The State

The following extract is taken from Shon Faye’s first book, The Transgender Issue. Uncovering the reality of what it means to be trans in a transphobic society, she provides a deeply compelling and wide-ranging analysis of trans lives from youth to old age, examining work, family, housing, healthcare, the prison system, and trans participation in the LGBTQ+ and feminist communities, in contemporary Britain and beyond. Here, Faye turns her attention to the fraught relationship between trans people and the military

Artwork Daniel Clarke

I don’t think we would be where we are today – encouraging ever larger numbers of people to think within an abolitionist frame – had not the trans community taught us that it is possible to effectively challenge that which is considered the very foundation of our sense of normalcy. So if it is possible to challenge the gender binary, then we can certainly, effectively, resist prisons, and jails, and police.

Angela Davis, June 2020

On 30 March 2020, the Hungarian parliament enacted a law granting the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, power to govern by decree: the law had no time limit. Supposedly made in response to the Covid-19 crisis then engulfing the world, it legally removed all checks and balances on Orbán’s ultra-conservative government (with the exception of Hungary’s Constitutional Court, which in any case has been stuffed with Orbán-supporting judges since his election in 2010). This power grab alarmed commentators across Europe, who saw it as a classic example of a tactic employed by countless authoritarian regimes, using a crisis as a means to expand executive power and stifle democratic opposition. The emergency powers, moreover, were not ad hoc. They marked the culmination of years of Orbán’s Fidesz party suppressing press freedom and the independence of the judiciary and central bank.

The day after it was handed these new powers, the Hungarian government released a draft law, Article 33 of which proposed amending the Registry Act, which regulates the registration of births and the issue of identity documents. The article’s wording intended to replace the word ‘nem’, which in Hungarian can mean both ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, with the word ‘születési nem’ (‘birth sex’), defining it as ‘biological sex based on primary sex characteristics and chromosomes’. This seemingly small alteration would have massive consequences for Hungary’s trans community. It meant that, once recorded, birth sex could not be amended on any birth certificate or identification document. The government’s reasoning was explicit: ‘Given that completely changing one’s biological sex is impossible, it is necessary to lay it down in law that it cannot be changed in the civil registry either.’ The move was universally condemned by human rights and LGBTQ+ groups in Hungary and across Europe as not only illegal under the European Convention on Human Rights, and a contradiction of the case law of Hungary’s own Constitutional Court, but as a malicious targeting of trans people’s ability to operate safely as citizens in society.

Its malevolence aside, Hungary’s Article 33 spoke volumes for the government’s political priorities: why on earth would any government faced with co-ordinating its medical and economic response to a major pandemic concern itself with curtailing the civil liberties of trans people? Simply put, it shows the extent to which trans people have in many countries become a lightning rod in a ‘culture war’ between left and right.

Trans people are emblematic of wider, conceptual concerns about the autonomy of the individual in society. Their rejection of dominant, ancient and deep-seated ideas about the connection between biological characteristics and identity causes a dilemma for the nation state: whether to acknowledge and give credence to the individual’s assertion of their own identity in law and in culture; or to mandate that it, the state, is the final authority on identity, and to assert its power over the individual – by force if necessary. Attacking the very concept of trans people by imposing rigid and immutable definitions of sex and gender, as Orbán’s Fidesz party has done, is the latest iteration of the way national governments embrace totalitarian ideology. After all, attacking trans people has been a part of fascist practice since the destruction of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Berlin Institute of Sexology back in 1933 by Nazi youth brigades.

Given this long history of state violence and suppression, I want to examine the relationship between trans people and mechanisms of state power: in particular, I want to consider the relationship between trans people and the police, trans people and the prison system, and trans people and the immigration system, particularly in the UK. But first, let’s take a look at the United States military. It is not only in dictatorships like Orbán’s that this state-sponsored violence flourishes. In fact, one of the clearest recent examples of how trans people have been framed as enemies of the State comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the federal government of the United States during the Trump presidency.

On 26 July 2017 Donald Trump tweeted:

After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow… Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming… victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.

The ensuing ban on trans people in the American military reinstated an earlier policy, in place since the 1960s, which the Obama administration had lifted in 2016. It was one of a string of anti-trans policies that Trump enacted in his first two years in office, including rejecting guidance for federal schools that trans students be allowed to use restrooms in accordance with their gender identity. Trump’s justification for the trans military ban was the ‘burden’ of tremendous medical costs the Pentagon would have to bear in funding the healthcare of trans service personnel. This wasn’t even a coherent justification on the face of it: not all trans people will transition medically while in service and many transitioned years before entering the military. Yet the ban affected anyone who was trans whether currently medically transitioning or not. Trump’s emphasis on the uniquely burdensome cost of trans healthcare was also quickly debunked. Compared to the other types of healthcare required by active service personnel and veterans, the costs of trans healthcare pales into insignificance. (One statistic that gained popularity in the media in the wake of Trump’s announcement was that the Pentagon spends five times more on Viagra than transgender health.)

Among the trans community, the trans military ban was met with different reactions. For some, the ban denied trans people the right to honour their country by service. These voices included current and former trans soldiers, such as campaigner Charlotte Clymer, who argued that trans people had a proud history of fighting for their country. ‘There are thousands of openly transgender service members – trained professionals, some of the best and brightest our military has to offer – serving right now, many of them in combat zones,’ she said in a televised address for CBS News, adding that ‘they continue to meet the highest standards of excellence.’ Both in her address and on Twitter, Clymer frequently and disparagingly referred to Trump’s own avoidance of service in the Vietnam War, referring to him as a ‘draft dodger’. There was no evidence, so this argument went, that trans people were any less capable of military service than any other US citizens, and, given that military service was an expression of patriotism, singling out trans people in this way was in itself unpatriotic.

For those more critical of the US military and the global projection of US power generally, these pro-military criticisms of the ban were dubious. As a socialist and anti-imperialist, I find it difficult to accept that service in the military of a Western power is inherently honourable (or indeed that it should be a civil right at all). So, I found myself caught between sympathy for those trans military service personnel whose healthcare was now threatened, who were now living in fear of unemployment and even harassment because of the way their president had marked them out as fundamentally unequal; and my supreme discomfort at having to argue that, well, a trans soldier was just as good as a cis soldier at invading other countries and killing human beings. Liberal arguments by fellow trans people tended to focus on the importance of re-inclusion within the present military system as an end goal; others (among whom I count myself), were reluctant to strive for inclusion within a system we find repugnant.

This is an argument (and a dilemma) trans people as a political group have inherited from the gay and lesbian movement, when in the 2000s the right to join the armed forces became a central goal of gay rights campaigns, alongside equal marriage. It drew similar criticism from queer academics and activists, who argued that the gay liberation movement was being de-fanged of its radical and revolutionary potential for society as a whole, and instead being subsumed into capitalism and Western imperialism.

In those years, to be perceived as gay-friendly was fast becoming a way for governments and the white-majority citizenship of countries in Europe and north America to present themselves as exceptional in contrast to other cultures and racial groups. As the academic Jasbir Puar puts it: ‘“acceptance” and “tolerance” for gay and lesbian subjects have become a barometer by which the right to and capacity for national sovereignty is evaluated.’ In other words, integration of the ‘right kind’ of LGBTQ+ citizen (white, documented, non-criminal, sexually respectable) has become a way for imperialist Western powers to maintain their dominance and confirm their credentials as the ultimate arbiters on human rights and justice for the rest of the world – which explains why both gay and trans soldiers are such popular mascots for mainstream LGBTQ+ campaigns and equality awards. British examples include James Wharton, the first openly gay soldier to appear on the cover of Soldier Magazine – the official monthly publication of the British Army – and Hannah Graf, who, after transitioning in 2013, would go on to become the highest-ranking trans person in the British Army. Named ‘Trans Role Model of the Year 2019’ by Stonewall, Graf was awarded an MBE in the same year. Through the visibility of such figures in public life, the concept of the military is reinforced as the ultimate example of participation in and contribution to the life and prosperity of the nation.

We can critique this unabashed jingoism, yet it provides a chilling insight into Trump’s prioritizing of a ban on trans people in the military. The ban heralded a paradigm shift away from this socially liberal approach of Western governments. In stating that trans healthcare is uniquely unworthy of state support and ought to be regarded as distinct from all other types of healthcare, it harnessed the symbolic power of the military to signal that trans people are considered a burden to the state and a liability to the nation. As with Orbán’s elimination of legal gender recognition, such debasement of one minority group is inherently fascist, even as it occurs within a democracy and a problematic military system. This is why – despite my criticisms of US foreign policy – I still found myself condemning the ban. It was eventually lifted by the newly elected President Biden within days of his inauguration in January 2021, signalling a reversion to the liberal approach of inclusion and assimilation about which I remain deeply sceptical. Nevertheless, it still needs to be emphasized: trans people are not a burden to society or to the state. It ought to be the state’s obligation to support trans people, not the other way around.

The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye was published by Allen Lane, Penguin, September 2021

Artwork Daniel Clarke

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

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