When Shon Faye was small, she was a reserved, shy child. “I’m realising the older I get, that I still am that person deep down,” she says now. “I equipped a bit of a front when I got older, but actually I’m a bit of a shy person.”
It’s somewhat surprising to hear if you’re at all familiar with the articulate 33-year-old author, journalist, podcaster and activist. For those who are not, Faye’s first book, The Transgender Issue: An Argument For Justice, was published last September. When we speak, she is just coming back from a break, and about to do more publicity for the book, which will launch later this year in various other territories, including the US.
The rest was needed; she was exhausted by the end of last year, she says, speaking to me from her home in London. “The book is actually — shocker! — quite heavy going, and I did loads and loads of events. I just needed a break.”
Faye began working on the book in 2018. “I guess, in the simplest terms possible, what I was aiming for was a corrective, obviously in the very specific situation in the UK, where we seem to have a growing backlash to maybe some steps forward that trans people had made politically and socially in the early 2010s.”
She adds that there seemed to be a consensus among media outlets “about what the tone and the language should be, and how we talk about trans people, and trans lives”.
With The Transgender Issue, she wanted to correct not just what she felt was factually wrong in the discussion, but also the problem with “the whole psychology of the approach. Of how othering it is to trans people to have a conversation conducted about their lives, above their heads, and to be reduced to a talking point that’s, like, to explore all these anxieties in society.”
The book’s title is a reclaiming of a culture-war phrase. The word ‘issue’, Faye points out, feels inherently negative. “It can sound very close in some tones to nuisance, or to complication, or difficulty.” She wanted to re-centre the priorities and experiences of trans people in the conversation about their own lives, something she has knowledge of from her work in a community engagement role with the UK charity Stonewall.
The book is a deeply researched, fact-based work, stepping beyond the fear-ridden, anxiety-triggering conversation around the lives of trans people; instead, offering a view of a liberated future in which trans people “are not an ‘issue’ to be debated and derided. We are symbols of hope for many non-trans people, too, who see in our lives the possibility of living more fully and freely… Our existence enriches this world”.
In company, Faye is funny and whip-smart; an excellent conversationalist. “I’m from an Irish family. I went to a convent school, all my teachers were Catholic nuns — older Irish women, as was my grandmother. I liked chatting to older people; that kind of gabby thing.”
Her grandmother was from Waterford. “We were very, very close until she died when I was seven. I used to chat to her incessantly.”
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As an imaginative child, she often lived in her head, she smiles. “I was a calm child, not necessarily a child that was easy to anger or badly tempered. But what happened, I think, is that when I got a little bit older, and I started to realise that I was different in a way.
“I did experience some homophobia. You have to develop a bit of a thick skin for that, and kind of a front. This kind of ‘nothing bothers me’, slightly spiky sharp sense of humour in retort to people. Certainly, as I started to get older, into my late teens, obviously everyone’s trying to fit in, and I think I had to develop this almost, like, second self, that had a bit more attitude.”
Although Faye recounts some incidents from her own life in The Transgender Issue. it is emphatically not a memoir. “You don’t have to know the intimate details of my private life to support me,” she writes.
She has described maintaining a public and a private self in order to cope with the attention that has come with the profile her writing and other work has given her. It’s not just something she does to protect herself from the online abuse to which she has been subjected. “I think nowadays, with social-media dynamics, if you have a large following you’re also put on a pedestal by a lot of people. And I find that quite uncomfortable. It allows no space for fallibility or flaws, of which I have many. That can create its own kind of pressure.”
You can either lean into it, or you can lean away from it, she says. “I don’t want to lose myself in my own reflection as it’s seen on social media. It’s so dependent on your followers, and the praise, and the dynamics of, ‘oh, do people like me or do they hate me’?
“I have to have a private sphere away from that, because the pressure is too much. It could, quite literally, drive you mad. Especially when you take on this burden of representing people. And unfortunately, when you break the mainstream a bit more as a trans person — or any minority, I’m sure — you start to become like an emblem for the whole group, and your fate is tied with the group’s fate.”
In The Transgender Issue, Faye’s exploration of gender dysphoria (which Transgender Equality Network Ireland defines as ‘the discomfort caused by an incongruence between one’s true gender and their sex assigned at birth’) looks at the extent to which it is possibly a reaction to the gender norms of our society.
“We have very codified ways of understanding everything about what men and women should look like. And, obviously, lots of cisgender men and women do not meet those anyway. So gender norms are this quite blunt instrument that lots of people feel punished by in some way for not meeting them,” she says, adding that gender norms in Europe are very tied to race.
Faye herself experiences very little gender dysphoria these days. “But that is because I’ve conformed so heavily, that, especially if I step off social media, I don’t get any harassment about being trans. I’m not saying I ‘pass’ so that no one in public speaking to me knows, but I satisfy enough things so that people treat me better. They treat me better than they did five years ago — certainly than they did when I was gender non-conforming but hadn’t medically transitioned. And that’s positive reinforcement. That’s social conditioning.
“I get a reward; essentially, society gives me a treat, it doesn’t punish me the more I conform. And the fact is, yeah, I found as I transitioned, I wanted more of that, because it made my life easier. It wasn’t just about people saying, ‘Oh, you look lovely’. It’s also about not feeing afraid if I’m sat at a bus stop in the evening and there are men who ask me for a lighter or whatever. These really small interactions that used to genuinely be terrifying every day for me. And are for many people.”
In August of last year, in an article for Vogue in which she described moving back to London last summer, and the anxiety she felt at times, Faye wrote, “Admitting that you’re afraid can unburden the mind and let you step forward. Fear of the new, I’m learning, is its own kind of power”.
“Well, yeah, because I had a breakdown when I was in my mid-20s,” she says now, of the time when she moved back to her family home in Bristol, where she grew up. “I had struggled a lot with addiction and other mental-health issues, and I think those are both separate to, but probably related to, my identity as well. Or certainly one can intensify the other. And, yeah, I’m a person ruled by fear. I think a lot of people are. That’s something I have to work on all the time.”
Therapy has helped her understand that a lot of her fears come back to fear of being ostracised, of being abandoned, of being alone. Her family accept her, and they have a good relationship, she says, adding that she is lucky. “For a lot of queer children, especially growing up in the 1990s, you don’t know whether or not your parents are going to be the homophobes, or the transphobes. And they assume you’re cisgender, they assume you’re heterosexual. You don’t actually know, ‘if I say this, what is going to happen next?’ And that can create very core fears in a human being.”
Looking back, she can see that was managing risk, and managing herself, in public spaces, from quite a young age, and not discussing it with anyone. “And obviously that hypervigilance becomes a way of engaging with the world. And unfortunately, it remains.
“So what I was trying to articulate [in the Vogue article] is that some of the fear and catastrophic thinking that have caused me lots of problems in my mental health, actually come from a coping mechanism that doesn’t necessarily work that well for me, but it clearly served me at one time — if I can think ahead constantly, and if I can change myself, and be a chameleon and adapt to the circumstances around me, to keep me safe, that will work.
“The trouble is, that can lead to lots of problems later in life, in terms of mental health, and when you can’t switch that brain off.”
Faye is now working on her second book. It will be a more personal tone, the jumping-off point is an article, One Year Without Sex, Love Or Dating, that appears in the recently published collection Unattached, Essays On Singlehood.
“It was just six weeks before lockdown,” Faye says of what it covers. “I went through a very, very painful break-up, with probably the most stable relationship I’d had.”
It was an especially difficult break-up because mostly the relationship was going well. At the beginning of 2020, they had begun planning to move in together. “That was what precipitated the end really, because I kind of knew, I can’t move in with you knowing that there’s this ticking time bomb in our relationship.
“He wanted children and I obviously cannot have children, but I also don’t want children by any other means. He knew I was trans from the beginning and he was very much keen to pursue the relationship. But, I think he just thought [that] I thought I didn’t want them because I couldn’t have them, not because I independently don’t [want children]. And that is very painful, that’s like a dealbreaker. You can’t have half a child; there’s no compromise. It doesn’t matter what else is good about it, it just had to end, almost overnight. That was incredibly painful, because it’s not like you lost all the feelings.”
The response to the essay has been overwhelming. “People really, really related to it. Because heartbreak is so universal, and human. I’m so used to having to talk about things about me that are really different, it was actually quite comforting in its own way to be able to talk about something that’s so universal, and so many people could relate to.”
While there is a universality to the piece, there is also an aspect that is specific to Faye’s transness, which still influences everything, she says.
“I had essentially had this boyfriend who was straight and middle class, and all these things that I didn’t think I was going to have when I transitioned. I met his mother — all that stuff. Trans women, we’re told men will sleep with you in private, but they’ll never introduce you to family. You’ll never have, like, a nice boyfriend who’s not a bit abusive, or emotionally abusive, or treats you like a fetish. And I had had that, and so as well as the loss of the relationship was this, ‘Oh god, that was my one chance, and now it’s gone’.”
Catastrophic thinking, she says. “And so, there was almost this impulse — and it was frustrated by lockdown — to prove that this isn’t going to be the only time. I need to go out on dates and meet new people and prove to myself I can attract someone else. That’s not actually that healthy. It worked out disastrously, obviously.”
Her experiences over the past two years have led Faye to the conclusion that one cannot rely upon a romantic relationship to provide a stable sense of self. “That was a very hard lesson to learn. Lockdown kind of forced it, and the rebound and all the things that happened.”
Now that lockdown is over, she is choosing not to date. “I haven’t been on a dating app since August, and I’m really — and it’s the first time ever — not looking. Since the book came out, and having this relationship that didn’t work, a lot of my life has changed, and I need to adapt to that. To focus on making a life that’s a little bit more sustainable, for me, for myself, and my career.”
She’s not even sure right now who she would want. “I think it’s really common for trans women, particularly those of us who are attracted to men, is this idea that the right relationship will take away all the damage that’s been done to your self-image growing up in a transphobic society. All the messages that you’ve received about yourself — that you’re undesirable, you’re unlovable — those things run very deep too, and they did with me.”
You can’t expect a romantic relationship, or the right job, or the right book deal to eradicate the fear, Faye says.
“It goes much deeper than that. I have to cultivate a relationship with myself. When people used to say that, I used to think it was like California claptrap. Like, what does that mean?” She laughs. “But I understand that it’s not about being self-sufficient. If anything, it’s about being much more vulnerable with people, friends, trusted people. I used to be very bad with being vulnerable, because I think I developed quite a toxic self-reliance when I was younger, that I felt that I had to. It was like me against the world.”
The last two years have meant she has had to be more vulnerable in private. “And allow people in, and allow myself to admit to people when I’m afraid. It’s something that I’ve worked on a lot, and continue to work on. But the benefits are that it creates more of a sense of stability, and safety and continuity in your private life, that I never had when I was younger. And I’m hoping that this will be ongoing.”
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/our-existence-enriches-the-world-author-shon-faye-on-giving-voice-to-the-transgender-community-41398580.html ‘Our existence enriches the world’ – Author Shon Faye on giving voice to the transgender community