How does it feel to be a transgender woman and not know it? According to author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, it feels so great it barely even counts as womanhood.
In an interview on Britain’s Channel 4 last Friday, Adichie was asked whether a transgender woman is “any less of a real woman.”
“When people talk about, you know, ‘Are trans women women?,’ my feeling is trans women are trans women,” she responded, directly refusing to affirm us as women.
After critics responded online, she shifted the goalposts. “Of course trans women are part of feminism,” she wrote the following day, demolishing an argument precisely no one had made. Adichie then felt moved to clarify her clarification, with the tepid admission that “Perhaps I should have said trans women are trans women and cis women are cis women and all are women.” But she continued to straw-man her critics again, this time claiming: “I think the impulse to say that trans women are women just like women born female are women comes from a need to make trans issues mainstream.”
A core part of Adichie’s argument — that trans and cis women have a variance in childhood experience — isn’t wrong by itself. It is different when some may be less likely than a cis woman to have lived the first however many years of their life under the constant threat of sexual assault. Just listen to the trans men who have commented on how liberating it is to walk down the street with male privilege for the first time.
After I came out as trans half a year ago, I quickly began to encounter the shifts in social status that come with starting to live as a woman. The more I pass, the more I deal with the standard pressures and microaggressions of patriarchy: men taking up more my space, catcalling, male friends demanding emotional labor, and so on.
Having started hormone therapy (HRT) only recently, I still have a few months before the physical changes become too obvious for me to go out in public in boy mode, for convenience or safety. In a sense, that utility belt of masculine performance could be loosely considered a ‘privilege’ in specific moments — like when I wore men’s clothes for the first time in weeks to disguise myself while reporting on an ‘alt right’ conference.
But everyone’s lived experiences are different — and Adichie is wrong to assume that the years prior to coming out can be so easily simplified to “male privilege.”
As Laverne Cox wrote on Twitter, her childhood experience of being perceived as a feminine boy erased any male privilege she could have had. “I was told I acted like a girl and was bullied and shamed for that,” Cox tweeted, describing the constant harm and scorn of being policed into the wrong gender to no avail. “My femininity did not make me feel privileged.”
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
Cox was critical of Adichie’s essentializing notion that all womanhood is the same and wrote that there are many diverse trans stories, not just those of “macho guy becomes a woman.”
“That’s certainly not my story or the stories of many trans folks I know,” she wrote. “That narrative often works to reinforce binaries rather than explode them.”
Cox’s experience speaks to the histories of many trans women and men who are put through hell for not living up to that impossible task. Being endlessly terrorized for not being able to “man up” (and internalizing it) is hard to navigate by itself.
Equally important, gender dysphoria is not a sociological construct. It is a biological condition that begins before birth, when the fetus is insensitive to certain hormones or when hormones don’t work properly in the womb. As pure scientific fact, gender dysphoria is simply a prenatal irregularity which, thanks to HRT and surgeries, is medically feasible to treat. Much of this has been known since at least as far back as Magnus Hirschfeld’s studies on trans people in the early 20th century — before his work was targeted and much of it destroyed by the Nazis.
Depression and anxiety are exceptionally common with gender dysphoria, in part due to the bullying and isolation, but also due to to your body screaming for the hormones it knows it needs and being ignored — sometimes for decades.
That level of discomfort is literally life-threatening. 41 percent of trans people have attempted suicide at some point, a rate which is even higher among trans people of color. Coping mechanisms to deal with both the physical and sociological distress are a major health risk, with high rates of self-harm and substance abuse among people not allowed to transition.
Years ago, I underwent a period of sustained amphetamine abuse, trying to cope with my psychological suppression of the fact that I am a woman. Coming out saved my life — repressing it had nearly killed me. Does Adichie think the egregious pain of our womanhood starts to affect us only after we begin transitioning? Not having discovered yet that you have gender dysphoria, or not having told anyone yet, is not a privilege.
Trans activist Raquel Willis challenged Adichie’s fantasy that womanhood is only oppression when everyone perceives you to be a woman: “it reminds me of how white women in the United States were initially viewed as a more valid type of woman than black women.”
“Defining womanhood purely by how we’re oppressed strips us of our agency and self-determination and empowers the patriarchy. I am a woman regardless of my experiences of sexual harassment and being invalidated by men at various points in my life. Further, these are experiences that she either thinks trans women can’t undergo or it matters less when these things happen to us.”
If you don’t know the science or the history of a subject but give a TV interview about it anyway, you are not behaving like an ally. If it then takes several days to be dragged kicking and screaming to say “trans women are women,” and even then you continue to invent fictional points that have nothing to do with what your critics actually said, you are not behaving like an ally.
This fight is taking place under an administration that is actively working to erase our existence. All you have to do is listen to people who know more than you, to those of us who have lived these experiences, and rather than speaking for us, let us tell our own stories.
Laurie is a DC-based freelance journalist from the U.K. She runs and edits the Leveller.