In a recent interview with BBC Channel 4 author and self-proclaimed feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made remarks about transgender women that received immediate backlash from the transgender community and allies. When asked about how someone has “arrived” at being a woman, especially in regards to transgender women, Adichie had this to say: “I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges the world accords to men, and then sort of changed, switched 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 in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”
Soon after, prominent figures like actress Laverne Cox spoke candidly about their experience. In a series of tweets Cox said, “I was a very feminine child though I was assigned male at birth. My gender was constantly policed. I was told I acted like a girl and was bullied and shamed for that. My femininity did not make me feel privileged.” She continued, “I was a good student and was very much encouraged because of that but I saw cis girls who showed academic promise being nurtured in the Black community I grew up in in Mobile, Ala. Gender exists on a spectrum & the binary narrative which suggests that all trans women transition from male privilege erases a lot of experiences and isn’t intersectional. Gender is constituted differently based on the culture we live in. There’s no universal experience of gender, of womanhood.”
You would think such an expository and clear post would reach Adichie. However, it seems like it hasn’t. Adichie defended her comments at an event organized by the bookshop Politics & Prose on Monday. She argued, “This is fundamentally about language orthodoxy.” She continues, “There’s a part of me that resists this sort of thing because I don’t think it’s helpful to insist that unless you want to use the exact language I want you to use, I will not listen to what you’re saying.”
She further insists, “From the very beginning, I think it’s been quite clear that there’s no way I could possibly say that trans women are not women. It’s the sort of thing to me that’s obvious, so I start from that obvious premise. Of course they are women but in talking about feminism and gender and all of that, it’s important for us to acknowledge the differences in experience of gender. That’s really what my point is.”
When asked if she would apologize for her comments, Adichie was clearly against it, believing she doesn’t have “anything to apologize for.” She continues, “What’s interesting to me is this is in many ways about language and I think it also illustrates the less pleasant aspects of the American left, that there sometimes is a kind of language orthodoxy that you’re supposed to participate in, and when you don’t there’s a kind of backlash that gets very personal and very hostile and very closed to debate.”
What was missing from Adichie, who famously assisted Beyoncé in her “***Flawless” track, was the acknowledgment that male privilege wasn’t a thing for many transgender women. As actress and transgender activist Laverne Cox so beautifully explained, gender experiences can vary across cultures and locations. Expressions such as femininity (whether from a cis or transgender person) can be heavily policed or condemned causing a person to be non-privileged depending on your location and/or experience.
Hopefully, Adichie can handle such “debate” with an open ear in the future, considering the current crisis and societal struggles of transgender women and femmes.