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Posted under: Community Submitted

How Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's View On Trans Women May Be Cis-Splaining And Erasure

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a warrior. Not only is she one of our generation’s most profoundly gifted writers, she is also a powerful activist who fights for Black women and feminism. Her battle is desperately needed. As Malcolm X said, “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman." Ms. Adichie battles fiercely and intelligently against the patriarchy, toxic masculinity and racism that has caused this condition. Even music superstar Beyoncé sampled one of Ms. Adichie’s TED talks on the 2013 song Flawless. As a Black man, I honor her.

It is important that I offer this exaltation as a disclaimer, because I am about to fundamentally disagree with her on her views about trans women and male privilege. I do not, however, wish to tear her down because her battle has benefited us all. Instead, I wish to add to a developing dialogue because I believe her views reflect a larger issue.

When interviewed by Britain’s Channel 4, Ms. Adichie said, “My feeling is trans women are trans women. If you lived in the world as a man with the privileges the world accords to men, and then sort-of change/switch gender, 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 and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are. I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issue being exactly the same as trans women.

Her statements were opposed powerfully, most notably by actress, producer, and activist Laverne Cox. A trans woman crediting with bringing Trans rights to the mainstream, Ms. Cox offered a pushback: “I was assigned male at birth. My gender was constantly policed. I was told I acted like a girl and was bullied for that. My femininity did not make me feel privileged…the binary narrative which suggests that all trans women transition from male privilege erases a lot of experiences”. Like Ms. Cox, I find fundamental flaws in Ms. Adichie’s logic and must add to the opposing argument.

Certainly, saying trans women were afforded the same privileges as men ignores the experiences of many Trans & Queer people. I am not transgender, yet I know Laverne’s struggle because it is shared by many. I was a very “feminine” boy. I grew up with an overwhelming feminine influence. My mother is a triplet, so I essentially had three moms. My mom, her triplet sisters, and my four other aunts were heavily involved in raising me. As a result, at an early age, I picked up on the behavioral patterns that society expects of women. I behaved the way women are “supposed” to. Although I liked “boy things” like Power Rangers and cars, I also liked dolls and flavored lip gloss. When playing pretend, I’d sometimes put a t-shirt on my head and act like it was long hair, so I could act out the female characters. 

I was horrified when my father walked in one day, and saw me with my fabulous t-shirt weave, posed on the couch like Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire.

This is because the black community has a huge issue with Queer & Transphobia, and with the idea of male dominance/superiority versus female submission/worthlessness. Boys must behave like boys. To do so otherwise invites violent attacks and even rejection from family.

One day, a loose dog was chasing me and my dad scared him off. Before checking to see if I was OK, my dad knelt down and reprimanded me for “screaming like a girl." Another time, physically forced me to change my posture, yelling that “boys don’t sit with their legs closed." It took years for my dad to understand me as I am. My uncles would often tease me about my femininity, and fight me to teach me to be “a man."

School was worse. I was often bullied in school, and physically attacked after school. I was a rejected outcast. I was called faggot, sissy, and homo for my feminine mannerisms. Male and female students made fun of me and disrespected me. The assumption was that I was gay and should be victimized.

In third grade, I was sexually assaulted by an eighth grader during an afterschool program. While all the classes gathered in the gym room, I was excused to use the washroom. The eighth grader walked in, pulled me into a stall, and said, “you wanna act like a bitch, so let me show you what a bitch is supposed to do”. In a bathroom stall, I was stripped of innocence because, to him, if I acted like a girl then I should be treated like one and do what “other girls wouldn’t do” for him. No one noticed because teachers were busy focusing on the other students in the crowded gym.

By seventh grade, I tried to act “masculine” by studying actors like Denzel Washington, Marlon Brando, and Wesley Snipes, and listening to Jay-Z and DMX. I tried to become a man’s man. Only then did I receive some measure of privilege. Imagine, though, how boys who maintain their “feminine” behavior were treated. Were they ever afforded privilege? This continues into adulthood. I faced the same issues in high school, at college, and in the workplace.

I am not transgender, nor do I desire to be. I am happy with my assigned gender and body. Yet, I propose that if I experienced this as a feminine black boy, I can only imagine the experiences that trans women like Laverne Cox experienced as feminine acting and dressing black boys, who never compromised by acting masculine, before their transition. Many trans women, prior to their transition, did not experience male privilege; or, they experienced a version that was so disfigured and limited that it might as well not have existed.

Ms. Adichie offered a clarifying explanation on Facebook. She conceded, “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.”

I appreciate Ms. Adichie’s honesty. Yet, I offer that words like ‘cis’ need to become a part of her vocabulary, and a deeper understanding of queer and trans experiences is required. Otherwise, like mansplaining and whitesplaining, she is cis-splaining an entire community's experiences.

Also, in her explanation, she added: “Girls are socialized 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.

I would argue that trans women, and also queer men, are socialized in ways that are harmful to their sense of self. Queer and trans people are considered abominations in major religions, targets of homophobia and violence, sexual abuse and even murder. Trans women and trans men are vilified and cast in a disfiguring light regularly. Just because the socializations are different doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and aren't equally detrimental.

In the same Facebook post, she maintained: “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 is not to say that trans women did not undergo difficulties as boys. But they did not undergo those particular difficulties specific to being born female." 

Yet as Laverne Cox and many others suggest, male privilege is affected by race, sexuality, and many other factors. A trans woman who has behaved and lived as a woman all her live, even pre-transition, may never have experienced male privilege if said privilege was diminished or ended by the transphobia she faced from a society that saw her as a "faggot" and not a "man."

Ms. Adichie’s most recent clarification came Monday, when during a speech in Washington D.C., she said that the controversy is “fundamentally about language orthodoxy…I don’t think it’s helpful to insist that unless you want to use the exact language I want you to use, I will not listen to what you’re saying”. She reiterated that terms like ‘cis’ are not in her vocabulary because it “comes from a certain kind of academic discourse." She closed with, “I didn’t apologize because I don’t think I have anything to apologize for.”

Yet, as one of the most celebrated writers of our time and as the holder of a Masters Degree in Creative Writing from John Hopkins University, Ms. Adichie should know the importance of language, orthodox or otherwise. She should also know that when speaking about specific issues, one must use specialized language. Yes, vocabulary like ‘cis’ comes from a certain academic discourse, but as a well-educated academic, Ms. Adichie should appreciate that. She, no doubt, demands language orthodoxy and uses specialized language when speaking about the issue of Black women and feminism. Queer and trans people should be afforded the same orthodoxy from those who wish to speak on Queer & Trans issues.

I do agree with her on the issue of an apology: she doesn’t have to if she doesn’t feel the need to. If she doesn’t understand why she is wrong, then an apology would be forced & inauthentic. I celebrate her right to her own viewpoint. Yet, if that view offends, erases, and offers potentially destructive commentary on a community, it must be held to accountability.

I hope that the discourse which her comments have opened will allow her, and those who share her view, to expand their understanding. I hope she will consider that her struggle is far more inter-sectional, vast, and inclusive than she thought.

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Umohowet Yelayu writer, poet, musician, from Chicago, IL. His debut collection of poetry "Songs of Our Old Orbits" was published in 2018. He has worked in education, social-emotional counseling, and community development, for nationally funded nonprofits and in the nation’s fourth largest public school system. He is the founder and chief executive officer of The Civil Regeneration Fellowship, a nonprofit organization that provides services to schools, families, and communities-in-need in the four areas of Education, Mental Health, Community Development, and the Arts. He is the founder of the Uchu Taiyoko Ryu Dojo, a community marital arts and yoga program in Chicago.