What Chimamanda Gets Wrong: A Dialogue on Trans Experiences with Jarune Uwujaren

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In an interview with Britain’s Channel 4 News, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s made the following comments:

“So when people talk about are transwomen women, my feeling is transwomen are transwomen.  If you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges the world accords to men and then sort of switch 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. I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one. I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of transwomen.”

Trans and gender nonconforming people soon struck back against Adichie’s implication that transwomen are not fully women.

To get a better understanding, I reached out to Jarune Uwujaren, who wrote a short article on the dangers of Adichie’s comments.  Jarune is a writer and non-binary trans person who was assigned female at birth. We discussed the myths about trans experiences Adichie promotes.

At a time when Black trans women are killed with alarming regularity, often because of misconceptions about their lives, these sorts of dialogues are crucial to creating a world where all Black women are safe and loved.

-Kimberly Foster @KimberlyNFoster

Listen to our full conversation below.

In case you don’t have time to listen to the full dialogue, here are a few important points from Jarune.

Transwomen and Male Privilege

1. “I’m going to trouble that idea that how people see you determines exactly what society hands you because if there’s a male-privilege buffet, they’re going to slap some people’s hands away, right? If you maybe appear male to people in some situations, but you are a woman, you identify yourself as a woman, you dress as a woman, you are a woman, you have a woman’s name because you’ve chosen a woman’s name, you’ve done all these things to socially transition into womanhood, it doesn’t matter what your voice sounds like, what your hair looks like, anything, they’re gonna still slap your hand away from the buffet. Because that’s what happens in our society.

That buffet is not set up for everyone who has M on their birth certificate, right? That’s not actually how that works. And so I think that we as a society need to rethink how we talk about privilege when it comes to gender because we’re speaking of gender as if society automatically congratulates you for having a penis or castigates you for having a uterus, etc.
And that kind of gender-based violence is really gender-essentialist, and it’s focused on biology and what parts you have. When the fact is, there is no single story of what parts a cisgender woman has or a transgender woman or a cis man or a trans man, that’s not really a good way to look at it if we’re really being inclusive of trans people.

And so when I wrote that article, it was less about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie revising her opinion. I hope she listens and honestly she’s been on point on a lot of other things, and I’ve generally trusted her to see the problem with speaking for other people’s experiences. When this white man was trying to talk to her about racism, she shut him down. She was like, no, you don’t get to define racism as a white person because you do not have that experience with racism and you do not have the ability to say that you have experienced racism as a white person, right, because there’s power there as a white man that black people and other people of color don’t have, right? She’s also talked about the danger of the single story and how promoting the single story of what an experience of anything is like is dangerous.

And then she’s here saying that she is an authority to speak on whether or not trans people experience male privilege. Even though she’s willing to shut down other people who have other ways of encroaching on other people’s spaces. She’s made that statement when she should really be ceding the floor to trans women’s own dialog about their experiences rather than marginalizing them further by continuing to double down on this statement she’s made.”

2. “And in Nigerian culture especially, if you’re a child and they’ve told you, “you’re a boy,” “you’re a boy,” and you start saying, “no I’m a woman and I’m a girl and I want to perform girlhood and I want to have a girlhood,” that punishment slipped. Nigerian men don’t really play that in a lot of respects and there’s a punishment for that that is trans-misogyny and is a very specific sort of misogyny that only trans women experience that cis women do not know about. If you want to talk that kind of difference, that’s great, that’s nuance, that’s talking about the differences between cis and trans experiences of gender.

But if you’re sitting there and you’re saying that “no, you were privileged as a man and therefore you have to stand back before you can talk about feminism and I don’t want to be conflated with your issues and I’m a woman but you’re a trans woman, that’s more othering and more marginalizing, right?”
The differences between trans and cis women

1. “And I think what Chimamanda is struggling with is she thinks that somehow saying that trans women are women is conflating cisgender woman’s experiences with trans woman’s experiences. And I’ve never seen anybody do that. I don’t think I’ve seen a trans woman saying, “I know what it’s like to be a cisgender woman.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen people who say trans women are women saying, “now trans and cis woman are exactly the same and they have the same experiences,” right?”
2. “And it’s not to say that trans women and cis women have the same exact experiences. No two women are gonna have the same experiences with gender. The problem comes when she’s insinuating that cis women are real women and trans women are something different. And that’s a huge problem when it comes to the way that our society views transgender women. She says, “I find it difficult to equate the experiences of transgender women with those of women.” No cis in front of it, no qualifier, nothing else other than women. So that difference is saying that trans women cannot claim the title of womanhood without that adjective in front of it and that’s where the problem comes from.”
Acknowledging cis-gender privilege

“So when Chimamanda is saying oh, I just want to acknowledge the differences and I want to make it clear that we are different, the problem with the way she is talking about those differences is she’s saying that trans-women are privileged as men before they transitioned to womanhood which is not the way that difference tends to work with trans women. It does not work in their favor, and I think that she is having a hard time seeing that as a cis-gender woman. She does have a certain amount of privilege that transgender women don’t and that privilege is that her experience of gender is always believed in terms of her saying, “I am a woman.””
Trans people do not switch genders

“She continues to espouse a certain myth about trans-people which is that trans people live as one gender and then switch to another, which I think is an oversimplification of how trans people experience themselves because it’s, for a lot of people, at least, it’s a knowing that happens before one transitions and they exist as women and they have girlhoods before society would necessarily say, oh you pass well enough as a cisgender person that I’m going to let you be a woman now, which is kind of the rhetoric that Chimamanda is using even though she might not be doing it intentionally. She is kind of parroting that cis-normative idea that it’s being seen as a woman by other people that makes you enough of a woman that you can then be invited to the table of feminism and have the way society oppresses you as a woman acknowledged.”

Trans people exist in all cultures

1. “My problem with saying that Chimamanda should be let off the hook because she’s coming from a different culture is that this is a culture that is very trans-antagonistic. She should actually be doing more work to understand where trans people are coming from and centering trans voices because trans people are so marginalized in Nigeria to a degree they aren’t in the US.

Like in the US there’s no criminalization, as it were, of being trans. In Nigeria, there’s a law that states that if you are–I mean it’s a law against homosexuality, but really it blanket-affects LGBT people in general. And these laws about criminalizing homosexuality are going to affect trans people and they’re going to push trans people underground because of that conflation between homosexuality and being trans, that kind of happens in the culture. And the problem with that is there are a lot of trans people in Nigeria who are made so invisible because they are actually considered criminals for being who they are, right? If they were to speak openly, they would be swiftly punished in a way that someone who is a cisgender woman who speaks out against the harms done to cisgender women in Nigeria, is not going to be criminally punished in that way necessarily, that a trans woman who openly states, “I am trans and I support trans people” would. There’s legal repercussions for a lot of that in Nigeria. In addition to just the very swift violence done to trans women there, when you compare it to maybe what the scene is in the US.”

2. “It’s a lot less likely that trans people in Nigeria are going to have access to the resources for transitioning that you have in the US with all of our care standards and all the medical professionals who have been pushed to learn about trans people because of these standards of care. There are certain legal protections for trans people here that don’t exist in Nigeria. So I think the onus is on her even more to learn about these things because as someone who comes from a country where trans people aren’t often heard, she really needs to go looking for those voices and centering those voices, rather than saying, “oh here’s how I’ve experienced it as a Nigerian” and speaking over those transgender people who are in that culture as well. I don’t know if she’s arrived at this opinion just on her own, but I feel as if, if she’s not really listening to the Nigerians who are speaking to her on this then there’s another problem of her just not wanting to listen and not wanting to trouble her own opinion on this.

Calling transwomen “women” is important

“A cisgender man–even gender-nonconforming cisgender men–always have the assurance that they are men. They can always fall back on that. That’s not something that can be said of transgender women. That is not a destination they’re ever going to get to. It is a form of violence to be misgendered on a consistent basis.

There’s a lot of mental harm that goes into constantly being misgendered and read the wrong way by a society that says you cannot exist. Because that’s what society tells trans people, it says, you cannot exist, in so many words. And so there’s a real violence done to trans women when they are read as male. Like, if you look at a lot of the cases of people attacking and murdering trans women, a lot of it comes from these beliefs that they’re somehow tricking people into believing they’re women or they’re misleading people into believing their women, even though they are women.

And that’s why I have a problem with Chimamanda not ascribing the label of woman to trans women and instead qualifying it in some way because that denial that trans women are women, I mean that denial that trans women are women, the denial of that has been used to excuse violence against them. It’s been used to push them out of job opportunities. It’s been used to deny them their identities and their experiences of gender. It’s been used to silence them in a lot of respects because as you see, Chimamanda deigned to talk about this without citing any trans woman or talking about any trans women who have spoken to the subject. She just went off on her own opinion which shows that cisgender women still feel that they can be the authorities on womanhood and that trans women are not included in defining that experience.

Then you have the fact that a lot of feminists, particularly trans-exclusionary radical feminists, will kind of use this thinking that Chimamanda has advanced as an excuse to exclude trans women from women spaces, to say that trans women cannot love women or men, to say that trans women are dangerous in some way, or are invading women’s spaces. Like all these trans-misogynistic things that come out of cis-feminist mouths, a lot of them are based on this idea that trans women are too different from quote unquote women, as in, which they mean cis women when they say women. That whole idea is used to other them and push them out and further marginalize them which is exactly what people do not need in this transphobic world.”

Experiences of gendered socialization are not universal
“Growing up as someone who was assigned female at birth, like Chimamanda says when you’re assigned female gender at birth there’s a certain amount of shaming, for periods, uteruses, all these other body parts that she’s talking about, but being that I’ve never fully identified or taken on the label of woman for myself in a comfortable way, that socialization didn’t necessarily glom onto me in a way it might have someone who was a cisgender woman and experiencing their body as aligned with what society told them they were.”

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