The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has responded to accusations of transphobia after she discussed transgender women in a TV interview.
During the interview with Channel 4’s Cathy Newman, Adichie was asked whether she believed whether “how you’ve arrived at being a woman” was important.
“For example,” asked Newman, “if you’re a trans woman who grew up identifying as a man, who grew up enjoying the privileges of being a man, does that take away from becoming a woman? Are you any less of a real woman?”
Adichie responded by saying that she believed “trans women are trans women.”
Gender, she continued, is “not about how we wear our hair, or whether we have a vagina or a penis, it’s about the way the world treats us.
“And I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges 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.”
The Nigerian novelist, who received widespread acclaim in 2012 for her TEDx talk and essay We Should All Be Feminists, added that she doesn’t “think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women, because I don’t think that’s true”.
Adichie quickly received a barrage of criticism on social media from people who argued she had no right to comment on the validity of trans women’s experiences.
“Chimamanda being asked about trans women is like Lena Dunham being asked about Black women. It doesn’t work,” wrote black transgender activist Raquel Willis on Twitter.
“We can speak for ourselves… Cis women don’t need feel threatened by trans womanhood. If your experience means less because trans women exist, that’s your problem.”
In a lengthy 929-word Facebook post on Sunday night, the day after her appearance at the Women of the World festival on the Southbank - where she was asked about the comments during her talk – Adichie responded to the criticism levelled against her.
Upon hearing that she had been condemned as transphobic, Adichie said, her first instinct was to be “very defensive”. However, she continued, she “didn’t like that [defensive] version of myself”, nor truly think that it was a valid response.
“And so I want to put my defensiveness aside and clarify my thoughts,” she said.
While Adichie recognises that her comments “upset many people”, and sees their concerns as “valid”, she nevertheless stands by her opinion.
“We can oppose violence against trans women while still acknowledging differences… We should be able to acknowledge differences while also being supportive,” she wrote, adding: “We do not have to insist, in the name of being supportive, that everything is the same.”
If we do that, Adichie said, “we run the risk of reducing gender to a single, essentialist thing”.
Adichie explained that she does not think that trans women experience fewer difficulties than cisgender women. However, she does believe that “they did not undergo those particular difficulties specific to being born female, and this matters because those experiences shape how adult women born female interact with the world”.
“I think of feminism as Feminisms,” she continued. “Race and class shape our experience of gender. Sexuality shapes our experience of gender.
“And so when I say that I think trans women are trans women, it is not to diminish or exclude trans women but to say that we cannot insist – no matter how good our intentions – that they are the same as women born female.”
Response to Adichie’s post on Facebook was mixed. Marit Stalstrom wrote: “I am a trans woman, a feminist, and I support you 100% Chimamanda! It isn’t transphobic to acknowledge the simple truth that there are differences between women and transwomen.”
Nic Wayara, however, said that Adichie should “stop speaking for trans women. It’s really not that hard… Learn from others instead of acting like you know the most about the experiences of trans women.”
Adichie is not the first high-profile figure to be criticised for their stance on transgender women in recent times. Just last week, Dame Jenni Murray – the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour – was denounced for writing an article in which she suggested that that transgender women were not “real” women, because they could not understand what it was like to grow up female.
Images: Rex Features