Note: While “transgender” is an umbrella term which includes trans men, trans women and people of non-binary genders, this article mainly focuses on transgender women as this is what is brought up in the interview.
In a recent interview with Channel 4 News, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, accomplished Nigerian novelist and activist, explained why she believes the experiences of transgender people should not be equated with the experiences of cisgender people. However she does this in quite a harmful way.
In the interview, when considering the question of ‘are trans women, women?’, Adichie states that “trans women are trans women”. It is implied that trans women are not actual, real women, but are just “trans women”. It is as if she’s playing along with the idea that transgender people are valid, but ultimately she others them as being separate from “women”.
This is a harmful idea that continues to perpetrate transphobia today. All too often in the media, transgender people are depicted as trying to deceive and trick cisgender people, usually into sleeping with them. In an episode of Family Guy, Quagmire’s father comes out as “a woman trapped in a man’s body”, and undergoes gender affirmation surgery, now going by Ida Davis. Brian, who has been out of town, comes back and he and Ida engage in sexual intercourse. However, once Brian finds out that Ida is a transgender woman, he vomits onscreen for 29 uninterrupted seconds.
The idea that transgender people are not only trying to deceive everyone around them, but are also undesirable and sickening is harmful and simply untrue. In the example above, it is only once Ida is revealed to be transgender that Brian is disgusted, as there are so many negative connotations surrounding being transgender.
In the interview, Adichie proceeds to state that, “the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experiences. 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”.
Relating being trans to wearing out our hair or having a “vagina or a penis” is another harmful trope of transgender people. It enforces archaic gender roles in which being a trans woman is associated with femininity and vaginas and being a trans man is associated with masculinity and penises.
However, gender does not equal gender expression nor genitalia, and anyone regardless of gender can be masculine, feminine, androgynous, and have any genitalia. A man can enjoy wearing dresses and high heels and still be a man. Engaging with an activity typically associated with another gender does not invalidate your gender.
Adichie continues by saying, “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 in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are”.
This idea that transgender people are ‘switching gender’ is an outdated and irrelevant way of thinking about transgender people. In reality, we have always been that gender, we were just assigned a different one at birth. But we have never had the privileges that cisgender people have. Trans women have never had male privilege and have never been socialised as men, but have instead been socialised as transgender women in a transphobic cisnormative world.
Cisgender women are not the only people to experience misogyny. Transgender women experience transmisogyny, a term coined by Julia Serano, which focuses on how transphobia and misogyny intersect in the oppression of transgender women. A survey found that 90% of respondents reported facing harassment in the workplace, and transgender women on average earn 32% less after transitioning. While it is true that transgender women generally have different experiences from cisgender women, that does not mean that they have ever had male privilege and they have certainly never been a man.
Finally, Adichie says that she does not think it is a good idea to talk about “women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women”.
Surely the fact that transgender women are women makes the topic of transphobia relevant when discussing women’s issues.
At the end of the day, I do not think that Adichie is a horrible transphobic person who should be attacked or harmed for her views. But she represents the larger issue of transphobia in our cisnormative world, in which we doubt the existence of trans people and paint them as repulsive, deceitful monsters who we just cannot trust.
There has never been a more crucial time to listen to transgender people share and speak about our experiences, as ultimately we are the ones who know what it is like being trans. Instead of making bold, uneducated statements on how we live our lives or who we are, all you need to do is to simply listen.