In her prologue to The Transgender Issue, published Thursday by Penguin, Shon Faye concisely outlines why its title is such a powerful act of reclamation. “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,” 33-year-old Faye writes. “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.”
Through seven rigorously argued chapters, Bristol-born Faye shines a spotlight on the obstacles, stigma and discrimination that trans people endure in 2021 by drilling down into the interlocking ways society is rigged against them – from the paucity of trans healthcare to the way trans lives are demonised in the mainstream media.
Portions make for heartbreaking reading, but the book is subtitled “An Argument for Justice” with good reason: it’s a radical call to arms, not a sustained lament. Faye even makes a convincing case for abolishing the prison system because it’s a “blunt instrument” that neither reduces crime rates through the fear of punishment nor rehabilitates individual offenders, something she concedes that most people probably won’t expect when they pick up this book. “The ultimate liberation and wellbeing of all trans people, right down to the most vulnerable, depends on moving towards a world with no prisons at all,” she writes fervently.
“As a trans writer, I was sick of always being on the defensive,” Faye says, speaking on Zoom from her Southeast London flat. “And it wasn’t me alone. Paris Lees, Juno Dawson, Munroe Bergdorf to a certain extent, we’re always on the defensive. And so when I came to write this book, I wanted to change the position from having to defend why we as trans people aren’t ‘problematic’ to an offensive argument about improving our lives.”
Faye says she realised she could help to ”set the agenda“ by writing about issues trans people face that never get discussed in the mainstream media, where the discourse typically boils down to a few well-worn and provocatively framed topics such as trans women’s access to “women-only” public spaces.
Perhaps surprisingly, at least to begin with, setting the agenda often means keeping her own lived experiences on the peripheries. The Transgender Issue is infused with the crisp wit and gleaming intellect that Faye displays in her written journalism and podcast, Call Me Mother, where she interviews LGBTQ trailblazers including author Kate Bornstein and Stonewall co-founder Michael Cashman. Faye studied Law at Oxford and worked as a lawyer before coming out as trans in her mid-twenties and pivoting to a varied career as a writer, stand-up comedian and campaigner for Stonewall and Amnesty International.
Her life story will surely be fascinating if she ever writes it down, but this book was never intended to be a memoir. As Faye points out in several chapters, as a white, university-educated, able-bodied trans woman with a media platform, her experience is hardly typical. She notes throughout that it’s only by uplifting the most marginalised trans people that true justice for her community will be achieved.
Still, Faye acknowledges that by writing this book and promoting it in interviews such as this one, she will undoubtedly make herself an even greater target for bigots. Just last night a woman hurled transphobic slurs at her on the street because she recognised Faye from a byline photo. Faye says it’s rare for the abuse she faces online to spill over into her daily life – which sounds like the smallest of mercies – but the online abuse is so vicious and sustained that it has sometimes felt overwhelming.
“I had to have therapy because of how badly I was being abused online at one point,” Faye recalls. “People would say I was grotesque and photoshop my face onto gay men’s bodies, so there would be a man with my face, like, pounding another man. I was like, who’s doing this? This doesn’t even seem like a feminist rejection [of me as a trans woman]. This seems like misogyny, like transmisogyny and actually, like homophobia as well. Because if fundamentally these people didn’t believe I was a woman, they were saying that I was really at best a very feminine gay man. And some of the comments they made about my appearance and the way I talk would be incredibly homophobic if they said them to a gay man.”
Because of this abuse, Faye says she’s learned to think of herself almost as two separate people. “There is me, talking to you now, waiting for my Deliveroo to arrive,” she says with a laugh. “But there is also a person who exists online who is a hate figure to many people. There are people who think I’m basically a homophobe who’s trying to ‘convert’ gay boys and girls into becoming trans people – I’ve seen their posts.”
Faye says she copes with these comments by reminding herself that she’s “not doing anything wrong by advocating for people like me in the public sphere”. Still, being a British trans woman with a platform necessitates a steely sense of self-worth and the thickest of skins. “You have to create a distance between the public figure that you inhabit and the private self,” Faye says. “Normally, that’s something that only very famous people would say, but I think trans women attract a distinct level of attention.
In her book, Faye dismantles the falsehoods perpetrated by so-called “gender-critical” feminists who believe that trans women can never fully understand what womanhood feels like because of the body they are born in. She also comprehensively outlines why the queer rights movement is enhanced – for everyone’s benefit – by acknowledging that trans rights are absolutely integral to its being. But actually, Faye’s overall argument is much bigger than this.
The Transgender Issue provides a vision for achieving genuine across-the-board equality.
“What I hope people take away from this book is that the liberation of trans people would help everyone in society – everyone. Trans people are not a burden to you, and they are not a nuisance. And every structural change that would make trans people’s lives happier would also make your lives [as cis people] happier. To me, this is a no-brainer.”