Chimamanda Adichie and the debate about gender
A debate erupted following a Channel 4 interview broadcast on March 10, 2021, in which Chimamanda Adichie argued that gender is about experiences, not anatomy and that a person who has lived as a man with the privileges accorded to men by society before transitioning has experiences that cannot be equated with those of someone born female. In response to a lot of outraged replies, Adichie issued an explanation rather than an apology in a Facebook post on March 12, 2021. These words, according to Adichie's critics, imply that trans women aren't "genuine women," a stereotype that transgender people continuously fight and find insulting.
Adichie, who is also a Nigerian LGBTQ rights activist, has subsequently apologised and attempted to explain her meaning. Nigeria is one of 34 African nations that prohibits same-sex relationships, and punishments have been tougher since the Nigerian government toughened its anti-gay legislation in 2014. While trans women confront significant discrimination and must be supported, she believes that we should be able to see true distinctions between transgender and non-transgender women without implying that one experience is more essential or legitimate than the other. While Adichie's apology was well received by some transgender persons, the issue has not subsided. That's because Adichie's remarks touched on a long-running, and sometimes very controversial, discussion within feminism about what it means to be a woman. That issue has taken on fresh urgency and significance in an era of anti-trans bathroom regulations and increasing public exposure of transgender persons in society.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian novelist, was born on September 15, 1977, in Enugu, Nigeria. Her writing was heavily influenced by the Biafran conflict in Nigeria in the late 1960s. Adichie, the fifth of six children, relocated to Nsukka, Nigeria, with her parents when she was young. Things Fall Apart by author and fellow Igbo Chinua Achebe transformed her as a compulsive reader from an early age. She studied medicine at Nsukka for a while before moving to the United States in 1997 to study communication and political science at Eastern Connecticut State University (B.A., 2001). She earned a master's degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and studied African history at Yale University while dividing her time between Nigeria and the United States.
Why were Adichie's initial words deemed transphobic?
When Adichie was questioned explicitly whether trans women are "genuine women," she said, "trans women are trans women." According to critics, Adichie views trans women as a different category from "genuine women," which is hazardous given the forms of prejudice that transgender people suffer.
Transgender persons experience prejudice in public restrooms, housing, and the workplace. They have frighteningly high rates of poverty and suicide, and they are often targets of violent hate crimes. When it comes down to it, all of this is because some individuals believe that transgender persons aren't "truly" the gender they claim to be and that they should be compelled to adhere to the sex on their birth certificates.
Transgender persons also don't "kind of change gender" on the spur of the moment, as Adichie's statements appeared to imply. They often experience existential torment, believing that who they are essentially as a person, does not correspond to the sex given to them at birth and that there is nothing they can do about it unless they are willing to lose everything.
Some transgender persons live this way for decades before transitioning, but others may express their gender as they see suitable from an early age. When it comes to sentiments like Adichie's, there is also a sad past in the feminist movement.
Trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs, think that trans women should be treated as males in all practical ways. TERFs, like many other social conservatives, perpetuate damaging misconceptions about trans women preying on "genuine" women in toilets and other gender-segregated locations. Some transgender persons have been this way for decades before transitioning, while others have been allowed to express their gender freely from childhood. When it comes to comments that are comparable to Adichie's, the feminist movement has a dark past.
Why are some feminists siding with Adichie?
Many feminists feel that gender is a social construct, with women being expected to "act feminine" and being penalised if they don't, and males being penalised for behaving feminine since they aren't meant to. Furthermore, since femininity is deemed less "serious" or significant in society than masculinity, women are penalised for being excessively feminine.
However, for other radical feminists, gender is only a social construct. We only behave in "masculine" or "feminine" ways because it's expected of us. As a result, "living as a woman" when you were "born male" makes little sense. What does it mean to "live like a woman" by wearing dresses and cosmetics if destroying patriarchy is all about rejecting gender stereotypes?
If a trans woman was designated male at birth, the argument goes, she may have been regarded as a man her whole life, which may have significant benefits, even if she was criticised for being sissy. Men, or those presumed to be men, may be called on more often in class, promoted more frequently at work, have less child-care responsibilities, or be able to take medications that are better adapted to their physiology. They've never had to be concerned about conceiving, and so on.
The only real distinction between men and women, according to these feminists, is their genetics and how society treats them as a consequence. Women have been subjugated for thousands of years because of their reproductive nature. Radical feminists are concerned that we may lose sight of this if gender-specific words like "pregnant women" lose popularity due to their exclusion of trans individuals.
This appeared to be Adichie's main point: the experiences of being "women born female," as she described it, and the experience of transitioning to a woman aren't the same, and pretending they are is silly.
When trans activists and supporters say "trans women are women," they're not implying that transgender women and cisgender women (women who aren't transgender) are interchangeable. They're attempting to argue that these distinctions shouldn't exclude trans women from the larger category of "womanhood."
After all, just about every traditional notion of what it means to be "born female" or "biologically female" may be shown to have an exception. Is it the presence of two X chromosomes, the presence of a vaginal or uterine canal, or the absence of a penis? Many intersex persons who are designated female at birth and remain female later in life do not fall into one or more of these categories.
Trans activists say that neither gender nor biological sex is as straightforward as what's on your birth certificate. And just because we don't know what causes gender dysphoria doesn't mean it isn't genuine for those who suffer from it.
Many trans women disagree with Adichie's assertion that before transitioning, they "enjoy the perks that the world grants to males." For one thing, some trans women claim that being treated like a male while feeling like a woman causes long-term psychological discomfort, rather than the boost in self-confidence that men who believe they are men can gain from such preferential treatment, and forget about any favourable treatment after trans persons come out (or even before they come out if they're viewed as effeminate).
Some transwomen are born with a masculine identity and choose to transition to their desired gender identification via hormone treatment or surgical procedures. This demonstrates how gender is something we learn rather than something that is imposed on us. We are acculturated and disciplined to it, and we perform it as a result. By asserting that transwomen are categorically women, we are effectively reducing them to a stereotype. As a result, their differing unique gender experiences are invalidated.
In conclusion, this is a long-running, and sometimes very controversial topic/discussion within feminism about what it means to be a woman. Critics continue to label Adichie as anti-transgender, however, I believe Adichie was underlining our gendered experiences of society and social standards when she articulated her views on transwomen. Rather than trivialising or harming trans subjectivities, as some have claimed, it confirms the feminist concept that gender, like race, is not biological. Author Esther U Onwa
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