This is a book I have been waiting for. I don’t just mean in the sense that I pre-ordered it (though I did); I mean that I am very much interested in books about trans liberation as opposed to personal memoirs. I know Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue is far from the first book on this subject. However, it is current and cogent. In her prologue, Faye makes the case clearly:
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 source of constant anxiety for many who are either invested in the status quo or fearful about what would replace it.
Faye goes on, in the introduction, to explain why The Transgender Issue is not a memoir:
While the trans memoir has been important in destigmatizing and demystifying trans people’s understanding of themselves, confession and candour ought not to be the only basis for trans people’s right to public and political speech.… You don’t have to know the intimate details of my private life to support me.
Such a good point. I do enjoy a good memoir and will certainly seek out more memoirs by trans people, especially trans people who experience marginalizations I don’t share. At the end of the day, however, if all you’re doing is reading personal stories in an attempt to build empathy, you are stopping short of the true goal—liberation. I want books that build political cases for reorganizing our society.
This is the thesis of The Transgender Issue, and Faye challenges both trans and cis people to understand: liberating trans people involves reimagining society itself. Addressing transphobia and other systemic barriers means addressing racism and white supremacy, poverty, ableism, and ageism. It means building a society that is more compassionate, more dignified, more willing to listen to those on the margins. Faye points out that trans people like ourselves, who are white and well-educated, can fall prey to a liberal view of trans inclusivity—one that focuses on acceptance on an individualized basis, the proper use of one’s name and pronouns, etc. This individualized approach to reducing transphobia is inherently limited.
Faye focuses on three main areas: autonomy as it applies to trans healthcare, issues of class and race that exacerbate the struggles of trans people, and the relationship between trans people and other queer and feminist movements. In each chapter, Faye integrates both historical and contemporary sources, taking on issues such as the transphobic nature of UK journalism and media and the history of trans inclusion/exclusion within queer and feminist spaces.
With regards to trans healthcare, my heart goes out to trans people in the UK. I got so angry reading about how difficult it is to access hormone therapy through public healthcare—the waiting lists are years in length and replete in traumatizing red tape. For trans kids, acquiring puberty blockers is even more fraught. Thankfully, one part of this book is already out of date—the Court of Appeal reversed a judgment that resulted in the NHS no longer allowing those under 18 to give informed consent to puberty blockers. On a wider note, Faye asserts correctly that trans healthcare is far more than access to hormones and surgeries. There are reproductive right considerations (both because, in many countries, trans people have historically been forcibly sterilized, and hormone therapy in general tends to result in infertility). There are mental healthcare considerations. Trans healthcare must be holistic, yet the interminable gatekeeping, the casting of doubt and shame, the refusal in some cases even to acknowledge our existence—it all adds up to a severely harmful and damaging system.
Intersections of class and race, as I have already outlined, mean that trans people who experience additional marginalizations often find themselves without proper access to supportive social services. Faye touches on issues with the carceral system, with victim support services, and with housing services. Often trans people must choose between being themselves or accessing a service they need or otherwise live in constant fear of violence and discrimination. It’s not good times.
Finally, Faye turns to a broader consideration of trans people as a political category and how that intersects with queer politics and feminist politics. Rather than retread and refute the various arguments that transphobic and trans-exclusionary people make, Faye asks us to get down to the basics of the goals of feminism and queer liberation. In particular, I was very grateful that Faye acknowledges how white supremacy and colonialism are involved:
Female socialization may well describe a collection of experiences that some types of women share in common — but at a global level it is clear that the cultural expectation of what it is to be a woman, and how these expectations are imposed, vary significantly. The same expectations are applied to different women in different ways under a capitalist class system in which some women are racialized as inferior and exploited more readily for their labour. In reality, the ongoing predominance of white, middle-class and cisgender women in feminism means that any global definition of womanhood is often simply an extrapolation of these women’s particular racial and class experience, as if it were universal.
This echoes what I learned from Ruby Hamad’s White Tears/Brown Scars about how white women prop up white supremacy (and, by extension, patriarchy). Faye goes on to point out that enforcing a gender binary is just another way that colonialism can exert control over people. First, it’s so important that this is being mentioned in a book by a white author—we need more trans people of colour writing, of course, and those of us who are white need to acknowledge how white supremacy underlies our own oppression even while we simultaneously benefit from it. Second, this is why your feminism must be trans-inclusive or it is bullshit. If feminism is a project to liberate all women, then it cannot use a definition of womanhood created by primarily white, middle-class and upper-class women.
The Transgender Issue is very UK-focused (intentionally so). The specific stats and situations might not be the same outside the UK, but the overall ideas Faye discusses are sadly familiar to me. The struggle for trans liberation might look different in different parts of the world, but the theme is the same: we need to go beyond the basics of gender 101, using the correct pronouns, etc. and actively challenge the gender binary and the assumptions we all make about gender on a daily basis.
I would love for any cis person who needs more details on these issues to read this book. It can be a lot at points (at least it was for me) in terms of emotions. But it is so, so vital that cis people take the time to educate themselves on the systemic barriers trans people experience every day. I pray for the day that my transness is both unremarkable and also not an afterthought, the day when I can call customer service and not get called “sir” five seconds into the call, the day when we are all free to be who we are without assumptions or judgment. But until that happens, at least I can read thoughtful and essential books like The Transgender Issue, and I hope you do to. Understand that supporting trans people is more than shouting “trans women are women” (though I do appreciate that). It’s about confronting the very real discrimination that exists throughout our society, and using any power you have to tear it down in the name of a better future.