ndTrans Women And The Danger of A Single Story — Where Chimamanda Got It Wrong
On the importance of being seen, the many narratives of women, and the toxicity of exclusionary thinking.
At some point recently I became impatient with my transgender sisters. I became impatient because they didn’t act like good feminists. Some of them — especially what I consider the most problematic demographic among trans women — the middle-class, middle-aged, late-in-life transitioning White trans woman (raising own hand) — didn’t seem to even know much about feminism.
And I do think that’s a fair point.
But it’s the divide between cis and trans women that frustrates me. The antagonism I sometimes see in both groups of women.
At the Women’s March this year, a young trans gal had an angry sign denouncing the pussy hat.
Have you folks heard the mantra, “not all women have pussies, not all pussies are pink”?
I wrote an article in defense of the pussy hat. It’s up on this site. The gist of it is that the pussyhat is a unifying symbol. Not all pizza has pepperoni. And yet pizzeria logos tend to show pepperoni. Public restroom signs show a woman in a dress. Not every woman wears dresses, and women don’t wear dresses every day.
The pussyhat is just a symbol of women’s defiance. It does not mean that all women have pussies, it does not mean that all pussies are pink.
But trans women are angry. And hurt. And occasionally some of us express that anger and hurt — not toward other women as much as to other women. Usually in hopes for some empathy. And my concern is that a whole bunch of cis women may be left with this single story, of “the rude, angry trans woman.” — which sometimes, in its nastiest form, gets translated into “the male-entitled trans woman.”
We’re not male-entitled. We’re female-furious. There is a difference.
Trans women are angry. And hurt. And they show up in women’s spaces with their anger and their hurt. And my concern is that a whole bunch of cis women may be left with this single story, of “the rude, angry trans woman.” — which sometimes, in its nastiest form, gets translated into “the male-entitled trans woman.”
We’re not male-entitled. We’re female-furious. There is a difference.
We Should All Be Feminists
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of my personal heroes.
Now, most people know Chimamanda from her 2012 talk “We Should All Be Feminists.” Since 2015 the Swedish Government has been printing this talk into booklets and gives a copy to every sixteen-year old student.
In this talk, Chimamanda says:
“These Nigerians have been raised to think of women as inherently guilty. We teach girls shame. Close your legs! Cover yourself! We make them think that by being born female they're already guilty of something. And so girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think. And they grow up - and this is the worst thing that we do to girls - they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.”
She goes on to say, “The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be, rather than recognizing how we are. Now imagine how much happier we would be, how much free-er to be our true individual selves, if we didn't have the weight of gender expectations.”
And here is an especially powerful sentence in that speech: “Culture doesn't make people. People make culture. So if it is true that the full humanity of women is not part of our culture, then we must make it part of our culture.”
Where Chimamanda Got It Wrong
On March 2017 Chimamanda was interviewed by BBC. Asked whether she felt that trans women are women, she replied “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,” she added, “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.”
One of the many people who were angry about this was Nigerian trans activist Miss Sahhara, founder of TransValid.org. “I get a lot of online messages from Nigerian trans girls who are there now and they find it so difficult. A nightmare,” Sahhara told BBC Trending, “there's no male privilege for trans women in Africa.”
“I get a lot of online messages from Nigerian trans girls who are there now and they find it so difficult. A nightmare. There’s no male privilege for trans women in Africa.”
— Miss Sahhara
Sahhara says that it was “obvious to all” that she was “a girl in a boy's body.” “My uncles beat me up for the way I behaved," Sahhara says. "It's the way it's done in Africa.”
Raquel Willis, a National Organizer for the Transgender Law Center, tweeted three tweets in response, “Chimamanda being asked about trans women is like Lena Dunham being asked about Black women. It doesn't work. We can speak for ourselves.”
And, “We know exactly what you mean when you say, ‘Trans women are trans women,’ but can’t simply say, ‘trans women are women.’ ”
And, “Cis women don’t need to feel threatened by trans womanhood. If your experience means less because trans women exist, that’s your problem.”
Sadly, Chimamanda Ngozi missed the opportunity to learn, to understand. Instead, she doubled down, saying “ ‘It’s dishonest and I don’t believe that we should insist on saying that the person who is born female and has experienced life as a woman has the same experiences of somebody who has transitioned as an adult. I don’t think it’s the same thing. I just don’t think it has to be the same thing in order for us to be supportive.”
When Miss Sahhara was asked if she considers herself a feminist, this is what she said: “I believe in equal rights and pay for women,” she says, “but, when I start hearing the ladies from the TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), it discourages me from wanting to be part of feminism. We are fighting for equality and yet you say other women are not equal because you don’t feel comfortable with who they are or who they used to be.”
These women’s voices are at the center of this article. What does it mean to be a feminist? What does feminism mean to a trans woman?
Is Chimamanda Right?
Do trans women have male privilege? Are trans women socialized as men?
I’m going to spend some time telling you how and why what Chimamanda asserts is not true.
So let me first start by saying, what Chimamanda says is true.
“Trans women are socialized as men,” she said. “…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.”
In my case, specifically, she is mostly right. For many years, I lived in the world as a man with the privileges the world accords men. Not only that, but I presented to the world as a straight, married White man with property and children. I was basically a Patrician. In Old Rome I probably would’ve been able to vote. I mean, privilege.
So I’ll concede the point. Sort of.
But you know what? I was a woman then, too. I was a secret woman. And I lived in shame and self-loathing, and fear of being exposed as “not really a man.” I lived in fear of all that privilege crashing down on me because I really didn’t belong. While boys spent their childhood and adolescence enjoying their boyhood and their journey to manhood, I grew up in hiding, fearing being found out, fearing the word ‘sissy,’ lost as to what my journey was supposed to look like.
And also: This male socialization — as Chimamanda refers to it, this privilege is an advantage I brought with me. This mouthy bitch is using her “male socialization” and her voice to talk about women’s rights. I’ve been leading workshops on consent and boundaries for two years now. I just hosted a panel on consent culture. Earlier this year I hosted a panel called Positive Models of Healthy Masculinity, with wonderful panelists Laurie Bennett-Cook PhD, Ethan Shattuck, Hercules Liotard, Ken Cosby, Heather Brewer MFT, & Wry (A Wry Perspective).
Whatever privilege I may have left, I’m using it to stand up for women — ALL women.
If you’ll allow me an analogy I really like: I’m from Argentina. Argentina is wide open to immigrants, and accepts them as her own. You live in Buenos Aires a month, people accept you as a local. You’re one of them. In China though, an American could live there a decade — own property, get married to a Chinese person, have Chinese kids — they’ll still be referred to as “that foreigner.”
And these countries are not even at war with each other. How about the Japanese-Americans who were marched off to camps during World War II? They were American citizens — but they looked like the enemy.
Do I look like a foreigner to you? Do I look like the enemy?
Do I still have male privilege? Ask the man who patted me on the head and called me ‘honey.’ As the man who tried to overcharge me for car repair. Ask the men who keep interrupting me during corporate meetings. Ask the man who called me a ‘cunt.’ Ask the man who threw a beer can at me. Ask the man who sexually assaulted me.
The ‘Common Narrative’ of Women
Let’s talk about the common narrative. Do cis women and trans women share a common narrative? No, they don’t. But White and Black women don’t share a common narrative. Rich and poor women don’t share a common narrative. A child bride in India does not share the narrative of a California teenager.
The narratives of women are many.
In fact, the stories of feminism are many — and often at odds with one another.
Betty Friedan’s talk of “the problem that has no name” fell flat with women of color who were not sitting home, bored — women who had been out in the workplace from a young age, out of sheer economic hardship and financial necessity.
Which brings me to another hero of mine: Ida B. Wells.
I don’t know how many of you know that Ida lost both her parents to yellow fever when she was 16 years old. At 16, Ida took on the task of supporting and raising her five siblings, working as a teacher. Oh, and in her free time, she started a newspaper. An unmarried Black woman in the South — owner of a newspaper. That should give you an idea of the type of woman Ida was.
Her salary as a teacher was $30 a month. White teachers got $80 a month — same job.
Do you think Ida B. Wells would’ve identified with Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique?
There’s more to Ida’s story.
Ida had this crazy notion that Black people deserved to have rights. Such radical ideas didn’t go unpunished, and eventually she was fired. So she became a full-time journalist.
When Ida was 30 years old, she witnessed a lynching. And not just any lynching. Tom Moss was a dear friend of Ida’s — she was the godmother to his first kid.
Tom had opened a grocery store in 1889, and had a pretty good run. Then, three years later, a mob of White men invaded his store. He tried to fight back, and two friends tried to help him. Three White men were injured. Not killed — injured. The three Black men were arrested. That night, a mob dragged Tom and his friends out of the jail and lynched them.
This event sent Ida on a mission. She traveled the South - alone, a Black single woman - documenting lynchings. She documented 124 of them.
To put this in perspective - last year at Transgender Day of Remembrance we were outraged because 25 trans folk were killed in 2017. And 25 is a lot. But I’m just saying, in just a few months, Ida Wells documented 124 lynchings.
Something else that was going on at the turn of the century was the temperance movement. (Which was a good idea - because Americans drank a LOT back then.)
Frances Willard, President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, was in the UK to get financial backing from British liberals.
The problem is, a lot of the WCTU’s rhetoric was fear-mongering about Black men getting drunk and raping white women. Here’s a quote by Willard: “The colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt,” she had said. And, “the grog shop is its center of power.... The safety of women, of childhood, of the home is menaced in a thousand localities.”
Well, turns out Ida Well was in London at the time, to start the London Anti-Lynching Committee.
Ida spoke about lynchings, and about the fact that this whole “Black men are raping White women” was… how shall we put it… “alternative facts.” Actually, what was going on in the South was that White men were raping Black women. And lynching Black men.
Frances Willard was a rich, famous White feminist. Lady Somerset in England was a rich, famous White feminist. They both tried to shut Ida Wells up. It didn’t work.
I bring this up because here’s one example of a good cause - temperance - being twisted by privilege (in this case White privilege).
It’s really easy to say “Look how right we are” by pointing at a marginalized demographic and othering them. And notice the refrain - the safety of women, of women and children. The same litany used today against trans folk.
It’s sad how activists fall in this trap. Mahatma Gandhi fell into this same trap in his younger days - as a young lawyer in South Africa, he tried to improve things for his fellow Indians by contrasting them with the “kaffirs” (which was a nasty way to refer to Black people).
Gandhi had a deep change of heart when he witnessed White brutality against Black people during the Boer war in 1906. This is pretty much what got him started in his activism - he realized that cozying up to the oppressor doesn’t work - and that one has to stand up against the oppressor and stand with the oppressed. This is the basic concept of intersectionality.
Cozying up to the oppressor doesn’t work — one has to stand up against the oppressor and stand with the oppressed. This is the basic concept of intersectionality.
Systems of Oppression Are Blind to One Another
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”
That’s a Martin Luther King Jr. quote. Injustice anywhere.
I bet you know who Martin Luther King was? But do you know who Ella Jo Baker was?
Ella was one of the major leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. But she was a woman. So she doesn’t get as much mention. Ella was Director of the New York branch of the NAACP back in 1952. She was a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). MLK was the organization’s president, she was the acting executive director. Until she quit in 1960 because she got fed up of Black men ignoring her voice.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” the man says. But when it comes to sexism happening under his nose, MLK didn’t see it. Why? The blindness of privilege. The lack of intersectional thinking.
You get the idea? Even the most earnest liberals and progressives are often blind to their own privilege. It’s easy to leave people out when the problem doesn’t affect you personally.
Here’s what Laverne Cox has to say: “I was bullied and shamed for acting like a girl. I would contend that I did not enjoy male privilege prior to my transition. Patriarchy and cissexism punished my femininity and gender nonconformity. The irony of my life is prior to transition I was called a girl and after I am often called a man.”
“I was bullied and shamed for acting like a girl. I would contend that I did not enjoy male privilege prior to my transition. Patriarchy and cissexism punished my femininity and gender nonconformity. The irony of my life is prior to transition I was called a girl and after I am often called a man.” — Laverne Cox
Here is Jackie’s story. Give it a listen, and tell me how much male privilege, how much male socialization Jackie has experienced. Tell me why Jackie should ever need to be othered as anything different than simply, “woman.”
Jackie’s story is part of a series of stories published by Really TV Channel.
Debi Jackson is a good friend of mine - her daughter Avery Jackson was on the cover of National Geographic in January 2017, under the headline “Transgender Revolution.” Avery insistently and consistently referred to herself as a girl when she was as young as four. Avery began living as a girl at five years old. She’s now 12. Has Avery lived in the world as a man, with the privileges of men?
Last year I held a conference called the Empowered Trans Woman Summit. One of the trans gals I interviewed told me how she had to be removed from her home by Child Protective Services because her father was beating her with a metal pipe, because she kept “acting like a sissy.” She was eight years old. Did this trans woman enjoy the privileges accorded to men?
One reason I’m so disappointed is the Chimamanda SHOULD get it.
Here’s a quote from Chimamanda: “ I actually learned quite a bit about systems of oppression — and how they can be blind to one another.”
And how they can be blind to one another. Blind to one another. Blind.
My introduction to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was not her 2012 TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists.” (although that’s a great talk). I know her from her 2009 TED Talk “The Danger of the Single Story.”
In that talk, Chimamanda talks about growing up privileged upper middle class in Lagos, Nigeria. Her family had a houseboy, Fide. All she had heard about him was how poor his family was. And then one Saturday she visited Fide’s village, and was shocked to find them full of joy, leading happy lives. She had a single story for Fide.
Chimamanda talks about coming to the US as a college student - and finding that Americans had a single story about Africa - one of pity, or wars, of AIDS.
These people could not comprehend the notion that Chimamanda spoke perfect English, listened to Mariah Carey and knew how to use a washer-dryer.
And Chimamanda talks about her stay in Guadalajara - about her shocking realization - and about being overcome with shame, when she realized that she had bought into a single story of Mexicans - that of the abject immigrant.
And yet Chimamanda seems totally comfortable embracing a single story about trans women.
After the controversy erupted, Chimamanda said, this is just about the “orthodoxy of language.” She says, “Had I said, ‘a cis woman is a cis woman, and a trans woman is a trans woman,’ I don’t think I would get all the crap that I’m getting, but that’s actually really what I was saying. But because ‘cis’ is not a part of my vocabulary – it just isn’t – it really becomes about language — and the reason I find that troubling is to insist that you have to speak in a certain way and use certain expressions, otherwise we cannot have a conversation.”
First of all, no, it’s not. It’s not just about language.
And secondly, language MATTERS.
It makes a difference if you call a black person “colored” - or the “N” word, or African-American or just Black. Or kaffir. Language matters.
In Argentina - where I grew up, they tend to be really prejudiced against Paraguayans. Paraguay is a poor country, and folks from Paraguay come to Argentina for work, for a better life. And Argentinians have the whole prejudice toolkit - the racist jokes, the nasty myths, the sensationalist stories.
When I was in Argentina in 2003, I saw a headline in the News program “La Crónica” (The Chronicle) that read: “Big fire: 3 persons killed, and 4 paraguayans.”
It matters if you don’t refer to someone as a person.
Sure, they were called out for it, and they apologized. But you see my point? Language matters.
Please look at these quotes from Chimamanda’s 2009 TED talk, and consider how they could apply to the transgender story.
“I had bought into the single story of Mexicans, and I could not have been more ashamed of myself. So that is how to create a single story — show a people as one thing — as only one thing. Over and over again. And that is what they become.”
“It is impossible to talk about a single story without talking about POWER. There’s a word — an Igbo word — that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the World — and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates as “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of “nkali.” — how they’re told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of that person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
“The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue — but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
“The consequence of the single story is this — it robs people of their dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different, rather than how we are similar.”
One thing I think Chimamanda doesn’t seem to get is that there are TERFs in the world.
Sometimes trans women push back and use TERF as a slur. I’m not using it as a slur. I am using it to describe a very specific, narrow band of feminism.
Not all women are TERFs - not by a wild long shot: First of all not all women are Feminists. Secondly, depending who you ask, there are roughly about a dozen types of Feminism. And not all Feminists are TERFs. I mean, I’m a feminist. And I’m not a TERF.
One thread of Feminism is Radical Feminism. One of the main tenets of Radical Feminism is to fight Patriarchy, resist gender roles. Some Radical Feminists are trans-exclusionary. Some aren’t.
But the ones who are, hate us. I mean, HATE us.
Janice Raymond wrote a book in 1979 called “The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male.” She has been criticized and called a TERF. This is what Ms. Raymond herself has on her website, trying to clarify her position: “I contend that the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.”
I like to point out that Ms. Raymond started out as a Nun, got a BA in English Literature, a Masters in Religious Studies, and a PhD in Ethics and Society. No degrees in medicine, biology, neurology or gender studies.
Janice Raymond wrote this book based on her dissertation, which was produced under the supervision of Mary Daly, another trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Ms. Daly’s qualifications on the transgender question come from her B.A. in English, her M.A. in English from The Catholic University of America, and her doctorate in religion from Saint Mary's College.
By the way, Janice Raymond was not socialized as a girl. She was socialized as a Nun. I’m just saying, that’s different.
Another example of exclusionist thinking is Sheila Jeffreys, former professor of Political Science in Melbourne, Australia. Ms. Jeffreys believes that “transsexualism should be seen as a violation of human rights.”
At the 1973 West Coast Lesbian Conference, Keynote Speaker Robin Morgan attacked musician Beth Elliott - a speaker and organizer of the event - referring to Beth by male pronouns, calling Beth a “gatecrashing...male transvestite” — “an opportunist, an infiltrator, and a destroyer — with the mentality of a rapist.”
People like Germaine Greer, Robin Morgan, and Janice Raymond are still recognized academically, looked up to, cited as important figures of Feminism.
So just put it in perspective if a trans gal ever gets angry.
Just like when a Black person gets angry at injustice, lack of equality, lack of representation — we feel those too.
In my own case, I’ll concede that I had male privilege. But it came with a cost. It came with self torment, self hate, self doubt. It came with suicidal thoughts. I was receiving privilege for acting out a role which I hated.
I want to quote Chimamanda again — and this time, instead of thinking of cisgender girls growing up acknowledged as girls, try to think of transgender girls growing up unacknowledged and misgendered.
“They think of [trans] women as inherently guilty. We teach [trans]girls shame. We make them think that by being born [trans] (…) they’re already guilty of something. And so [trans] girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think. And they grow up - and this is the worst thing that we do to girls — they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.”
So this is my demand to Chimamanda, and to all of you — a direct quote from her TED talk (with one word added):
“Culture doesn't make people. People make culture. So if it is true that the full humanity of [trans] women is not part of our culture, then we must make it part of our culture.”
“Culture doesn’t make people. People make culture. So if it is true that the full humanity of [trans] women is not part of our culture, then we must make it part of our culture.”
— words from Chimamanda Ngozie Adechie’s 2009 TED Talk — with the word “trans” added.
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