The Huffington Post article, “Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Under Fire For Comments About Trans Women,” is just one of the many that have recently been published regarding Adichie’s comments about trans women’s experiences. In an interview for British news station Channel 4, Adichie suggests that trans women do not have the same experience as women who have been “born female.” Forgive me for my weak paraphrase here, but I’m angry. I’m not angry because I believe that trans women’s experiences are the same as cis/het women’s experiences. I’m not angry because I think that Adichie is excluding trans women’s experiences from feminism (although perhaps she unknowingly is with these comments). However, I am angry because I think it’s wrong to say that trans women are not born female. Further, I think it’s even more problematic to suggest that a trans woman, born female in the wrong body, has what society considers male privilege (I of course understand that there are cases where a trans woman may have been a very successful “man” before transition, and that perhaps on occasion, a trans woman might have experienced aspects of male privilege). A trans woman is a woman from the moment they are born, albeit a woman with different biological parts than some. So to say that they have privilege that the world gives to men is to say that a person’s gender is based solely on their external sex organs.
For me, intersectional feminism holds the understanding that trans women are women from the time of their birth, and creates a space to hear those experiences.
I could go on and on, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll let women like Laverne Cox talk about the male privilege they didn’t have when they were growing up. And I’ll let the twitter storm that has erupted with #MalePrivilegeDiaries to fill in the blanks
Yesterday morning Adichie posted on facebook in response to the controversy:
Of course trans women are part of feminism.
I do not believe that the experience of a trans woman is the same as that of a person born female. I do not believe that, say, a person who has lived in the world as a man for 30 years experiences gender in the same way as a person female since birth.
Gender matters because of socialization. And our socialization shapes how we occupy our space in the world.
To say this is not to exclude trans women from Feminism or to suggest that trans issues are not feminist issues or to diminish the violence they experience – a violence that is pure misogyny.
But simply to say that acknowledging differences and being supportive are not mutually exclusive. And that there is space in feminism for different experiences.
I appreciate Adichie’s attempt at clarification, but I still think Adichie is missing the point. A transwoman has not lived in the world as a man before they transition. A transwoman has lived as a woman (or gender nonconforming person) in a body that also has a penis. To say this experience, because of having a penis and extra facial hair, extends to more privilege just isn’t true. Is it true that a transwoman could have passed for a man before they transitioned? Sure, that may be true. That doesn’t mean that they have an experience that aligns with a cis/het/white male’s experience.
Obviously a trans person’s experience is different from a cis/het person’s experience which is different from a cis/gay person’s experience. That’s not the contentious point in Adichie’s statement. It’s that she takes her comparison one step too far–one step past the point of identifying differences and embracing them.
If we are going to encourage a feminism that is truly intersectional, then we can not assume that trans people “sort of changed, switched gender” (Adichie interview). This language implies that to be trans, is to flip a switch, or just change clothes. I do not think we would speak so cavalierly about race, or other “women’s issues.” We must also move away from language that says, “Transgender people should be allowed to be.” They should be allowed to be what? To be themselves?
Most trans women have not experienced the elusive male privilege that our society has romanticized. So why would we, intersectional feminists, buy into this myth?
We must do better. Language and naming still matters. Labels, whether we like them or not, are still an integral part of our world.
Transwomen are women, and have always been women. Period.
Sarah Sandman is a genderqueer lesbian living in the midwest. She teaches creative writing, and writes poetry and creative nonfiction.