Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue: Trans Justice is Justice for All is the first book I’ve read that is solely dedicated to the trans issue. Only… trans people are not an issue at all. They are millions of people fighting to survive. Faye’s pointed and ironic title is the first way that she flips the mainstream treatment of trans people on its head.
The transgender issue
In order to neutralize the potential threat to social norms posed by trans people’s existence, the establishment has always sought to confine and curtail their freedom. In twenty-first-century Britain and North America, this has been achieved in large part by belittling our political needs and turning them into a culture war issue. 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. 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. This book intentionally and deliberately reappropriates the phrase ‘transgender issue’ in order to outline the reality of the issues facing trans people today, rather than as they are imagined by people who do not face them.Shon Faye, The Transgender, Issue, p. xiv
The conversation about trans rights is loud. Everyone needs to have an opinion. (Especially, it seems, when their opinion is trash.) Cisgender people constantly view trans people as zoo animals, asking “What is that? Where does it go to the bathroom? How did it get like that? What kinds of sex does it have? What’s it called? Is it really a woman? What’s a woman?” These questions, which go around in meaningless, invasive, semantic circles, distract from the real question: How can they be liberated from systemic oppression?
A better “trans conversation”
The past few years have seen discussions around trans people become not only poisonous but, crucially, banal. The ‘topic’ of trans has now been limited to a handful of repetitive talking points: whether nonbinary people exist and whether gender neutral pronouns are reasonable; whether trans children living with dysphoria should be allowed to start their transition; whether trans women will dominate women’s events in the Olympics; and the endless debate over toilets and changing rooms. This book will not regurgitate these talking points yet again. I believe that forcing trans people to involve themselves in these closed-loop debates ad infinitum is itself a tactic of those who wish to oppress us. Such debates are time-consuming, exhausting distractions from what we should really be focusing on: the material ways in which we are oppressed.Shon Faye, The Transgender, Issue, p. 16
In videos I’ve watched while researching for an upcoming post, I’ve seen some trans people say they avoid words and phrases like “transphobia” and “Trans women are women” in debates, because this use of words can quickly cause a conversation to deteriorate into a pointless argument about definitions: “How dare you call me transphobic!” or “What is a woman, anyway?”
Definition fights aren’t helpful; the YouTubers said they preferred language like “anti-trans” and “trans liberation now,” since both pointed phrases redirect the conversation towards how to actually achieve trans liberation, rather than what it means to be trans or transphobic. It shifts the focus from validity to equality.
The Transgender Issue is that conversation.
An intersectional approach
When you strip away all of the repetitive squabbles about bathrooms and women’s sports, and turn instead on how to identify and fight systemic oppression of trans people, what does that look like? Faye tackles the beast of trans oppression from every angle, dismantling stereotypes and leaving no stone unturned. Her approach is intersectional, and she not only decenters her personal experience as a middle-class white woman with a media presence, but she actively lifts up the most marginalized trans people, who it seems that society has largely forgotten about.
The Transgender Issue contains seven chapters:
- Trans Life Now
- Right and Wrong Bodies
- Class Struggle
- Sex Sells
- The State
- Kissing Cousins: The T in LGBT
- The Ugly Sister: Trans People in Feminism
Faye examines the criminal injustices facing trans people who are: young, homeless, elderly, disabled, exploited workers, people of color, sex workers, incarcerated, domestic abuse victims, and more. She spends the entire second chapter exposing the humiliating and unethical practices of the British National Health Service (which are also examined at length in this video), and outlines the similarities between trans healthcare and abortion as healthcare. She challenges the hypocrisy of brands who show up at Pride parades every June but who materially harm trans people by playing a role in deporting them. She even called out American Christian Nationalist organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council.
I was especially impressed that Faye advocated for the abolition of prisons, decriminalization of sex work, and end to capitalism that are frankly necessary before trans liberation—or any liberation—can be realized. She rightly and explicitly claims, “There can be no trans liberation under capitalism. That is a fact.”
On the justification of trans existence
It was frankly brave that Faye wrote this while purposely not defending her own existence first. She explains,
With this book, I want to change the trajectory, to move beyond this discussion of trans people as framed by those who want to stoke a so-called culture war, and to start a new, healthier, conversation about trans people in the UK and beyond. Something that this book is not: a memoir. Ever since the travel writer Jan Morris published a memoir of her own transition, Conundrum, back in 1974, trans writers in Britain and around the world have tended to restrict themselves to publishing confessional texts in which the writer’s own body is the starting point for any commentary on the society in which it exists. While the trans memoir has been important in destigmatizing and demystifying trans people’s understanding of themselves, confession and candour ought not to be the only basis for trans people’s right to public and political speech. In this we have much in common the with cisgender women writers, who are also pushed into memoir over analysis. You don’t have to know the intimate details of my private life to support me. Don’t worry about the why; act on the ‘what’. What does being a trans person in a transphobic society produce? At the moment, too often, it is still violence, prejudice and discrimination.Shon Faye, The Transgender, Issue, p. 17
I found it very telling that aside from more openly transphobic reviews, the few negative Goodreads reviews of this book came from people wishing Faye had defined what being trans is, or engaged with “the other side” more. That’s very frightening, considering that “the other side” includes people comparing trans people to blackface actors or calling for their eradication. Many have said before, and I will say it now: there is no debate.
Contrary to its claim in the preface, this is not a good introductory text to the topic really. It assumed that the reader is already equipped with the writer’s authorial position as well as the general consensus on trans identity. The book assumed that the reader is well informed enough about the most basic questions regarding the topic, some of which are; “What is gender?” / “What is transgender?” / “What is transition?” / “What is a medical transition?” / What is HRT?” / “What is dead naming?” / “Are non-binaries constituted as ‘trans’?” / “Does the trans community regard those who don’t medically transition and don’t take hormones therapy as ‘trans’?” etc.One of the better 2-star Goodreads reviews
In this specific reviewer’s defense, they explain that they had been looking for an introduction on “the issue” to present to others in their conservative hometown. However, these questions have been answered elsewhere (largely online) ad nauseum, and Faye stated explicitly in the introduction that she would not justify trans people’s existence before demanding liberation.
Even as a cis woman, I personally don’t find the concept of being trans that complicated. Some people are trans, non-binary, or both. They can feel dysphoric. They socially and often medically transition, and they then feel more at home in the body they have to live in for their whole life. It feels beyond unnecessary to demand an in-depth lesson on the intricacies of how HRT works in order to know that trans people should have it because they tell us they need it, and they can and do die without it.
I’ve only just started reading about transgender stories and lives, and I could not have started with a more well-rounded, analytical, intersectional primer. I highly recommend The Transgender Issue for anyone and everyone who is tired of the culture-war framing and who wants to know what concrete steps we must take to achieve trans liberation now.