Issue 29

The Transgender Issue

Shon Faye discusses her landmark book, an urgent argument for justice

Photography Lydia Wilks

“I mean, I didn’t really want to write the book,” Shon Faye leans back and chuckles, while playing with her hair.

Over the last decade in Britain, Faye is one of the few trans women with a public platform writing about trans issues. She has an enviable knack for being both ferociously smart and bitingly funny, in 280 characters, but her sharp wit and analysis extend far beyond Twitter. Faye’s writing moves with ease between topics ranging from Drag Race UK to Opus Dei. No matter the content, her subjectivity as trans and as a woman are often centred in an approach that’s both unguarded and refreshing.

So, I ask across a glitchy Zoom screen, what changed her mind? Faye has a restless energy, shifting often; it feels like her mouth is trying to keep up with the speed of her brain: “There was never enough space in a column to actually talk about the things I want to talk about, the core issues of what is wrong for trans people. I want this to be a corrective.”

Since Faye started writing in 2014, the UK political and social landscape has transformed. We now live in the long shadow of the ghastly Brexit referendum, itself a footnote in the modern global rise of far-right populism. Anybody paying attention will know that trans people have become pawns in the broader ‘culture wars’. In the UK, this has seen rise to a particularly unholy alliance between far-right forces and a small but loud subsect of second-wave feminists, both intent on forcing trans people from public life. The British press have reduced the complexity of the assault on trans lives to what Faye summarises as “a Twitter flame war between us and TERFs” . It is this that she hopes to correct.

She cites Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, as an inspiration for taking the plunge. As a black woman frustrated with only being asked to speak on white feminism’s terms, she wrote her own book. It wasn’t only taking back her power which inspired Faye, but also how she held that power once successful: “She just wrote a book, but she doesn’t go on Good Morning Britain when they need a black woman – she didn’t become the ‘go-to black woman’. I found it quite chic.”

This reflects a key contention of The Transgender Issue: that representation and visibility won’t liberate trans people, addressing structural oppression and material conditions will. Though in publishing a book on the topic, demands to represent will surely increase? While Faye is careful not to disparage the urge for representation, she doesn’t want to position herself as the spokesperson for her community: “I’m not representative of trans women writ large; in fact, I’m quite unrepresentative in many ways.”

Originally from Bristol, Faye gained a scholarship to public school, followed by Oxford, and spent her first years of graduate life as a lawyer. This, she says, is indicative of why we can’t correct the media with representation: “It’s the case across all minority groups in the media and publishing that it’s often the most structurally privileged ones who end up representing.” But, I wonder, in an internet age which doesn’t allow much space for public fallibility, if there’s some self-preservation there too. She trails off, “Eventually I would disappoint people anyway…”

For those of us who are structurally and culturally disempowered, social media provides a blunt tool with which to speak with a wider reach than our material life provides. Being perceived as a representative can mean being attacked by those who don’t like your kind. It can also mean carrying the burden of a collective’s desire to be seen, heard, and understood perfectly.

In the social-media era, there is an idea that any kind of visibility as a trans person is “resistance”. Faye is critical of such exposure. “This kind of hashtag influencer style activism, which makes it very easy for allies, with ‘Trans women are women’ as a rallying slogan, has very much narrowed the terms of what trans liberation actually looks like. You know, no one talks about housing or poverty as a trans issue.”

This is the substance of the book: shifting the focus of trans lives from Twitter sound bites and reactive media to the real-life issues that shape trans people’s lives in the UK – healthcare; housing; work; sex work; prisons; immigration; LGBTQ+ and feminist spaces. Faye talks about all these areas with eloquence and ease, weaving them through our conversation. From the obsession with trans women in sports – “Everyone’s talking about trans women at the Olympics but no one’s talking about sex and sex workers. Well, globally, most trans women have done some kind of sex work, and very few trans women will ever qualify for the Olympics” – to poverty, “Universal Credit is a scummy austerity policy, and it affects trans people terribly.”

To write about these things as a trans woman means that she’s often labelled an “activist”. I ask her about this: “I hate being called a trans activist especially because it’s got this pejorative use, it’s designed to reduce what I do. Yeah, I’m a writer, and my subjectivity is I can’t not be trans; we’re in the middle of this worldwide backlash, so of course I’m writing about it.” It’s a familiar trap, as a trans writer you’re expected to write about trans issues. But as a trans writer your subjectivity is used against you to undermine both your skills and what you say.

Experienced in navigating this, Faye is clear The Transgender Issue is not a memoir, and she refuses to write one. Women writers are asked to write memoirs more than they are asked for analysis. It’s a perverse system of extracting vulnerability for pay-per-view consumption, a vulnerability trap many minoritised groups are familiar with. Vulnerability is demanded to legitimise your humanity, but the pieces of you shared are scrutinised at best, weaponised against you and people like you at worst. For trans women this is added to by the salacious interest in transition stories, while there’s very little space in public life for trans women’s real vulnerabilities.

“I don’t define being a woman by suffering,” Faye states matter-of-factly. “Sometimes the quickest way women bond is to talk about how men have screwed you over; it’s a classic thing that from a very young age girls and women learn to do. There’s almost a drive to share traumatic experiences because you feel pressure to prove that you have had these experiences because you’re a woman, and then ultimately, the way that transphobia responds to that, it’s just to be like, well no, I don’t believe you.”

This can feel particularly acute when trans people talk about experiences of domestic violence (DV) and the needs of survivors. In 2018, 7.5 per cent of all women in the UK experienced DV, and 16 per cent of trans women had, but anti-trans feminists often divert the conversation to theoretical abstractions about men in women’s spaces. We well know the threat of being denied your own reality is one that keeps many survivors silent; movements have been built around the mantra ‘I believe her’.

To be trans is also not defined by suffering. The book’s epigraph is a quote from performance artist Travis Alabanza: “When I say trans, I also mean escape. I mean choice. I mean wanting something greater than what you told me. Wanting more possibilities than the one you forced on me.” 

So, what would freedom and autonomy mean to Faye? “To be able to move on from trying to explain myself, or the community I belong to, or this political experience we call trans. Or at least, to talk about it in much richer ways, like things that bring me joy. I would want to give expression to that and to be able to rejoice in my writing.”

And what would it be to be liberated? “It’s not just about trans people being liberated; we’d basically have undone binary gender and its bordering structuring principle of power and violence. In a truly liberated future I might not even call myself trans, that word would cease to have any meaning, nor would woman. It’s quite hard to admit that, but I think that trans liberation is actually abolishing ourselves because we wouldn’t need to exist in such a category.”

Neatly, that is reflected in the first line of Faye’s book: “The liberation of trans people would improve the lives of everyone in our society.” What a great place to start.

The Transgender Issue, An Argument for Justice by Shon Faye was published by Allen Lane, Penguin, September 2021 

Photography Lydia Wilks

Hair Louis Byrne

Make up Billie McKenzie

This article is taken from Port issue 29. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here