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Dispelling the Harmful Belief that Trans Women Grow Up as Men

Mar 16 2017 6:20 PM
Dispelling the Harmful Belief that Trans Women Grow Up as Men

Screenshot of Channel 4 News interview

Trans women and gender scholars respond to controversial comments made by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

There has been great controversy surrounding the recent comments made by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie regarding transgender women. In a filmed interview with Channel 4 News, Adichie stated that "trans women are trans women," and went on to argue that the experiences trans women have pre-transition distinguish them from other, cisgender women, on the basis that trans women grow up experiencing male privilege.

On social media, trans and cis women alike were quick to criticize Adichie, calling her claims misinformed and unhelpful. In a series of tweets shortly after the interview was broadcast, actress Laverne Cox reflected on her own childhood in Alabama, contesting the novelist's remarks without directly naming her. "I was talking to my twin brother today about whether he believes I had male privilege growing up," she wrote. "My gender was constantly policed. I was told I acted like a girl and was bullied and shamed for that. My femininity did not make me feel privileged." Later, she added, "Class, race, sexuality, ability, immigration status, education all influence the ways in which we experience privilege, so though I was assigned male at birth I would contend that I did not enjoy male privilege prior to my transition."

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Last week, Adichie clarified her position on Facebook. She wrote at length about her belief that both trans women and cisgender women are equal, but reiterated the importance of recognizing the difference between how these two groups are socialized. While girls, Adichie wrote, are taught to be ashamed of themselves and their bodies—"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."

For many trans women that I have spoken with throughout my work, life before womanhood was weighed down by discrimination and social abuse. Perhaps all trans women spend a portion of their lives "as men," but many are subjugated during that time due to feminine behavior—meaning that not all people who are perceived to be male receive the same treatment in society.

"I would say that thinking about trans women's histories as male histories is a profound mistake," says Tey Meadows, a sociologist who studies gender at Columbia University. "Not all people assumed to be 'male' are treated similarly," Meadows explained in an interview with Broadly. "Trans women often face significant stigma pre-transition for failing to conform to rigid masculine standards. And many suffer tremendous psychic trauma from consistent misgendering by others."

"These are by no means typical 'male' histories," Meadows says. "It is difficult to imagine them as histories of gender privilege."

In an interview with the BBC today, transgender Nigerian woman named Miss Sahhara echoed this sentiment. Sahhara explained that life for trans women can be a "nightmare," referencing the violence that she and other trans African women have experienced due to their feminine behavior. "There's no male privilege for trans women in Africa," she affirmed.

Speaking from my own experience, I think Adichie is correct in part: It is natural and helpful to accept that cis and trans women have different social experiences from childhood into adulthood. Obviously, this doesn't have to negate the authenticity of either group's womanhood. However, I think the problem that many trans women have with Adichie's statements is that the idea that trans women were once men—and that this informs their experience as women—is boring and weird, dating back to the prehistoric anti-trans feminism of the second wave. This is troubling to many trans people and advocates, in part because it doesn't align with their personal experiences, but also because it has been used dangerously to delegitimize and harm trans women. One need only glance at our nation's latest legislative assault against transgender people to see this antiquated framework at play.

To claim that trans women's formative experiences are identical to those of cis men until they start to transition is to fundamentally misunderstand what it is to be trans. "To fail at being male results in isolation as well as violence and death," explains Emilia Lombardi, a medical sociologist and professor at Baldwin University who studies transgender populations and health. "To be placed in that situation is very stressful, whether they express femininity or try to hide it." Sue believes that the ideas Adichie expressed are somewhat "simplistic," and are based upon a "binary explanation of gender socialization." Lombardi points out that "there are many differences" in the way people are socialized including race and class, but often, "only trans women's gender and our inclusion as women are questioned."

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