The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye: A multi-issue manifesto for transgender justice

The Transgender Issue
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One day at my local grocery store, I had this book in my bag. The cashier who served me at the counter asked what I was reading, so I took the book out of my bag. After reading the book’s title, they asked me whether it was for or against trans people. A little taken aback, I said it was “for.” I shouldn’t have been surprised, as not much about this book surprised me. But I had been unintentionally reminded of a painful fact that I try very hard to avoid: that the existence and acceptance of trans and non-binary people can be diminished to an “issue” so simple that one is either for or against them. This sort of trivialisation is perpetuated by repeated and vicious media attacks on trans people, who have been objectified through ideological debate whilst their existence is decried as sinister and destructive.

But that’s just it — our society depends on a rigid but fragile set of binary constructions, and a trans existence threatens these. British trans author Shon Faye writes in The Transgender Issue that: “The existence of trans people ought to make everyone take a long hard look at their own dearly held ideas about gender, and wonder whether these ideas are quite as stable and certain as they once thought. This would be healthy. The distinction between men and women is often arbitrary. The distinction between ‘binary’ trans men and women and non-binary trans people is equally arbitrary and, in reality, the precise distinction between people we call cis and people we call trans isn’t rigid either. The fact that definitions can be so unstable is clearly deeply troubling to many — which is why it is easier to belittle challenges to binaries than to take on their contradictions, complications and exceptions.”

Faye writes in the wake of a wave of widespread social panic around transgender “issues” in British media and politics, where transgender people have become a pivotal point of debate in the “culture war.” Faye, who worked as a lawyer before becoming a writer and journalist, positions herself as an authoritative trans voice in the book. However, The Transgender Issue is neither a confessional text nor a re-hashing of the same reductive arguments, such as the incessant debate on public toilets, that commonly make tabloid headlines.

Instead, The Transgender Issue humanises transgender people, highlighting the dire state of many trans people’s material existence, a subject that media reports often neglect to mention as trans people are over-represented but rarely self-represented. To illustrate this, Faye points to the statistic that while only 1% of the British population identified as transgender, in 2020 The Times and The Sunday Times ran over 300 articles about them. The echo chamber of cis-gendered people tirelessly debating the validity of trans existence overshadows essential subjects such as trans rights to healthcare, housing, social services, and employment. They disregard trans people’s susceptibility to systemic poverty or that trans children are more likely to experience bullying and abuse at home and school. In a disgusting twist, they focus more on “protecting” cis children from trans children rather than bringing into effect actual protections for trans children.

Mainstream discussion about trans people often fixates on their appearance and bodies. Constant objectification and dehumanisation impacts how trans people are treated by wider society. Their visibility can lead to targeted attacks, and lack of recognition can affect access to health services and medical transition. Faye states that it is not uncommon for a doctor to withhold critical hormone intervention if they do not believe a trans patient is “serious enough about their gender identity.” She adds that “often this decision resides in the level of femininity or masculinity of someone’s gender presentation.” These decisions are often informed by narrow conceptions of binary gender, making discrimination worse for those already stigmatised within medical circles, such as people of colour and those who identify as neuro-diverse.

The greatest strength of the book is its multi-issue approach, opening with the passage: “The liberation of trans people would improve the lives of everyone in our society.” Faye goes on to meticulously highlight how the hardships trans people face are exacerbated by class, race and ability. Therefore, the liberation of trans people cannot be achieved from a single-issue standpoint but by uniting all those who face marginalisation. Faye is concerned by how minority status keeps groups isolated from each other. This exacerbates difference and encourages in-fighting rather than forming a strong united front against hegemonic ruling powers. In particular, she calls for a strengthening of ties between the trans movement and the women’s movement as well as greater solidarity from LGBTQ+ people for whom trans rights have often been a point of serious division.

It is a depressing reality that trans people experience large amounts of discrimination from some feminists and queer people alike. Faye describes how at the 2018 London Pride March, a lesbian group disrupted the day’s events by protesting against trans inclusion in LGBTQ+ communities. The disruptors, radical feminists who believe that men are the problem, not the system, were enraged by what they claim as young butch women being “brainwashed.” Once indoctrinated, they escape womanhood to “live a life of privilege as trans men.” However, trans men are far from privileged or immune from exclusion. One example Faye uses is their rejection from gay male spaces on the basis of biological difference. Biological determinism, the belief that someone’s gender always aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth, is the core reason given for trans ostracisation, a position most frequently taken up by Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists.

Society’s reliance on a strictly defined and biologically determined gender binary pervades most practical and essential areas of our life. Critical support services such as domestic violence and homeless shelters can lead trans people to self-exclude. This leads trans people to be in greater danger from violence and abuse. Trans people are also more likely to experience unemployment. Faye cites statistics from Ireland, where it is estimated that half of all trans people are unemployed. The situation is even worse for people who experience oppression on several fronts, with trans people of colour experiencing unemployment and homelessness at even higher rates. Yet again these issues are often neglected as single-issue liberal movements focus on narrow demands whilst ignoring the urgent issues of poverty affecting many trans people.

Faye’s book is a compelling argument about what needs to change for trans and non-binary people in Britain to be liberated. She uses the word “liberation,” because she believes “that the humbler goals of ‘trans rights’ or ‘trans equality’ are insufficient.” Her conclusion, A transformed future, opens by boldly stating “there can be no liberation under capitalism. This is a fact.” She also points to change not being linear and calls out the danger of the far right.

Trans oppression, she argues, is rooted in capitalism, because the system “still relies heavily on the idea of different categories of men’s work and women’s work,” with women’s work “either poorly paid or not paid at all.” She also makes the case that capitalism requires a certain level of unemployment to function, describing how race, gender and disability are an integral part of the mix. “Social exclusion and revulsion at the existence of trans people usefully provides another class of people more likely to be left in the ranks of the unemployed” she adds.

Missing in her analysis is the cornerstone of socialist feminist theory: that for most of human history, society was vastly different. Pre-private property societies were matriarchal, communal and free from rigid gender binaries. With the rise of private property, these societies were overthrown, replaced with a new order based on the patriarchal nuclear family, the state and a whole host of new taboos. To once again live in a world in which women are respected, gender binaries are unheard of and sexuality is free, it will be necessary to completely uproot the existing capitalist order and put workers — in our multi-racial rainbow diversity — in charge!

I would like to have seen Faye make a clearer case for how to achieve her vision. She brushes over protests, civil disobedience, community work, care work and bridge building with other oppressed minorities. And, while strongly advocating that capitalism must go, she does not make a clear case for what those seeking to end transphobia should do now to advance this goal. Without this perspective, Faye is left relying on her belief that the “Labour Party is the only instrument by which trans people’s rights are championed in electoral politics.”

There are no short cuts — grassroots organising is necessary to build momentum for change. It’s how people learn that the working class majority, not the parliament, are the route to lasting revolutionary change. My own experience of fighting the Religious Discrimination Bill taught me that. It was not the Labor party that halted the bill in February — they were in fact in favour of it! What stopped this bill, for now at least, was mass public outcry. It was the fact that 77% of Australians opposed the bill and made their voices heard. It was this show of solidarity, not the people sitting in parliament debating the livelihoods and safety of transgender people, that halted this legislation which would entrench bigotry.

The Transgender Issue is well worth reading. It is a sophisticated and compelling argument for justice, demanding that the scapegoating of transgender people must stop!

Alex is a non-binary retail worker and unionist with the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union. They are a member of Radical Women.

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