I had heard about this book and then was fortunate enough to win a copy via NetGalley.

Shon Faye – “The Transgender Issue”

(21 August 2021)

The demand for true trans liberation echoes and overlaps with the demands of workers, socialists, feminists, anti racists and queer people. They are radical demands, in that they go to the root of what our society is and what it could be. For this reason, the existence of trans people is a course of constant anxiety for many who are either invested in the status quo or fearful about what would replace it.

This is a desperately important book that is likely to open a reader’s eyes, even if they think they are aware of transgender issues (Faye reclaims the title 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, as I’ll discuss later on.

I expected this to be a sort of “Invisible Women” 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. And it made me cross and tearful, so snap there. But it goes deeper into the ways in which trans people have to live their lives, and how they have been set against both the cis population and then, more damagingly, people representing the rest of the letters in the LGBTQIA+ population and cis and lesbian feminists.

Knowing the book was pretty political, I was steeling myself for a sort of sociology/political studies language, but it’s written accessibly and clearly. It is written from a leftist/Marxist viewpoint that looks to old-fashioned solidarity, such as actually existed in the early days of Gay Liberation, arguing that raising the conditions trans people live in – i.e. trans liberation – will of necessity raise the conditions for all minority groups in society, and that many of the issues that trans people experience are also experienced by other groups. It interrogates mechanisms of state power such as the prison and policing systems. But it’s important to note that politics and theory come second to community building and positive action.

Contrary to the media assertion that the country is riddled with more and more transitioning folk, trans people represent less than 1% of our population, so there’s certainly safety and power in numbers and solidarity with other groups. Faye is also careful to foreground the experiences of BAME and disabled trans people, another minority within a minority, and balances discussion of trans women and trans men.

It’s a very human book, not all facts and figures. Faye interviews people from the trans community, from parents of a young trans child who accessed a lot of information and support online and put the lie to the idea that parents are forcing their children to turn trans to a man running a shelter for homeless trans people. 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 gender transition.

It was in this section that I had something that had caused me some unease thoroughly debunked. Michaela Coel in “Misfits” makes a clear call to people to admit their errors and I want to be honest here. As “Trans Britain” helped me to understand that not all trans people claimed their gender at a young age and “Unicorn” helped me to understand that the hyper-feminised appearance of drag queens is often an interrogation of the performance of femininity rather than a mockery of it or those who are less feminine, so this book finally helped me to realise that the reason many trans women seem almost stereotypically hyper-feminised to me is likely to be because the medical establishment expects them to present as female, to “pass”, to hold down a job or an education “as” the gender they are moving towards, before having access to any medications, surgery or other interventions, even being made to change gender-neutral names they wish to keep to single-gender ones. As a person who was born female and identifies as a woman, I have both felt compelled to feminise myself in workplaces in the past to conform and have had the privilege of being able to present myself in a fairly gender-neutral manner since, but I’ve also always felt a bit threatened by people who can perform femininity with more assurance and “success” than I can myself (my own problem and not a criticism of those people) and I can now hold more compassion for my sisters who are compelled by medical gatekeepers to perform a high femininity that they may not even wish to (while accepting of course that some people wish to as is their complete right, too). I also understand why brothers and sisters who are non-binary or non-gender-confirming feel compelled to go to private medical establishments for the help they need, evading some of these gatekeepers.

The clearly and dispassionately put descriptions of the awful situations trans people are put through can be pretty harrowing. 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.

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, unable to access state support and employment, forced to turn to sex work, forced to adopt highly gendered personas they might not even wish to adopt, forced to turn to private doctors at great expense, forced out of being able to legally change their gender by the costs involved. It’s through seeing the commonalities with other marginalised groups and working in coalition that this can be achieved, but that requires a change in the narrative and a resistance to divide-and-conquer regimes.

Thank you to Allen Lane for providing me with a copy of this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.