The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice
By Shon Faye
Penguin Press, 2021
“The liberation of trans people would improve the lives of everyone in our society. I say ‘liberation’ because I believe that the humbler goals of ‘trans rights’ or ‘trans equality’ are insufficient. Trans people should not aspire to be equals in a world that remains both capitalist and patriarchal and which exploits and degrades those who live in it. Rather, we ought to seek justice-for ourselves and others alike.”
This is the opening paragraph for Shon Faye’s debut book, The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice. Faye is a former lawyer, activist, podcaster and journalist, who has written for the Guardian, Independent, Vice and Novara Media on issues of sexuality, gender and mental health.
Faye begins with the story of British school teacher Lucy Meadows, whose gender transition was announced in the school’s newsletter, alongside other staff news. “One teacher would be moving into a full-time role, it said, while another was leaving to move to Spain; meanwhile, Meadows would be ‘transitioning to live as a woman’.”
Local newspaper, the Accrington Observer picked up the story, followed by Britain’s national tabloid press, who camped outside the school and Meadows’ home, mocked her appearance and subjected her to transphobic abuse. Meadows took her own life in March, 2013, in what Faye describes as “one of the darkest chapters of the British trans community’s history, and one of the most shameful episodes in the long and shameful history of the British tabloid press”.
Faye argues that “while, since Lucy Meadows’s death, there have been some small improvements in press conduct towards trans individuals, such gains have been more than offset by the dramatic rise of another phenomenon: a huge ramping up of press hostility towards trans people as a minority group.”
Faye makes it clear that trans people are tired of being drawn into public “debates” about their existence and humanity, where they have little say in the terms. Instead, Faye uses The Transgender Issue to lay out the issues facing her community and argues for fully fledged liberation and “a society that is completely transformed from the one in which we live”.
Faye illustrates how the discrimination and obstacles transgender and non-binary people face overlap with those faced by other oppressed minority groups. She argues that solidarity is essential and trans liberation is inseparable from other issues, such as class struggle, workers’ rights, interactions with the state, and sets out how trans people’s struggles are linked to those of the wider LGBTI and feminist movements, among others.
For example, in the chapters “Kissing Cousin: The T in LGBT” and “The Ugly Sister: Trans People in Feminism”, Faye demonstrates how trans people, especially trans women have played a crucial role in the struggles of both the modern LGBTI and feminist movements from the late 1960s and ‘70s on. For example, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha Johnson were central to the June 28, 1969 Stonewall uprising.
Faye also deals with the fact that trans and non-binary people have found their place in these movements under attack since the 1970s — either from feminists who label themselves either “gender critical” or trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), or from far-right transphobic groups exploiting these divisions for their own agenda.
Many of these far-right groups have given themselves names such as the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (LGB) Alliance and the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) to make it look like they are legitimate feminist and queer rights organizations. They claim their hostility to trans right is about “protecting women’s spaces” from “men” pretending to be women.
This hostility to trans rights became clear in May, 2018, when these groups circulated an online petition in response to Faye appearing as the chair for Amnesty International UK’s event, “Women Make History”.
Despite the transphobic petition, the event went ahead with Faye in the chair, receiving support from feminist and queer rights groups and Amnesty UK stood by her. However, the harassment she and other trans woman such as Charlie Craggs received resulted in Craggs withdrawing from speaking at the event.
Moreover, the hostility to trans rights has led TERF groups and anti-trans far-right groups to make alliances based on the idea of “protecting woman’s spaces” as seen in the recent tour of Australia and New Zealand by British anti-trans speaker Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull (also known as Posie Parker).
This tour, entitled “Let women speak” was mostly funded by right-wing groups such as the American Heritage Foundation and the United States-based Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) and drew most of its support from homophobic Christian groups, One Nation and neo-Nazis — who were seen giving Nazi salutes on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House in Melbourne.
This tour came at same time as US far right and Republican lawmakers were attacking queer, trans, and non-binary rights. An estimated 550 anti-queer and anti-trans laws are being proposed and enacted in the US, along with other attacks on LGBTI events, such as “drag story time” being held at libraries throughout the US and elsewhere.
It is in this context that Faye’s book provides a vital argument for the importance of trans liberation as well as the need for solidarity with the broader LGBTQIA+ community, as well as feminist, anti-racist, working class and other movements of the oppressed, based on radical liberationist politics.