The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye

By Liz Dexter

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.

When I first came across mention of this book, I expected it to be a sort of “Invisible Women” (by Caroline Criado Perez, my Shiny review here) and in a way it is: it details, clinically and scientifically, the injustices dealt out to trans people, divided into sections on health, the state, etc. But it goes deeper into the ways in which trans people have been set against both the cis (living in accord with the gender they were assigned at birth) population and then, more damagingly, people representing the rest of the letters in the LGBTQIA+ population and cis and lesbian feminists. It’s a desperately important book that is likely to open the reader’s eyes, even if they think they are aware of transgender issues (the title being reclaimed from the way trans people are seen as an issue instead of looking at the issues they face); I certainly learned a lot from it. 

Shon Faye is an ex-lawyer who has worked for activist campaigning organisations such as Stonewall. She has here resisted the pressure to write a memoir – there are plenty of those out there and they have their uses, and she does bring her personal experience into the book where it’s appropriate – instead moving the trans literature forward to include expertly argued, highly intelligent and well-written narrative to pull things together into a coherent whole. Knowing it was pretty political, I was steeling myself for a sort of sociology/political studies language, but it’s written accessibly and clearly. 

About that politics: yes, it’s written from a leftist viewpoint that looks to old-fashioned solidarity, such as existed in the early days of Gay Liberation, arguing coherently through the book that a) raising the conditions trans people live in – i.e. trans liberation – will of necessity raise the conditions for all people, especially those of minority groups in society, and b) many of the issues that trans people experience are also experienced by some other group. It interrogates mechanisms of state power such as the prison and policing systems, carefully and with good arguments. However, it’s important to note that politics and theory come second to community building and positive action: 

… theory should only ever play second fiddle to the practical work of movement-building, resources-allocation, care and solidarity.

It’s a very human book, certainly not all facts and figures. Faye interviews people from the trans community, from parents of a young trans child who knew nothing, but could access a lot of information and support online to a man running a shelter for homeless trans people who provides support and information to them. In addition, various news stories are carefully debunked and the people they are about honoured, and myths such as trans people and their doctors being in cahoots overturned with an explanation of the long and fraught process of having gender transition needs recognised and progressed. It’s very interesting to see that a lot of the media narrative about trans people echoes almost exactly the narrative about gay people from 30-odd years ago: in terms of a claim of cults who are trying to turn everyone’s children gay/trans, and all sorts of other hysteria. Yet I can certainly believe that the rise in numbers of people identifying as trans is to a very large part down to the greater visibility of trans people in modern culture. Just as so many gay memoirs start off with the protagonist thinking they are the only one to feel that way, so with young trans people, who now with the Internet and support groups can find they are not alone. 

The clearly and dispassionately put descriptions of the awful situations trans people are put through can be pretty harrowing. I had not fully understood the level of gender-conformity someone going to a doctor for help with transitioning is forced into, something that is not apparently echoed in other countries. Much has been made in talk about this book about the section on trans-exclusionary radical feminists, but in fact this is an ending to a narrative of the divide-and-conquer going on from the Establishment, and an awful lot more of the book sets out the humiliations and abuse that trans people endure. So many young homeless people are trans; so many homeless people are trans (one in four trans people have experienced homelessness); even though there is protective legislation in place for work, etc., it doesn’t protect when the majority narrative is against a person who just wishes to work, have their correct pronouns used and get on with their life. 

There is a message of hope at the end of the book and there are examples of hopeful and supportive initiatives and agencies throughout the book, leavening the horror and making it balanced and positive. 

In the end, Shon Faye argues persuasively that we need to look beyond the issue people have with trans people, all the shouting about labels on toilets and a bit of trans visibility in companies that want to look equitable, and beyond the White, middle-class campaigners and their priorities, and examine why trans people are forced into poverty, are unable to gain decent employment or social support, are forced to turn to sex work, are forced to turn to private doctors at great expense, are forced out of being able to legally change their gender by the costs involved. And it’s through seeing the commonalities with other marginalised groups that this can be achieved, but that requires a change in the narrative and a resistance to divide-and-conquer regimes. 

It goes without saying, I hope, that the book is fully footnoted and referenced; it’s intelligent and well-argued and goes beneath the culture wars to give an important resource for learning and moving forward. 

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Liz is a cis woman who believes in equity for all. She also believes in sharing the mistakes she’s made and has written about this more in the different review on her blog this review is somewhat based on. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Shon Faye, The Transgender Issue (Allen Lane, 2021). ‎ 978-0241423141, 320 pp., hardback.

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