The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye review – a call for compassion
When the British schoolteacher Lucy Meadows came out as transgender in 2012, her school decided after the Christmas holidays to announce it in their newsletter, alongside other staff news. One teacher would be moving into a full-time role, it said, while another was leaving to move to Spain; meanwhile, Meadows would be “transitioning to live as a woman”.
If the aim was to treat the matter casually, it didn’t work. First the local paper, the Accrington Observer, reported “concerns” from some parents. Within a few days, the story had become national news, with reporters installing themselves outside the school and Meadows’s home. Meanwhile, the columnist Richard Littlejohn mocked Meadows for her appearance and decried the “devastating” effect that her transition would have on pupils. The press were camped outside her house and school and personal wedding pictures and photographs from her siblings’ Facebook pages were published in the media. Meadows told friends how she had to arrive early in the morning and stay late at school to avoid being ambushed by photographers. In March 2013, Meadows took her own life. According to the author, journalist and former lawyer Shon Faye: “Her death remains one of the darkest chapters of the British trans community’s history, and one of the most shameful episodes in the long and shameful history of the British tabloid press.”
Eight years on from Meadows’s death, the conversation around trans people has rarely been more fraught. Yet, in all the noise, it is worth noting how little is heard directly from trans men and women. Cis women are, of course, accustomed to having their bodies policed by men. Still, it remains hard to fathom what it must be like to have one’s life and body discussed daily in newspaper columns and on social media, on televised political debates and radio phone-ins, and to have one’s very existence disputed.
In The Transgender Issue, Faye details the many ways in which society is failing trans people, and it makes for sobering reading. Her reclaiming of the word “issue” is significant. Today’s discourse often presents the question of trans rights as a debate in which there are clear sides, and the trans community as an issue that requires solving. But, as Faye sees it, the issues are plural and connected to the ways trans people are misrepresented, mistreated and discriminated against in terms of employment, access to healthcare, housing, the prison system and so on. She reveals how, proportionally, trans people are more likely to be living in poverty, endure violence and sexual abuse, and to have mental illness problems and suicidal thoughts.
All of which makes it remarkable that Faye’s book is so measured in tone. I had anticipated raw fury, but while the author talks about the ways trans people are publicly monstered, hers is a cool dismantling of the myths and falsehoods that continue to blight their lives. That The Transgender Issue is not a memoir in which she mines her own experiences as a trans woman is also deliberate. All trans people are different, and Faye’s story does not necessarily reflect a broader experience. She also has no patience with what she calls the “surgical show-and-tell” approach in which trans people are required to submit to widespread curiosity about their genitals. As far as she is concerned, the details of her path to understanding her gender identity, and her transition, are no one’s business but her own.
Instead, she attempts a more constructive approach, laying out the issues facing her community and the ways they might be resolved. On the latter front, Faye’s clarity of vision occasionally deserts her. In fairness, she makes clear from the start that she isn’t arguing just for trans rights but for fully fledged liberation and “a society that is completely transformed from the one in which we live”. But while, for instance, there is little doubt that prisons and the police are flawed institutions, her call for their abolition seems an unrealistic solution.
More achievable is her bid for unity based on shared values and experience, as well as basic human empathy. While trans people are a minority in the UK – they account for less than 1% of the population – Faye illustrates how the obstacles they face overlap with other oppressed or minority groups. In doing so, she puts forward a powerful case not of what separates us but what brings us together. Above all, her book is a cry for compassion for an embattled community and a plea to be treated with dignity and fairness. It is, surely, the very least anyone can do.
• The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice is published by Allen Lane (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.