Your Need To Know On Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Trans Women Comments
The Debrief: Chimamanda's point has, perhaps, been oversimplified but, however you slice it, there needs to be space within feminism for a wide range of experiences of womanhood
If there was such a thing as a feminist mega star, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would be it. At 39, with a viral TED talk, several novels, and non-fiction works under her belt, plus that time Beyoncé sampled her, she’s a truly contemporary feminist who has, arguably, spearheaded the fledgeling intersectional fifth wave of feminism more than anyone else.
This weekend, however, she found herself in the very same hot water that esteemed second wavers like Germaine Greer have fallen into. Speaking on Channel 4 news at the end of last week, Adichie discussed the issue of whether ‘transgender women are real women’.
‘When people talk about, “are trans women women?” my feeling is trans women are trans women’, she said. ‘I think the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experiences’, she added, ‘it’s not about how we wear our hair or whether we have a vagina or a penis. It’s about the way the world treats us, and I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.’
For Adichie, male privilege ultimately underpins the experiences of trans women from women who are not trans (otherwise known as cis women). However, she did stress that she supports transgender people, she just doesn’t think that trans experiences should be ‘conflated’ with cis women’s experiences: ‘I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women because I don’t think that’s true’ she also said.
Almost immediately, Adichie was condemned for her comments. Raquel Willis, a Black queer transgender activist, said that the author could not possibly comment on the experiences of trans women:
Chimamanda being asked about trans women is like Lena Dunham being asked about Black women. It doesn't work. We can speak for ourselves.— Raquel Willis (@RaquelWillis_) March 11, 2017
Cis women don’t need to feel threatened by trans womanhood. If your experience means less because trans women exist, that’s your problem.— Raquel Willis (@RaquelWillis_) March 11, 2017
Speaking at the Women of the World festival at London’s Southbank centre over the weekend, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addressed the furore and further explained her remarks:
‘It was…misunderstood by people who felt I was somehow saying that trans women were not part of feminism or not part of women’s issues…it’s dishonest and I don’t believe that we should insist on saying that the person who is born female and has experienced life as a woman has the same experiences of somebody who has transitioned as an adult. I don’t think it’s the same thing. I just don’t think it has to be the same thing in order for us to be supportive.’
Real bummer that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is actually a TERF. □— Julia Marie Schwartz (@jjulesmarie) March 11, 2017
This is just the latest episode in an ongoing tussle between the trans community and certain feminists (known as TERFs or trans-exclusionary radical feminists). However, unlike Germaine Greer, Adichie is not suggesting that there is no place for trans women within feminism, denying their existence as women or casting them as an enemy of feminism which Greer has done previously. What she said, in simple terms, is that the experience of a transwoman is not the same as a cis woman, because it inevitably has its own unique set of complications.
are we really angry that Chimamanda Adichie stated a fact in that trans women and cis women don't have the same exact experiences— riley matthews (@anna_bolinas) March 11, 2017
Adichie’s point about male privilege has, perhaps, been over simplified. But, however you slice it, it’s simply not the case that the experience of transwomen before they transition is always the same as that of a cis man because transgender people are more likely to have attempted suicide, to be unemployed or to be living in population than any other demographic group.
Actress Laverne Cox pointed out that the experience trans women have of growing up is rarely the same as that of young cis men.
1.I was talking to my twin brother today about whether he believes I had male privilege growing up. I was a very feminine child though I was— Laverne Cox (@Lavernecox) March 11, 2017
Perhaps the point here is that just as the experiences of cis women (depending on their race) are not all the same, the experiences of trans women are not all the same. To suggest that there is a universal experience of gender or womanhood, of what it is to be and live as a woman, is not only inherently flawed intellectually, but totally impossible.
There must be a way of having a conversation between trans women and cis women which can acknowledge this? Which celebrates our differences and unique struggles as women whilst acknowledging our common goals and working out how we can be supportive of one another’s needs, without erasing the specifics or undermining the importance of anyone’s experience?
‘Either or’ thinking is ultimately limited and only ever serves to divide us. No two experiences are mutually exclusive. Regardless of how we are born, or, rather, who we are born as, we are all the product of our experiences and our socialisation which is affected by where we are born in the world, what sort of family we are born into and so on. And so, it must logically follow that no two people will ever have the same experience. There needs to be space within feminism and feminist thinking to accommodate that.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie posted a final clarification, meanwhile on Twitter the debate continues:
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