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Shon Faye’s book, The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice, is a welcome contribution to the trans debate. Faye writes clearly and provides lots of nuggets of information that help present a full picture of the issues that need to be addressed. According to Faye, trans healthcare is a human rights issue; everyone should have full body autonomy – no matter whether they are four-years-old or ninety-four years old – and any questioning of this is transphobic and bigoted.
Faye believes that transphobia, repression and bigotry are the reasons for pretty much all negative aspects of trans people’s lives, and this is perhaps why she chooses not to analyse the inherent difficulties of living as a trans person and underlying factors that might account for the high level of mental health issues among this population. Although Faye argues that discussing mental health issues is stigmatising for trans people, many professionals who work in the mental health industry believe that nobody with mental health issues should be stigmatised – it doesn’t matter whether they are trans or not – and to refuse to analyse factors that might contribute to mental health issues seldom helps the vulnerable.
Faye shows us that trans people are more likely to be homeless, unemployed, impoverished and addicted to drugs. They experience more sexual assault and violence, they are a higher risk category for HIV and they work in much higher numbers in the sex trade. Statements that declare in a rather Godlike tone that “full decriminalization of sex work in all its forms must be a central tenet of the movement for trans rights” might be persuasive to the unengaged reader, but these are extremely complex issues that arguably need extensive analysis. Faye highlights how trans people are more likely to experience poor mental health and attempt suicide, but she doesn’t thoroughly explore why this is happening; rather she assumes that it is because trans people aren’t treated well by society.
It is unfortunate that Faye chooses not to flag the wide range of sources she uses for her research. The mix of dependable peer-reviewed evidence with much more dubious sources such as online surveys make it difficult to ascertain the reliability of each purported fact. When Faye points out the startling statistic that “research by the UK charity Stonewall published in 2017 found that 45 per cent of trans young people had attempted suicide at least once”, it is a hassle to go to Stonewall, find the survey and figure out that this is an online survey, based on self-report and without clearly defined criteria. The book loses a lot with this approach; although she makes the point emphatically that trans people aren’t in a good place, it would be so much more valuable if serious issues such as suicide were given the respect of peer-reviewed analyses.
The leaps of logic scattered throughout are perhaps the most problematic aspect of the book. Sweeping generalisations such as, “the British police are institutionally racist and hostile to communities of colour, including trans people of colour” merit further discussion. She politicises trans issues and likens being supportive of medical transition with a certain political sensibility – for instance being supportive of free and universal healthcare, power to the people, sexual freedom, anti-capitalism and abolishing the prison system. Indeed Faye is fundamentally against prisons, arguing instead for community sentences and “a society in which prisons are not needed”.
Sometimes, however, the arguments Faye puts forward seem somewhat shallow – the phrase “vanishingly small” is used three times in relation to the number of people who are concerned with certain issues (the prison debate; trans regret and the medical transition of children) yet these numbers are increasing at such an extraordinary rate that it doesn’t seem reasonable to wave them away with this phrase. When Faye points out that there are only 163 trans prisoners in England and Wales, and then later, that 60 of these trans prisoners have been convicted of a sexual offence, it becomes evident, yet again, that more in-depth analysis is required.
Faye believes that “fertility is one of the key areas in which trans people have, in the UK and around the world, been subject to the greatest medical injustice.” Taking cross-sex hormones typically renders a person infertile – is this a great medical injustice or is it more accurate to say that it’s simply a direct result of medical transition? Other issues such as the regular comparisons made between gender dysphoria and anorexia are rejected because “medically transitioning does not kill you, it alleviates psychological pain.” Yet many functioning anorexics note that losing weight often alleviates psychological pain. The established links between autism and gender dysphoria are dismissed as “ableist and insulting”. Despite “the increased likelihood of blood clots in combination with long-term hormone treatment” Faye is angry that transitioning patients who smoke are recommended to stop smoking and those who are overweight are recommended to lost weight as, she argues, full body autonomy should free us from these recommendations.
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.
Certain flaws in current “hostile feminist analysis” are highlighted in the book as Faye explores the public toilet issues and points out that it is not appropriate for a trans man, with a beard, deep voice and masculinized appearance, to use the female toilets, and pointing to the dire need for answers to these questions. Faye is right. We need to come to resolution about many issues in relation to how trans people can live among us, happily and with acceptance and without creating distress for other vulnerable minorities. We also need to figure out how to create a world where gender nonconforming people can live freely and without judgement.
Faye has written a clear and concise analysis of the presenting issues for trans people today. Until now the trans debate has been very polarised, dare we hope that with contributions such as this book, along with Helen Joyce’s Trans and Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls, we are finally coming to a point where everybody’s needs are included within this debate?
The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye (Allen Lane, £20)