Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s transgender comments invalidated my womanhood
13 Mar 2017
This Saturday gone, I spoke on a panel with five other women of colour at WoW Festival. Our talk was titled “Intersectionality for Beginners”. Just before the mics were turned on Guppi Bola, a social justice organiser, and I were talking about queerness. “Isn’t it such a shame what Chimamanda said?” she asked me. I exhaled deeply and held my hand up. “Please don’t tell me now, just before we go on.” I knew the knowledge that one of my favourite authors had fucked up so thoroughly would have kept me from being present.
The talk went well. Lydia XZ Brown gave an excellent keynote speech where they outlined the necessity and potential for intersectional analysis and practice. I read the names of the most recent trans women to become angels too soon for our liking. At the end of the talk there were hugs, exchanges of contact details and I left feeling like a job had been well done. I consciously didn’t check my phone. I wanted to enjoy the feeling of contentment for a bit longer. It was on the train home an hour or two later that I read the words stated by Chimamanda during a Channel 4 interview that wounded me in their othering of my womanhood: “Trans women are trans women.” The message being that we must be particularised as different from cis women because of our private parts. Let’s just keep one thing clear here, the subtext of her interview whispered, They are trans women. Not women. Trans women. Different. Get it?
In October 2015, I discovered through ancestry.com that I am 59% Nigerian genetically. I was elated. My father is Zimbabwean and my mother is Jamaican. When I found out I was descended from Nigerians I hunted online for the real lost stories. As a writer, my mind began to swell. Might I be distantly related to Chinua Achebe, I wondered? I have read all of Chimamanda’s novels so far. The stories she tells are rich, nuanced, complex and modern. Yet, it’s obvious from the interview in which we were warned against conflating cis and trans women’s experiences, that she’s only heard one story about #girlslikeus.
Society does not equate trans women’s experiences to cis women’s experiences, and statements like Chimamanda’s prove how scared certain people are of that occurring. The othering of trans women is to ensure we never forget that we are seen as separate, outside, specific and most importantly beneath cis women. This is hierarchical. We are not to be put on the same footing for consideration as cis women. Begrudgingly mentioned as those men who want to be called women now. Most of us never even wanted to be men. We were beaten, bullied and forced to shut the fuck up, even though we knew. Now more of us have a voice but trans kids who are given the treatment and care they deserve are seen as being in danger of being exploited or abused. If we transition later in life: “Well you had loadsa male privilege so yeah, you can’t sit with us.” If we desire to transition before puberty discombobulates our sense of self: “Well, we think you should wait to see if you really want this.”
I always failed at being a convincing cis male. In Spring 2014, I found myself crying down the phone with an aching chasm at the seat of my soul where I knew I was closer to killing myself than ever before. A beleaguered Samaritans worker was the first recipient of the news that if I didn’t get to live as the woman I was, then life wasn’t worth living.
I knew I was not a boy as a child. I found it weird people saw me as one. When talking with cis people about this “knowing” I twist my story to conform to a narrative. The dress I was obsessed with wearing in nursery is the lead in. Yet, I don’t think it was that which I took as proof at the time. It was quieter than that. I just knew in my soul. I got to seven years old and the beatings and admonishments got harsher. My conversations with God became more pained. It was like the sorting hat in Harry Potter had a quota to fill and was just lumping me into the wrong house to fill their gender quotas. Imagine being forced to hang out and live with Slytherins when you know without any doubt that you are most definitely a Gryffindor. Ok, keeping it all the way real, I’m a Hufflepuff – but you get my point.
Many trans women are feminists because the privileges afforded us when we presented to the world as male were nowhere near worth smothering our femininity and womanhood for. We literally said “Nah boo! I’m with her!” We are not rewarded with a seat at the table. We’re told we can sit outside and be content that we’re allowed to exist. The thing is, we’re literally dying out here. We do not have the time for cis people to get their acts together and recognise our humanity. This is beyond urgent. This is the danger of the single story Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is now guilty of perpetuating. Intersectionality means that our stories as trans and gender non-conforming people are broad, complex and divergent. We will not fit neatly into the columns you have prepared for us. Biological essentialism has the power to both leave us out in the cold and throw us under the bus. “You’ll never be real women”, is what trans women get told all the time. “You’re not a man without a penis”, trans men are told continually. “You’re being difficult and weird and to be frank you’re basically anomalous, gender non-conforming are unceasingly told on a daily.”
Chimamanda joins the list of intellectuals who believe in the binary and will not have their minds changed. It feels weird to have to lump her in with Germaine Greer and Ian McEwan. Yet, lump her in I must until she makes an effort to read more of our stories and see us as her equals. She should start with Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness” which is, in my opinion, a seminal text.
Her clarification statement on Sunday showed that she is compassionate, self reflective and open. (Although, the phrases “being born male” are what will continue to cause rancour because what we are trying to enlighten the world to is that the whole gender system is in question.) Trans and gender non-conforming people are an inconvenient truth. We are proof that the assignations from birth that you are either one way or another because you have a penis or a vagina is a faulty categorisation process. The violence meted out upon us for trying to open your eyes to this causes our existences to verge on the dystopian. We are compelling you to see that our understanding of gender must move from the binary to the spectral. Now!