On the Debate of Trans Women and their Womanhood - V for Vadge


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On the Debate of Trans Women and their Womanhood

Posted March 15, 2017 by Ndidi Yasdnil in Love. Life. Erotica.


“When people talk about, ‘are trans women women’ my feeling is that trans women are trans women… [i]f you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then sort of changed, switched 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.”


These are the words of feminist author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, during an interview with the UK based Channel 4 news, that has stirred up much controversy among transgender and feminist circles. Since the controversial interview, Adichie has since clarified her remarks twice, disavowing any charges of transphobia while maintaining that there’s a tendency to overlook the differences between the experiences of trans and cis women:


“I think the impulse to say that trans women are women just like women born female are women comes from a need to make trans issues mainstream. Because by making them mainstream, we might reduce the many oppressions that they experience. But it feels disingenuous to me. The intent is a good one but the strategy feels untrue. Diversity does not have to mean division.”


On its own, the point about diversity about among women is, of course, a valid one, but this response is a red herring. Adichie’s response evades the issue at hand: namely, her questioning the womanhood of transgender women. Let’s be clear; Adichie never draws the distinction between cis and trans women, at least at first. When she talks about trans women, she speaks about them as if womanhood doesn’t properly apply to them. Of course, the experiences of trans and cis women are different, but that does not mean that trans women are not women, which is precisely what Adichie suggests when she distinguishes trans women from women, which is different from recognizing trans women as a sub category of women in much the same way as white women, black women, cis women, poor women et al are.


Laverne Cox, American LGBT advocate and actress, rejected Adichie’s comments about male privilege as it relates to trans women on account of the feminist idea of intersectionality (please see Kimberle Crenshaw), a notion that highlights the overlapping of various social identities within any given person and complicates simple binary frameworks that distinguish between those who oppress and those who are oppressed in social hierarchy. More to the point, it’s not at all obvious that transgender women, having been born male, benefit from male privilege in the way that Adichie suggests once we consider trans women’s relationship with masculinity, in particular . Cox, in fact, goes further, denying that she herself had any benefit at all from male privilege:


“ I was a very feminine child though I was [a]ssigned male at birth. My gender was constantly policed. I was told I acted like a girl and was bullied and shamed for that. My [f]emininity did not make me feel privileged.  I was a good student and was very much encouraged because of that but I saw cis girls who [s]howed academic promise being nurtured in the black community I grew up in in Mobile, Ala. [g]ender exists on a spectrum & the binary [n]arrative which suggests that all trans women transition from male privilege erases a lot of experiences and isn’t intersectional.”


As a friend of mine pointed out on social media, much of the controversy that has arisen as a result of Adichie’s comments turns on an underlying tension between the idea of gender as a social construct and what we might call popular “born-this-way” LGBT discourse. More specifically, with regard to the latter, it is common among liberal circles to claim that transgender folk were born with the gender with which they identify. It’s a tension that I don’t pretend I can resolve within the span of a few hundred words, but reflecting on what we mean by gender as a social construct, an idea I affirm, promises to illuminate much on the matter.


Gender is often defined as a subjective feeling in more liberal circles, but this definition, on its own, does little to capture the full range of the experience of gender. The more nuanced truth is that people don’t self-identify in isolation from others; we are after all social animals. And in this respect, Adichie is correct in pointing out that the ways in which our appearances and behaviors are interpreted, which correspond to how we are treated given a complex backdrop of crosshatching histories, symbols, and practices, are important to shaping our experiences of the world, and these things matter in terms of assessing our ‘situations’ within the world. As Adichie notes in a Facebook post following her interview:


“…[T]he truth about societal privilege is that it isn’t about how you feel. (Anti-racist white people still benefit from race privilege in the United States). It is about how the world treats you, about the subtle and not so subtle things that you internalize and absorb.”


The social dimension of gender is what frames Adichie’s emphasis upon ‘male privilege’ as she discusses transgender women and their relation to womanhood. But we still need to unpack this notion of “privilege”.


As someone who was identified as male/boy from birth but now identifies, more or less, as agender, I come somewhere in between Cox and Adichie when I reflect on my own experiences. The expectations of manhood caused me great pain emotionally, physically, and psychologically to the point of suicidal ideation, but I definitely enjoyed some privilege of being read as male in my pre-androgynous days. There are some things with regard to bodily autonomy that I just didn’t have to go through that I now experience whenever I’m read as a woman. My privilege in this case did not depend upon how I felt, whether it was about the unfairness of the expectation that women’s bodies are violable, the hurt masculine norms or expectations caused me, or my self-awareness. Regardless of my feelings, the world treated me in a certain way that resulted in particular experiences that others routinely do not experience or expect to endure on account of factors far beyond my, or anyone else’s, control.


Privilege and the lack thereof are descriptive facts of the matter given the ways in which persons are situated in the world; these are not things one is necessarily able to give up. So, critical discussions about privilege are not about reprimanding those who have them on account of them simply having privilege, but rather about developing an account of the world we inhabit that will in turn guide us in creating a more humane existence given who we are and what we have become.


The upshot of highlighting the social dimension of gender identity, which I confirm with my own experiences, is that it is, at least possible, and indeed plausible, for trans women, who do not evade scrutiny of societal gender norms, to benefit from male privilege regardless how they identify. At the same time, it would be wrong to infer from this that all transwomen bear the same relationship to male privilege.


Standpoints are useful in this regard by allowing us to situate our individual experiences within this complex intertwining social web that circumscribes our lives, but the reason they are useful in this way is the same reason that it’s a mistake to restrict our understanding individual experiences in terms of already available abstract notions like “Womanhood” or “Male Privilege”. At the very least, cis folk should prepare to defer to transgender and gender non-conforming folk when talking about our experiences.

About the Author

Ndidi Yasdnil
Ndidi Yasdnil

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