Author Shon Faye on trans liberation, prison abolition and remembering our queer history

Shon Faye on transgender liberation and her new podcast Call Me Mother

“I always joke that I feel like my job is to be somewhat of a Trojan horse,” the author and journalist Shon Faye says over Zoom.

We’re here to talk about new podcast Call Me Mother, an LGBT+ history series presented by Shon in which she speaks to queer elders about their lives.

At first glance, Call Me Mother is a peaceful eight-part offering of gentle 20 minute chunks of LGBT+ history; a show you might come across on Radio 4 while dozing after Sunday lunch. Dreamlike audio aesthetics and interviews with notable gay pioneers like Lord Michael Cashman reinforce this impression.

But a few minutes into the first episode of Shon discussing the history of non-binary identities with Kate Bornstein, it becomes clear that the queer past Shon is going to tell us about isn’t the sanitised, palatable version.

This subversion is also evident in Shon’s politics. “There are many things about me that allow me to be treated in a respectable way. I’m middle class, I’m white, I’m straight,” she says.

“For a trans woman, all these things give you access to a certain degree of respectability that other trans people don’t get – but then my politics are quite left wing, and I think quite radical. I am aware that people like me from my class background, of any gender, are listened to in a way that perhaps other people aren’t”.

While Shon is one of a handful of high-profile white trans women in the UK who appear in the mainstream media and are promoted by LGBT+ charities on trans awareness days, she is increasingly known for her incisive analysis of trans-related politics in widely-shared Instagram Lives. She’s also an Oxford graduate, a prison abolitionist and a stand-up comedian who spent her 30th birthday delivering one-liners on stage at London’s oldest LGBT+ venue, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

Shon Faye: ‘Forget harsher sentences, I want LGBT+ inclusive education so no one becomes a bigot in the first place’

The example that Shon Faye gives to describe what she means when she calls herself a Trojan horse: sitting on panels but doing the unexpected – questioning whether hate crime laws work (“the evidence suggests they don’t”) and not advising trans people to report them to the police (“I don’t really believe [reporting] makes any difference”).

“I’m not even sure that the solution I want is harsher sentences,” she says. “The solution I want is LGBT-inclusive education so that no one becomes a bigot in the first place.”

“When I sit on panels, I feel like there’s this trans liberal, inoffensive stuff that we’re all supposed to say: make sure you know how to use people’s pronouns, have you considered having a gender-neutral toilet in the office,” she continues. But, she says, no one talks about “trans homeless youth and Universal Credit [delays]” being “one of the biggest reasons that when young trans people are kicked out of their homes they fall into poverty”.

Many of these topics will be discussed in Shon’s upcoming debut book, The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice, due to be published in September. It’s a hotly anticipated work of non-fiction, with many hoping it will shift the stagnant and toxic “debate” about trans rights in Britain.

Trans liberation is a class issue

Public debates about trans rights have been dominated in recent years by reforming gender recognition laws and trans women in women’s spaces.

When people discuss trans equality, what they often talk about is increasing trans people’s access to institutions like parliament, the police and the military; the provision of gender-neutral toilets and passports; faster access to the existing trans healthcare offered by the NHS; and ensuring trans women continue to have access to women-only spaces, including prisons.

But Shon Faye is committed to liberation – broadly speaking, a global struggle against capitalist oppression – not just equality.

“I see trans liberation as a class issue,” she says. “Trans people are deliberately kept in poverty by stigma and healthcare inequality and mental health inequality. I don’t necessarily just see it as an individual freedom thing, I see it as a collective, and I see my work as part of a left-wing argument rather than a liberal one.”

This is why “when people ask me about trans women in women’s prisons I can say that most women in women’s prisons should be released immediately, because they haven’t committed a violent crime”.

Prison abolition as a trans writer

Prison abolition is a movement that has been having a mainstream moment in the UK recently, in the wake of police violence at the Sarah Everard vigil, Sisters Uncut’s “Kill the Bill” protests, and last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Prisons are something that Shon Faye describes as a “lightening-rod issue” for a trans writer.

“There are violent trans people in prison who will prey on other prisoners, we can’t pretend they don’t exist,” Shon says as she recalls how she began thinking about the issue, adding that she started by reading about other sexual violence that happens in prisons.

“Prison staff abuse prisoners, women abuse women. I started thinking about the wider picture, started seeing the prison system as really harmful,” she says.

Out of 122 reported sexual assaults in women’s prisons in the past decade, five were perpetrated by trans inmates; in 2019 alone, 11 trans women were assaulted in prisons in England and Wales.

“Prisons are [also] used to contain a growing mental health epidemic,” Shon says. “And how many women are in prison for nonviolent offences? How many women in prison are victims of abuse themselves?”

Opponents of prison abolition often ask: What about murderers and rapists? Shon responds by pointing out that we know rape conviction rates are really low. “So most rapists aren’t in prison anyway,” she says.

“Prisons don’t fulfil the aims we’re told they do, like rehabilitation. And trans people aren’t a bug in the system. Clearly, the system is broken.”

Shon Faye wants us to remember our queer history

In a later episode of Call Me Mother, Shon Faye talks to Siobhan Fahey, 55, a queer femme who produced the recent BFI Flare documentary Rebel Dykes about London’s 1980s lesbian post-punk culture.

“[We’re told] that all lesbians over 40 are trans-exclusionary, that there’s always been this very rigid idea of what a lesbian is and who gets to be a lesbian,” Shon says. “But feminism and lesbian feminism have always had a conflict over what they think of erotica, what they think about porn, about BDSM, about kink. There’s one strain of lesbian history that’s talked up a lot in the media at the moment to the exclusion of others.”

This is partly because British media today is institutionally transphobic and peppered with trans-hostile columnists and editors, who have planted an idea that “trans people are promoting an ideology” that is causing a lesbian “extinction” event.

But how can we promote an ideology, Shon says, when what she learned making the podcast is that “we can’t even agree among ourselves and never have been able to!”

“We’ve always had infighting, we can’t agree on what gender is, we can’t agree on what makes a man or a woman or non-binary. We keep having arguments about who gets to be a lesbian, who gets to have what identity,” she adds.

It’s unfortunately quite bleak, because we just never learn and go round and round in circles. And part of the reason, I think, is because we don’t have easy access to our history.”

That’s where Call Me Mother comes in. Download it for the LGBT+ history, stay to learn how radical and queer that history really is – and how we can use it to keep fighting for trans liberation.