Sex & Gender

dear chimamanda, being violently forced to be someone you’re not is not a privilege

March 13, 2017

Dear Ms. Adichie,

Because of the fearless way you have defended and protected your sisters, over the past few years you have become one of the foremost feminist icons in the world. But after your interview with U.K.’s Channel 4 last week in which you made uninformed and ultimately violent comments on the experiences of transgender women, I have to question the sincerity of this show of fearlessness.

In the video (below), you argued that “the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experiences,” before dismissively implying that a trans woman’s experience can be reduced to “how (they) wear (their) hair.” You stated that because gender is “about the way the world treats us,” and you believe trans women have “lived in the world as (men) with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender,” then they shouldn’t have their womanhood recognized as being the same as any other woman’s womanhood.

It should go without saying that trans women are more than how they wear their hair, and many trans people have never “changed gender.” The understanding that you are not the gender you were assigned can come as early as your earliest memories, and trans women have been forced—so violently that trans women of color have a life expectancy of only 35 years—to socialize into male roles that often have never fit them. Like transgender activist Laverne Cox explained, “the irony of my life is prior to transition I was called a girl and after I am often called a man.”

By Hari Ziyad, AFROPUNK contributor

This experience of womanhood prior to transitioning despite being perceived as male is one that is filled with patriarchal abuses informed by the same inability to understand gender that you display. These abuses are anti-woman, and affect trans and cis women alike. It’s worth noting that Black cis women are often denied their womanhood in the same way you are denying it of trans women. This is evident in how Black women were excluded from women’s rights movements in the past, and the way Black women like Serena Williams are still masculinized and animalized today.

The problem with so many cis people is that you talk too much about things you haven’t taken the time or energy to understand. You once rightfully schooled a white man by telling him “as a white man, you don’t get to define what racism is; you really don’t.” The same applies here: you don’t get to define transness; you really don’t. Trans people are the experts on their experiences, and if you listen to them you would know that no one is arguing that the trans and cis experiences are exactly the same. What is being said is that all cis women don’t have the same experiences either, yet all women are women and must fight against patriarchy all the same. Trans women are women who may not have the same experiences as cis women, but their lives certainly shouldn’t be reduced to the “privileged” of having their existence denied.

It’s also worth noting that this conversation about the past privilege of a person’s perceived gender rarely includes trans men, because then the argument would fall on its head. If trans women are privileged because of how they were perceived in the past, trans men—because they were first socialized as women and then further violated as trans people—would demand the focus of all of our feminist work, bringing trans issues to the forefront of our conversations. Are you willing to do that, Adichie?

Though my hope is that you begin to listen to trans people about their own lives, you have doubled down on your comments even after generous pushback. However, I know that unlearning our participation in systems of violence can be a long and arduous process, and trans people are still being more than charitable in their willingness to educate. So here is a great Twitter thread by a trans activist that counters your interview point by point and would be a great starting point for you and others at this stage of unlearning transantagonism.