My Problem with the Shon Faye Model of Trans Activism
Last year, British journalist and trans activist Shon Faye published her new book The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice to widespread positive reviews. The book described the many challenges currently faced by trans people. In the book, she also makes arguments linking the struggles of trans people to difficulties faced by other sections of the general community, thus making our issues more relatable for many people. The book has been rightly praised for providing a much needed account of these challenges, in an easily digestible form for non-trans people.
However, Faye’s overall approach, which is closely tied to her politics, has also been criticized by quite a number of people. In the book, she ties her advocacy for trans acceptance to her advocacy for a very radical politics, which, let’s face it, won’t be winning widespread support or be translated into actual change anytime soon. The book is thus thin on actual solutions that can help the trans community in the here and now. Which is, in my opinion, a major failure, because trans lives need to be improved in the here and now, not in some distant future when society will be so much more ‘liberated’, whatever that might mean.
Overall, Faye also strikes me as more interested in preaching to the converted than winning over skeptics. For example, many of the arguments and examples she uses in her book would only appeal to those who already have a certain kind of politics. Again, this is not to understate the good work that the book has likely done: given the widespread lack of understanding of trans people and trans issues, even allies need to be educated. However, the problem with this approach is that it does not increase overall acceptance of trans people in the society, and by extension, does not do very much to deal with the worst of the discrimination faced by trans people in our daily lives. Frankly, failing to prioritize this smacks of the privilege of someone who doesn’t have to deal with the less accepting parts of society on an everyday basis.
My regular readers would know that I have a very different way of helping to advance trans acceptance. On the need to challenge false narratives and raise understanding, I am generally on the same page as people like Faye. But where I differ from them is in my emphasis on reaching out to those who still aren’t on board yet, those whose image of trans people are currently biased by anti-trans narratives, those who are still skeptical of trans rights, and so on. This is because I believe that the best way to make trans lives better is to do the hard work to expand trans acceptance. Working to further educate the allies we already have is great, but this can’t replace the work of actually building bridges and reaching out to those who are not yet our allies, no matter how unpleasant that might be sometimes.
This article was originally published in The TaraElla Project.