“…my feeling is that trans* women are trans* women. I think if you’ve lived in a world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then…change, 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 trans* women. What I’m saying is that gender is not biology, gender is sociology.”[i]
These words, spoken by Nigerian writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a short interview with Channel 4 News have been the source of much contention and fallout over the past few days.[ii] Since its posting earlier this week, the video has faced outpourings of backlash from LGBT+ activists, whether they themselves are trans* or advocating on behalf of trans* people.
The charge is one of trans* exclusion. As one may expect, this has led to claims that Chimamanda is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF), a claim which not only fixes her within a particular feminist tradition (rightly or wrongly) and which further employs the acronym as a pejorative. The attack is a simple one. It is an accusation that she is wrong (or perhaps incorrect, if this distinction is to figure anywhere here). This has been accompanied with a plethora of comments which (in same breath as declaring her a TERF) deny her the status of feminist and denounce her ‘ignorance’. According to commenters, she’s woefully misguided, denying ‘facts’,[iii] ignoring the basic reality of trans* people and is, at once, just plainly unaware of the ‘established discourse’. It is unclear as to what discourse this could be.[iv] Perhaps more interesting are those who accuse her of ‘speaking for’ trans* people, where this ‘speaking for’ seems to be an act of ventriloquism, of wrongly inhabiting their space and experiences.
I am not concerned with Adichie’s status as a feminist – in as far as it is an identity label – nor am I particularly concerned with whether or not her views mesh with whatever is perceived as the established discourse. Indeed, this would prompt further questions as to whose discourse this is, where it is enacted (and by whom), and to what end it is employed. Furthermore, it endorses the term ‘feminist’ as an identity status, transforming it from an adjective, a descriptor, to a noun in the form of “I am a feminist”.[v] Instead, my interest is, firstly, the question of trans* exclusion. Does Adichie exclude trans* women from the category of woman? If so upon what grounds? Secondly, I consider the other side of this situation, in which the accusation is one of accusing trans* women of possessing “male privilege”. What exactly this means to say is a question of socialisation, of attitudes towards individuals in terms of how they are recognised in relation to others. It is of central importance to the feminist project as a whole (however one might seek to formulate it) that these concepts are elucidated. For without them, the grounds upon which one wishes to discuss the oppression of both women and female-bodied persons (both in as far as these coincide and split apart), is torn away and the very notion of patriarchy goes with it.
Reading the words Adichie used, it is clear to see why they have been read in this way. Trans* women are spoken of in conjunction and, given the context, opposition with “women”. The structure here is othering, pitting one against the other. One should not rush to condemn those who find issue with this phrasing, there is clearly a tension within the words used. But does this amount to trans* exclusion? Well, as Adichie explained in a clarificatory Facebook post three days after the interview:
“Perhaps I should have said trans women are trans women and cis women are cis women and all are women. Except that 'cis' is not an organic part of my vocabulary. And would probably not be understood by a majority of people. Because saying ‘trans’ and ‘cis’ acknowledges that there is a distinction between women born female and women who transition, without elevating one or the other, which was my point.”[vi]
Within this clarification, Adichie seeks to right misinterpretations of both her meaning and her intentions. At other points within this post, she further establishes not only her personal discomfort with being seen to hold this view, but also with the view itself.[vii] We must of course remember the context of her original comments. They are given to us in a recorded interview (under six minutes in total length), and are not formulated within words which can be edited and revised. Furthermore, the interviewing body is that of Channel 4 News, a national channel. Whether for the sake of inclusivity or not, Adichie makes clear that in this context, the term cis – a term which, by means of its introduction, I think beautifully clears up the charge of trans* exclusion – is likely not to have been understood. The very term cis is part of one particular gender vocabulary which, whilst popular, is far from universally understood – particularly by the general public, with all its subdivisions.
If then, to paraphrase, Adichie is saying that trans* women are trans* women, cis* women are cis* women and both trans* women and cis* women are women, as I think she does, the charge of trans* exclusion becomes more difficult to maintain. All she seems to be maintaining is, as she makes quite clear in her original comments, that we should not be so quick to conflate the two identities, to reduce them into an artificial unity. To be sure, it is strange to me that anyone would wish to challenge this, especially if one wishes to maintain the accusation of her wrongly ‘speaking for’ trans* people. For if trans* women and cis* women are the same, reduced to one, then Adichie, as a cis* woman, is as much a part of the category of trans* woman as a trans* woman is part of category: cis* women.
This would appear to posit a messy state of affairs and one which would only serve to silence issues facing one group, or even both.
So much for trans* exclusion. Yet another issue remains. Adichie makes it clear that, according to her, one of the motivations for separating cis* and trans* women lies in their differing experiences and within the privileges that trans* women face as male-bodied people, presumably before coming out, stating their gender identity or changing their gender performativity.[viii] It is the claim that trans* women have at one time possessed ‘male privilege’ that has been seemingly most picked up to support this claim of ‘speaking for.’
Yet is Adichie inhabiting the voice of a trans* person? Is she speaking on their behalf or disclosing the kinds of experience they may face? Perhaps in part, but it seems that she is more concerned with speaking about trans* people, as someone who is not trans* herself. The line between speaking about someone and ventriloquising them, occupying their voice (perhaps falsely), is a murky one.
As a staple concept within feminism (beginning of course within the ‘second wave’ and radical school of feminism) male privilege from its inception has been articulated by female-bodied people, those often regarded (rightly or wrongly) as women. Male privilege speaks of reception and of experience, and is therefore at least in part speaking on behalf of another. The concept enables us to speak of its lack, it’s converse: formulated originally as female oppression. It is from then that we are able to make any kind of articulation of oppression on the grounds of one’s sex, perceived sex, and – through the developments of queer feminist theory – one’s gender. If it through speaking on behalf of another that such concepts of privilege can be articulated, then it does not seem to be that such ventriloquism is to be solely frowned upon. On the contrary, they are an essential to the very trans-inclusive feminist project.
Of course, this is not to ignore the differences between men and trans* women (including the obvious difference of men being men and trans* women being women), particularly in terms of power and position.[ix] All I wish to note is that speaking of or about (and perhaps even in some sense for) another should not be regarded as some kind of violation or overstepping one’s ‘right’. Feminism as a discipline has – as I think I can state somewhat uncontroversially – been primarily driven and maintained by women (and here I do explicitly include both cis* and trans* women).[x] It has made commentary about both the social position of men – and indeed their experiences – from without, as the nature of the claims do not concern solely the subjective experiences of men, but their socio-political position. Feminism has also commented on the position of women, despite many women claiming (both rightly and wrongly, depending on the case) that feminism misrepresents them. I am thinking here in particular of those women who regard feminism as an elaborate form of ‘whining’, and who are often unaware of those nebulous social forces which shape their experiences. Speaking about and for another, whether one shares with them or is divided from them by some category of identity or another, should not be dismissed de facto.
It should be noted that privilege is not so much about identity in as far as an individual self-identifies, but instead concerns identity in the mode that the individual is seen. Were it so simply the case that self-identification afforded an individual all the privileges of the category with which they identified, then there would be no great disparity between the treatment of trans* and non-binary people compared to the treatment of cis* individuals. This is not the case. We could think of this in terms of simply regarding oneself as human. Historically, those in oppressed categories (whether based on gender, sex, sexuality, race etc.) have been scornfully regarded, in various ways, as sub-human and thus not afforded basic human rights and dignity. This persists even today in spite of the strong sense in which those so oppressed regard themselves as human. This is to say that the possession of such privilege is not so much the ‘fault’ or responsibility of the individual who has the privilege, for the privilege is given (or not given) often in ways that are outside of the direct control of the individual. Thus, to say that someone possesses such a privilege should not be conflated with a moral judgement of the one with the privilege. Of course, I do not mean to ignore the history of using notions such as male privilege to exclude trans* women from the category of woman, but I do contend that no such exclusion is occurring here. But the point stands that one does not need to speak for, or steal the voice of another person, in order to speak about male privilege. It is something which is articulated from without.
If we are to speak of male privilege and speaking about or for others, we must speak of socialisation.
From a young age, socialisation takes root. Whilst I uphold the sex/gender distinction as much as I am able, one must recognise that this conceptual division does not reflect the ‘common sense’ reality. For many people outside feminist discourse, sex and gender are interchangeable and this is reflected in the treatment of children. This is what we could refer to as the ‘common sense’ attitude. As soon as a child is coded as male or female, which most commonly occurs shortly after birth, the child inherits a whole array of gendered meanings. Treatment by others shapes their social position and certain privileges are afforded to those who are – or at least who are regarded as – male-bodied. This and this alone is what is entailed within the claim that trans* women (or at least those who were/are male-bodied) possess/possessed male privilege. Of course, the situation is in some sense changing, resulting in a perhaps more accepting world; but we cannot – in our want to change the world and challenge those elements we find not to sit well with us – ignore the predominant view, the ‘common sense’ approach. In order to challenge this approach, we must first understand it and be able to communicate with those who purport it. Such would be to deny the world to which one wishes to object, to deny the very problem feminism could be said to arise in opposition to.
Laurie Richards’ objections to this point (in her ThinkProgress article) have been objectionably phrased in terms not only of “political dishonesty” (whatever one considers this to mean in this context) but also as ignorance of “decades of scientific research”.[xi] The central claim here appears to be that Adichie is simplifying, erasing a huge amount of emotional turmoil and difficulty (both internal and external) which trans* women experience, that she is using the basis of their once having had male privilege to deny their oppression. Not only is this reading of Adichie’s words somewhat mitigated within her clarification,[xii] but I, as well as at least two prominent gender theorists,[xiii] take further issue with the ‘born this way’ narrative with which she presents trans* experiences (which ironically seems equally if not guiltier of simplistically collapsing trans* narratives than anything Adichie may have said).[xiv] This is reminiscent of the very biological essentialism trans* people so often have to fight against. Furthermore, I consider her understanding of ‘male privilege’ to be quite narrow. We must remember, male privilege is not so much about subjective experience, but about one’s treatment by others. And part of this is to recognise that one may possess privileges, but that these do not mitigate or invalidate any oppressions which one may face.
But conversely, such oppression furthermore does not erase one’s privileges, as Richards seems to claim. To think such would be as reductive as it is claimed Adichie’s comments are. I am thinking here in particular of the response by trans* icon Laverne Cox, whose essential claim is that her being perceived as a feminine boy (whether before or after coming out) erased any male privilege she may have had.[xv] On Cox’s own terms, it is the way in which one is perceived that shapes one’s privilege, but even being regarded as a feminine boy is to be regarded as a boy, as one who is assumed (in this case wrongly) as male. Cox further criticises Adichie – wrongly, I think – on the grounds of presenting a singularising narrative for both trans* and cis* identities.[xvi] Nothing in Adichie’s comments speak to this charge. Instead, she is clear that we should instead be mindful not to conflate and reduce things to simple unities. This stands for cis* and trans* identities as much as it does the overall category of woman.
My main concern here is that to view male privilege so reductively, is to undermine a central aspect of patriarchy. I’ve spoken somewhat lengthily here about Richards’ article on ThinkProgress. As a website, ThinkProgress shares important stories, highlighting key feminist issues. It rightly speaks about the oppression of female-bodied people and women (again, both is as far as these two cohere and divide), drawing attention to issues of oppression which are far more than isolated occurrence, but are caused by the underlying, patriarchal structure of western cultures. In order to speak of these structures, to speak of the system as a whole, we must step outside of ourselves. This is not to say that we leave behind our subjectivity – not that this would be possible anyway – or that we ignore individual voices, but it does necessitate a willingness to speak about and for others. If this is forbidden and viewed exclusively as a transgression, we have reached a dangerous position, one in which we are robbed of the vocabulary with which systemic oppression can be articulated.
One cannot help but feel that this controversy passes comment on the nature of liberal feminist discourse. Whilst overly fixating on the language Adichie uses to express herself – a language which, it must be noted, she explicitly declares as not her own[xvii] – commentators are using an altogether too static notion of discourse. In so doing, they appear to regard feminism and its questions not as a lively field of discussion and engagement, the natural fallout of which is disagreement, but as a foregone conclusion. This is mirrored in those who wish to, on the basis of perceived trans* exclusion, exclude Adichie from feminism itself. The basic formulation is that one must believe this or one may not speak of it at all. It is a dangerous state, one which collapses the richness of diverse discourse. To be clear, this is not a simplistic call for any kind of freedom of speech, and I am certainly not saying that all contributions (I have in mind here hate speech) are to be welcomed equally. Instead, I think it misunderstands the very dynamism at the core of feminism, indeed at the core of anything we might speak of as political speech.[xviii]
To close my thoughts, I would like to end as I began, with Adichie’s own words:
“To acknowledge different experiences is to start to move towards more fluid – and therefore more honest and true to the real world – conceptions of gender.”[xix]
[i]Channel 4 News, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On Feminism, 2017 <https://www.channel4.com/news/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-on-feminism> [accessed 15 March 2017].
[ii] I include here only two examples, for the sake of brevity. See: Noah Michaelson, ‘Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Under Fire For Comments About Trans Women’, Huffington Post, 11 March 2017 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-transgender-women-feminism_us_58c40324e4b0d1078ca7180b> [accessed 15 March 2017]. and Laurie Richards, ‘No, Trans Women Do Not Grow up with Male Privilege’, ThinkProgress, 15 March 2017 <https://thinkprogress.org/trans-women-do-not-grow-up-with-male-privilege-e51eba1eb42c#.ctt1q0lhw> [accessed 15 March 2017].
[iii] Which is of course to beg the questions of whose facts these are, in what context they are situated, whence comes their factual status.
[iv] To speak of this in terms of ‘the feminist discourse’ would not answer this question, but supplant it with another: which feminist discourse?
[v] There is a sense in which this totalises the status of feminism, collapses its discursive elements into a doctrine
[vi] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘CLARIFYING’, 2017 <https://www.facebook.com/chimamandaadichie/photos/a.469824145943.278768.40389960943/10154893542340944/?type=3&theater> [accessed 15 March 2017].
[viii] Speaking of course as in Butler’s sense, see: Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990).
[ix] Power is, however, complex and the disparities and similarities across identities and their enactedness and reception is more dense a topic than I can elucidate here fully.
[x] This is obviously not to ignore the many male/masculine contributors to such theory, notably (at least for radical feminism) a reasonably well-known figure: Karl Marx.
[xi] Both quotations are taken from the subtitle in: Richards.
[xii] “A trans woman is a person born male and a person who, before transitioning, was treated as male by the world. Which means that they experienced the privileges that the world accords men. This does not dismiss the pain of gender confusion or the difficult complexities of how they felt living in bodies not their own.” - Adichie.
[xiii] I think in particularly here of Judith Butler’s work on sex and gender within: Butler. particularly the chapter ‘Foucault, Herculine, and the politics of sexual discontinuity.’ and Michel Foucault’s work within: Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. by Robert Hurley, 5 vols (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), i.
[xv] Laverne Cox, ‘Laverne Cox - Twitter’ <https://twitter.com/Lavernecox?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor> [accessed 15 March 2017].
[xviii] My thoughts here are informed by Hannah Arendt’s notion of novelty as intrinsic to any true political discourse, see: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1st edn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, ‘CLARIFYING’, 2017 <https://www.facebook.com/chimamandaadichie/photos/a.469824145943.278768.40389960943/10154893542340944/?type=3&theater> [accessed 15 March 2017]
Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition, 2nd edn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)
Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2006)
Channel 4 News, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On Feminism, 2017 <https://www.channel4.com/news/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-on-feminism> [accessed 15 March 2017]
Cox, Laverne, ‘Laverne Cox - Twitter’ <https://twitter.com/Lavernecox?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor> [accessed 15 March 2017]
Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, trans. by Robert Hurley, 5 vols (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), i
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Richards, Laurie, ‘No, Trans Women Do Not Grow up with Male Privilege’, ThinkProgress, 15 March 2017 <https://thinkprogress.org/trans-women-do-not-grow-up-with-male-privilege-e51eba1eb42c#.ctt1q0lhw> [accessed 15 March 2017]
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de Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex, trans. by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009)
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Butler, Judith, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (United States: Columbia University Press, 2012)
Irigaray, Luce, To Speak Is Never Neutral (New York: Routledge, 1997)
Witt, Charlotte, ‘Anti-Essentialism in Feminist Theory’, Philosophical Topics, 23 (1995), 321–44