Is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie a “TERF”?

Recently, the popular feminist writer made statements many regard as exclusionary to trans women.

Adichie gave a controversial interview on Britain’s Channel 4 News as part of promoting her new book, Dear Ijeawele: A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.

The feminist internet exploded on March 11th when acclaimed feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, known for her TED Talks “Everybody Should be a Feminist” and “The Dangers of a Single Story” as well as her novels Americanah and Half a Yellow Sun, did an interview for Britain’s Channel 4 News. Adichie said: “‘When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women. (1)’” Adichie’s critics say these remarks implied that trans women aren’t “real women” — a stereotype that transgender people have to struggle against. Now trust me, I won’t be defending any of her transphobic claims in this piece, but I do want to address the fact that Adichie was clearly borrowing the language from the interviewers extremely leading question that follows:

Staying with this issue of feminism and femininity, does it matter how you arrived at being a woman. For example if you’re a trans woman who grew up identifying as a man, who grew up enjoying the privileges of being a man, does that take away from becoming a woman, are you any less of a real woman? (2).

But Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s failure to correct this interviewer in her choice of language displays a lack of understanding of trans issues on Adichie’s part. Her response to this question afforded cisgender women the legitimacy of the default “woman,” while relegating trans women to a derivative category. This is how transphobia plays out and it’s the reason that trans activists came up with cisgender terminology in the first place. When we mark an unmarked identity (ex. adding the prefix cis to woman) we remind everyone that there are other ways to be a woman and none of them are more natural or legitimate than others.

On a similar note about language, it seems that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie dug herself into a bigger hole when she addressed the outcry about her comments and refused to apologize. She wrote that her Facebook statement was “clarifying,” and therefore not “apologizing”:

I don’t think I have anything to apologize for…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 this is kind of language orthodoxy that you’re supposed to participate in, and when you don’t there’s kind of backlash that gets very personal and very hostile and very closed to debate (3).

The “language orthodoxy” that she is referring to, is really just the word cisgender; her refusal to use the word is a refusal to acknowledge cisgender privilege. The criticism of her was, that if she had said “cisgender women are different than transgender women,” it still would have been oversimplified and essentialist in the way it supposes all cis women are alike and dissimilar to trans women and vice versa, but at least it wouldn’t have positioned transgender women as imitations. Trans activists agree that her reluctance to use “cisgender” is a refusal to acknowledge the systems of power that made the word “cisgender” necessary. Refusing to mark cisness, is a tool of the patriarchy that casts transgender identities as illegitimate compared to legitimate cis identities.

The history of this issue is important here, because the idea that trans women aren’t real women is obviously old. TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists), have been invalidating trans women since before the 1970s. The TERF logic really took hold in 1973, at the West Coast Lesbian Conference, in Los Angeles. The attendees were split over a scheduled performance by the folksinger Beth Elliott, who is what was then called a transsexual. Robin Morgan, the keynote speaker articulated TERF logic then and now when she said, “I will not call a male ‘she’; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title ‘woman’… No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister” (4).

If Adichie had done any research about trans feminism, she likely would have come across what I would call the “TERF bible.” It came out in 1979 and was a book by “feminist” Janice Raymond titled The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. One of the most controversial arguments Raymond makes is that, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves” (5). Her comments separate transgender women from cisgender women in the same way these ones by Adichie do: “ 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/switch 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”. This argument ironically claims that womanness is about the “female form” while simultaneously accusing trans women of attributing all of womanhood to the body….This isn’t far from what Adichie does when she implies that these women became women and “switched” genders, probably as a result of hormones or surgery. Similarly, Shelia Jeffrys insinuates that women are only women because of their body parts while at the same time arguing no amount of surgery could make someone a “male” a woman. Confused? Because you should be. She actually phrases it like this:

The mutilation of healthy bodies…violates such people’s rights to live with dignity in the body into which they were born, what Janice Raymond refers to as their ‘native’ bodies. It represents an attack on the body to rectify a political condition, ‘gender’ dissatisfaction in a male supremacist society based upon a false and politically constructed notion of gender difference… (6)

This classic TERF logic always claims that trans people all seek to alter their bodies, which is not a universal experience, and that they do it for political rather than personal reasons.

Another glaring irony about this characterization is the fact that Adichie herself has written and spoken on the “dangers of a single story” in her TED Talk, and it seems like she needs to take her own advice. She says:

It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power…Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power (7).

Then comes even more irony with the fact that just like cisgender women, transgender women all experience their gender and various types of oppression differently based on their other identities and a host of other factors. Many trans people are offended and feel invalidated by her implication that we “change” genders; it implies that we chose to become something we weren’t, rather than affirming someone we are.

Actress and activist Laverne Cox’s response to Adichie’s comments on Twitter.

Actress and activist Laverne Cox also became vocal on her Twitter addressing this issue when she tweeted that,“…There is no universal experience of gender, of womanhood. To suggest that is essentialist & again not intersectional”. Cox elaborates that she does not identify with the experience of “living as a man” at any point. Again, Adichie demonstrates little understanding of trans issues and the way that the internet has brought the average age that trans people come out from around age 50 to around age 13. Suggesting that all trans women have the same experiences in girlhood is a direct result of a lack of representation recognized previously by Adichie.

It seems that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seemed to dig herself into a bigger hole when she addressed the outcry on her Facebook about her comments and refused to apologize. She commented:

I don’t think I have anything to apologize for,’ she continued. ‘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 this is kind of language orthodoxy that you’re supposed to participate in, and when you don’t there’s kind of backlash that gets very personal and very hostile and very closed to debate’.

The “language orthodoxy” that she is referring to, is the criticism that if she had said “cisgender women are different than transgender women,” it still would have been an oversimplified and essentialist statement, but at least it wouldn’t have positioned cisgender women as actual women while transgender women are just imitative because they haven’t had the “real” female experience. Trans activists have agreed that her reluctance to use “cisgender” is a refusal to acknowledge the very systems of power that made the word “cisgender” necessary. Not using cis terminology casts trans identities as illegitimate in comparison to cis identities because they might not follow the same path.

Her “clarifying” statement on Facebook was disappointing for other reasons: “A trans woman is a person born male and a person who, before transitioning, was treated as male by the world. Which means that they experienced the privileges that the world accords men. This does not dismiss the pain of gender confusion or the difficult complexities of how they felt living in bodies not their own” . These are again extremely essentialist arguments about transgender women that do not reflect the majority experience and inaccurately insist it is the only one.

Further critical analysis reveals that this statement is a reinforcement of cissexism because it implies that there is such thing as “male” and “female” and not that the assignment of gender to body parts was done by humans. The fact of the matter is, nobody is born a woman, we are born babies. And if a baby is assigned male at birth and then grows up and comes out as a woman, whatever their girlhood consisted of, is just that, girlhood. It is our conception of girlhood that needs to be expanded. Since gender is socially constructed and imposed on us against our will, any implication that trans people are not born the gender they identify with in a society that claims that people are born a gender at all, is transphobic and cissexist.

Now what of this argument that trans women experience male privilege? Well if Adichie had done any research on this topic, she would know that this too is an oversimplification and therefore a false statement. In an article on the blog ‘Everyday Feminism,” a trans woman explains her understanding of this issue and why pretending isn’t a privilege:

…I could put on ‘boy’ clothes when I went out into the world and get read as male. I used to think of this as male privilege, because I could “opt out” of being street harassed, though at the cost of being misgendered.Then I realized that this is kind of like telling women that they would be safer if they would only wear conservative clothing. It’s saying that I could trade my freedom and identity for safety (8).

It is not somehow an advantage to have to negotiate like that, and it is certainly not a privilege to have your identity erased and invalidated by constantly being misgendered. Raquel Willis further complicates this issue when she says, “…cis girls and women — in general — experience the privilege of being seen, accepted and respected in their womanhood from birth. The violence that gender nonconforming kids face is real and always left out of this essentialist conversation” . I don’t want to impose a hierarchy where I imply that one of these experiences is worse than the other, just merely that there are multiple factors that complicate this issue of whether or not trans women had/have “male privilege.”. Activists have been pointing out that trans women and girls internalize the same types of misogyny that cis women and girls do:

…trans women experience misogyny, even before we begin presenting or being read as women in society. We receive the same messages about femininity and girlhood as cis women do, and we understand them to be about ourselves — however hidden those selves might be…Male socialization, for us, is actually a coded message: You’re not who you think you are. If you try to be anything other than what we say, you’ll be punished.

Afterall, isn’t the definition of privilege not having to realize that you have it at first and that being the privilege? If trans women and girls are aware from a young age that their femininity is considered to have no value or power, couldn’t we make the argument that this is similar to the socialization of cis girls and women? Further illustrating this point, Thom writes that, trans women do not experience male privilege,“…because trans women are exposed to so much cultural misogyny and patriarchy that we inevitably end up internalizing it — sometimes we even make conscious decisions to uphold patriarchy so that we can better fit in with the rest of society. News flash: Cis women do the very same things”. If this fact does not disqualify cisgender women from womanhood, why should it disqualify transgender women?

In a world where at least seven trans women of color have been killed this year, this rhetoric is dangerous and characterizes many of the arguments of TERFs, a.k.a not real feminists (9). When feminists like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie say, “…I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women because I don’t think that’s true”, we need to be able to read this coded language. As Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan, Trans/Gender Nonconforming Justice Project Director at the National LGBTQ Task Force, told Vox, “It sends the message: ‘It’s okay not to think about trans women, they’re not the same as us’”.


References:

  1. Crockett, Emily. “The Controversy over Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Trans Women, Explained.” Vox. Vox, 15 Mar. 2017. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.Adegoke, Yemisi. “Chimamanda Adichie Stands by Comments on Transgender Women.” CNN. Cable News Network, 23 Mar. 2017. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
  2. Willis, Raquel. “A Trans Woman’s Response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.” Raquel Willis. Medium, 11 Mar. 2017. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
  3. Adegoke, Yemisi. “Chimamanda Adichie Stands by Comments on Transgender Women.” CNN. Cable News Network, 23 Mar. 2017. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
  4. Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “Transcript of “The Danger of a Single Story”.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story | TED Talk Subtitles and Transcript | TED.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
  5. Goldberg, Michelle. “WHAT IS A WOMAN? The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism.” The New Yorker, August 4, 2014.
  6. Raymond, Janice. The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the He-She. New York City, New York: Teachers College Press, 1979.
  7. — “Judith Butler addresses TERFs and the work of Sheila Jeffreys and Janice Raymond.” The TERFs. May 01, 2014. Accessed April 24, 2017.
  8. Thom, About Kai Cheng. “Still Think Trans Women Have Male Privilege? These 7 Points Prove They Don’t.” Everyday Feminism. N.p., 02 Oct. 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
  9. — “What Just Happened? #ProtectTransWomen Day of Action.” Bitch Media. N.p., 15 Mar. 2017. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.