Liberating Trans People Means Liberating Everyone

We shouldn't settle for anything less than the total transformation of society.

by Shon Faye

1 September 2021

Shon Faye the transgender issue
(Paul Samuel White)

The liberation of trans people would improve the lives of everyone in our society. I say ‘liberation’ because I believe that the humbler goals of ‘trans rights’ or ‘trans equality’ are insufficient. Trans people should not aspire to be equals in a world that remains both capitalist and patriarchal, and which exploits and degrades those who live in it. Rather, we ought to seek justice –  for ourselves and others alike.

Trans people have endured over a century of injustice. We have been discriminated against, pathologised and victimised. Our full emancipation will only be achieved if we can imagine a society that is completely transformed from the one in which we live.  In this context, I am primarily concerned with explaining how society, as it is currently arranged, often makes trans people’s lives unnecessarily difficult. Yet, in posing solutions to these problems, it does not limit itself to thinking solely about trans people, but also encompasses anyone who is routinely disempowered and dispossessed.

Full autonomy over our bodies, free and universal healthcare, affordable housing for all, power in the hands of those who work rather than those privileged few who extract profit from our vastly inequitable system, sexual freedom (including freedom from sexual violence) and the end to the mass incarceration of human beings are all crucial ingredients in the construction of a society in which trans people are no longer abused, mistreated or subjected to violence. Such systemic changes would also particularly benefit everyone else forced to the margins of society, both in the UK and across the world.

The demand for true trans liberation echoes and overlaps with the demands of workers, socialists, feminists, anti-­racists and queer people. They are radical demands, in that they go to the root of what our society is and what it could be. For this reason, the existence of trans people is a source of constant anxiety for many who are either invested in the status quo or fearful about what would replace it.

A poisonous debate. 

In order to neutralise the potential threat to social norms posed by trans people’s existence, the establishment has always sought to confine and curtail their freedom. In 21st-century Britain, this has been achieved in large part by belittling our political needs and turning them into a culture war ‘issue’. Typically, trans people are lumped together as ‘the transgender issue’, dismissing and erasing the complexity of trans lives, reducing them to a set of stereotypes on which various social anxieties can be brought to bear. By and large, the transgender issue is seen as a ‘toxic debate’, a ‘difficult topic’ chewed over (usually by people who are not trans themselves) on television shows, in newspaper opinion pieces and in university philosophy departments. Actual trans people are rarely to be seen. It’s important to point out now that I am intentionally and deliberately reappropriating the phrase “transgender issue”, in order to outline the reality of the issues facing trans people today, rather than as they are imagined by people who do not face them.

Today, representational equality and true redistributive politics elude trans people, even as more and more trans people are coming out than ever before. Trans people have now become one of a number of targets in right-wing media, alongside, for instance, Muslims, immigrants generally, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, Black Lives Matter, the fat acceptance movement, and feminists challenging state violence against women. All these groups and more have been reduced to issues in a toxic and polarised public rivalry between value systems.  The past few years have seen discussions around trans people become not only poisonous but, crucially, banal. The ‘topic’ of trans has now been limited to a handful of repetitive talking points: whether nonbinary people exist and whether gender neutral pronouns are reasonable; whether trans children living with dysphoria should be allowed to start their transition; whether trans women will dominate women’s events in the Olympics; and the endless debate over toilets and changing rooms.

Changing the conversation. 

I have no interest in regurgitating 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. The author Toni Morrison once spoke about how precisely this tactic is employed by white people against people of colour: “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction,” she told students at Portland State University in 1975. “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being  . . . None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” In much the same way, the public discourse over trans people’s experience is distorted and derailed.

I want to change the trajectory, to move beyond this discussion of trans people as framed by those who want to stoke a so-called culture war, and to start a new, healthier, conversation about trans people in the UK and beyond. 

The framing of trans people as ‘the transgender issue’ has the effect of cutting us off from solidarity and making us the ‘other’. A new conversation, then, must necessarily start to undo this estrangement and consider what we share and where we overlap with other minorities or marginalised groups. It is only through solidarity, compassion and radical reimagining that we can build a more just and joyful world for all of us.

Shon Faye is a writer, presenter and author. 

This is an extract from The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice by Shon Faye, published by Allen Lane on 2 September 2021.

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