50.50: Review

​​‘The Transgender Issue’: it’s time for a reset in talking about trans rights

I’ve been a trans activist for more than 30 years. Shon Faye’s debut book makes me think we were far too polite in my day

Christine Burns.png
Christine Burns
4 November 2021, 10.33am

The moral panic in the UK media about trans rights might make you believe that adolescents are being ‘rushed’ through puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones. But people struggling with their gender identity face waiting times well in excess of four years just for an initial appointment at one of the country’s handful of gender identity clinics.

That first appointment won’t see any intervention. Puberty is over for many people before they are offered any actual medical intervention.

There is pearl-clutching about ‘decisions that young people may regret’. But in reality, not being able to access puberty blockers or other interventions is often much more damaging for the person’s well-being, in both the short and long run.

These are the kind of ‘transgender issues’ that trans people would like to debate. But getting to the moon might be easier than getting space in the media to talk about them.

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With her debut book, ‘The Transgender Issue’, British writer Shon Faye (herself a trans woman) is challenging that. The mainstream media’s current obsession with talking about trans people as just an ‘issue’ implies that we are something to be ‘debated’.

But, in Faye’s view, this frenzied framing blinds people with what she says is “the wrong conversation”. The book’s subtitle, ‘An Argument for Justice’, underlines her intent.

A history of trans writing

There have been histories, self-help and pastoral books, but until now I don’t recall a work that took the status quo of political discourse on the difficulties transgender people face and really tried to change it.

Sixty years ago, when I was a child, the opportunities for anyone to read about trans people like myself were extremely limited.

There were texts with a stark warning on the cover: “Only to be sold to members of the medical profession”. There were works by sexologists such as John Money, who introduced the ‘popular science’ cachet to ideas about gender roles, expression and identities – a subject that second-wave feminism had already embraced.

Books actually written by trans people were as rare as hen’s teeth, especially in the UK. And when such books appeared, they were expected to follow a tell-all, confessional format. Tell all. Confess. Describe the gory parts. And, preferably, repent.

It took until the 1990s for American authors such as Leslie Feinberg (‘Stone Butch Blues’, 1993) and Kate Bornstein (‘Gender Outlaw’, 1994) to break the mould, and it wasn’t until quite recently that we smashed it entirely.

If you find it an uncomfortable read, then that’s just the brutality of the truth at work

Now, with ‘The Transgender Issue’, we have something extraordinary. If you find it an uncomfortable read, then that’s just the brutality of the truth at work.

I’ve been an activist in this field for more than 30 years, latterly as a historian, and I can’t fault the facts. It just makes me think we were far too polite in my day.

Class and trans inequality

The introduction and first two chapters paint the status quo bluntly and may feel familiar to those in the know. There is something forensic about Faye’s exposition and yet it never rises to bitterness. But it is from chapter three, dealing with class, that the book becomes explicitly political.

Again, this is something trans people just know — transition is a whole lot easier if you have money and people with some degree of social standing to support you.

It is no accident that the known histories of trans people in the first half of the 20th century revolve around such accidents of birth. Two of the best-documented stories from 100 years ago, concerning Ewan Forbes and Michael Dillon, involve inherited wealth, status and titles through primogeniture (the right of the firstborn son to inherit), post-transition.

Faye explains this well.

The moral panic du jour invites the public to fret about whether I might be urinating in the adjacent toilet cubicle, but elements of the establishment are far more concerned to keep us in our place because of the implications of what our document changes and legal recognition might unleash. Faye spells out clearly just how dangerous the legal recognition of transition is for the issue of firstborn sons’ inheritance.

Divide and conquer

The very first sentence in the prologue to ‘The Transgender Issue’ reads: “The liberation of trans people would improve the lives of everyone in our society.” That’s a sentiment that flies in the face of mainstream rhetoric that wants to divide all of us all the time. Ask who that rhetoric serves.

This book constantly reminds us why we should strengthen our activist working ties. Not just those in the trans community, but cis women, racial and ethnic minorities, disabled people, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, older folk – all of us.

Faye regularly drives home the point that trans people and other minorities have shared experiences of being forced to the edge. For example, she devotes a whole chapter to survival sex.

She also looks at how the state’s monopoly on legal force through policing, prisons and migrant detention centres has negative effects on trans people that are, again, never discussed in the mainstream. Faye seeks a much broader discussion about the use of prison (especially for the majority of non-violent cases) and how to make the whole system safe for all.

Yet again, people obsess whether other equally abused and vulnerable minorities are safe being locked up with us, or using the same rape and domestic violence services.

The Transgender Issue 2.jpg

Chapter six deals with our relationship (historical and present-day) with our siblings in the overall LGBTQ+ community. The attempt to convince some folks that lesbian, gay and bisexual people are better off separate from trans and non-binary people is again a distraction and an attempt to drive a wedge.

In reality, we all face the same kind of threats from the same players. Violence directed at LGB people often originates from some straight people’s visceral disgust at same-sex relationships breaking the first commandment of an idealised patriarchal system built on gender roles.

Likewise, chapter seven tackles our relationship with feminism. You get the idea by now: the mainstream discourse invites us to think of feminism and trans rights as some sort of zero-sum game. The truth is very different.

As with our relationship with LGB people, the relationship between trans people and women (or cisgender people generally) has long been a productive and mutually beneficial one – of striving to better understand the political mesh that traps everyone in gendered expectations.

This is a seminal text, the kind you see only once in a generation

This is a challenging book to read if you’ve taken at face value the nonsense that passes for journalism about trans lives. It invites you to think about that divisive agenda from a more informed point of view.

And, let’s face it, those opponents of trans inclusion and legal reform who say they want a debate can’t complain if this book sets out an informed point of view.

Faye’s language is precise and readable. To me, this is a seminal text, the kind you see only once in a generation. If you think it’s time for a reset in all the talk about trans rights, this may be it.

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