The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye review – a cry for compassion

The author gives a stark, unapologetic account of how the difficulties faced by trans people are made worse by moral panic

Many cisgender people are surprised that I, a trans person, often have no desire to read the latest trans book or watch the latest TV show with a trans character in it. The fact is that I generally turn on the TV or open a book to relax. It’s the opposite of relaxing to see the facts of my life continually presented back to me – at best, it is nothing I didn’t know already; at worst, it is harmfully distorted.

The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice, by Shon Faye, is not a relaxing read, and yet I am profoundly grateful that it exists. Nor is there all that much in it I didn’t already know, but then that is the nature of being a trans person in the UK. We are forced, in the name of self-defence, to become experts in every subject that might overlap with “the transgender issue”, from prisons to sports to public bathrooms. Meanwhile, many cisgender people live in blissful ignorance of the acute crises that face trans people in this country every day.

It is those people who really need to read this book. Faye lays out in unsparing detail the stark realities of trans life today. She makes sure, however, not to represent the trans condition as uniquely tragic or difficult, highlighting parallels between the trans experience and those of other oppressed or minority groups. This position is clear from the first line: “The liberation of trans people would improve the lives of everyone in our society.”

Faye, an editor-at-large at Dazed and former lawyer, described her career trajectory thus in an interview with QX magazine: “Had a complete implosion, quit my job, moved back to Bristol and came out as a trans woman. Then became a freelance writer.” Known as one of the funniest people on trans Twitter, she recently tweeted in response to a troll “I am a tran for a living”, a sentiment I can relate to. Most trans people I know feel to some degree like they are forced to be a tran for a living. With it comes the expectation that you be ready and willing, at any time, to hold your ground on any element of “the transgender issue” anyone might decide to quiz you about.

Faye uses analogy to deftly answer complicated questions – if being trans is not a mental illness, why does the NHS need to provide treatment for it? She draws a parallel with unwanted pregnancy – being pregnant is not an illness and yet abortion is a vital medical intervention, for want of which people are driven to desperate extremes. Similarly, a trans person needs access to medical transition not because they are ill, but because it is necessary for that person.

Such analogies shatter the divide whereby trans people are seen as incomprehensible and separate from all other groups. As Faye points out: “the illusion that trans people’s concerns are niche and highly complex is often a way to disempower them”.

She is uncompromising and her anger palpable. This, I suspect, may put some readers off. Trans people in the UK are in a hopeless situation; they face overwhelming political and media hostility, while vital healthcare is almost impossible to access. It is infuriating to be asked to speak politely and without emotion about what is, to many of us, life or death. I hope that readers will respond not with defensiveness, but with a commitment to lending their much-needed support.

Trans people are so often drawn into public “debates” where we have very little say in the terms. Faye makes it clear that she is not interested in engaging, writing: “I believe that forcing trans people to involve themselves in these closed-loop debates ad infinitum is itself a tactic of those who wish to oppress us.” When we are forced to fruitlessly argue the same points over and over, we are given very little opportunity to talk about what is actually important to us – like the fact that waiting times for a first appointment at NHS gender identity clinics now range between three to five years. A book such as this one, in which a trans person has the opportunity to speak clearly and compellingly on their own terms, is a vitally needed antidote.

Faye lays out the shift in approach of the British press towards trans people in the last decade, taking as her starting point the tragic case of Lucy Meadows, who came out as a trans woman in 2012 while teaching at a primary school. The subsequent campaign of vilification and harassment by the press culminated in her killing herself in March 2013.

Faye writes 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”. The aggressive misgendering and cruel jokes that were directed at Meadows were more openly hostile than media coverage now, which tends to be cloaked in softer language about “concerns” – but negative coverage about trans people is far more ubiquitous today. One book cannot, of course, outweigh such a continual outpouring of animosity. Nevertheless, as drops in the bucket go, this book is an important and weighty one.

The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice by Shon Faye is published by Allen Lane (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Felix Moore

The GuardianTramp

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