Are Trans Women Really Women? Why Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Answer Matters

"We need to see femaleness and womanhood in its natural, non-binary state, and advocate for it as such."
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Ah, semantics. If ever there was a case for the importance of words and their intended, assumed, or literal meanings, it is this story. In case you haven’t yet heard, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a world-renowned, award-winning Nigerian author and feminist, was recently interviewed by Cathy Newman for the UK’s Channel 4 News and asked if she thought trans women were really women. Specifically, Ms. Newman asked, “…does it matter how you’ve arrived at being a woman – I mean, 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?” In short, Adichie’s answer was, “My feeling is trans women are trans women.”

Notice she didn’t say, “trans women are women.” (If you want to hear just the quote in question, skip to approx. the 2:44 mark).

Adichie went on to explain how if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with all the privileges the world freely gives to men, and then you “sort of switch gender,” she says, “it’s difficult for me to accept that we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman.” She ends this section of the interview with, “What I’m saying is that gender is not biology, gender is sociology.”

I actually agree with her somewhat on that last point, but perhaps if Adichie were to take some time to sit and hear trans people’s narratives, she could understand why not explicitly acknowledging that trans women do fall under the larger category of women, everyone might be better off.

There’s certainly a long way to go, but we do currently have lots of credible gender identity studies, research, and literature. While the larger concept of gender itself is a social construct that changes between cultures and over time, credible sources all confirm that gender identity is innate, and present in the brain (not the genitals). We also know that there may possibly be other contributing factors like the amount of testosterone exposure the fetus receives during the mother’s pregnancy. Another facet that keeps reappearing in gender literature is that gender identity is pretty unchangeable – meaning once someone realizes they are different from the gender they were assigned at birth, they don’t tend to flip flop or change their mind. Further, research shows that most people who do transition (which can be a lifelong process) do not ever go back to their gender assigned at birth.

Of course, there’s always that small handful of people who do, for varying reasons, transition twice. But largely, one doesn’t simply “switch” gender, as Adichie alludes. It’s not a trade off like clothing at a consignment store. Rather, trans people transition into the gender expression that aligns with their authentic gender identity, the one they have (typically) known their entire life. There is no confusion about this. Most transgender adults will tell you they knew all their life, but were forced to hide that part of themselves, and/or faking the role of cisgender male or female, out of fear. Or because they were made to feel bad or wrong about who they were or how they expressed themselves.

Trans women seem to receive the brunt of the worst discrimination. The reason why is a post for another day, but because of the discrimination trans women feel in particular, that’s who I’m talking about in this post.

While some trans women take daily hormones and undergo multiple procedures such as breast augmentation, facial feminization, vocal feminization, hip and butt implants, and even genital surgery, some trans people may only opt to have one procedure done like breast augmentation, or “top surgery,” and some trans people don’t have any surgeries at all. None of this is any of our business unless they freely offer the information first. And we must realize that being transgender is not about sex changes or “dressing up” in the first place. It is an innate, extreme awareness of self that manifests itself, often, as soon as a child can verbally express wants and needs.

There are hundreds of other cultures and religions around the globe that have their own long-established traditions for third, fourth, fifth, or more genders. Many other cultures and religions hold these people in the absolute highest regard. Transphobia is a mostly modern, western phenomenon, though it does permeate other pockets of the world as well.

So, why am I, a cishet (cisgender/heterosexual) female, familiar with this? Because I try to be an advocate for marginalized groups. I started out learning how to be an advocate for my youngest of three children. When he was only 2.5 years old, my son very seriously asked me while playing princess dress up, “Mommy, you know I’m only a boy because of my parts, right?” This child was always confident in his gender expression, which was almost exclusively stereotypical female.

I started doing research to try and understand what was going on, but back in 2008, there was definitely not the amount of info available that we have now. We didn’t know if our child was transgender or something else. But we decided to let him be free to express himself however he liked, as long as he wasn’t physically threatening or hurting anyone. By 4th grade Charlie identified as “gender creative,” still completely preferred stereotypical girls things, and was unable to genuinely relate to his cis male peers.

Charlie is now 11 and identifies as genderqueer and non-binary, and prefers “they/them” pronouns. This means that Charlie falls under the larger umbrella term of “transgender.” Charlie is not at this point sexually identifying, which is a whole separate, unrelated piece of a person’s comprehensive makeup. (Again, that’s a post for another day). Charlie feels neither male nor female, but some combination of each. Sometimes Charlie switches back to he/him/his pronouns, but if pressed to answer, “do you feel more male or female?” Charlie will always answer, “I feel more like just a person.” But Charlie’s gender expression is a lot more stereotypical feminine than masculine, from clothing and accessories, to toys and games, to activities, interests, and friends.

As an affirming family, you have to be on board for any outcome. Our child may stay non-binary, genderqueer forever, but may also transition. Charlie may decide they are agender or even cisgender after all. So, parents like us try to prepare as best as we can, and we fight a difficult fight, especially in places like North Carolina – where the NCGA has a supermajority of members who are notoriously anti-LGBTQ+, and push bills that allow cities to discriminate.

Advocacy is a life-long commitment, and one thing I can say for sure is that I’m not finished learning yet; I’m only just beginning. One of the first and most important rules we learn for being an ally or advocate is that we need to have an understanding that the oppressed (or marginalized) group must have the right to their own narrative, and to have it heard without question.

This is pretty much the universal understanding for advocates of any marginalized group. For example, if I’m advocating for “Black Lives Matter,” I cannot, as a white woman, ever claim to know, embody, or fully comprehend the experience of a black woman. As a white woman, whether or not I’m an advocate, it wouldn’t be my place to chime into the Black Lives Matter dialogue with an opinion like, “I think we are a colorblind society.” As white people, we are the majority, and it’s not our place to dismiss the narrative of oppressed people. We shouldn’t say things like that any more than we’d say, “I’m not racist; I have black friends! I love black people!” I might have and love my black friends, but that in no way makes me an ally or and advocate to their oppressed community. That just makes me a person with black friends.

In short, those who suffer from oppression must be the guiding voices for how we discuss the issues that directly affect them, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, as well-meaning as Adichie was in her interview and follow-up clarification statement, she was speaking for an experience that is not her own. She was speaking over transgender voices, which happens an awful lot to our trans community in general. Adichie is a cis woman speaking on the experiences of trans women. That alone is problematic. Even more, she lost an opportunity to give power to actual trans women, particularly, trans women of color, like Laverne Cox, Raquel Willis, Janet Mock, Isis King, and so many others. As cis women, we can’t just dismiss trans women’s narratives. Sometimes, we need to just STFU and let trans women speak for themselves. Honestly, many of them are trying to weigh in on the feminist narrative right now, but are being dismissed, specifically because of their bodies.

<p>Trans Women in Media: Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Isis King</p>

Trans Women in Media: Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Isis King

Getty Images

This leads to another one of the problems with this story, which is that Adichie took such a strong stance – even going so far as to clarify her original comments – without talking to a trans woman in the first place. Trans people are rightly upset that Adichie spoke about something she doesn’t have firsthand experience with. Could she at least have acknowledged that she has cis privilege and is speaking from that extremely normative point of view? Could it be that her normative gender worldview is obscuring her ability to see her own privilege in that regard? And that this is informing her lens and, now, the lenses of others?

In her clarification statement on Facebook, Adichie said the impulse to say that trans women are women just like women born female are women feels “disingenuous” and comes from a need to make trans issues mainstream. She then assumed the intent that by making trans issues mainstream, “we might reduce the many oppressions they experience.” She maintained her stance from the interview, “that trans women are trans women, that they are people who, having been born male, benefited from the privileges that the world affords men, and that we should not say that the experience of women born female is the same as the experience of trans women.”

This part is problematic for a few reasons.

Obviously, America’s western perception of male privilege is not the only perception. Depending on where you are in the world, you may indeed enjoy male privilege from birth. In some countries, merely having a penis show up in utero on an ultrasound means you will be spared sex-selective abortion; you will be born and then you will live. It can mean that as an infant and toddler you will thrive off of twice the nourishment and nutrition as someone born without a penis. It can mean that you won’t endure the extreme torture of female genital mutilation and the ensuing life-long trauma. You can safely assume you won’t be sold to a sex trafficker at age five, but instead will be allowed to go to school where you’ll learn to read and write. Your marriage won’t be arranged and you won’t be bound to someone twice your age when you’re only eight years old. And so on, and so forth.

But here in America, things are a bit different. Sure, trans women may never experience things like a monthly period, unwanted pregnancy worries, or having to birth a baby conceived in rape. (I just found out that they can breastfeed, though, so they can experience being shamed for public breast feeding). We can all agree that periods and unwanted pregnancies are not part of the trans woman’s narrative. But these things are not necessarily a part of every cis woman’s narrative, either. Does that make them less of a woman? If they are intersex? If she’s a cis woman but has differences of biology, a sex chromosome abnormality, never got her period, or can’t get pregnant? If she can’t or doesn’t want to breastfeed?

The fact that many cis women don’t have these typical “universals” of womanhood does not make them less of a woman, or “othered.” We don’t exclude them from the female narrative. To do so would be to serve the patriarchy, and as feminists, we strive not to do that. However, when we exclude trans women from the female narrative, we are invariably setting out to do the work of the patriarchy.

Also, the phrase Adichie uses, “women born female” is flat out transphobic speech, because trans women are “born female” too, even if their genitalia on the outside doesn’t match. Also, we shouldn’t trivialize women’s narratives by dialing them down to a phrase like “born female” or “born male.” As we know there are many different mutations in genetics and sex biology is not always binary. Reducing women to “born female” or “born male” is a crude disservice to our collective feminist struggle, which by its very nature is intersectional.

I would also argue that it’s fair to say trans women typically don’t benefit from any male privilege. People seem to assume that trans women (assigned male at birth) are socialized as males and therefore get to enjoy some of the privileges of being male, even if only for a short while. But the thing is, at least here in America, you are only afforded these privileges if you follow the status quo of prescribed masculinity, and there’s pretty strong evidence that most trans women do not. (Or if they do, they’re faking it for their own protection.)

Trans women, who know they are female from very early in life, are not socialized as males, regardless of how hard a parent may try and force that label. Young trans girls assigned male at birth are treated more like freaks, and are often quickly escorted into the closet by fearful family members. And while closeted trans women are sometimes afforded the privileges that come with being perceived as male, more often than not, what they are actually experiencing is bombardment from the same subtle and overtly disturbing messages that all women receive.

I won’t argue that people totally treat and handle boy babies very differently than the way they treat and handle girl babies. We tend to play harder, more active, and roughhouse more with toddler boys. We tend to play more socially sensitive, gentler, and less competitively with toddler girls. This I know from personal experience, having one of each. But people generally have no memory of these differences in being handled – or of any privileges that might be afforded them during those very early ages.

An assigned male who knows he’s really a girl, however, tends to know from a very early age that things are somehow non-congruent. He realizes that his toys are not what he wants to play with, and the world he takes in all around him is treating him in a way that feels foreign. Indirect messages through media and elsewhere, and ingrained cultural messages are picked up on even though they may not be specifically directed at any one person.

When this assigned male starts expressing his true gender, that of female, he is more often than not shamed. He receives the message at a very young age that he is a he; that he is shameful, bad, or even disgusting for insinuating otherwise. He learns this at one of the most important psychosocial developmental stages in life, when very young and forming the sense of autonomy versus shame and doubt. (According to prominent 20th century developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, children who successfully complete this stage feel secure and confident, while those who do not are left with a sense of inadequacy and self-doubt.)

After this succinct message is received quickly by young children, it is then reinforced out in the community and in school for the rest of their childhood. Activities become gender segregated (athletic teams, choirs/choruses, clubs, youth service organizations, sex-selective beauty pageants and scholarships programs, to name a few). Cognitive schemas are reinforced through gender stereotypes, and the ever present cisgender, heteronormative family model.

This cultural aspect of our society is certainly something that takes away epic proportions of male privilege for trans girls.

In addition to being an important feminist, Adichie is also renowned for having campaigned for LGBT rights in her native Nigeria, but she admits herself that it is possible for a person to be both generally supportive of LGBT rights and transphobic at the same time. Indeed many advocates and allies to the LGBTQ+ community are woefully underskilled in appreciating the needs of trans people. The “T” part of the LGBTQ+ label may be the least understood and the least represented. And we can’t really advocate properly for something if we don’t fully understand it. Should we therefore conclude that Adichie is really only a powerful voice for feminism and LGB rights?

In her clarifying statement, which honestly, seemed to make things worse, she said, “Perhaps I should have said trans women are trans women and cis women are cis women and all are women. Except that ‘cis’ is not an organic part of my vocabulary. And would probably not be understood by a majority of people.”

To that, I can only say that as a 42-year-old woman, ‘cis’ was not an organic part of my vocabulary, either. But that’s the thing about language – it’s always evolving, and it’s our job to keep up with it, especially if we care to stay relevant and carry on conversations with future generations.

As for the “would probably not be understood by a majority of people” part of the comment, this is exactly why we have google at our fingertips. More importantly, though, that’s where Adichie – a public figure with international audiences and a platform that can sway entire nations, who also claims to stand up for the rights of transgender people – should really take a moment to do some research on words like “cis” before speaking to English (and other) audiences, and then educate her readers and listeners. What a powerful tool that could be.

Next she said, “Because saying ‘trans’ and ‘cis’ acknowledges that there is a distinction between women born female and women who transition…” This part is problematic because 1.) not all trans women are 40-something, transitioning after a half-lifetime of enjoying male privilege, and 2.) all trans women are “born female,” because gender identity is in the brain, not the genitals. We can say “assigned male at birth” when referring to trans women. But the crux of the problem lies within using language like “women born female” and “women who transition.”

Adichie rightly states that “girls are socialised in ways that are harmful to their sense of self – to reduce themselves, to cater to the egos of men, to think of their bodies as repositories of shame. As adult women, many struggle to overcome, to unlearn, much of that social conditioning.” But perhaps she does not realize that basically the exact same thing can be said about trans women who are taught, very early, that their feminine gender expression is wrong, shameful, inappropriate, and needs to be hidden.

Words and language are so important. Every time we use language like “women born women” and “women born male;” or when we call a trans woman a “man,” we are perpetuating transphobia whether we realize it or not. Every time we make a comment dehumanizing trans women as non-females, we contribute to a decades-old cycle of violence towards trans women – a cycle that begins with wrong assumptions and transphobic language, verbal abuse, physical violence and, ultimately, all too often, murder. And when trans women are killed, a complete erasure of trans women frequently occurs.

A cisgender voice (whether that’s the officer at the crime scene, or an author as respected as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) does not and cannot decide who has suffered enough discrimination, harassment, inequity, exclusion, or other patriarchal injustices to earn the feminist stamp of approval. Feminism at its core is about all women in our assorted colors and shapes, with our variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures. If we’re going to recruit people to the fold and work together as women to further our cause, we don’t get to call for solidarity to people we have dehumanized or erased.

We need to see femaleness and womanhood in its natural, non-binary state, and advocate for it as such. If we cis women exclude trans women from the narrative, how are we any better than the men who incarcerate women inside their cis male definition of womanhood? And what are we doing to our daughters – whether assigned female or male at birth? For those who are continuously fed lies that gender is unequivocally binary and absolutely determined by the appearance of genitals, are ultimately way more at risk to face anxiety, depression, PTSD, self-destruction, and attempted suicide. Others may find themselves kicked out of their retrograde families who demand they either conform (to outdated notions of the gender binary), or leave. Some opt to run away and end up on the streets rather than staying in toxic or abusive relationships.

Current research proves that trans kids who are allowed to transition young – particularly transgender girls – are as well-adjusted as their cisgender peers. With this type of knowledge, it would be a much better service for people like Adichie to use their voices to educate their huge audience of supporters. They could speak or write about why we ought to include trans women in the feminist movement instead of emphasizing the experiences that make trans women different from cis women. We need to stop having debates for and about trans women, and simply give them the platform and elevation they need to speak for themselves – after all, they are quite capable.

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