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The controversy over Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and trans women, explained

Adichie’s comments, and the backlash they inspired, fit into a very old fight in feminism.

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By 2013, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was already a literary sensation known the world over for her beautiful prose and complex, lively characters. Her star rose even higher after Beyoncé sampled her well-known TED talk, “We Should All Be Feminists.” Adichie’s simple challenge — that for all of our sakes, men and women alike must actively work to change a gender-unequal culture — resonated deeply with many.

Now, though, some feminists are sharply criticizing Adichie for comments she made about transgender women. In an interview on Britain’s Channel 4 News, Adichie said: “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women.”

Adichie’s critics say these remarks implied that trans women aren’t “real women” — a stereotype that transgender people constantly struggle against and find deeply offensive.

Adichie, who is also an LGBTQ-rights advocate in Nigeria, has since apologized and tried to clarify what she meant. She said that while trans women face tremendous oppression and must be supported, we should also be able to acknowledge real differences between transgender women and women who are not transgender, without suggesting that one experience is more important or valid than the other.

While some transgender people appreciated Adichie’s apology, the controversy still hasn’t gone away. That’s because Adichie’s comments touched on a long-running, often deeply divisive debate within feminism over what womanhood really means. And in an age of anti-trans bathroom laws and unprecedented public visibility of transgender people in society, that debate has taken on new urgency and relevance.

What Adichie said about trans women

In the Channel 4 interview, Adichie was asked whether it matters “how you arrived” at being a woman — whether a trans woman is “any less of a real woman” if she also grew up “enjoying the privileges of being a man.” (The question of whether transgender women are “real women” has been a hot topic in British media lately, following a controversial op-ed on the subject by BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour broadcaster Jenni Murray.)

This was Adichie’s response:

When people talk about, “Are trans women women?” my feeling is trans women are trans women. I think the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experiences. 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.

…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.

After her initial comments were criticized as transphobic, Adichie responded with a lengthy Facebook post. She said the concerns of her critics were “valid,” and attempted to clarify what she meant — that gender is a problem “not because of how we look or how we identify or how we feel but because of how the world treats us”:

I see how my saying that we should not conflate the gender experiences of trans women with that of women born female could appear as if I was suggesting that one experience is more important than the other. Or that the experiences of trans women are less valid than those of women born female. I do not think so at all — I know that trans women can be vulnerable in ways that women born female are not. This, again, is a reason to not deny the differences.

Why does this even matter?

Because at issue is gender.

Gender is a problem not because of how we look or how we identify or how we feel but because of how the world treats us.

Girls are socialized in ways that are harmful to their sense of self – to reduce themselves, to cater to the egos of men, to think of their bodies as repositories of shame. As adult women, many struggle to overcome, to unlearn, much of that social conditioning.

A trans woman is a person born male and a person who, before transitioning, was treated as male by the world. Which means that they experienced the privileges that the world accords men. This does not dismiss the pain of gender confusion or the difficult complexities of how they felt living in bodies not their own.

Because the truth about societal privilege is that it isn't about how you feel. (Anti-racist white people still benefit from race privilege in the United States). It is about how the world treats you, about the subtle and not so subtle things that you internalize and absorb.

Why Adichie’s initial remarks were criticized as transphobic

Activists In Chicago Rally For Transgender Protections Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

When Adichie was asked directly asked whether trans women are “real women,” her response was that “trans women are trans women.” That, critics said, suggests that Adichie sees trans women as a separate category from “real women” — which is dangerous because of the types of discrimination that transgender people face.

“[Adichie’s] mistake is to try to silo out trans women,” Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan, Trans/Gender Nonconforming Justice Project Director at the National LGBTQ Task Force, told Vox. “It sends the message: ‘It’s okay not to think about trans women, they're not the same as us.’”

Adichie probably didn’t mean to hurt trans women, Rodriguez-Roldan said, and was “very much correct” when she called gender a social construct in her apology. But if gender is largely about how people treat us in society, Rodriguez-Roldan said, then you also can’t ignore the way society treats trans people specifically.

Transgender people face discrimination in bathrooms, in housing, and on the job. They have alarmingly high rates of poverty and suicide, and often fall victim to violent hate crimes. All of this, when you get down to it, is because some think that transgender people aren’t “really” the gender they claim to be, and that they should be forced to conform to what the sex on their birth certificate says.

Transgender people also don’t just “sort of change gender” on a whim, as Adichie’s comments seemed to suggest. They often live in existential agony, feeling that who they fundamentally are as a person doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth, and that they can’t do anything about it unless they’re prepared to lose everything.

Some transgender people live this way for decades before transitioning, while others are able to express their gender as they see fit from a young age.

There’s also a dark history in the feminist movement itself when it comes to remarks that are similar to Adichie’s.

So-called trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs, believe that trans women should be considered men for all practical purposes. Like many social conservatives, TERFs tend to push harmful myths about trans women preying on “real” women in bathrooms and other gender-segregated spaces. While they are relatively small in number, Evan Urquhart and Parker Marie Molloy point out at Slate, TERFs are visible and noisy, foster mistrust between trans women and lesbian cis women, and have even been known to maliciously “out” trans women to families and employers.

Not all radical feminists are “TERFs” by any means. Indeed, while some radical feminists consider the term TERF to be a slur that demonizes their views, the term was popularized by radical feminists who wanted to separate themselves from their anti-trans peers.

But the history of this kind of bigotry has taken a toll, Rodriguez-Roldan said. Even if Adichie didn’t mean any harm, she said, many transgender people couldn’t help but hear her comments as just another way of telling trans women that they don’t belong. And trans women are pretty tired of hearing new versions of that same old story.

Why some feminists are taking Adichie’s side

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Many feminists agree that gender is a social construct — that women are expected to “act feminine” and are punished if they don’t, and that men are punished for acting feminine because they’re not supposed to. And on top of that, women are punished for being too feminine, since femininity is considered less “serious” or important in society than masculinity.

To some radical feminists, though, gender is entirely a social construct. We only act in “masculine” or “feminine” ways because that’s what we’re expected to do. So the idea of “living as a woman” when you’ve been “born male” doesn’t make much sense. If dismantling patriarchy is all about rejecting gender stereotypes, then what does it mean if someone starts “living as a woman” by wearing dresses and makeup?

If a trans woman was assigned male at birth, the thinking goes, she may have been treated like a man her entire life before her transition — and that can have real advantages, even if she was also mocked for seeming effeminate. Men, and those assumed to be male, may get called on more often in class, promoted more often at work, have fewer child care burdens, or be able to take medicines that are more tailored to their physiology. They have never had to worry about getting pregnant. And so on.

For these feminists, the only meaningful separation between men and women is their biology, and the way society treats them as a result. For thousands of years, women have been oppressed specifically because of their reproductive biology. Radical feminists worry that we might lose sight of this if gender-specific terms like “pregnant women” fall out of favor because they exclude trans people.

This is the basic point that Adichie seemed to be making — that the experience of being “women born female,” as she put it, and the experience of transitioning to a woman just aren’t the same, and that it’s foolish to pretend they are.

But when trans advocates and allies say that “trans women are women,” they’re not actually trying to say that transgender women are the same as cisgender women (women who aren’t transgender). They’re trying to say that these differences shouldn’t disqualify trans women from the broader category of “womanhood.”

After all, it’s possible to find an exception for just about every conventional idea of what it means to be “born female” or to be “biologically female.” Is it having two X chromosomes, or having a vagina or a uterus, or not having a penis? Plenty of intersex people who are assigned female at birth, and continue to be considered female later in life, don’t fit one or more of these categories.

Neither gender nor biological sex is quite as simple as what’s on your birth certificate, trans advocates argue. And even if we don’t know what causes gender dysphoria, that doesn’t make it any less real for the people who experience it.

The idea of “male privilege” gets complicated when it comes to trans women

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Laverne Cox
Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Essence

Many trans women reject Adichie’s notion that they really “experience the privileges that the world accords to men” before transitioning. For one thing, some trans women say, being treated like a man while feeling like a woman causes sustained psychological distress — not the self-confidence boost that men who feel themselves to be men might get from the same preferential treatment.

And once trans people come out (or even before they come out, if they’re perceived as effeminate), forget about any preferential treatment at all.

That’s why transgender people encourage cisgender people to recognize that it’s a privilege to be born with the biological sex characteristics that match how you feel inside.

It’s a complicated subject, though, and every trans woman is different. Laverne Cox summed this up with a thoughtful series of tweets about her own life:

This idea of intersectionality is supposed to help modern feminists recognize differences, without dividing people into silos based on those differences.

Black women can have very different experiences of being a woman than white women do, and straight women can have very different experiences of womanhood than lesbians do. Black lesbian women can have different experiences still. But you’d never hear any modern feminist say that black women aren’t really women, or that they should be excluded from women’s events.

“I think that for people who have been wounded by gendering, it's quite accurate and understandable to say, ‘You don't share the same wound that I share,’” said Susan Stryker, associate professor of gender and women’s issues at the University of Arizona. “Where I start to have a problem with that argument is when it gets used to challenge trans people's access to gendered public space.”

When you get down to it, transgender women are making pretty basic requests of feminism. They want to be heard and included. They want the freedom to be who they are in public and in society, with no exceptions or qualifiers. And they want to stop being forced to defend their womanhood, their basic sense of self, and their humanity, against people who consider those things to be up for debate.

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