Last week, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave an interview to Channel 4 wherein she said she believes the cis-woman experience is different from the trans-woman experience, and therefore it’s dangerous to conflate the two as one common female experience.
“When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women,” she said. And then: “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.”
The reaction to her comments online was swift. Feminist and activist corners of the internet began calling her out for dangerously overestimating the privilege of trans women. Others countered that she was just trying to make a point about different experiences. Everyone was and still is in-fighting.
It’s a little surprising to see it aimed at Adichie, though, a celebrated activist voice and the author of Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists who has enjoyed what seems like unanimous acclaim since she rose to fame in 2012. In 2015, Sweden’s Women’s Lobby bought a copy of the latter for every 16-year-old in the country and it made news all over the world. She’s received the MacArthur “genius” grant; won the O. Henry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; her TED talk has over 12 millions views and was sampled by Beyonce in “Flawless.” Before last week, it was hard to find bad press on Adichie.
Late last night, she posted a response on her Facebook titled “CLARIFYING.” “Diversity does not have to mean division,” she wrote. “Because we can oppose violence against trans women while also acknowledging differences. Because we should be able to acknowledge differences while also being supportive. Because we do not have to insist, in the name of being supportive, that everything is the same. Because we run the risk of reducing gender to a single, essentialist thing.”
This did little to quiet the chatter. Not 24 hours later, the comments are over a thousand and counting and the think pieces are cropping up quickly. Many accuse her of reducing the female experience, the very thing she was condemning. “Just as it was wrong for womanhood to be narrowly defined within the hegemonic white woman’s experience, so too is it wrong for womanhood to be defined as the hegemonic cisgender woman’s experience,” wrote Raquel Willis on The Root in a piece titled “Trans Women Are Women. This Isn’t a Debate.”
“I get the fundamental argument you’re making Ms. Adichie,” said one Facebook commenter, “But I wholeheartedly disagree. See, the problem with your argument, from my perspective at least, is that you’re basing it on this assumption that trans women enjoy male privileges by virtue of being born male.”
Laverne Cox responded in a 16-part tweet and touched on both points. “For over 60 years, since Christine Jorgensen stepped off the plane from Europe and became the first internationally known trans woman, the narrative about trans folks in the media was one of macho guy becomes a woman,” she wrote. “That’s certainly not my story or the stories of many trans folks I know. That narrative often works to reinforce binaries rather than explode them. That explosion is the gender revolution I imagine, one of true gender self determination.”
As with other debates of this nature, most involved have entered the conversation with a perspective and stuck with it. This conversation over what it means to be a feminist has been ongoing in left-wing circles. Adichie’s comments have simply brought this discussion further to the forefront.
“This insistence on feminist purity and perfection is not making the tent wider and more welcoming,” wrote one commenter on The Root piece, “but rather we’re allowing those tiny misunderstandings to divide us. There’s no room to learn, no humor, no kindness. Meanwhile, patriarchy watches in delight as we do its job ourselves.”
What do you think of all this?
Here’s the full Channel 4 interview, in case you’re curious to see:
Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images.