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Shon Faye “Collective power rather than individual privilege”: trans liberation, trans MPs, and trans people in the media

Writer Shon Faye’s book, The Transgender Issue, lays out her vision for trans liberation. We speak to her ahead of her appearance at the Festival of Debate next week.

Shon Faye

The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice is Shon Faye’s debut book about trans liberation. In it, she lays out the current situation for trans people in the UK and outlines an opportunity for liberation of not only trans people but all marginalised people. Shon talked to me about her book, her Festival of Debate appearance on Tuesday, and what having an out trans MP really means for trans people.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Your book is about the liberation of trans people but you don't shy away from looking at the intersections as well. Why do you believe that trans liberation is good for other marginalised groups as well?

Shon Faye: That's the key to the word liberation, right? Even though there might be the understanding of women's liberation or Black liberation or gay liberation, or indeed trans liberation, we understand that, especially with understandings of intersectionality, even though when you're talking specifically about trans liberation, what that means as opposed to just trans equality or trans rights, is arguing for the dismantling of systems which marginalise trans people. And of course, a lot of those systems are things that marginalise lots of people who aren't trans as well – whether that be in terms of medical inequality, or housing, or lack of social welfare.

So for me, I thought we've heard a lot about trans rights, about this idea that trans people deserve equality within our present system, but very little about the idea that, in fact, the present system is predicated on inequality and injustice.

And so trans people, like anyone that's not benefiting from our current system, which actually is probably the vast majority of the world's people, deserve full emancipation from all of the systems that marginalise them.

If you look at what would benefit trans people, they’re things that will benefit lots of people. And I was keen to centre that. I say it will be a benefit to everyone because one of the ways in which I think the discussion around trans people in the UK is so harmful is that if you were to read or listen to the mainstream media trans people are constantly at best presented as some kind of nuisance or, worse, some kind of threat. And [they’re] very much like this demanding group who we have to accommodate. And I was really keen to completely upend that framing and to say: well actually, no. If a trans person was able to lead their life more fully and freely, so would you.

Speaking of that media perception as you discuss in the book (the broadcast media in particular) the approach to trans people currently is to get a trans person, get a cis person who believes they've got “legitimate concerns” about trans rights, and pit them against each other. How would you prefer TV and radio to hear trans people's stories?

SF: Yeah, it's funny you say that because when I first wrote that it was 2019, pre-Covid. I would say things have moved on since then. Now they don't even ask the trans person! So now the discussion of trans people in mainstream media is entirely cisgender people, to a point where I often feel, is no-one else seeing this?

The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice by Shon Faye

To get meta for a second, even with the success of this book, It is very odd, considering how – not to brag, but how well the book has done – I’ve not done a single radio show or a single newspaper interview in the UK. I have in other countries.

I don't want to name names, but there are very nice radio broadcast programmes, where they talk about books, but they're all a bit worried about this topic.

Trans people probably don't want to do it in this adversarial way. And there's still this real reluctance to allow trans people to be at the centre of the discussion of their own lives.

On a personal level, I'm quite just intensely distrustful of the mainstream media's ability to really handle this topic properly at all. I just don't think most journalists in this country are good enough at their jobs.

So I think yeah, in general, what pleased me is that a lot of younger people in mainstream media do recognise this. They just don't have the power or the status yet within their professions to necessarily be changing commissioning decisions.

But obviously I think the best thing in terms of media approaches is trans-led projects and things where trans people have a direct role in the production of the media. And we're seeing more of that in the United States, because they have a much more diverse media. But in the UK, it's nothing.

So I’m not at this point particularly that hopeful about an improvement in the media tone. But I would like to see more trans people being commissioned to actually produce content about trans lives.

The UK now has its first openly trans MP. Do you think that Jamie Wallis coming out will make a difference to trans representation in politics?

SF: No.

I think it's too early really to say definitively. Jamie Wallis is a Conservative and that's relevant, in the same way that you wouldn’t presume all people of colour to find positive representation in or positive politics in Priti Patel, for example. Just because you have one member of a minority that happens to be represented in Parliament.

I still think it's better than none at all, I suppose. But I've looked at Jamie Wallis’s voting record and it's extremely right wing, so I don't necessarily think that as a Conservative he's going to make any kind of substantive change in terms of trans people's political situation.

The other thing is on an individual level, we have to remember that Jamie Wallis did not stand for Parliament as a candidate whilst openly trans and was outed essentially by blackmail. So actually the circumstances of Jamie Wallis’s coming out is in some ways indicative of some serious issues with what would be facing an openly trans person who wanted to stand as a trans person for Parliament.

And it remains to be seen because Jamie Wallis is at the very beginning of his journey, I think. And we haven't really seen yet how it will play out. So I'm reluctant to make any specific predictions. I said “no” at the very beginning, but I'm reluctant to make any concrete predictions. I think time will tell but I think that particular coming out doesn't seem to shift the landscape as much as maybe some people might think it would.

Shon Faye

On the one hand, social media has allowed many trans people to build up big, supportive communities. On the other it’s toxic and full of endless arguments, especially about trans rights. You withdrew from Twitter some time ago. How do you view the experience of social media as a trans person?

SF: I withdrew from Twitter, I think some people feel like I did it because of abuse. It actually wasn't purely because of abuse because I've had abuse on social media for many years. I’ve developed a thick skin around it, albeit it was wearing and it has a drip-drip effect.

I also withdrew from it because having had the book come out I was very keen to decentre myself as a talking head. I'm happy to talk about the book in interviews like this and do events around the book, but I wanted the book as a tool to speak for itself. And it's deliberately a long-form text, and deliberately a very different form to a tweet, or Twitter discussions which are more combative, shorter etc. And I just felt that after the book coming out, if I maintain the Twitter presence, people who read the book would look to me and my social media accounts for more trans-related content and I didn't really want to occupy that position. Because the media quite likes talking heads and mascots and I didn't want to occupy that space.

And the other reason being is that on Twitter and social media I don't think it's healthy for us to be receiving so much anxiety by constant discussion of various not only political topics, but trends. Being almost a daily trending topic on UK Twitter. It was increasing my anxiety levels and also increasing my pessimism. I thought it was a lot healthier for me to have to focus on the work I'm doing now without that source of anxiety in my head every day.

For me, it was healthier, but I don't necessarily recommend it for all trans people. I think I did it at the right time for me. And it also helps I have a platform now because of this book. So I feel heard. And I think a lot of trans people cling to social media platforms, even when they're quite toxic for them, because they're the only place where trans people can [feel heard] – especially as there’s a complete lack of trans people in mainstream media now. I'm 34, and I can't really think of many trans British journalists who are younger than me. And so I think social media has become an alternative for trans people to feel like they can be listened to by a community and also attempt to correct misinformation. So I can see still why a lot of trans people would stay on this platform.

I came out as a lesbian in the nineties. And when I did that, the general public generally objected to being called straight or heterosexual – I think because they just considered themselves to be normal. I see the same objection to the word ‘cis’ today. What do you think that is about?

SF: I think it's similar. I think people don't like experiences once just thought of as normal to be named. It's funny because actually I'm writing a second book and I've been researching the origin of the term heterosexual. And it was invented in the 1860s by a Hungarian journalist who probably himself was gay. And he invented it because he was actually making an argument for why same-sex attraction was not a pathology. And so he invented the term heterosexual to name that. So actually the idea of a heterosexual is a gay concept and so people do not like the naming of a majority experience.

And I think cisgender is the same. I also think the gender context is this idea that, fundamentally, people think of real men and real women, and therefore they don't like the idea that ‘cisgender’ is a naming of what they consider themselves to be – just a real woman or real man. I think that's where the hostility comes from.

I do understand why some feminists, when they hear the word ‘cisgender’, what they think is being said is if you say you're a cisgender woman, that they identify with all the stereotypes of being a woman under patriarchy. I can understand that interpretation of the word and maybe why they're resistant to it. But to me, that's not what it means: I use the term cisgender very clearly so I feel like [that includes] even a masculine, butch, gender non-conforming lesbian woman who, in many ways, does not meat the patriarchal standards of what a woman is. The cisgender thing is just about whether or not you politically and legally want to categorise yourself as a woman for whatever reason.

So it's just naming that, and we need a word to name the majority of society's experiences and I think another reason why people are resistant to it is this idea that cisgender people have privilege. Cisgender women, particularly feminists, in particular gender non-conforming feminists, find that idea antagonistic, because they don't necessarily think as a woman they particularly experience privileges.

It's more about collective power rather than individual privilege. Cisgender people, as 99.4% of the population, collectively create a world in which trans people live. So there is a certain power wielded by cisgender people as a group, as a demographic, that trans people are subjected to, whether that's in healthcare or whether that's because most of the parliamentary decisions made about trans people's legal rights are made by cisgender people.

It's important to have a way to name that. Cisgender is just the opposite of transgender in that sense. I understand why some people bristle at it, like they used to bristle at “straight”. I think it's only very recently that white people have called themselves white. When Jon Snow on Channel 4 said “white people”, there were several hundred complaints. Because white people don't like being called “white”. They just think of themselves as people.

You're coming to Sheffield on Tuesday for Festival of Debate. What can people expect?

SF: I'm keen to have a very different kind of conversation about trans people to the way it's been had in mainstream media, where I think there's a lot of focus on this very media-framed debate about how trans people represent some kind of ideology that is taking over society.

To me, the Festival of Debate, I've seen Gloria Steinem and Jeremy Corbyn were speaking and to me, I'm a socialist, political writer, first and foremost. What I'm interested in is talking about material conditions in which trans people lead their lives and making connections between the material discrimination that trans people experience and other kinds of forms of material harm that we're seeing perpetrated against women, LGBT people and disabled people by increasingly right-wing governments within the UK, the US and around the world. I'm keen at looking at these as points of connection, rather than trying to purely correct a media-led debate that I don’t think is particularly helpful anyway.

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