The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice, Shon Faye, Allen Lane, 2021.
Female Masculinities and the Gender Wars: The Politics of Sex, Finn Mackay, I.B. Tauris, 2021.
In recent times, in the UK and a number of other countries, inclusion of transgender people in national life (as well as that of ethnic minorities) has been among the topics focused on by politicians in divisive ways. These include Boris Johnson and at the more extreme end, in Hungary, Viktor Orbán. In general, the past couple of years have been difficult for many transgender people in the UK and globally.
Like others, they have had to deal with the pandemic and often economic hardship. They have also faced a wave of suspicion and hostility and found it harder to get appropriate healthcare and support. The far right is on the rise in many countries, sometimes using narrow versions of religion to deepen social and economic divisions, with especially damaging effects on women, minorities and those in need.
Fears have also arisen that the rights of different marginalised groups might clash. So books which address the human realities beyond the headlines are timely, not only for transgender people but also for the rest of us with trans family members, friends, co-workers, fellow-worshippers or neighbours, especially if seeking a more just and compassionate world for all.
The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice is by the journalist and campaigner Shon Faye, who trained as a lawyer and has worked with Amnesty International and Stonewall. She is a trans woman and writes for a wide readership, covering a range of topics. In Female Masculinities and the Gender Wars: The Politics of Sex, Finn Mackay, a university lecturer, draws on long experience of feminist activism and research on masculinity to explore issues of gender. They are committed to transgender inclusion, while not identifying as trans (though they are ‘an insider-outsider in the categories of man and woman’), but have tried to do justice to diverse views and experiences.
Faye’s well-written and engaging book examines the media, education, housing, social care, health, employment, the military, criminal justice system, employment and housing issues. She argues convincingly that, despite public controversy and sensational headlines, the everyday reality of most people who are trans, including enduring prejudice and discrimination, is often overlooked and their voices tend to go unheard. In contrast, she describes the thoughts and experiences of diverse trans people and sometimes families.
She helpfully sets calls for greater equality for trans equality in the context of a wider commitment to social justice, including questioning a social and economic system which promotes inequality of various kinds, while sometimes paying lip-service to diversity. For example, the experience of low-paid workers whose employment rights may be hard to enforce can be very different from the few in more senior and secure positions. Faye also rightly argues that trans and women’s equality are not basically at odds, rather the opposite, and that it is important to unite, especially against the background of a far-right threat.
However there are occasional inaccuracies or exaggerations. For instance, a reader might get the impression that the very long waits and sometimes insensitive process which many face to access trans-related healthcare are almost unique to the UK. Yet even elsewhere in Western Europe, lengthy waiting times are far from unusual (and indeed social attitudes are sometimes more negative), indicating a need to improve internationally.
Again, I believe gender critical feminists do not tend to see the political as less important than – but rather shaped by – the biological in terms of being a woman. Faye does illustrate the fact that trans as well as other women face sexism, though seems not to recognise that there are also differences in experience which do not always benefit those seen by others as girls from birth.
Complexity is downplayed on some other issues too, for instance prisons. She fails to acknowledge that insistence by certain activists (not all of them trans) that anyone declaring herself a woman should instantly having access to all women-only services, opportunities and spaces, and anyone questioning this is transphobic, has been counterproductive. This played a part in Karen White, a dangerous legally male criminal, being placed in a woman’s prison and committing sexual assaults.
Sadly, the backlash has led some to question trans people’s presence in gendered spaces even where this makes robust sense. Again, while many young children whose sense of gender does not match their sex at birth grow up to be trans adults, research evidence and everyday experience indicate that there are others who change their minds (I know people in both categories). So a one-size-fits-all approach may not be the most helpful, while all children should be protected from conversion therapy, aimed at forcing them into a mould, which can be deeply harmful.
However, overall The Transgender Issue is informative and readable. And, despite a largely negative climate in which a government wages ‘culture wars’ to distract the public from its own failings, it ends on a note of hope.
Female Masculinities and the Gender Wars delves more deeply into questions of gender and sex and seeks to make sense of the debates which have divided feminists and find a positive way forward. An activist for women’s rights whose position on some topics is different from Faye’s – for instance Mackay is more critical of the sex industry – they make the case that radical feminism can be trans-inclusive, while being aware that overcoming divisions is not always straightforward. They too are committed to social justice more broadly.
The book looks at the background, issues and what might be learnt by listening to the experiences of butch lesbians, whom some people fear might be ‘erased’ by a rising number of trans men and non-binary people, yet may themselves be treated with suspicion when using women’s toilets if they do not look ‘female’ enough. What is meant by ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ is by no means straightforward. The language, while simpler than in many academic books, may be a little harder to follow for some readers than that in The Transgender Issue.
Mackay, “a queer butch or masculine lesbian who has moved in and out of trans* identifications”, takes on board complexity and contradiction. For instance, they would prefer refuges to be trans-inclusive, yet recognise the level of trauma that can lead some women to feel terror in the presence of someone biologically male without dismissing this as mere bigotry. Their commitment to dialogue shines through, in a field when too many people talk past one another or try to silence dissent, in the mistaken belief that this will help to secure justice.
The arguments made are occasionally implausible, for instance appearing to give credence to the notion that ‘the imposition of sex and gender binaries on humans is imperialist, colonialist and a controlling mechanism of the Western powers.’ European domination did create greater uniformity amidst diverse patterns of sexuality and gender among colonised peoples. Yet in many countries there have been eras when men’s dominance was reinforced; and doctors and midwives in ancient cultures often regarded biological differences between those typically male and female as significant. It would also have been interesting to hear more about the kinds of ‘gender non-conformity’ based not on appearance but rather taking on an occupation or role unusual for one’s sex, being lesbian or gay or refusing to give in to sexism.
Nevertheless this is a thoughtful, intriguing book, which helpfully reminds readers that not everyone fits neatly into the categories which society might try to impose.
Especially amidst sometimes bitter disputes which may generate more heat than light, sharing knowledge and reasoned argument can be valuable. The Transgender Issue, by Shon Faye, and Female Masculinities and the Gender Wars, by Finn Mackay, are recommended reading.
* Nb. There are various identity-related terms beginning with ‘trans’ and how people describe themselves may vary, both among individuals and groups and at different times. More about the usage of trans* here.
© Rosemary Brien is a writer and equalities campaigner.