With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
There is an audacity to Shon Faye’s book The Transgender Issue. It’s rooted in her refusal to give the UK’s national news media what it wants: an Infinity War requiring the trans person’s never-ending submission of reassurances, to concerns that realistically can never be satisfied. As the more indignant journalists betray through their reviews, Faye is correct to make this stand; one reviewer laments the lack of data in the debate (Goodwin, 2021), as if this leaves the ‘debate’ of whether trans people are a public danger unresolved. But this Kafkaesque task for transgender people – give me the statistical proof you’re safe to be around – encompasses the impossible-to-satisfy nature of the concerns and the demands for data. I imagine turning the tables on such an interrogation:
Me: Are you a predator?
Me: Prove it.
I am interested in this type of journalism, this genre of Kafkaesque interrogation, involving the UK legacy media’s use of its position to harass marginalized people in perpetuity, in this case transgender people. Within the genre is a spectrum, at one end the barely concealed contempt of some (Patterson of the Times), through the ingratiating pretence of those smiling a little too hard as they dress their bigotry as gentle concerns (O’Malley in the Evening Standard), to those sufficiently savvy and self-aware of the power dynamics at play to centre the trans writer and their concerns (Sturgis of the Guardian).
As with the books by Faye’s London-centred contemporaries CN Lester and Juliet Jacques, Transgender Issue emphasises, among various forms of institutional transphobia, the media abuse. Similar to Lester’s Trans Like Me, the introduction describes the press hounding of Lucy Meadows, a teacher whose transitioning in 2012 became a subject of ridicule for the Daily Mail’s columnist Richard Littlejohn, expressed while the photographers were parked outside Meadows's front door. Meadows’s subsequent suicide would see the Mail remove the article, but as Faye says, the withdrawal of the media’s harassment of trans people has transfigured into something new in the period of the GRA reform post-2017: “No longer something to be jeered at, we were instead something to be feared” (5).
Glaringly, the press reviews generally avoid addressing the oppressive media coverage that Faye devotes a considerable time critiquing. Christina Patterson’s article in the Times is especially risible, coming from a newspaper that as Faye says in the book, published over 300 largely hostile articles about trans people in 2020 alone, in the tradition of such headlines as ‘Children sacrificed to appease trans lobby’ (Times, 11.11.17). Perhaps unaware of her own paper’s voyeuristic obsession, Patterson describes trans people as the culprits for this focus, claiming, “In the past few years that less-than-1-percent, or people claiming to speak for them, seem to have made an awful lot of noise.” The review’s analysis of Faye’s book is typified by the eye-rolling summaries of some the major issues Faye goes to great length to detail. At one point Patterson says, “She thinks, for example, that prisons should be abolished. So should the police, because of their complicity with white supremacy … Oh, and she wants to abolish capitalism.” Patterson’s partisan take, in fact, is pretty clear throughout. Indicating the ‘Us and Them’ intention of the review is the title, ‘Which side are you on?’, before Patterson later introduces the gender-critical Helen Joyce – she whose book contextualizes trans women according to the discredited, fetishistic pathology of autogynophilia – with ‘And so thank goodness for Helen Joyce.’
Yet if Patterson’s animosity is unashamedly transparent, Stella O’Malley’s article in the Evening Standard is both creepy and the more characteristic of the kind of writing likely to be found in the legacy media, in its masking of ‘concerns.’ In what one imagines to be articulated in a sing-song voice worthy of Dolores Umbridge, O’Malley complains of Faye’s refusal to engage with the gender-crit narrative:
“Although Faye writes eloquently on behalf of trans people, it seems a dreadful pity that Faye
asserts that trans representatives should continue to refuse to appear on any media to discuss
trans issues. Apparently, trans people should only appear on media to increase visibility, never
to discuss the many complex issues that arise due to medical transition, such as, for example,
whether pre-transitioned males should share prison cells with biological females. And so on one
level the mantra is ‘nothing about us without us’ and on the other hand, trans representatives
refuse to discuss any of the related issues.”
O’Malley’s need to be satiated over prison-connected concerns is a perfect example of why Faye refuses to accommodate such enquiries. As any minor investigation would reveal, the Equality Act of 2010 stipulates such spaces as prisons as having the case-by-case discretion to decide who enters and is denied entry into women’s prisons. Any attempt to demand Faye gives this explanation is to peg the trans figure from moving on to asserting any further rights, by re-cycling issues that have already been covered over a decade ago. As such, O’Malley’s ‘concerns’ embody the ill-informed and perhaps cynical nature of the gender-critical movement’s broader inquiry. Like Patterson, O’Malley and all who are uneasy around the concept of trans identity will never be satisfied by any attempt by the trans person to address the concerns, because the information is already out there if the enquirer wants it. Getting the information is really not the point of this Kafkaesque theatre. Instead, consider the alternative as increasing numbers of trans people in the media like Faye already have done. Refuse to play O’Malley’s game, and O’Malley loses her privileged position as interrogator, and must instead accept trans women such as Faye on an equal footing (not that I think that the vacuous O’Malley is in any way the equal of Faye).
In view of O’Malley’s agitation at Faye’s refusal to play the Kafkaesque object of judgment, it seems appropriate, then, to close with the statement by Faye that appears to have got under O’Malley’s skin and which aligns with the kind of sentiment expressed elsewhere by Juno Dawson as well as CN Lester and Juliet Jacques:
“This book will not regurgitate these talking points yet again. 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. Such debates are time-consuming, exhausting distractions from
what we should really be focusing on: the material ways in which we are oppressed” (Faye,
The Transgender Issue: my review
“Something that this book is not,” says Shon Faye, is “a memoir” (2021: 15). Following in the footsteps of already brilliant combinations of analysis, history, and/or testimony in Trans by Juliet Jacques (2015), Trans Like Me by CN Lester (2017), and Before I Step Outside by Travis Alabanza (2017), Faye’s book re-shapes this fusion of elements into a form of political manifesto. Split over seven chapters, The Transgender Issue borrows from Black feminism and other sources of radical social-justice ideas to deal with complex topics such as sex work, carceral justice, and the Leveson Inquiry’s dormant reform of the national news media. All are initially connected to their impact on
trans people’s lives, before Faye broadens the focus to highlight how it’s not just trans people who suffer from these institutions.
In reading Transgender Issue, I felt the book’s denseness and the weight of its ideas. Of particular personal resonance were the opening and closing chapters (1-2; 6-7, and the vital introduction). These covered trans healthcare, as well as the UK news media’s historically troubled representation and reporting of trans identity, and the way social media has become a tool to both connect and oppress trans people. In one engrossing example in the final chapter, Faye describes a time when she compered an event for Amnesty International. We learn of the online, anti-trans campaign to no-platform her with accusations of perversion and misogyny, not because of anything she had said but because of what she is. It underscores the nature of trans-exclusionary movements today, for all the careful rhetoric of ‘concerns.’ It matters not what we look like, sound like, say or do: transness fills a certain segment of society with revulsion and hostility. Faye’s accounts of both her disillusionment working in the UK news media, and of suffering abuse online, provide an alternative narrative to the kind spun by the UK news media and their sympathy for trans-exclusionary ideologies, in which trans people are only ever a source of problems and abuse.
The Transgender Issue, then, wrenches trans activism away from the media-driven, gender-crit agenda, articulating in its stead a vision for the future in which, ironically, we’re not just talking about trans issues. This is done by associating with an intersectional trans feminism that feels not only like a moral imperative but also aligns with coalitional politics, in an era when conservative and reactionary forces appear both ascendant and reified by the national news media. On this latter point, though, it is worth remembering that the UK news media appears united in attempting to foment a moral panic against transgender people, as noted by international bodies as disparate as the Council of Europe (2022), ILGA Europe (2021), and Amnesty International (2021). Faye’s melding of research, personal testimony and big ideas provides a valuable spotlight on oppressions that so many of the UK’s institutions seem desperate to ignore.