Liadán Hynes interviews Shon Faye about her new book, The Transgender Issue
“We are not an ‘issue’ to be debated and derided,” Shon Faye writes in the concluding lines of her new book, The Transgender Issue, published last month. “We are symbols of hope for many non-trans people, too, who see in our lives the possibility of living more fully and freely.”
The choice of title, with the subheading An Argument for Justice, was in part, she tells me when we talk this week, to highlight how the phrase, so often used in the so called culture war, erases the complexity of trans peoples’ lives.
“On one level, I was thinking, ‘that’s how I’ve heard people’s lives and people’s welfare be spoken about, and it reduces us to a talking point. It used to really annoy me, but it is how it is commonly referred to, so it’s a bit of a trojan horse title, and I intended it to be. It’s a phrase that people are used to hearing, and it’s how it is discussed in the mainstream media. So taking that, and using it for my book, and my argument, it’s using something that’s familiar, but doing something unexpected with it.”
What she does, is to put forward a hugely researched, expansive manifesto that examines in fascinating detail the systemic prejudices that impact the lives of trans people, sidestepping the closed loop debates of the culture war, which she sees as a diversionary tactic, used to distract from trans people attaining their political needs. Instead, Faye has written a book that aims to move things towards a newer, more healthy conversation, with a focus on what needs to change to improve the lives of trans people, and, for all marginalised people and minorities.
“I took that phrase back,” Shon tells me of the book’s title, “and kind of decided well what happens if I say I’m going to call it this, but it’s not the issue that some people who open the book may be expecting to read about, like, toilets, or whatever. It’s actually about the real issues, that I think are the priority. And I’d hope that, by the end, even though it’s still called that, hopefully the reader is guided towards rejecting ever using that phrase.”
Based in London, born in Bristol, originally trained as a lawyer, thirty-three-year-old Shon left the law to become both a journalist and a campaigner, working with Amnesty International and Stonewall, as well as writing for the Guardian and Vice, amongst others. She hosts the podcast series Call Me Mother, an interview series in which she speaks to trailblazing LGBTQ- older adults.
This, her first book, is emphatically not a memoir. “You don’t have to know the intimate details of my private life to support me,” she writes, adding, “Don’t worry about the ‘why’; act on the ‘what’.”
There is an inherently unjust power dynamic, she explains now, in being expected to lay out one’s story, to explain oneself, as part of the process of attaining what one needs.
“If someone says ‘this is who I am, this is a fundamental part of me’, the most hostile reaction is to say, ‘I don’t believe you, either you’re lying, or you’re mentally ill’, which society has done to LGBT people in particular, throughout history.”
The next step down in reactions is to say to someone, ‘ok, you are this way, but why?
“’Why are you this way? What does this mean for me?’ The trouble with that is, that preoccupation can sound less hostile, but ultimately, if we start to worry about why people are gay, why they are trans, etc, often what we’re doing is we’re trying to find out a cause. What it betrays is deep down a, maybe slightly unconscious, prejudice that there’s a problem, and we need to know why.
What you’re saying is there’s something wrong, and in an ideal society, people like you wouldn’t exist, and it would be good if we knew why you exist. It might not be that explicit, but that’s often how it can read to the person.”
Where it ties into memoir, Shon explains, is that “trans people, to combat that, what they’ve been left with, especially in literature, is, you get to have a platform to write a book, or talk about your experiences, but only in exchange for really telling details about your own life, or maybe your own medical history. It’s kind of objectifying, and I think it’s the power dynamic I don’t like about it.”
“’Ok well maybe we’ll listen to you about your experiences, provided you supply us with this, often it can be quite tragic, or pitiable, narrative, about how much you’ve suffered, and how much you needed this. And people should feel sorry for you, and afford you it. I don’t want to come from a position of people feeling sorry. The problem is not with us, the problem is with the society. The you. The reader. Whoever. And it’s about turning that back on people. Shining it back on them.”
Shon eschews the phrase trans rights or trans equality, in favour of trans liberation, explaining that a more comprehensive overhaul of our society, one that benefits all oppressed groups and minorities, is the goal, rather than equality in a society that is intrinsically unequal.
“I think what a lot of liberation movements, not just around this issue, believe, is that there’s no real equality in this society anyway. It’s a fundamentally unequal society, designed to benefit a very small number of people, at the expense of the majority. That’s the system we live under. When you talk about equality under the law, in any country, the law favours certain people too. The law is often an instrument to keep inequality in place. To keep the class system in place. So liberation is one step further. I guess it’s a kind of utopian goal, it’s the idea that the systems and structures that our society is built around actually often curb your freedom. And it’s about long term thinking about challenging those fundamentals of society.”
Not everyone has equal access to legal rights, Shon points out, not everyone has the financial ability to access them, for one thing.
She does share some anecdotes from her own life, including an experience where she was subjected to abuse in the run up to hosting a one-day festival called Women Making History, organised by Amnesty International, in 2018, including a petition on Change.org to remove her as the host of the event. There is a huge toll, she tells me, in the work she does.
“I think the trouble is that sometimes I have become accustomed to it, frankly, over several years. Sometimes I’ll almost treat it like background noise now, and expect it. It tends to be a bit repetitive. It’s the same stuff, and I’ve heard it all many, many times before. So there’s a point where you kind of think, ‘oh whatever, it kind of comes with the job’. Occasionally you’ll have a moment where that fog drops and you’ll think, ‘no, this still remains unacceptable’. And it might be that it’s not as impactful as it once was, but it can build up over time. So yeah it does take a toll. It’s a shame that you have to have such a thick skin.”
She has learnt strategies to help her cope, including at times locking herself out of her Twitter account and giving a friend the password, a tactic she is employing now as she carries out her book tour for The Transgender Issue.
“I’m much more careful than I used to be. I’m kind of an open book; I like to create a relationship with people on social media where I’d share a bit about my life, I’d be a human being. Unfortunately, you do have to become a little bit circumspect about that and remember that there are people who want to use anything as ammunition and will twist anything you say. So unfortunately, I’ve had to become a bit more guarded.”
The aim of the abuse is, she points out, to silence not just Shon, but others who might consider writing or speaking about their experiences.
“Expanding beyond me is the idea that what this abuse does is it obviously has an effect on the person; its designed to silence me, or whoever, it’s not just trans women, its lots of different groups, particularly women of any kind, particularly women of colour, Black women. It’s designed to silence the person that this abuse is targeted at, but another function of it is to put other voices from that group off. Because they see what people get, and they think ‘I don’t want that, I can’t handle that’.”
She admits that if someone had told her at the outset what she would have to deal with when she became a more publicly visible figure, had explained what would be thrown her way, she probably would have decided against it.
“And that’s what its designed to do,” she adds of the abuse levelled her way.
“I think it’s worth saying that everyone I spoke to with the book, and almost every trans person I know, has experienced some kind of harassment at some point in their lives. It’s just ubiquitous. And of course, the degree to which you can enjoy safety, which I say in the book, is also bound into things like your social class, and your means.”
The ability for your sense of safety to be undermined never goes away.
“It never fully leaves you,” Shon says. “Like even now, and I was lucky, I had the means and the ability to advocate for myself with doctors, and I really pushed myself to get to a point where I could walk down the street and…blend in enough that I’m not recognised as a trans person. That shouldn’t actually be that way. it shouldn’t be about that there’s such a drive to safety that that becomes the sole obsession. But I can say on a personal level, that never leaves you.”
Sometimes she might catch someone’s attention simply because they are trying to read the slogan on her t-shirt. “But I really go into a different, hypervigilant state, where it recalls times where I did experience people filming me on their phones on the tube or whatever. So yeah, I think safety is a huge thing. And it’s frustrating sometimes that that’s not at the core of discussion, because it’s about almost a fantasy of cis gender people’s fears about being attacked by us. The evidence isn’t there to support that. The evidence is that it’s pretty much the other way around.”
We talk about the gender dysphoria Shon experienced, and how much of that was down to the reactions, prejudices and rigid norms of the society we live in.
“There were some things that I was so unhappy with about my appearance or whatever, but it’s hard to know, is that innate, or is that because we all get messages the whole time about who’s beautiful, who’s ok, who’s normal, who’s a freak? I’m always a trans person, but sometimes now I’m mistaken – that’s what I like to say, rather than I pass – I’m mistaken for someone who isn’t trans. When that happens, the way I’m treated is so much better.
“I can remember what it’s like to walk into a corner shop to buy a carton of milk and have people laughing at you. Now, obviously that doesn’t happen, and so when you’re getting that, you know, the difference between people laughing at you wherever you go, and people treating you with respect, it’s really hard not to internalise that, and then to be desperate to make any change that will help you hold onto that. Where in a freer society, where anyone could walk down the street wearing what they want, and we didn’t think they looked ugly or stupid or whatever, maybe, I wouldn’t have quite transitioned the way I did. It’s impossible for me to say.”
It’s interesting, though, she adds, that children do not exhibit these prejudices in their early years, but learn them later on.
While she says that the hatred and vitriol aimed at trans people comes from different places, at the core of hatred is often fear.
“I think that’s the nature of any prejudice, and any ism, racism, sexism, it’s often fear, isn’t it. And I think it’s often fear that’s not grounded in reality, but it’s about how we all form our own identities. So something like gender, and the gender binary, we know it doesn’t work for most people, it certainly doesn’t work for women, traditional gender binary. It’s actually designed to be quite oppressive for women. But also, it reverberates and rebounds on men too, doesn’t it? The culture of silence around men’s mental health and stuff like that. And it certainly doesn’t work for men if they’re gay or bi. So despite the fact that we all know that gender is a constraining system, as much as we might able to see that, we also really profoundly see it as part of who we define ourselves as, and who we define ourselves against. So even though some people know it doesn’t really work for them, they’re also really fearful about what would replace it.”
There’s also, she says, almost a sense of stolen valour. “Like, if a trans person’s saying, ‘well actually, we can all define our own gender’, it’s like ‘no, no, no, because I’ve been told this whole time that I can’t, and actually I’ve suffered because of it’. That’s why some people get angry. It’s like ‘well no, I’ve been told my whole life that this is how I have to be, I have to be a woman this way, or have to be a man this way, and so you don’t get to say this’. And actually, it’s kind of, like, well why not?” she smiles.
“What I find as a trans person, is that either, you present yourself as a misery case, or you say well we’re actually trying to be free, and we think everybody should be free.”
It’s not that there are not consequences to this freedom, Shon points out. Trans people have really suffered, any freedom achieved is not complete.
“But I think what we can get are the joyful moments in life where you get to be fully who you are, because you’re in an accepting space. I’m lucky to be someone that has that, whether it’s a queer space or a queer community, or my friends, or my family.
These pockets of life where she gets full acceptance of who she is are what she is talking about when she describes “the gleaming opulence of our freedom” in the final lines of her book.
“It’s about getting to be who you want to be. And I don’t understand why people don’t want that for everyone.”
Shon Faye is in conversation with Torrey Peters as part of the Red Line Book Festival on Thursday 14th October, 8-9pm, online. For tickets, see redlinebookfestival.ie
The Transgender Issue, an argument for justice, by Shon Faye, published by Allen Lane, is available now.