Changes: Shon Faye
The audio version of this episode is available here.
Annie [00:00:01] Hello. Welcome to Changes. My name is Annie Macmanus. This podcast is a place where we discuss all things change. This week on changes we welcome journalist and author Shon Faye. Shon is a trans woman, probably most well known for writing the Sunday Times bestseller The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice. It's a book which presents the facts and offers solutions uncovering the reality of what it means to be trans in a transphobic society.
Shon [00:00:32] You've just outlined these things about homelessness. I could add to that poor medical care, poor mental health support, the assumption that like our family, our nuclear birth family are going to be there for us no matter what and they're our support system for all of this stuff. That clearly doesn't work in a lot of people's cases, but particularly in the case of trans people for a variety of reasons, with the stigma that attaches to trans people.
Annie [00:00:58] I read Shon's book and spoke to her immediately after, and it was such a privilege to get time with her and kind of learn her own personal, lived experiences. In our conversation, Shon and I cover the idea of gender, politicised education, her own experiences of addiction in her family and her own life, her attitudes to love and much, much more. You may find some of the content upsetting so do please check the show notes for details if you think you could be affected or triggered by what Shon is talking about. But right now, it gives me great pleasure to say, enter the podcast, Shon Faye. Let's start with then, your relationship to the word change. How are you with that word and how are you with the actual verb aspect of that word, you know? Are you a leaner-inner to change? Do you avoid it?
Shon [00:01:56] Well, the word change, I think now I associate it with growth but I also associate it with pain. I think it's something that is neither a positive nor a negative. It just is. And I say that because I think for a long time, I am someone that has experienced seismic changes, perhaps some that a lot of the world would consider quite dramatic. And for me, change used to be something I was actually very scared of for that reason. And I think I've come to accept that my instincts are to be a control freak. And so change can be very unsettling. And actually, a lot of the angst that I've experienced has been from trying to control change. And I've gotten a lot happier when I've more consciously- I'm not perfect at it but accept that change is going to happen sometimes, whether you like it or not, and sort of see it as it is. And as I say, that can also involve pain as well as growth.
Annie [00:02:52] Yeah, absolutely. You've written a book, The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice, which is a challenge of kind of, the dominant systems around us, but also essentially maybe a call to change. Like it's kind of addressing how things could be different, for not just the trans community but for like all marginalised communities. Well, society at large. To be clear, the title is not an affirmation of the idea that trans people's lives are a matter of public discourse, correct?
Shon [00:03:21] Yes, that's correct. There are some people who have apparently seen the book and probably are more sort of aligned with my views, but because they perhaps don't have any context they assume it's a very different kind of book *laughing*. And get quite angry about it until someone says, no, no, she's a trans woman *laughs*. No, it's a trojan horse, is what I would describe it as. It was intended to be a mass market book, it's called The Transgender Issue, that is a phrase and it's so funny now that I have obviously this community of readers and people sort of irrately will point out to me like, look, they used this again. It's in a lot in the news. And it was a phrase that back in 2018, it was there from the beginning and I heard it all the time. And I just thought, what does this mean? When people say this, because it's my life, is what they mean at the most fundamental level. And I thought, what do people mean? They don't mean what I think the issues facing me or trans people generally are. So let's maybe have that conversation as a way into this larger project of the book.
Annie [00:04:24] There's a quote where it says, "It turns out when the media want to talk about trans issues, it means they want to talk about their issues with us, not the issues facing us". Have you ever been in a direct experience of that?
Shon [00:04:34] Oh, yes, *laughs* hundreds of times. I would say, you know, now I think what a lot of people may not realise is that, you know, and I've been promoting this book for a year. It came out September 2021. I say no to about 70% of the media requests I get. What I actually do, which is *laughs* a compliment the Changes, is a very small portion. The reason being is that I would say a lot of the ways in which, as a public facing trans person, you're asked or invited to engage with the media is a trap. And the reason that I have arrived at this point of being very confident in saying no and being able to see the danger, of course, is because I've walked headlong into it in the past and to my huge regret. And yeah, and I think what that looks like for people that might not be familiar with that is- it can be anything from a very nice research or a producer on a news programme coaxing you on, sounding like they understand, sounding like they want to kind of get the truth out. And then you arrive and there's perhaps a person that doesn't even agree that you are who you say you are, who's sat across from you in the green room and they want you to go out and argue with them. It can be sneaky things like, a lot of places won't want to interview me. They would rather that I wrote something for them that they could then edit. You know, all of these subtle, yeah, attempts to impose a kind of narrative that they want on what I'm actually trying to say.
Annie [00:06:11] And do you think there's a fear there as well from- because debate around trans people is so fucking fiery and like incendiary. Do you think there's a fear from people where they're like, oh, god, we don't want to like, piss people off?
Shon [00:06:25] Yeah. Well, I mean, I have- amazingly considering, you know, the book was Sunday Times bestseller. It's probably the biggest selling book on this topic in Britain ever.
Annie [00:06:37] Which is amazing, like congratulations for that by the way.
Shon [00:06:39] *Laughs* thanks!
Annie [00:06:40] And it should be said.
Shon [00:06:40] Thank you. And I'm not saying that just to brag, but I'm saying that for the status of that kind of book, you know, I have not done any of the main radio stations. None of the broadsheets interviewed me. And I think that is a little unusual. And I know, we know that, you know, without naming names, you know, I had a publicist like every author does, and there were some people who were at least- and I appreciate the honesty, where they will just say, we consider this topic to be like this very toxic, heated discussion, so our producers have decided no one from either side. Which I can sort of understand if you want a quiet life, but it is maddening. I'm on to talk about the oppression that we know or the evidence suggests trans people face. And to me, I do not see myself as on a side.
Annie [00:07:30] Yeah, it's not political in that way.
Shon [00:07:32] Yeah, yeah. Exactly. And so it's this odd thing where it's like, well, we don't *sighs* the fairest thing to do is to not have anyone. And that's a very peculiar state of affairs. When you have an author who is a member of a minority group who is coming on to talk about that minority group. I'm very happy not to talk about, I don't know, the discussion in feminism around it or people on the otherside. I don't necessarily want to use up the air time talking about those people. I want to talk about the things in my book. And so yeah, it's very odd how your positioned by some people as on one side. At the same time, I suppose to outsiders who have no connection to this, if you're on certain parts of social media, it does look very fiery. It does look, you know, it's become one of the most polarised topics. And at the same time, while I think that's- it's misguided to frame trans people as like on one side of this, I think we all live in a time where we're very wary of saying something wrong. And so it's easier sometimes to say nothing and I suppose people don't really understand where all the passion and anger is coming from. And I think it's often coming from a place of frustration and a place of pain. And so one of the things I try and do in the book is guide people through. You know, this isn't just a spat on Twitter you've seen between like, you know, this famous person and trans people in, you know, and their replies. This is about something that's been going on with the media discussion about trans people for, well, since the 1950s, actually *laughs*.
Annie [00:09:10] Yeah. And to go on a kind of much deeper level, I guess. Why do you think people are scared of kind of taking on this whole topic of just gender in general? It feels to me like people are scared to rock the boat of what their foundations of their life are. So if someone comes along challenging the system of gender, suddenly you have to look at yourself and you have to ask questions about yourself and your own existence that maybe you don't want to. Is that fair?
Shon [00:09:40] I think that is fair, yes. I think gender is, just so deeply ingrained. I mean, you know, this idea that it's just a frivolous thing and it's something- I mean, there is a discussion about when- you know, the trouble with one, the word gender, right is, the way we use it can be so multifaceted. We can talk about what your hair and makeup looks like, that's gender. But I would say something like domestic abuse, that's gender too. So this huge topic, you know, has one word to describe it. And I think when we talk about gender, yeah, we're talking about something that goes to the very core of how we categorise and understand the world, it's the first thing someone will find out about a person when that person's, you know, in their uterus, when that person is born, it's the first thing we indicate in our language with you know, everyone talks about pronouns, but pronouns are there to indicate someone's gender to us before we've even seen anything about them. And so that that that shapes our reality. It's very powerful. And I think whilst people know that this categorisation system has violence within it, it determines who is safe sometimes in some context from violence and who isn't. Who has the degree of freedom, who isn't, who is judged by their appearance, who isn't, who gets to do what. We all know that this is like a horrible system, that kerbs almost everyone's individuality, even you know, men's who are supposed to benefit from it and may benefit from it. There's a real fear there about letting that go or a kind of belief that like, yes it's- I think sometimes, yes, it's horrible but what are you saying that there might be other ways to do it? And I think that goes as much for I think men who can feel- especially patriarchal, sexist men, obviously, you know, far right, are obsessed with trans people at the moment across the world, from Hungary to the US, you know, the far right cannot stop obsessing about this group. But similarly for women too, I think even women that are engaged with the idea that women might be subordinated in the current system is- I think sometimes I have experienced a defensiveness, and that's not just about, you know, whether you want to call it gender critical feminism. I remember once being in a bar in Dublin and a woman said something to me. She asked me an intrusive question about my own transition. I was there visiting a friend. And she's a little bit drunk *laughs*. She asked me an intrusive question and I said very politely, I don't want to answer that.
Annie [00:12:13] Yeah.
Shon [00:12:14] And she got so defensive and said, "I pushed out three kids out of my vagina. I know what a woman is". And obviously, she was drunk and all the rest of it. But, you know, and that wasn't grounded in some sort of feminist theory. It was a defensiveness about, you know, lots of things going on there about motherhood, about where being, you know, what being a woman means, what being a real woman means. Clearly, maybe some frustration about how maybe motherhood and childbirth aren't recognised.
Annie [00:12:45] Yeah.
Shon [00:12:46] But then this projection onto me, like I've just sort of waltzed in very easily and said, you know, well I'm a woman, same as you and you know, there's been no difficulty in that whatsoever. So incredibly presumptuous in many ways. And yeah, and while that's not necessarily a nice comment to hear and I'm not saying that, you know, I can be completely Zen about all those comments. I think if you reflect, it's quite easy to see some of the impulses that are going on there.
[00:13:15] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:13:24] Let's talk about some of the things that we learn from your book. It's so important to read the book. You know, already I've just learnt so much from it. And I know that your book wasn't aimed particularly towards trans people, more people who aren't trans and who don't understand the culture and the community and all of that, but also how it's oppressed. So trans people, this could have change as well Shon so please correct me, trans people, 0.6% of the population. 45% of trans people have tried to kill themselves. One in four trans people have experienced homelessness. Huge, huge percentage. One in four trans people experienced abuse at the hands of a partner in the past year. That was 2020, 2021. There's no group that disagree with each other more than trans people. I heard you say that on the Channel Four podcast, which I was really interested in. And the oppression of trans people is specifically rooted in capitalism. Now, can you start by elaborating on that please?
Shon [00:14:20] Well, because you've just outlined these things about homelessness. I could add to that poor medical care, poor mental health support, the assumption that like our family, our nuclear birth family are going to be there for us no matter what and they're our support system for all of this stuff. That clearly doesn't work in a lot of people's cases, but particularly in the case of trans people for a variety of reasons, with the stigma that attaches to trans people at the moment, unfortunately. And so the capitalist system, which I think we're all starting to see, you know, the cost of living crisis and this decline in any kind of social safety net that we've seen consistently over many decades in this country, the UK. Now, that leaves people vulnerable. And so for trans people, I think it's important that it's- the reason that I say it's rooted in capitalism is because I think people can sometimes think, oh, it's rooted in the fact that maybe trans people are a little bit unstable because they've been pathologized as such, as mentally ill for so long. Or that it's just about, I don't know, the fact that they're sort of special and weird and different and misunderstood.And actually, understanding me or any trans person is great but that's not going to actually provide any kind of escape from the danger and systemic discrimination that I or the trans people may have experienced. So there's that question, too. And then the more theoretical side, I guess, about, about capitalism and trans people. Actually, what would benefit most trans people's lives now, are things like a better housing policy, not waiting six weeks for universal credit when you've been kicked out by family at a young age and you have just got in a cycle of homelessness. The fact that like, you know, a lot of people think we get all these free surgeries on the NHS, effectively, trans health care in the UK is now privatised because the waiting lists are years and years and years and years. It's just not, it's not realistic to wait and that's because of wider problems in the NHS and the structure of trans healthcare. So there's those things, but also the reason why capitalism requires it is because, actually capitalism really relies on this. The nuclear family, the idea of heteronormativity, the idea that there is men's work and there is women's work. And I know alot of people think, well, that's not really the case anymore. Women go out to work. But actually, if we look in the pandemic, wasn't it we found out that like-especially when you couldn't have like domestic cleaners or whatever in your home, like women ended up doing the majority of like unpaid work. Women still do the majority of unpaid work.
Annie [00:17:03] So depressing.
Shon [00:17:03] Yeah, yeah. And when you take a- alot of middle class women outsource it to a working class woman. But yeah, when we saw in the pandemic where they couldn't do that, it would be, women would go on Zoom to work and do all the childcare and do all the housework. And then, you know, there was evidence for this. It's not just me opining. And a lot of men would just go on, do Zoom and think that they've done their work. Yeah, and the system of capitalism has always required that because it's built, you know, in the industrial revolution, on the idea of this nuclear family needing to reproduce that, and then alot of unpaid labour needing to be done by women. Why is that relevant to trans people? Well, it's a system of division where it's always in the interests really of capitalism to understand who's a man, who's a woman, and of course to have people that will always be unemployed, that's often disabled people and people of colour would be the largest groups I could think of. But trans people have huge problems in the employment market too.
Annie [00:18:01] Just to kind of break that down, the reason why it benefits capitalism to have people unemployed.
Shon [00:18:06] Oh, it's because the capitalist system needs this reservoir of unemployed people so that current workers, you know, are precarious if they could be replaced, so they have to accept worse conditions. Because if everyone was employed, we could all, you know, demand higher and higher pay. That's a bit theoretical. But I know you also have had on this podcast, my friend Travis Alabanza.
Annie [00:18:32] We love Travis.
Shon [00:18:34] They explain- here's just a real classic example, particularly about some trans people like them who are gender non-conforming, is just getting a job. You're not meeting the uniform policy. You don't look presentable to the public. People who worry that, you know, particularly if you're gender non-conforming, they're worried about the public image of the company. I have to say, you know, I conform pretty much to gender now. People won't be able to see me, but I present in a very sort of, kind of conventional way. But yeah, I mean, early in my transition when I did not, I remember working as a theatre usher during a run of Mamma Mia. I can never listen as much as I love Abba, Voulez Vous is quite, quite triggering now *laughs*.
Annie [00:19:16] Is it triggering? Right.
Shon [00:19:16] Yeah *laughs*, but I was like selling ice creams and all that stuff, but I was a visibly trans person. And I'm just going to say that that- even with the probably quite cosmopolitan audiences of Mamma Mia, that was not an easy ride. And I only did it for six weeks. And so I'm not going to pretend like I had this huge hard experience. But yeah, I got a taste of what a customer service role in person is like as a gender non-conforming person. And yeah, it was not good.
Annie [00:19:45] Yeah. Yeah. Shon, can we talk about section 28 as well quickly? Again, this was something that I just wasn't really aware enough of and your book helped me. I guess I was ten and in Dublin, so it didn't affect me whatsoever but a legislation that banned schools from promoting the teaching of any sort of acceptability of homosexuality in families in the system. Maggie Thatcher was obviously in government at the time. Looking back, how were you affected?
Shon [00:20:15] Yeah so the interesting thing sometimes I think about Section 28... It came into force in 1988. Often the story has been told by adults who were campaigning against it. There were lesbian campaigners who famously abseiled into the House of Lords, which is very iconic.
Annie [00:20:30] Very iconic.
Shon [00:20:31] And you know, the charity Stonewall was founded by, you know, some of them household names like Sir Ian McKellen, right. And that was to campaign against section 28. What has sometimes been lost is that those people were campaigning against it and witnessing this horror as adult campaigners. But it was actually people like me who, I was born two months before Section 28 came into force in 1988, and it lasted in England until 2003 when I was 15, 16. So actually it is people my age, and I am 34, not very old, who were affected by it because we were schooled in an environment in which it was actually unlawful to discuss homosexuality and by that, that was all LGBT identities, as a positive thing, as a pretended family relationship. That means not only do schools do not have LGBT inclusive sex education or whatever that we might think of today, it meant that gay teachers wouldn't be able to talk about being gay. Realistically, and this was my experience, it meant that a culture of homophobia could flourish in schools and teachers were so afraid to say anything about it, or indeed were homophobic themselves, so that no one challenged it. There was a culture of silence about it and homophobic bullying, you know, just existed and thrived in that. I got a scholarship to an all boys public school, English public school, minor public school. Actually, being an independent school It wasn't governed by section 28, but needless to say they implemented it anyway. A lot of my teachers were former military men. And as you can imagine, for someone like me that was horrendous. The minute I arrived at secondary school aged 11, the day I arrived, I was called a faggot and that lasted for pretty much a lot of my time there, at least until I was 16. It was about the way I walked, my mannerisms. It was constant humiliation and not just name calling, but sexual humiliation to the presumption that I'm sex mad, all of those things. And yeah, there was nowhere to go with that. And there was a culture of silence around it and teachers said homophobic things. I used to play that down. Ten years ago if I was having this conversation, I would have played that down because I would have not wanted to say I was affected by it. But of course, and this is just about homosexuality, let alone trans people right, is that all I knew is I was clearly being perceived as a feminine kid, I also knew that I liked boys, and I also knew, especially once my puberty started, something was really, really wrong and it didn't like what was happening to my body. And I guess all I can describe that as is a feeling of existential isolation because being a child you believe that you're the only person that feels that way. And then what the, you know, Section 28 and that sort of environment of schooling does is reinforce that because no one's there to tell you this is safe, this is normal, this is healthy, you can have a happy life. You pick up things from TV and the homophobia of TV. Mainstream TV, I think, was only starting to change in the 2000s. All you receive every single day is a negative message about who and what you are. And of course, different people that manifest how- the damage that does manifests in different ways. For me, I was someone that disassociated, so I would just think, well, I'm here. I threw myself into my academic work and I would switch off. So I just learnt to compartmentalise what was being said to me. But I hadn't, I didn't have anyone to talk to about it, there were other boys at school who I sort of had like a friendly bond with who kind of like, they did grow up to be gay. Like, no one would be like, oh well are you? I am as well. No it was like, the shame. You're drenched in shame. And of course, for example, I have a very close relationship with my mother. But did I tell her when people were making these comments to me? No, because, you know, the generation she is too is that I didn't know what reception I was going to get there. I didn't have a counsellor necessarily to talk about through with. There was no LGBT club, there was no positive representation on TV. And again, we're just talking about am I maybe gay, let alone, is there something deeper going on here with the fact that I'm not supposed to be turning into a man? Which is what I felt. That's how I would have felt at the time.
[00:25:07] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:25:16] So you're getting these negative messages from everyone around you but how was your home life? Did these negative messages, were they a surprise to you when you came to school? Like, had you ever felt anything like that before?
Shon [00:25:29] I had felt things like that before. I mean, so my home life growing up before, you know, before I started secondary school was kind of a mixed bag because I was born into, in many ways a loving home. My mother's family is of Irish descent and I was- like my Irish grandmother was like many Irish grandmothers, and she was one of 13 children, erm, had favourites because their families are so big, they're just shameless about having favourites. And I was named after and still am named after my grandfather who died the year before. So I bore his name and I think my grandmother was- my birth lifted her out of that grief and she lived across the street from us. So I had a very close relationship with her and with my mother, quite like a matriarchal environment. However, my father was an alcoholic, a very chaotic one. He was in and out of our lives pretty much until he disappeared altogether when I was ten, I never saw him again after my parents divorce and he was in and out of rehab a lot. He would disappear for weeks on end with nothing. I would come home from school and ask like you know, is daddy home today? Ans some days it would be yes, some days it would be no. And I think my father resented me from the moment I was born because he I think felt threatened because he had an emotionally stunted range of human experience because of his illness. I think he really thought that I, as the eldest child and of course, you know, at that time eldest son was stealing my mother and grandmother, because my maternal grandmother loved him, their affections. And I think I felt that resentment from him. So I had this like odd extremes where I think I did have a happy childhood because I had enough security, enough from my mother and my grandmother until she died when I was seven. But I also had a parent who I felt palpable resentment from, who obviously could be nasty at times and drink and who ultimately disappeared and chose what I felt, chose alcohol over me. And so that *laughs* ticking time bomb was there really from, you know, and then he kind of vanished around the time I went to all boys school. And then I enter this new phase of having to manage, yeah, the shame there. And of course there's a lot of shame involved with being in an alcoholic home when you're younger too. Like knowing that you can't tell, you know, the secrets that you have to keep about where your dad is and stuff like that. So there was an element of secrecy and shame running through my life in quite a young age.
Annie [00:28:11] But also fear, no? When you have someone like that in your life who's that unpredictable. Is there a kind of constant sense of underlying kind of fear of not knowing what the mood will be, whether they will be in?
Shon [00:28:21] Yeah, I think there was. And again, I would have told you perhaps at an earlier point in my adult life, I'd have told you no, no, no, I wasn't affected because my reaction to that was not to act out as some children would, but to almost, I want to say 'act in'.
Annie [00:28:37] Yeah, to kind of internalise.
Shon [00:28:41] Yeah, and so what I learnt to do was to- as I say I think when I learnt what the word disassociation was, you know, I was an adult. And quite literally sometimes I would, I would look at my family home growing up and I would sometimes have this odd thing where I would think, is this a dream? And I think what I learnt to do was to... 'this is too overwhelming, so I'm going to park this and compartmentalise it', and it was an effective tactic for dealing with that unpredictability. And it lent itself to a way to get out fear, to manage fear. If it's something I couldn't control in one area, to fix it in another. So one thing about- despite my school life being hard is that I performed exceedingly *laughs* sound like I'm humble bragging, but exceedingly well academically. And actually, you know, that was good. Obviously, it served me well in terms of the career I've got to have and everything. But it's a bit of a red herring for people around you because if you are, you know, acting out and drinking and taking drugs as a young teenager, then people would say there's something wrong.
Annie [00:29:48] It's a cry for help, yeah.
Shon [00:29:48] Yeah, but when it's like, you're just coming home and saying, 'oh, I'm fine'. Straight As.
Annie [00:29:54] I got another A today.
Shon [00:29:54] Yeah, and then being a model student. And I got very into Catholicism. I come to that when I was about 13 or 14, which is because I think I needed, I was looking for some kind of anchor. And so I became religious. But it was weird. And I say it's weird because I became like a bit OCD about it because obviously I realised I was one attracted to boys and was so say a boy and two as my puberty began, things like the growth of facial hair, bodily changes, my reaction to them was not normal. It was like, what is happening to me. And my mother bought me a razor once for Christmas, as like a stocking filler when I was about 14. And I was horrified. I was so upset. *Laughs* and that was an escape route too was, there was a time, a real time when I was about 15 or 16 where I was absolutely sure I was going to become a Benedictine monk. It's like, well, I will run away and hide from this world because there's no place for me in it. And I don't like what's happening. And of course, I think probably a lot of LGBT people have hidden, in the Catholic Church have hidden for many centuries.
Annie [00:31:05] Yes, yes I think so.
Shon [00:31:05] *Laughs* and so obviously that was an idea at one point too. So, whilst everything sort of looked like, 'model teenager', in many ways I really was already quite lost by the time I was 15, 16.
[00:31:22] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:31:32] Looking back to that time in your life and before, what would you say would be the biggest kind of most impactful change that happened to you in that time?
Shon [00:31:39] Well, yeah, I thought about this and there's a lot there, but I actually think, I think probably the death of my grandmother when I was seven, it was my first experience of death. And because she was a person that I was so close to that signalled a change- you know when you look back at your childhood and obviously it was the loss of that relationship. But you know, when you sometimes pot your childhood and you're like, nothing was the same after that. My mother was pregnant when my grandmother, her mother died. And so my sister, who is the final three of us, was born a few months later. And pretty much from the minute my sister was born, my parents marriage, in essence, was over. You know, my mother had tried everything. My father never really lived with us again. You know, it was the you know, the death of a grandparent was very close to the arrival of, you know, a new sibling and pretty much the end of my parents marriage. And I think that, you know, that could all sound like very gloomy, but it just, it just was a seismic shift in my childhood. I don't know whether or not it had a huge impact but I've done a lot of thinking about it in adulthood through therapy, through, you know, other work I've had to do on myself is about, you know, not being maudlin about the past, but trying to understand why I work the way I do, why I operate the way I do. After years of pretending that it didn't have any relevance to who I was.
Annie [00:32:59] Yeah. Let's talk about the next phase then. You went to Oxford?
Shon [00:33:02] Mm hmm.
Annie [00:33:03] Studied English literature. Then you went to London, you became a lawyer. After which you went through some very big changes again. But what happened there? Can you talk us through that part of your life?
Shon [00:33:12] Yeah. So I came out at Oxford as gay. In fact, I was outed as gay by a friend. Someone that I thought was a friend to my entire family at dinner.
Annie [00:33:25] Oh my God.
Shon [00:33:26] Erm, which was a huge betrayal of my trust *laughing*.
Annie [00:33:29] Was that shrouded in good intention? Were they like, oh I was just trying to-
Shon [00:33:32] I don't know. Yeah, maybe good intention maybe, I know, I mean, you know, I forgive- or sometimes now when I think about young people and about how chaotic they can be, because as we'll probably get into, I have a lot to be forgiven for too. But erm yeah, this friend maybe thought they were helping, but actually, after years of finally getting to a point where I could even tiptoe into, yes I'm different in some way and gay was the stand in. Even though I knew fully that it wasn't the whole story. So yeah, I was outed and that was very difficult. I had, from pretty much the beginning, quite toxic relationships when I had them and I didn't know why that I was- I thought I was attracted to exciting people, but suddenly it would take on very intense dynamics, always. Yeah and so I sort of plodded along with this gay identity. Yeah, Oxford I started wearing makeup. I wouldn't wear dresses, but I would shop from the women's section- that was 2006, 2007, it was new rave. Good thing to hide in. I actually remember seeing you DJ at the Carling Academy in Oxford. I can remember going to see you *laughing*.
Annie [00:34:40] Woooow!
Shon [00:34:40] It was around that time when I first-
Annie [00:34:41] *Gasps* love it.
Shon [00:34:41] And yeah, I could sort of start playing with my identity. And yeah, and in many ways my life opened up and I, you know, I met new people, as many we do when we go to university and then to London, to the gay scene and the nights out. What also happened though, I should say, is I didn't- because of my father's history I didn't drink until I was 18 because I was wary of it. And then I went away to university and I started drinking in my Freshers week. And lo and behold, I started to have a problematic relationship with drinking looking back. But it didn't feel like a problem at the time, it actually felt, you know, like many people who are in recovery as I am now say, it felt like a solution. Because I had gone from being this shy, nerdy, bookish, faggy kid at this all boys school who didn't drink and was considered a bit weird. You know, had my religious faith, to suddenly being what I felt in my head at this time, false eyelashes at 2 pm in the day, wearing heels, you know, going to tutorials in makeup, you know, in this sparkly like Mac pigment makeup. Being what I thought was this fabulous creature. And I didn't really know, drag wasn't as big as it was then, I really was, you know, I felt like the only one there but I was prized for it. And of course, that goes hand in hand with the nightlife and the drink and, you know, not too long after the drugs. And that, you know, at some point that became part of my- I thought, oh, this is who I'm supposed to be. I'm supposed to be the person with like, the kind of like, knowing everyone, air kisses in the smoking area and, you know, I don't know, drugs in the thigh high boot. You know, all of that stuff, it went hand in hand and continued to for a very, very long time. Long past when it stopped being fun. And so yeah, that came with a dark side quite quickly and combined with my unresolved gender problems, unfortunately, if you take someone that like- the cost of my drinking and drug use was always depression. Experiences of feelings of harm and of course combined with that was a feeling of being trapped in my gender dysphoria. And so really it was- whilst I said all this great stuff with my identity came from that, the drink and drugs and the partying, it was also like pouring petrol on a barbecue *laughs* in terms of the smouldering problems that were there from my childhood, with my gender. And of course that blew up badly by my twenties. And yeah I'd taken on this job. You know, I trained as a lawyer because of the 2008 crash and I was still, you know, one of my addictions, I guess I could say, was prestige and doing the right thing, doing the good thing, the middle class thing. Because I didn't come from a moneyed background, I had been very lucky to access these educational opportunities from the age of 11 when I got the scholarship and single mother, lone parent family, you know, proving that I'm, you know, to myself, really, I thought it was other people but myself that, you know, I'm worthy. And so a lawyer is a prestigious career. But of course, you know, when you actually finish law school and you get to the lawyer's office, if you're saying you're a man, they want you in a suit with like short back and sides and I found that extremely confining in a way that I sensed was abnormal. And so yeah, I would work very hard and then I would be out three, four nights in the week and the weekend too. And of course that all caught up with me. And so that's the complete implosion I had. Um, and I qualified just as a lawyer and then said I quit. And then I said- my coming out as trans as well was greatly assisted by alcohol and drugs. I first said it high. I first came out on Facebook, I drank to blackout, posted this- amazed that I could string a sentence together, thing about how I was trans to everyone, hadn't told my mum, friends, close friends and posted it 2 am. I pass out from this blackout, I wake up I haven't even remembered I've done it. That's where I was at.
Annie [00:38:57] Right, got you.
Shon [00:38:59] So I quit this job as a lawyer, moved back in with my mum for what I thought was a bit, turned out to be like a few years, and came out as trans. So here I am sat as this alcoholic and drug addict, just newly out as trans, no job *laughs* and having to live with my mother, all in the space of two weeks. I mean, it's insane. And clinically depressed as well *laughing*. Gosh it's- sound so extreme.
[00:39:26] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:39:36] What would you say is the biggest change you've gone through in your adulthood now then?
Shon [00:39:40] It's interesting because right, as a trans person, I should say transitioning from a man to a woman, that's the biggest change! *Laughs*.
Annie [00:39:50] *Laughs*.
Shon [00:39:51] But it isn't. I would say, you know, getting sober, my recovery from my addiction is. The reason being is because my addiction was there, it was my scaffolding to get me through all of this stuff. You know, I joke sometimes I have body parts that have been in with me less time than my addiction *Annie laughs*. And, you know, it was for over a decade, good, bad, ugly. It was always what I could turn to. I tried. I tried to stop. I had several attempts before I finally got sober. And I tried to stop without help a couple of times. And I remember one time I tried to stop without help and I didn't realise until I understood more about recovery and met people that had achieved long term recovery, was that *laughs* I felt worse. Everyone else was like, oh it's good you stopped drinking, it didn't seem to be doing well for you because of the blackouts, because of the violent situations I was putting myself in. You know, blacking out, not knowing who I was with, mixing with lower and lower company, all the cliched stuff that happens to drug and alcohol addicts. And I thought, okay, but why do I feel worse?
Annie [00:41:02] And is this like, how soon after did you start feeling worse? Do you mean like immediate? Or was this like months after?
Shon [00:41:07] Oh months, months, months, months.
Annie [00:41:08] Right. Okay. So this is beyond withdrawal? This is all of that.
Shon [00:41:12] Yeah, it's beyond withdrawal. I felt like, and I used to say it is, one, I wanted everyone to congratulate me on the fact that I hadn't had a drink that day. I'm furious when they didn't. But also *laughs* I used to say things like, I feel like someone's died. I've lost my best friend. And I was in mourning because that was, you know, the one thing that I could rely on. I later listened to- there's a Florence and the Machine song, Hunger, and in that Florence sings, 'I thought love was in the drugs. But the more I took, the more they took away and I could never get enough'. And I remember the first time I heard that was like *gasps* oh my God, that's me. Because that's what it felt like, that was a consistent to me, you know, that- obviously it was all fake, it was chemical, but to me it was the crutch. So when I finally got sober, and since then, building a life where I actually have to find real connection, where I have to have a real sense of myself. And this is where I've had to do all this work back about why do I think the way I do? Because when I look back now, I realise- I describe to you, right, like walking through the corridors of school and having people taunt me. As you mentioned, perhaps with my father being a chaotic person and that uncertainty, is, you know, without a drink or a drug inside me, you know, and without, you know, some kind of, you know, inner spiritual life and connection with other people who have experienced the same, I'm completely insane. Why? Because I'm hypervigilant, because I'm always looking for danger around the corner. I can convince- it's a coping mechanism thats gone wrong. These things were, at one point in my life, were an accurate reflection. My brain responded to, you have to keep yourself safe. When I first transitioned, walking down the- and I really would like people to get this. When you walk down the street as a visibly trans person.
Annie [00:43:03] You are in danger.
Shon [00:43:04] You are in danger. You are in danger. I was walking down the street once early in my transition, talking to a friend, also a trans person. And we were talking and this man grabbed me by the throat and spat in my eyes.
Annie [00:43:19] *Gasps* Oh my God, Shon. Oh my God.
Shon [00:43:21] Without a word. And the main thing I thought when that happened was humiliation. Not that it happened, but that because my friend saw it. Because so conditioned was I to believe that is what happens to someone like me.
Annie [00:43:38] You weren't surprised.
Shon [00:43:38] Yeah, but what was more mortifying was that my coping mechanism for something like that is to pretend it didn't happen at all. And you can't do that when your friend's there shocked and asking if you're okay.
Annie [00:43:52] Understood. Got it.
Shon [00:43:52] So this is the way my mind has been coached by society to work. And continuing that example, what did I do right after that happened? I drank and I took drugs and suddenly it didn't matter anymore. So these things go hand in hand. And what I have to recognise now, you know, in living a life without that, and a much better life of course, of course because, well one It's a life that's going to continue for a decent period of time, which was not what was going to happen by the time I stopped. But I think it is that I have to recognise, oh, the way my brain thinks isn't always good for me. It was good for me at one time but now, sometimes these things don't serve me. And sometimes I need to check in with another person. And sometimes I need to think, you can't control the universe just because it's keeping yourself safe. You can't always, you know, and that goes for erm, you know even small things. I see more and more on Instagram now about people pleasing and they make it sound like, you know, people pleasing, ooo its this you're a put upon overly nice person. No people pleasing, this is very twisted, is manipulation as well. And I used to be, when I was younger and I talked about being on the scene, I used to be so manipulative, you know, because I would give people whatever they wanted me to be. And stuff like the gay scene, I think a lot of LGBT people will relate to this is you come out and then we all came out from this Section 28, and everyone's had this internalised homophobia, transphobia, whatever, and then suddenly you're on the scene, you're maybe like, you know, trying to go out, trying to, you know, show off, trying to show that you're somebody, trying to have sex, all these things, and you're complete pricks to each other and you're all wearing a mask because you're- not all, but many of us are wearing masks because we have not dealt with the trauma, frankly, we've experienced growing up. And I would change. I would change how I dressed. I would change how I looked for different friends. I mean, I would be so afraid of like- if someone said, have you listened to this band or whatever, I would lie instantly without thinking, you know? Yeah, when you sort of like get older and you sober up, in my case, you are left still with these impulses and you're like, where does- okay, so it's not just about not drinking. It's about everything that went behind that.
Annie [00:46:14] Everything underneath it. Yeah. Yeah. Wow. Well, well done. Well done to you for getting through that and for being sober. I'm so impressed when people can do that. It's so hard. So congrats to you.
Shon [00:46:25] No, thank you.
[00:46:26] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:46:36] Shon, I would like to ask you the, the final change question, if that's okay. As in what change would you still like to see? And that can be for your own life or for the world around you, moving forwards.
Shon [00:46:48] Read my book if you want to see the change in the world. I'm going to talk about me! *Laughs*.
Annie [00:46:52] Good, good, good, good.
Shon [00:46:54] The final change I would like to see right, is, it's something I'm working out at this stage in my life now, is a little bit of resolution or a less of a reliance on my relationship to men romantically, defining who I am. And I think I'm you know, I think I'm in that and I think I am in a process of change, but it's something that I have been seeking out to change. Why? Well, it really relates to everything else we've said is that- and my next book after The Transgender Issue, which I'm writing at the moment, is about love. And that seems like a gear change. But to me, all of these things seem about like fear of not being loved, unlovable fear of abandonment, everything we've talked about. And I think for trans- well, for women generally, but for trans women, especially those of us who date men, I've seen it again and again is that we come out, we transition and we turn on TV. There's no trans woman in happy, fulfilling relationships. Sometimes you see a trans woman and she's a sex worker. You see trans women in porn, frankly, you know, and that's not to do down sex workers, but that is, that's your representation of what men, cis men and trans women, how they'll meet. And so I think that creates a state of despondency, but also reliance then on many men. And when I talk about, you know, I haven't experienced serious domestic violence from a partner, so I wouldn't want any ambiguity about that. However, I have experienced pretty unpleasant dynamics with men that I've dated in the past. Experienced really intolerable things. You know, the things that like, people's- you know men I've dateds friends would say about me. Like, are you dating that tranny? And I would be like, oh, I'm so sorry that happened to you. How awful for your friend to say that about me. I mean, literally, that's what I would do. Only meeting men after 11 in places that I knew that they'd pick because they didn't want to be seen with a visibly trans woman, all of this stuff! Then, you know, basically just before the pandemic started in early 2020, I had the most significant relationship of my post-transition life. And I really, really loved that person and he loved me as well. And that's great. But I think I thought that was going to change my life. All the self-acceptance was going to come and everything. And then suddenly, about a year into the relationship, we had a conversation and I realised he wants children. It's a big part of what he's always envisioned for his future. And not only can I obviously not bear children, but I also erm, I mean, you know physically rather than like, 'I can't stand kids!' *laughing*.
Annie [00:49:26] *Laughs* just can't bare 'em.
Shon [00:49:30] Yeah, but yeah I cannot carry a child. But also I don't want children. And I'd made that decision a long time ago. And so I had this thing where I was in love with someone and they were in love with me and realising, oh, this relationship has to end. And this was a new problem that was not really connected to stigma about me being trans, but just like one of the fucking things that happens with compatibility. And yeah, I was devastated. That was like, you know, a break up when you're still in love with someone is devastating, I'm sure lots of people can relate to that. But what I also realised is not only did that relationship die, but also a lot of very arguably co-dependent hopes about me men were dying too. And for a little while I wanted that back and I dated like a maniac. And what was happening again and again and again was the behaviour was becoming, I dunno, more and more toxic because my desperation was increasing. And I'm lucky that I, after a few conversations with both my mother and some friends, I sort of stopped and thought, what are you doing? You are giving out desperation and you're getting what comes back to you and that like. Yeah, men who treat women they date not very well. Yes, that's their responsibility but you know, at a point you have to also be like the common denominator is me. So for me, I am interested in what love means and what we invest, all of us, in romantic love. Particularly women. And particularly what happens if love isn't supposed to save you from yourself or from your circumstances. And in my case, it's maybe not there to satisfy these heteronormative ideas of marriage and children. What's it for? And is it okay to rely on it? How much is too much reliance? Where does love come? You know, all of these things. You know, I confessed in a therapy session not that long ago, and this was before maybe the success of the book, but I still was like, I don't care how many books I sell, you know, on some level. Whether it becomes a Sunday Times bestseller or whatever in my career, I feel like I've failed as a woman and in my transition without a boyfriend. And that was after many, many sessions of getting to that point where I could admit that. But it was very freeing, like so many things when you admit what you actually feel, whether it's, you know, the feminism leaving my body. But I'm fascinated by it, about what, you know, there are so many, especially successful women, you know, who have said that.
[00:51:56] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:52:03] In the book, you do case studies, which I mean, I could talk to you about them for about a week. So interested in the people that you went to see and speak to. In one of these case studies you meet a girl called Alex and her parents. You and Alex are only one generation apart, and you kind of have this revelation upon leaving Alex and her parents about, you know, how much things have changed within one generation. And I wanted to kind of end with that, you know, kind of with this feeling of that things- you know, not saying it's all going to be fucking rosy. But for transpeople, it is changing and how it is and how you've noticed that and use Alex as a kind of template for that.
Shon [00:52:44] Yeah, well this girl who at the time I interviewed her for the book, I think was about eight or nine years old. She was yeah, as I say in the book, one generation down from me. And, you know, she was a particular case where her parents had got the right information at the right time and supported her. And obviously, that isn't necessarily the case for all transgender people now. But what I yeah, recognised is that despite the challenges ahead of her, the difference between her and I is she was moving into a world where hostility against trans people hasn't necessarily vanished, but there is at least acceptance that trans people exist. And more and more of us around. Yeah, more and more, I guess light in the darkness. And I think that's the key difference that's changed is that we've talked a lot in this podcast about shame. You know, when we say trans pride, gay pride, literally, why do they call it pride in the seventies? It's because the opposite of pride is shame. Shame is so toxic. Shame is so destructive and useless and pointless. And LGBT people and trans young people can be given so much of it, so young, so unnecessarily, and it doesn't need to be that way. And I think what I saw with that child on that day that I met her and left her family home was a possibility of seeing a time where we do not have to hand people that shame. Because if you don't give it to them in the first place, I think whatever life throws at you, I think you have a good stab at dealing with it. But when you burden someone that young with that, it's I don't know, it's just giving them something that they're going to have. If you're going to lead a happy, healthy life, trust me, in your thirties you're going to have to do it. You're going to have to go back and do all that work eventually anyway.
Annie [00:54:35] You have to do the work, yeah.
Shon [00:54:38] So yeah for me, it was just a glimpse into a possibility like, look, it doesn't have to be this way. And we need to keep that hope because right now with the government we have, with the vicious anti-trans campaigning in this country, you know. There are people right now campaigning for, children should not be taught about gender identity or trans people in schools. That is a talking point in this country. And we have a government potentially sympathetic to that. And that is Section 28 repeated. And so, yeah, I guess for anyone listening to this, I'm just very keen that we think about it like that. Do we want to hand children shame, or do we want to hand them the tools from which they can build a happy life? And for for me, it's that simple.
Annie [00:55:24] Shon Faye, thank you so much for being on Changes today. I'm so thankful to Shon for coming on Changes and talking us through what were some really traumatic and kind of knotty periods in her life. She's so talented as a writer and I would urge you to buy and read her book, The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice. I'll put a link to it in the show notes. I learnt so much from it. It's really eye opening and enlightening and informative. As always, let us know what you thought of Shon. Get on to my Instagram, Annie Macmanus and give me your comments. It's always good to hear from you. If you like this episode, go back and listen to Shon's friend, Travis Alabanza, who was equally incredible at speaking about their experiences of kind of growing into their identity, and spoke really wisely about just the concept of pretending to be someone you're not and how we're all at it deep down, from the man in the suit on the tube to, you know, the school mum at the gate. There's a whole element of performative aspects in so much of our culture. They kind of paralleled that with drag queen culture and it was, it was just one of those jaw dropping, 'oh, of course!' moments. It's well worth a listen. Okay, tell your friends and family to subscribe to the new season and if you missed them, just FYI we kicked off this season with Joanne McNally, the Irish comedian and co-host of the podcast, My Therapist Ghosted Me. Then we had Robbie Williams and Professor Brian Cox last week. It's been a wonderful first month. And in case you are hard of hearing or if you know of anyone who'd rather consume this podcast in written form, we put a transcript of each episode on my website. There's a link in the show notes for that too. We are back next Monday with none other than pop icon, Sam Smith. Changes is produced by Louise Mason through DIN productions. Take really good care and we'll see you next week.