When I first heard that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had said something unsavory about trans women back in 2017, I avoided the news. I didn’t click on it. I tried not think about it.
I had read Americanah, watched an interview or two, saw her talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” I fondly followed her work and her outspoken position on feminism. As someone whose politics revolve around my love for women and femmes of color, I wasn’t willing to admit to myself that cis women of color carry transmisogyny in their bodies.
But as Facebook statuses by trans people filled up my news feed, I had to at least read what Adichie had said. My first reaction, honestly, was that if she could have said what she said with more nuance, it would have been true. But she fell into the trap of confining trans women to one kind of experience, one that she projects onto them.
Trans women indeed have a different experience compared to cis women. And maybe some of them had an advantage or two at one point in their lives because they still identified as a man then and presented themselves as such. But it’s not that simple.
The biggest mistake that was made in Adichie’s rhetoric was simplifying the way that trans women relate to their bodies and their gender.
Trans women are not cardboard cut-outs that traverse from point A to point B. We don’t transform like Pokemon. We go through complicated, often precarious, series of situations that lead us to the present.
Not all trans women are born with the same bodies at birth. Some trans women are assigned male but may be intersex.
Not all trans women will medically transition in their lifetimes. Maybe because they feel comfortable with their body and the way they present, maybe because they don’t have the financial means, or maybe they have obligations to loved ones that don’t allow them to. And the trans women who do transition don’t all do so within the same time frames. Some of us transition as preteens and others transition as seniors.
My point is that there is no single type of trans woman. We should not be held responsible for the one-dimensional narrative that a cis woman projects onto us.
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Even if some of us were perceived to be male at certain points in our lives, it doesn’t mean we have male privilege. When I’m perceived as a man in a dress, I’m not protected by male privilege, I assure you. To say that trans women accessed male privilege pre-transition does a painful disservice to the complexity of our lives. And that shit hurts.
For trans people who transitioned later on in their lives –– people seem to love using Caitlyn Jenner as an example –– being perceived as male doesn’t equal male privilege. It’s not an easy cause-and-effect. It doesn’t consider that these trans women could be carrying an immense burden, having to wait for much of their lives before presenting themselves in the way they desire. Some trans women transition and then de-transition for their own safety and the safety of their loved ones. Is this a sacrifice that can be attributed to male privilege?
I’d like to ask whether the many cis women who are perceived as male –– because of their haircuts, because they have PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), or for any other reason resulting from our flawed ideas of gender –– do they also have male privilege?
The idea that being perceived as male gives a person male privilege doesn’t take into account how complicated women’s lives are, regardless of how they identify.
The overwhelming majority of trans women, some of whom I call my sisters, would tell you they’ve never accessed male privilege. Many of them will tell you that they were the sissy, the fag, the girly boy. They may have been harassed or assaulted. Some of them might have undergone abuse to the point where they attempted to take their lives. And some trans women don’t go through these hardships at all, and their stories are just as valid.
There are many people who still know very little about trans women’s lives. Who see us through the frame of M-T-F (male-to-female).
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Our lives are bigger than our transitions, bigger than the gender binary, bigger than our bodies and the way people perceive us.
Womanhood is not a competition in which us trans women are inherently failing. The benefits of womanhood, as it’s constructed within a gender binary, have benefited mostly white, cis, non-disabled women, so what are we competing for again?
Why do we have to aspire to a single kind of a womanhood? A “single story,” as Adichie might say? A womanhood that reduces trans women to caricatures is not something I believe she is invested in.
I believe that my womanhood is built on the womanhood of my ancestors, and that my experience is specific and unique to myself. But also that my womanhood is intertwined with that of all women and all femmes, if they’ll have me.
I believe in womanhood that builds and uplifts the different ways we craft ourselves on the daily. All of our unique experiences make us more equipped to take care one another, survive, tell our stories, and enact our dreams.
[Feature Image: Five individuals of different gender presentations and racial backgrounds stand outside holding a banner that reads “Unlearn Transphobia.” City buildings are visible behind them.]