Laverne Cox at Paley Fest for Orange is the New Black – Wikipedia Commons
I was really disappointed to hear about the controversy facing Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche surrounding her comments on the place of trans women within feminism.
I read Adiche’s Americanah earlier this year and thought she wrote brilliantly about race and nationality, I have heard her TED Talk about diversity in literature, you might remember her collaboration with Beyonce and her famed talk about feminism.
The source of the controversy is this: Adiche claimed that trans women experience male privilege because they are not assigned female at birth.
I’ve spent some time thinking about this. As a cis-woman, assigned female at birth and still identifying that way, I understand what Adiche says and I will admit, the question has crossed my mind – do trans women experience male privilege?
However, embedded in this question is the very heart of the oppression that trans people face. By asking if a trans woman (who doesn’t try to pass, who has not yet transitioned if they plan to, who was assigned male at birth) if she/they has experienced male privilege, we are revoking the idea that this person is a legitimate woman. That they are not naturally and fundamentally a woman. It says that once you were a man, and so you are not completely in league with ‘us’ who have been women our whole lives (who are ‘actually’) women.
TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminism) is an ideology that has its own system of logic, even if it’s oppressive (and we must remember that systems of oppression do operate on a certain kind of logic, even though that logic depends on a perverted and flawed worldview). In resisting misogyny and patriarchal oppression, cis-women have pulled back into their own community, one that says this is us, women, and that is them, men. In creating that distinction cis-women defaulted to the biological ‘origins’ of gender, the difference upon which we see our oppression as having been built on. Holding onto this makes it nearly impossible to be trans-inclusive, because no matter how ‘womanly’ a trans woman is, she was one of them at some point. Cis-women want to guard their community from the oppressors. This is understandable.
But it’s wrong.
TERF ideology posits that trans women experience male privilege, but this ignores the reality that gender oppression hurts everyone because it is based on a rigid binary that everyone is expected to adhere to. This means that cis men, despite the power they hold, are also dehumanized because they are expected to be unerringly masculine, unemotional, etc., and when they or anyone else assigned male at birth fail to exhibit these traits, they are subjected to a range of oppression meant to bring them back in line with the binary.
Trans women never get to experience male privilege because they are constantly critically evaluated by society’s gender binary, seen as not masculine enough, and punished for it. Laverne Cox addressed this in a series of tweets recently that I’ll link below. She writes that in her childhood, when she was considered a boy by society, she was never masculine enough, and now, ironically, cis-feminists struggle to consider her feminine enough, even though she is a woman.
TERF ideology is damaging to women.
Trans women are women. Period. It’s not up to me or any other cis woman to decide that. We are not the gatekeepers of ‘actual’ womanhood, deciding who gets to be in the club. When we do so, we become the oppressors. Defining gender from reproductive organs is already arbitrary – who says one is male and one is female? They’re just body parts. Trans women don’t have to pass as ‘female’ because they already are.
Trans women are women.
I don’t like the recent uptick in articles that say “if you’re not ___, you’re doing it wrong” because I think it’s negative and prohibits the growth and learning of potential allies and communication between sides, but I will say this: if you are not at the very least trying to understand that trans women have every right and every place within feminism (as difficult an idea as that may be for you to wrap your head around), your feminism contributes to a system of oppression. If you are not reaching out and trying to learn, there’s a good chance your feminism only serves yourself. It may be uncomfortable to rearrange your definitions of gender, but all of us suffer when we continue to live under the old ones.
To read more, follow the links below:
Laverne Cox’s tweets about her experiences growing up: https://twitter.com/Lavernecox/status/840711779948740608
Huff Post’s coverage of Adiche’s comments w/ video of Adiche’s interview & tweets from transgender activist Raquel Willis: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-transgender-women-feminism_us_58c40324e4b0d1078ca7180b
If you want to learn more about the experiences and history of trans women start with these links:
- 6 Things This Trans Woman Wants You to Know: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/6-things-this-trans-woman-wants-you-to-know_us_56377f29e4b063179912f2ea
- The Trans Women of Color Collective: http://www.twocc.us/
- Read about Christine Jorgenson, one of the first people to undergo sex-change surgery, here: http://mashable.com/2015/04/27/christine-jorgensen/ or here: http://library.transgenderzone.com/?page_id=2160
- Get to know Laverne Cox a little better (since her website is under construction!) here: https://www.buzzfeed.com/saeedjones/laverne-cox-is-the-woman-weve-been-waiting-for?utm_term=.bxNOYp407#.ekDKn4Q2M and here: http://gawker.com/im-good-with-myself-a-conversation-with-laverne-cox-954203487