BY Juliet Jacques in Books , Opinion | 16 SEP 21

Shon Faye’s Comprehensive Guide to ‘The Transgender Issue’

Juliet Jacques reviews the writer and activist’s new book, which tackles head-on the insurgent culture war around trans liberation and condemns media misrepresentations 

BY Juliet Jacques in Books , Opinion | 16 SEP 21

In a speech entitled ‘A Humanist View’, delivered at Portland State University in 1975, Toni Morrison said that ‘the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being […] None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.’ This tactic is the foundation of the culture war, in which right-wingers use mainstream media to pin discussions of any minorities – whether of race, gender and/or sexuality – to the most unfavourable terms, forcing those minorities constantly to justify themselves rather than to advance demands for liberation. In her first book, The Transgender Issue (2021), trans author and activist Shon Faye sets out to make exactly such demands, opening with an epigraph from writer/performer Travis Alabanza about how the word ‘trans’ also means ‘escape’, ‘choice’, ‘autonomy’ and, above all, ‘wanting more possibilities’ than the ones available to us. To open up such possibilities entails addressing head-on the lies endlessly told about us, however tiresome this feels. It’s a task Faye takes on with zeal: the book’s title explicitly references the dehumanizing way the media reduces trans people to an ‘issue’. In each chapter, she challenges a ‘talking point’ with a combination of facts, statistics and lived experiences, providing a comprehensive guide for anyone who wants to advocate for the community.

It’s important to remember that, while plenty of trans books are being published in 2021, several by ‘gender critical’ feminists are also being enthusiastically plugged on social media and in ostensibly liberal newspapers and magazines. These books, including Trans by Helen Joyce and Material Girls by Kathleen Stock, aim in part to redefine feminism as something that can’t include trans people, especially trans women. Nonetheless, in what novelist, poet and critic Roz Kaveney has referred to on Twitter as the ‘Year of Trans Creativity’, numerous novels, short stories, memoirs and poetry collections are striving to explore Alabanza’s ‘possibilities’. Pluto Press’s Transgender Marxism anthology (2021, edited by Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke), for instance, gives a scathing analysis of how poverty, precarity and austerity specifically affect the trans and non-binary community. The Transgender Marxism authors point towards a future that may be imaginable once Faye’s demands for better healthcare, housing, social security, bodily autonomy and sexual freedom are met, but class-based analysis is central to both books.

Shon Faye The Transgender Issue
Shon Faye, The Transgender Issue, 2021. Courtesy: Penguin Books

The Transgender Issue opposes liberal approaches to trans activism that emphasize media representation and inclusion within conservative institutions, upholding prisons and the police. Faye notes how the ‘Transgender Tipping Point’ declared by Time magazine in a 2014 cover article, which suggested the US trans rights movement could no longer be stopped, was proved wrong after the ascension of former US president Donald Trump in 2016. And, while the Joe Biden administration immediately sided with trans people when elected in 2020, such progress is never smooth. In the UK, neither Trans Media Watch’s submission to the Leveson Inquiry into the tabloid press’ mafia-like behaviour in 2012, nor the suicide of Lucy Meadows a year later after the Daily Mail published an article questioning her suitability to teach primary-school children, led to better treatment. Instead, almost every major newspaper painted trans people as powerful bullies, despite there being no high-profile trans politicians or editors, and the handful of UK trans columnists present in the early 2010s being driven out of the discourse by the decade’s end. Even if these writers (myself included) had managed to make these publications more trans-positive, this would have done little to combat the legislative assaults on trans communities in Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, the US and elsewhere, nor to alleviate the impact of the UK government’s funding cuts on working-class trans people, which added years to waiting lists for NHS gender reassignment services and made it far harder to them to survive on unemployment benefits.

Faye’s exploration of the difficulties facing trans children and trans sex workers is especially welcome given how little both groups have been able – or allowed – to air their specific needs. Her discussion of historical gender-variant people in a media climate that pretends trans is a new (and thus not valid) ‘issue’ is equally important. However, Faye’s book is strongest when she asks how the treatment of trans people brings up ‘wider, conceptual concerns about the autonomy of the individual in society’: the questions of how far trans people should ‘bend themselves to fit the way our society is ordered at present’ and of how ‘the challenges trans people present to lawmakers expose fundamental flaws in the entire system’ suggest that a radical liberation movement could transform for everyone, and not just us.

Ultimately, The Transgender Issue is about, and of, public discourse. The culture war is designed to be unwinnable, but it’s too damaging to ignore. I hope that, in writing this book, Faye has made it unnecessary for anyone else to do something similar – at least for a while. It’s a sign of progress that publishers will now commission trans authors to tackle political arguments directly, rather than only allowing us to do so through ‘confessional’ genres: trans artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians can use culture to realize the possibilities that Alabanza and Faye picture, in the hope that our enemies have neither the imagination nor the talent to fight us on so many fronts.

Main image: Shon Faye, 2021. Courtesy: Penguin Books; photograph: © Paul Samuel White

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. She lives in London, UK.