she’s warm, and funny, too – speaking with the nonchalance of a friend gossiping with you over drinks and dinner.

Throughout our conversation, and her book, Faye uses the term “trans liberation” instead of the more common phrase “trans rights”. This is deliberate. “When you say you want us to have rights, what does that mean?” Faye asks of common pro-trans mantras, such as “trans rights are human rights” and what she describes as “hashtag activism”.

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“Because often we do have legal rights,” she says. “That’s what gender-critical feminists say: ‘What rights don’t they have?’ There are obviously some civil rights we do not have, and the Gender Recognition Act exposed that, but that’s why liberation’s more important. I mean, ‘you can’t be fired for being trans in this country’ – except you can, because you can be on a zero-hours contract and they’re just like, ‘We’re not giving that tr*nny any more work.’ It’s about a deeper conversation.”

Many people might pick up this book thinking it will be an analytical assessment of the way trans people are discussed in tabloid headlines and broadsheet columns. But The Transgender Issue is fundamentally not a culture-war book. It operates outside the narrow coverage of trans people in the mainstream, and lays bare the inarguable facts of being trans: that’s it’s rare, that it’s misunderstood, that society makes it dangerous. Only a single chapter is spent on gender-critical arguments. Instead it focuses on the policies and structures that create the discriminatory world trans people try to survive every day.

Still, Faye is critical of narratives about trans people across popular media (including the New Statesman), and argues that journalists have failed to build an accurate picture of life for trans people in the UK. “The research I draw on was there – it wasn’t hard to find – but no one’s really using it,” Faye tells me. “Why aren’t journalists doing their job?”

Of the phrase “the trans lobby”, which has appeared in numerous articles, she says, “Some people do believe that, despite there being no trans MPs, almost no trans staff writers in the British media, and no trans high court judges, there is somehow this powerful lobby that has taken hold and manages to control the police and to control government – but we can’t access healthcare.” She laughs. “It’s not a very f***ing effective lobby!”

Faye grew up in Bristol in a left-wing, supportive home. Her mother was a social worker and her sister became one too, which she partially credits with her family’s acceptance when she came out as gay, then trans. “It wasn’t always easy – it wasn’t like the day I said it, Mum was thrilled. But I guess coming out as gay when I was younger,” she says, laughing, “was like I’d had a dress rehearsal.”

Until her mid-twenties, Faye was a lawyer in the City. She says the experience – coupled with debating in her “very public school” – made her realise anger makes people switch off. “That’s an unfortunate thing,” she says. “If you’re a marginalised person or a minority person, you have good reason to be angry, but if you’re writing persuasively people don’t want to hear anger.” Instead of responding to transphobia with anger, Faye says, she decided to respond “with respect”.

“I think it’s about treating their arguments as serious and then presenting the reality as I see it and as I feel the evidence proves.”

A popular argument against trans liberation is one Faye identifies as outright demonisation – the casting of trans people as “monstrous perverts” as Faye describes it. She sees this “attribution of malign intent” as “the root of transmisogyny”.

[see also: Judith Butler on the culture wars, JK Rowling, and living in “anti-intellectual times”]

“There’s this belief that there cannot be some earnest, unsuspicious reason for a man to want to be a woman,” she says. “So it must be either a disturbing sexual fetish – or sometimes, what I get, is that I was a gay boy that transitioned because I wanted to be a glamorous sex object. But I could have been a glamorous sex object and been a gay boy: it would have been probably a lot easier and a lot cheaper.”

This mode of thinking suggests trans women must have some type of perversion, while trans men must have been brainwashed into thinking they’re men by systemic misogyny. But in The Transgender Issue, Faye argues that we should care much less about why people transition in the first place.

“There’re people who’ve led crossgender lives throughout human history. It’s a phenomenon that exists, and so who really cares why?” she asks. Faye believes these conversations distract from the fact that trans people experience extreme discrimination – in fact, she argues, they add to that discrimination.

A question repeatedly asked during conversations about trans people is whether gender identity is “innate”. To Faye, this, too, is the wrong question. “I think gender is contextual, and I believe in things like neuroplasticity and theories that say the brain develops in line with the way we interact with the world and the way the world interacts with us. But largely, I don’t care if it’s innate or not.

“It’s the same thing as looking for a gay gene: who cares, because the reality is that these people exist. And yes, gender identity is profound, because when it isn’t acknowledged or respected – people, even small children, become very depressed. It interferes with their ability to function, it interferes with their ability to feel happy; and in some cases, when children who are allowed to socially transition, it almost eliminates that feeling.

“‘Gender identity’ is just a convenient term to explain something that’s profound about someone’s psychology and someone’s beliefs about themselves that’s necessary for the conditions for a happy life,” she says. “And we choose to term it ‘gender identity’ because we need a word to make it legible to other people.”

Many gender-critical feminists believe that our physical bodies – our genitalia – define our gender: such arguments are often referred to as “biological essentialism”. But Faye argues that this thinking holds back the feminist cause.

Photo by Max Miechowski

“Feminists have never fully agreed on what defines a woman. Actually, most feminist theory tends to think of womanhood as some kind of socio-political experience rather than a biological one,” she says. She notes that gender-critical feminists often use phrases such as “sex matters”: “I’ve literally gone through really painful surgery to reassign my sex characteristics. I’m aware that sex matters. I’m not trying to downplay the role of biology in women’s political experience.”

Faye is strikingly empathic towards gender-critical feminists as she disagrees with them. “The reality is, a lot of women are drawn to feminism because they have traumatic experiences with men, patriarchy and male power, including trans women.

“If you believe male violence is a fact and it’s unchangeable – because, feminism’s achieved a lot, but it hasn’t reduced male violence really at all – it’s quite easy to slip into biological essentialism, to have male and female, violent and subject to violence, oppressor and oppressed,” she says. “If you have this pessimism and slip into biological essentialism, then the anxiety of the feminist project itself becomes about defending the barriers of womanhood. So then, obviously, trans women become the ultimate enemy.

“And I do feel that that’s unfortunately where some gender-critical feminists are at,” she says, “and I do actually have sympathy for how some of them may have got there, because they have clearly had traumatic experiences with men.”

But Faye believes that patriarchy can be overcome, and that the things we associate with being a man, including male violence, can be changed. “It doesn’t mean sex doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean your reproductive capacity isn’t a source of oppression, it doesn’t mean that I will never be able to relate to that sort of oppression. All of that is true. Biological differences do matter, they imprint all of our lives,” she says. “But unless we accept that we’re stuck with male violence and patriarchy as inevitable we have to find a way of starting to challenge these categories.” Otherwise, “there’s no hope: we’re f***ed, basically”.

Throughout our conversation, Faye is thoughtful, witty and generous. But being a prominent trans woman advocating for trans liberation in the face of targeted harassment can’t be as easy as she makes it seem. We’ve been speaking for almost two hours when I ask Faye how it all really feels.

“It’s exhausting,” she says. “I shouldn’t have to be as gracious or good-humoured as I am about the amount of harassment I experience, just for advocating for things I don’t actually think are very controversial. I’ve had to manage that exhaustion by almost creating a division between a private and a public self.

“Trans women are getting sexually assaulted, but the narrative is that we are predators. It’s become a normality. But then you look at it afresh and you’re outraged all over again. I have a perfect right, as anyone else has, to be really f***ing angry.”

Faye hopes her book will help those who support trans liberation feel more equipped to argue against anti-trans narratives. “One of the things I wanted to achieve with the book is to have that person, the silent but sympathetic person, feel more empowered to speak.”

The Transgender Issue argues that, in order to achieve not just trans liberation but the liberation of all oppressed groups, a joint coalition of all marginalised and minority people will be needed. Faye does not argue that all these groups need to be perfectly aligned in their thinking. But she does believe that solidarity is necessary to liberate all people from patriarchy. “The liberation of trans people would improve the lives of everyone in our society,” she writes in the book’s prologue. “We ought to seek justice – for ourselves and others alike.”

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