What Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Got Right—And Really Wrong—About Trans Women And Male Privilege

The leading feminist questions whether we are “real” women, but she’s opening the door to a complex conversation. Can we handle it?

In a way I’m grateful to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her less than subtle implication that trans women aren’t “real women” in last week’s Channel 4 interview. More specifically, to her followup comments and clarifications, which brought into stark relief a specific issue underlying many of the conversations regarding trans women: whether or not we benefit from male privilege.

By refusing to take the politically easier path—to apologize and simply never publicly engage the issue again—she has afforded us an opportunity for an honest and open discussion between parties that otherwise find themselves on the same side of most issues.

Many women—smart, critically minded and ethical women—occupy the same intellectual space as Adichi, but wouldn’t dare provoke the ongoing ire of the online social justice crowd, who are quite capable of effective public shaming.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 28: Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (R) is interviewed by The Atlantic Contributing Editor and NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly during the Washington Ideas Forum at the Harman Center for the Arts September 28, 2016 in Washington, DC. Adichie said she would have a very difficult time writing about racism and the recent shootings of unarmed black men in America, saying, "I almost feel that language has failed me." (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

I suspect that, just as there are many white women remained silent on issues of policing, immigration, and LGBT rights, and then quietly voted for Trump, there are many self-proclaimed feminists privately nodding to themselves in agreement with the claims that trans women aren’t really women, and feeling relief that “someone finally said it.”

If I’m honest, I’m sympathetic.

How does one look at someone like Caitlyn Jenner and feel as if she knows what it means to be a woman? How can we accept the idea that someone could be raised male, spend decades earning accolades and wealth that accompany high-achieving maleness, marry, be a father to children—and then virtually overnight somehow come to understand and embody womanhood? The idea diminishes the very concept. That this “womanhood” is achieved through clothes, makeup, and surgery, the very trappings patriarchy uses to reduce women to objects of male consumption, adds injury to insult.

If I’m more honest, this kind of selective thinking says more about the person who sees it this way than it does about the trans woman being seen, and is mostly an excuse to justify dismissal of that which doesn’t support a held view.

The best responses to Adichie’s comments have come from trans women with a very different story: Morgan M. Page and Laverne Cox have complicated narratives—they shared how then went directly from effeminate boyhoods, where they were brutally targeted for failing to live up to standards of maleness, to womanhood. Others have rightly pointed out that with many transitioning as early as five years old it’s hard to argue that “maleness” is ever factor. In their stories, none of the trans women claim that their experience is the same as cis women, but the idea that they benefit from male privilege is at best, meaningless, and offensively dismissive of their lived experience.

This approach is necessary, but insufficient as a single narrative, a point astutely made by Page who uses Adichie’s own words on the danger of the “single story” myth of womanhood.

So what about the narratives of people like Caitlyn Jenner? What about narratives like mine?

I was never particularly effeminate, was never bullied, and didn’t come out until well into adulthood. I’m also white, was raised in the homogenous cocoon of the suburbs, and dated beautiful women whom I genuinely loved.

Of course, I’d been privately dressing up as a girl since I was five years old. I early learned to watch the way I walked, not to cock my hips too much when I stood, and to be careful about how much I talked with my hands. I knew to keep my attraction to other boys a secret. I got very good at playing the role I was assigned, but since the world didn’t see (and wouldn’t have cared anyway) about any dissonance that caused inside me, it granted me the unearned privileges of my race, class, and sex.

I could read any book, watch any movie or television show, and be able to identify with its hero. I could move through any public space, at any time, and be safe from harm. I could walk into any room and know that my voice would be heard, that my worth would be judged solely on the strength of my ideas and work.

And I didn’t know I enjoyed any such privileges until I lost them all.

As a trans woman I could no longer identify with any hero. If I existed it all, it was as a punch line or tragedy. Early in my transition I endured constant public harassment, mockery, and threats of violence. And now that the world sees me as a desirable woman, I cannot move through any public space, at any time, without being sexually harassed or propositioned. As a woman I quickly experienced how often men speak for, or over, or down to me. I suddenly found that I was judged on my attractiveness and sexual availability rather than my work or ideas.

It was a shocking and deeply disruptive shift. In a real way, I hadn’t changed at all. I had exactly the same skills and experiences as before, but it was as if I had entered into an alternative universe that was one degree removed, one incredibly unjust degree, from what I had always known. I experience otherness, which opened me up to many kinds of difference, and its systemic exploitation and oppression. This fall from false grace brought me into engagement with a myriad of marginalized populations, collaboration across multiple axes of difference, and friendships almost exclusively with people who had never experienced the world as I had.

I left the rarefied world of classical music and dove into social justice work. Having seen firsthand what the world can be like for those whose identity is deemed inherently valuable, I dedicated myself to working for all those denied such privilege. As an angry young man, Nietzsche was intellectual role model; now it’s Audre Lorde.

So yes, I enjoyed male privilege. But the context and meaning of that privilege matters.

Do you see my past as an excuse to exclude me, to separate me from women and feminism? Or do you see my experience as a unique addition to a collective of perspectives, contributing to a rich and diverse culture of women? Can’t my difference be a powerful tool to identify blind spots and fortify theory and praxis, as lesbians can for straight women, women of color can for white women, disabled can for able-bodied, sex workers can for those working on trafficking, etc.?

My circle of friends is mostly comprised of queer cis women, and it’s true that my story is not the same as theirs. Their stories vary widely based on all the intersections we know, but we work, create, and resist together. We’ve all chosen to learn from our differences, to find in them a source of curiosity, humor, strength, and mutual support.

It’s a choice, of course.

But it’s a choice between exclusion and inclusion, between the calcification of identity and embracing diversity, ideological purity and pragmatic unity. It’s a choice that has been made again and again throughout history, every time a group identity has been challenged. Some choose to conserve things as they are, and some choose progress.

At the very least, I hope the women nodding along to Adichie’s statements are willing to have a real conversation about trans women and our lack of a single story, who has and hasn’t benefitted from male privilege, what that even means in a world where the experiences of trans people can no longer be denied, and what can be gained by choosing to make us part of the solution rather than dismissing us as the problem.