After being invited to compère a festival, Shon Faye found herself at the centre of a bitter controversy and the target of an online hate campaign.
Shon Faye was born in Bristol, and is now based in London. After training as a lawyer, she left the law to pursue writing and campaigning, working in the charity sector with Amnesty International and Stonewall. She is an author and journalist who launched an acclaimed podcast series, Call Me Mother, interviewing trailblazing LGBTQ+ elders. The following is an extract taken from her new book, The Transgender Issue, An Argument For Justice.
In May 2018, I compèred a one-day festival called ‘Women Making History’, organized by the UK human rights organization Amnesty International. Held at Amnesty’s London HQ in Shoreditch, it celebrated and brought together women across the world who defend human rights. It featured women almost entirely (with the exception of one non-binary panellist in the afternoon). Speakers ranged from celebrities like the actress Olivia Colman to grassroots activists such as Seyi Akiwowo, the youngest Black woman to be elected as a local councillor in the UK, who was also founder and director of Glitch, a non-profit campaign to end online abuse.
The festival marked a century since women (or some of them) were given the vote. At that point, I had been working for about a year as a volunteer with the Amnesty Collective, a new group of younger campaigners with a social media audience, who were tasked with amplifying Amnesty’s campaigns. (I had come to Amnesty’s attention through my work as a campaigner on trans issues, as well as creative work I had produced on the politics of mental health, including articles and YouTube videos.)
When I was asked to host the ‘Women Making History’ event (to introduce all the panels, speakers and essentially keep the event to time), it was because I had prior experience as a performer on London’s queer and cabaret scene and as a host of activist events. The role, I was told, would involve loosely following a script with some ad libbing; I was neither a panellist nor a speaker. Yet my involvement, as the sole trans woman named in the advance publicity for the event, was to plunge the festival into controversy.
A hate campaign
A week before the festival, a petition appeared on Change.org titled ‘Petition for the Removal of Shon Faye as Host of Amnesty International UK’s Women Making History Festival’; soon, it was circulating on Twitter, Facebook and on the feminism boards of the British parenting website Mumsnet. Most of the people sharing the petition did so on the basis that I was a ‘misogynist male’ appropriating a space that should have been given to an ‘actual’ woman – or, worse, that I was too sexually ‘inappropriate’ to be a role model for young women and girls. This dog whistle was included because someone trawling my tweets for evidence to use in a smear campaign found jokes about sex. Within days, the petition acquired over 2,000 signatures – and, though it was probable that many repeatedly signed it to drive up the numbers, the momentum it gained was hard to ignore.
Change.org later removed the petition permanently from the internet, after an internal investigation found it was being used for the purpose of harassment and hate speech, and at a glance it was immediately apparent why. Almost all the signatures referred to me as a ‘man’ with male pronouns. ‘Sad to see Amnesty give space to an abusive pervert,’ one read; another ran, ‘Shon Faye is not a woman, he is a man performing a hideous pornified and hypersexualized parody of females. Including him in this event is gaslighting women and girls.’
The origins of TERFs
In the first two decades of this century, anxieties about who feminist space was for, and where feminists’ energy should be directed, moved online, with conceptual arguments about who belonged in feminism raging on in feminist blogs, forums and social networking sites. Online, the debate about trans women’s inclusion only grew more polarized and tribal. The term ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’, once a descriptor for specific lesbian separatists and revolutionary feminists of the 1970s who rejected trans women’s claim to be women, became popularized online as an acronym, ‘TERF’. Almost always applied pejoratively by trans-inclusive feminists, the term was resoundingly rejected as a misogynist slur by those it was applied to. One thing is certainly true: the term ‘TERF’, once defining a specific kind of radical feminist, has expanded well beyond its original meaning. ‘TERF’ no longer solely denotes women with left-wing radical feminist politics (including the revolutionary political lesbians who left their male children behind to live in all-female separatist communes). Now, it is applied to any transphobic troll or bigot of almost any political persuasion who justifies their concerns about accepting trans women as women as being grounded in ‘protecting [real] women’.
On Twitter, one feminist blogger shared a photo of me wearing a PVC skirt taken after I had been on stage at a cabaret night two years previously: Did anyone imagine, 20, even 10 years ago, that this would be being presented as the pinnacle of feminism? A biologically male person, performing as a blow up doll, reclining in bondage gear, their eyes glazed, their mouth receptive. This is women’s liberation? Or end of days?
The festival organizers received a barrage of phone calls and emails from the same small group of people, saying that they were cancelling longstanding donations to the charity because of my involvement, or simply demanding my removal. The charity’s social media feeds swarmed with tweets, and comments were split between those incensed at my involvement and the people who – in far greater numbers, it turned out – vocally supported my inclusion. Then, inevitably, Amnesty fielded inquiries from Daily Mail reporters for a comment on the controversy. We braced ourselves for the smear story exposing me to the wrath of the public – but after two sleepless nights passed, nothing had materialized. Amnesty stood firmly by me, responding that they were proud to be associated with me.
After a risk assessment, security for the event itself was hastily ramped up, and the other participants, from famous actresses to Instagram influencers, were told what had happened; Charlie Craggs, another trans woman originally booked as a panellist, pulled out of the festival after seeing the transphobia directed at me. It felt like I had become a bigger story than the festival itself; an irony, given that the self-described feminists who campaigned to remove me did so because they believed I was ‘dominating’ a space for women.
Worn down mentally and emotionally by a week-long hate campaign that had tried to imply that I was an abuser, I nonetheless wanted to continue as planned. I did, though, make a brief address at the festival’s opening, stating how most of the vile abuse I had received focused on the belief that I was an impostor and had no right to be present at a festival celebrating women – simply because I am trans. I drew attention to Naomi Hersi, a Black trans woman who, two months previously, was murdered by an intimate male partner in a London hotel room. Hersi’s death went unreported for several days. When the British media finally got round to mentioning it, they frequently used the wrong name, misgendered her or otherwise belittled her identity as a woman. I stated that as long as trans women in the UK and around the world experience human rights violations and male violence as women, then it is right and just that we are able to access the support and solidarity of the feminist and women’s community.
The day was a success – there were no disruptions – but I was left shattered by the whole episode. Notwithstanding the support from women at the festival, its organizers and many feminists from around the world who had contacted me with messages of support, insisting that I was welcome as a feminist voice and sister, it was driven home to me as never before that, for some cisgender women (and men), feminism was a justification for smears, abuse and cruelty, purely because I had been born with XY chromosomes.
What’s behind gender critical feminism?
What it means to be a woman or a man (or neither) is not a fixed and stable entity, but a complex constellation of biological, political, economic and cultural factors, which may shift over time. In contrast to this complexity, British anti-trans feminism – now known by its disciples, with unintentional irony, as ‘gender critical’ feminism (despite its lack of critical interest in how gender arises and varies according to time and place) – has tended to market itself as a common-sense approach that breezily waves nuance away.
One 2018 campaign by a British anti-trans blogger involved posting the Google dictionary definition of the word ‘woman’ up on advertising billboards in British cities: Woman noun an adult human female. The same definition, when later turned into a range of merchandise including T-shirts and tote bags, signalled that the adopter does not consider trans women to be ‘female’. Leaving aside the fact that dictionary definitions are a product of a culture and not its arbiter, the definition of ‘woman’ as used here focuses solely on the biological and entirely disregards a point that feminists have largely agreed upon: the idea that being a woman is defined by political experience, how you are treated by others, especially those with power over you. The extent to which socio-political experience defines what it means to be a woman has always been a contested aspect of feminist debate. The heterosexual feminist Betty Friedan notoriously referred to lesbians within the movement as the ‘Lavender Menace’, whose ‘mannish’ qualities – making them not-quite women – were a risk to the success of feminism.
While this was obvious homophobia, in 1978 even the lesbian radical feminist Monique Wittig argued that the socially constructed understanding of ‘woman’ is so bound up with compulsory heterosexuality that it necessarily excludes lesbians: it would be incorrect to say that lesbians associate, make love, live with women, for ‘woman’ has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. Lesbians are not women.
Later, the Black feminist bell hooks argued that a specific combination of racism and sexism directed at Black women had estranged them from the social identity of being women: Contemporary Black women could not join together to fight for women’s rights because we did not see ‘womanhood’ as an important aspect of our identity.
The gender critical feminist insistence on a straightforward biological definition of women and men, then, relies on an ignorance of cisgender women’s own feminist intellectual history. The idea that a woman is simply an adult human female disregards the fact that the term ‘female’ refers to biological sex, which itself can denote a collection of traits (genitals, gonads, hormones, secondary sex characteristics and chromosomes), some of which can be modified. It also fails to consider that the term ‘female’ can have important social meanings for human beings beyond our reproductive role as mammals.
It can, for instance, refer to legal sex (which, in many societies, can be changed), while in everyday vernacular, ‘female’ is used as an adjectival form to mean ‘women’ or ‘things which relate to women’. If most of us heard a show or music concert had ‘an all-female line up’ we would imagine a group of women, not immediately and consciously consider that everyone involved produces eggs for reproduction (after all, there are cisgender women who do not produce eggs and cannot bear children). The word ‘female’ comes from the Latin ‘femella’, which means ‘woman’, not ‘producer of eggs’ or ‘possessing XX chromosomes’: such definitions came later. The ‘common sense’ argument of the ‘adult human female’ billboards is specious: there are many ways of legitimately interpreting the brief dictionary definition that would, in fact, include a trans woman as an adult human female.
Whichever way you look at it, the debate among cisgender feminists about whether or not trans women are to be included in both the definition of woman and the feminist movement still primarily envisions feminism as a project owned by cis women. In this vision, trans people are positioned either negatively, as impostors, or positively, as welcome guests.
The case for inclusivity can often rest on whether it is ‘kind’ or ‘good’ or ‘right’ to welcome trans women as sisters, rather than any serious consideration of why their inclusion might be politically necessary for liberation from patriarchy. Rarely in mainstream debates over trans people and feminism do we consider the fatal flaw in any feminist movement that purports to be dismantling the patriarchy while disregarding the implications of trans people’s existence. Their existence complicates cis feminism, and such complexity can only be erased by seeing the struggle as primarily about cis women fighting oppression by cis men. The reality, I would argue, is this: not only do trans people need feminism, but feminism also needs trans people.
Taken from The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice by Shon Faye, published by Allen Lane on 2nd September 2021.
Images: Author shot by Paul Samuel White, book cover via Penguin Random House. Other: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media/Getty Images.