Barely a day goes by without another hostile article about trans people. These follow a tried-and-tested formula: the writer will be cis, the subject will be trans women in sport or bathrooms or prisons or domestic-violence refuges, and the framing will insinuate that trans people, and trans women especially, are sinister, predatory, and must be kept away from women and children. I read most of these articles, and very rarely see anything about myself, a non-binary trans person, in them. This invisibility is both a blessing and a curse.
The fixation on “trans issues” in the British media – The Times alone published nearly two articles a day between January and May of this year, a group that is less than 1% of the UK population – is not really about trans lives at all. It’s a moral panic: an irrational fear, stoked by the media, that trans people are a threat to society, much in the same way that gay men and lesbians were portrayed as dangerous deviants in the 80s and 90s. Right now, trans people are a minority group that is being bashed by the press, which isn’t at all interested in reporting on the very real, urgent and serious challenges that make our lives as trans people more difficult than they need to be. Because of this, the struggles that I and my trans siblings encounter remain largely unknown to the wider public.
That’s why it’s been hard to be casual about British trans author Shon Faye’s debut book, The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice. It’s radically different to much of what has been published about trans lives previously, politicising our struggles and situating them in solidarity with those of other marginalised groups of people. The first line of the book is: “The liberation of trans people would improve the lives of everyone in our society”, and this message carries through to the end, making it an important work of non-fiction that should change the tired conversation we’ve been having about trans people. Not only that, it’s a book for anyone who cares about building a fairer and more just society. Shon’s compelling argument is that the fight for trans liberation is irrevocably tied up with broader anti-capitalist struggles, and explains how transphobia is a direct result of capitalist society.
Shon has a clear analysis of every issue that I spend my days shouting at the papers to stop ignoring: the trans healthcare crisis, why sex work decriminalisation is vital for trans liberation, why trans political struggle is part of the wider class struggle, the many ways in which the state inflicts violence on trans people, the realities of trans people’s lives from youth to old age, and why trans liberation is a feminist issue.
It’s crucial to the feminist movement that we include trans people of all genders. But, as Shon writes in her book, the relationship between trans women and feminism is “so central to transphobic discourse generally that it devours all other discussion regarding trans people and feminism”.
But trans men and non-binary people need feminism, too. As the government’s 2018 LGBT Survey found, trans men and non-binary people experience specific forms of harm at higher rates than trans women: 58% of trans men and 47% of non-binary people have experienced some form of domestic abuse, compared with 40% of trans women. As with cis women, the vast majority of the perpetrators will be cis men. Yet when mainstream feminists talk about domestic-violence refuges, they are predominantly concerned with whether or not trans women should continue to be allowed to access women’s refuges. Given the high rates of domestic abuse that trans men experience, “it is notable that the domestic and sexual violence support sector (often, ironically, referred to as the ‘women’s sector’) currently cannot provide trans men with the support they need,” Shon writes.
She continues: “All feminists should acknowledge trans men’s struggle to have access to services that work for them, and should include such concerns in the fight against the broader Conservative funding cuts for specialist domestic violence services.”
The same government survey, which with 108,000 respondents was the largest national survey of LGBT+ people in the world to date, revealed that more than half of the UK’s trans population is non-binary. And it found that the majority of non-binary trans people hide their gender identity in almost all situations, at higher rates than trans men or women – including when we’re in parks (57%), restaurants, pubs, clubs and cafes (63%), at work (72%), school (51%) and home (50%), and while walking down the street (70%) – because we fear a negative reaction from others. Perhaps hiding who we are is facilitated by living in a world hell-bent on placing us into one of two boxes, but being unable to safely be ourselves is a damning indictment of how far progress for LGBT+ people has yet to go.
I’m very openly non-binary in certain spaces because I work as a trans journalist. Online, the most common insult I receive is that I’m a “violent misogynist” who “hates women” – something that astonishes people who know me personally, and is entirely at odds with the “angry feminist” label I’ve been stuck with in all my friendship groups since I was a teenager. The underlying message of the insults is that I am “really” a man. To defend myself by pointing out that I also experience misogyny from people who mistakenly perceive me as a woman feels just as gross as having people think I’m a man.
As I’ve grown more comfortable in my trans identity, my relationship to feminism has become more complex. I’m not alone in this: like other non-binary people, I am sometimes sexually harassed by men in the street – and I sometimes inadvertently spook women if I walk near them at night. Being seen by others as both threat and target can be confusing. So when conversations about gender-based violence open up – like they did this year, in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder – many non-binary people remain quiet. Those discussions are often extremely binary, with men as danger and women as victim, and the mainstream feminist response to male violence does not usually trouble itself with accounting for experiences that sit outside of that.
I ask Shon why she thinks that trans men and non-binary people are in this complicated position when it comes to feminism, and she begins by pointing out that “oppression occurs based on lots of things, including how you’re read and understood by the world”.
“Trans men and trans masculine people are caught in this double bind,” she continues, “where to claim any kind of protection or solidarity from the feminist movement feels a bit like having to concede the anti-trans feminist narrative that they're actually women. To concede that you have any experiences that come from misogyny or are treated as a woman is to prove the point.” I’m not trans masculine, but I immediately recognise the predicament Shon describes. She says she thinks that the thorny relationship between trans men, non-binary people and feminism is “a combination of not wanting to be framed as women by acknowledging any degree of sexism or misogynist oppression, but also out of a kind of concern, sometimes, that they don’t want to supplant the experiences of trans women”.
These tensions between our experiences are not often discussed in public trans and feminist discourses. That’s because, at the moment, those exchanges are often dominated by “gender critical” feminists and their obsession with trans women, and by our counter-arguments to their arguments. There isn’t always space for talking about the intricacies of trans men and non-binary people’s relationship to, and need for, feminism. But there should be.
“It would be difficult to be trans and not ever have it discussed in the mainstream, just as it is to be trans and have a hyper focus on it,” Shon says of these tensions. “I think we have to build bridges and understand that we don’t experience transphobia in the same way.”
What she’s done with The Transgender Issue is to shed light not just on the material realities of being trans today, but to create space for us to have more nuanced conversations about the different ways of being trans, and the interlinked challenges that we face, in the public arena. Non-binary experiences are vital to the feminist issue of trans liberation – just as trans liberation and feminism are essential for us.
The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice by Shon Faye is out on Penguin Books on September 2