Et tu, Chimamanda?

Guest writer Sam Hope reflects on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s recent pronouncement on trans women and challenges the notion of ‘real women’.


Content note: discussion of transmisogyny, abuse, violence

Things are getting worse for trans people lately. Trump has rolled back trans protections and over here in the UK, people with power and influence seem to be lining up to denounce us. Dame Jenni Murray was no particular surprise given the trans-sceptical nature of many Women’s Hour slots and the BBC’s overall stance towards us.

But my hero Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s latest offering is a knife in my heart.

From such a wonderful writer and thinker, whose TED talk The danger of a single story has been a huge influence on my ability to think in pluralistic, intersectional terms, the dull mediocrity of her latest “big” statement, is depressing and laughable. It approximates to “well, trans women aren’t really like other women, are they?” It seems to say a lot, while saying nothing at all.

It also points to how boring and obvious you can be when you hold the privileged position in a debate. Such a contrast to the wonderful eloquence Adichie must reach for when speaking of the condition of African women. Because it sounds plausible, and nobody has to think too hard, people will nod as if this is her usual level of wisdom. Those of us without such a reach of course have to be much more clever to get people listening and nodding.

Trans women are just not the same, claims Adichie, but this applies to many women – white western women do not experience FGM, some women are infertile, not all women have relationships with men, not all women have XX chromosomes. People try many tricks to “other” trans women, but “woman” is a social construct – there is no such thing as a “real” woman, there is only a word used to describe a social grouping whose edges are ragged and complex as they bleed into intersex, non-binary, lesbian and sociologically and biologically outlying experiences.

It also points to how boring and obvious you can be when you hold the privileged position in a debate.

When feminism starts organising around common experiences, rather than showing solidarity with intersecting experiences, it quickly starts to essentialise what a woman is, what a woman experiences, and who a woman can be. If either biology or socialisation dictate who a person is in some unequivocal way, then we end up with a stark conclusion – there really are differences between the sexes that cannot be overcome, and biology really is destiny. This is not a feminist proposition at all.

The ignorant and rather boring way someone like Caitlyn Jenner often gets hauled out as the prime example of a trans woman only compounds the problem. Adichie does not name Jenner, but it’s clear her mental picture is of that rare trans narrative – someone who lived as and succeeded as a man before transitioning later in life.

Jenner is a very rare thing, a trans woman who managed to successfully hide the fact that she was a trans woman for a long time. This is unusual, almost as unusual as any woman successfully assimilating into a man’s world and winning at it. The likes of Margaret Thatcher spring to mind here as an example of how a woman can, with a few adjustments, like masculinising her voice, and a lot of selling out, win as a woman in a man’s world. But people can’t seem to grasp that there is a difference between living as a man, or like a man, and actually being a man.

The erasure, of course, is of the existence and visibility of what we call trans people throughout history and culture no matter how they try to conceal or reveal themselves. A trans person is not a series of medical or cosmetic treatments of a person who is just like any other person. A trans individual exists and has a divergent gendered experience no matter whether or not they transition. And for a trans woman, this experience is steeped in misogyny from day one.

The ignorant and rather boring way someone like Caitlyn Jenner often gets hauled out as the prime example of a trans woman only compounds the problem.

Most trans children are easy to spot, even if they don’t tell people around them what they are (as many do). Nowadays, of course, many trans kids are allowed to be themselves, which complicates the socialisation argument immeasurably. But even when not permitted, transness leaks out all over the place, making trans girls exceptionally vulnerable. This is evidenced by the extraordinarily high levels of childhood sexual abuse and bullying trans girls grow up with. Trans girls instinctively absorb and follow female socialisation cues and rules, and are continually punished and socially disadvantaged for this.

A minority of trans girls hide their transness completely. Even fewer manage to continue this well into adulthood, and are able to assimilate successfully into male culture. This minority of trans women may gain from some passing privilege if they are able to do this well. Of course, these are the trans figures who often end up being more visible and powerful, and their attitudes and histories skew the narrative of what a trans woman generally experiences.

But I work within the trans community and the story I see most is children who had gendered experiences that completely diverge from those of cis men. These days, these children mostly grow into young adults who are living openly as trans, whether or not they have medically transitioned or intend to. They often spend their late teens and early twenties struggling to get the care they need, as the system does not listen to young trans people the way it does to later transitioners. They are blighted by exploitation, marginalisation, unemployment, homelessness, estrangement and every kind of violence. There is a clear wage gap, a housing gap, a health gap and every other kind of inequality that makes the gap between cis white men and cis white women look like small change.

Trans girls instinctively absorb and follow female socialisation cues and rules, and are continually punished and socially disadvantaged for this.

So are trans women different from cis women? Absolutely. Their lives are inordinately more difficult.

Most trans women are not like Caitlyn. They have not hidden themselves so successfully. There is a fine history of women passing themselves off as men to get ahead in life, but this is no easier to do if you are a trans women than a cis woman. The tells are as obvious, the consequences for discovery far more dire.

I dislike Caitlyn intensely, and I do see her as very privileged. But she is still a woman; just that rare thing, a woman who managed to win. Although less rare is the reason she is as famous as she is – for marrying into money and fame. And also quite common is her lack of feminism – cis women are on average unlikely to be feminist, trans women on average, from my experience, are more likely to be feminist than not.

But we know Jenner was struggling with gender dysphoria throughout her life, and that is a psychological endurance no cis man would understand. Being a woman in hiding is nothing like being a man and confident of that fact. That Caitlyn managed to do well despite this is unusual, even for a late transitioner.

The point is not a semantic argument about what “the same” means and what “different” means, or what is “real”. No two women are ever the same, and yet they are able to show each other solidarity. Once, lesbians were pushed out of the women’s movement for “acting like men”, for not experiencing all of the same oppressions heterosexual women do, like beatings from husbands, being expected to do housework, their identity centred on motherhood. But the movement grew up and realised women don’t have to be the same to work together. No way would Adichie get away with making the same statement about lesbians that she did about trans women, and we need to get to the stage where even though she is free to say what she likes, onlookers can see that such a statement about trans people is every bit as awful, that such a statement is also not worthy of her enormous intelligence and perception on other issues.

Most trans women are not like Caitlyn. They have not hidden themselves so successfully.

We might have expected such silly statements from over-privileged journalists generating click-bait, but surely not from you, Chimamanda?

When people say trans women are not the same, it is always with the suggestion they have power and privilege, and the Jenners of this world are held up to prove this, in the same way Clinton and Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth are used by MRAs to prove women have real power. The ignorance of the condition of most trans women is astonishing. Statements like Adichie’s render their experiences all the more invisible.

The psychological impact of constantly having their identity questioned, qualified and othered is enormous. But more than this, the false characterisation of trans women leads to real violence, real exclusion from much needed services, and constant erosion of civil rights. It means being turned away from refuges and shelters, being housebound for want of a place to pee, dying in men’s prisons, and being subject to constant sexual assault and physical violence without being seen as worthy of protection.

If the right wing can use women’s fear of men to hold back the civil rights of trans people, then it will do just that. It likes to turn vulnerable people against each other. The difference, of course, is that men are able to attack women and get away with it. Women are disbelieved, men are believed. Men can confess to sexual assault one month and become president the next. If someone says a trans woman is dangerous, on the other hand, most people will believe this without evidence or reason. Trans women do not share that same privilege that men enjoy. They are propagandised as a threat by bad feminists and right wingers alike, and people swallow this whole and treat them as dangerous when they are in fact endangered.

We might have expected such silly statements from over-privileged journalists generating click-bait, but surely not from you, Chimamanda?

The right wing of course boosts the voices of feminists who serve its agenda, the gender essentialist lie that there are fundamental and insurmountable differences between two fixed classes – women and men. Science shows us something more messy – a web of overlapping traits and intersecting experiences that does not really bear simplistic generalisations. Women and men are not discreet and oppositional “facts” but hugely complicated socially constructed ideas, the reality of which we all live every day. My lot as a non-binary person assigned female may not be as dire as that of a trans woman, but it also belongs among the gender oppressed and does not fully align with cis men’s either. As a non-binary person, I am very aware of feelings of sameness and difference in relation to both trans women and cis women.

I do not accept that we are all divided. We exist on a continuum of experience but what is salient here is how gender oppresses us, and how we need to be showing solidarity and learning to be together in our differences. It’s time to drop these puerile semantics and acknowledge just how much of an emergency there is for our trans sisters who are dying while we debate how real they are.

Follow Sam on Twitter (@Sam_R_Hope)

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