During the perpetual lockdown that was the COVID-19 pandemic, I read a lot of books. I’ve always enjoyed a quick read—plop me down in a cosy nook with a Brontë sister and I’m pretty much good to go. But, during lockdown, I really got into a myriad of authors and genres I’d never particularly dipped my toes into before. One of those authors was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read Americanah and was instantly transfixed.
Soon after that, I found myself devouring quite literally anything and everything Adichie created. I watched her TED talks, I read her short-form feminist literature, and I watched all of her interviews, completely in awe of the mesmerising author in front of me.
Then, I stumbled upon some comments that the author had made in 2017 during an interview with Channel 4 about feminism. Before I continue, it’s of course important to recognise the integral work that Adichie has done for women—both within her literature and in her public appearance. Her positioning as a Nigerian global feminist icon is incredibly valuable. That being said, I was beyond disappointed to hear the author very plainly state that “trans women are trans women.”
We’re currently living in one of the most openly transphobic societies that has ever existed. Daily, trans individuals are subjected to extreme physical harm—something that global governments continue to minimise and the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak blatantly doesn’t care about. The community is also expected to persistently fight against a wall of political violence that, each day, strips their rights and access to crucial care away.
Therefore, when public figures, particularly figures who are prominent feminist icons, make transphobic comments, it massively harms the entire LGBTQIA+ community.
The conversation surrounding trans women not being ‘real women’ is a hateful narrative that has existed for some time now. Conservatives often like to invalidate the lived experiences of trans individuals by insisting that, because they weren’t born as the gender they identify with, they can’t possibly truly understand what it means to be ‘that’ gender. More often than not, this is directed towards trans women.
While right-wing politicians and public figures spout on and on about how this rhetoric is simply to protect the rights of women, it’s a load of crap. Their only focus is holding onto the puny and pathetic patriarchal system that keeps them in positions of power. Trans women are in no way, shape, or form a threat to cisgender women, it’s truly the other way around.
Adichie did apologise to the LGBTQIA+ community in a Facebook post. The author stated: “I said, in an interview, that trans women are trans women, that they are people who, having been born male, benefited from the privileges that the world affords men, and that we should not say that the experience of women born female is the same as the experience of trans women.”
“I see how my saying that we should not conflate the gender experiences of trans women with that of women born female could appear as if I was suggesting that one experience is more important than the other. Or that the experiences of trans women are less valid than those of women born female. I do not think so at all—I know that trans women can be vulnerable in ways that women born female are not. This, again, is a reason to not deny the differences,” Adichie continued.
Adichie’s apology is definitely appreciated, however, it still reinforces a brand of feminism we’ve seen pushed forward by white women. White feminism fails to address and highlight the experiences of women belonging to marginalised groups or lacking privileges. Often, the women who have been most radical in their feminist ideology have also been less understanding and open to the plight of gender non-conforming individuals and trans individuals.
Globally, there has been an increase in TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminism) rhetoric online—with a lot of this growth being attributed to the highly transphobic comments from author JK Rowling. The Harry Potter writer has frequently invalidated the existence of trans women, steering on the course of biology and sex, a topic transphobes often use as a way to skirt around and avoid true inclusion in society.
What usually follows after the public criticism of transphobia from a public figure, is an outcry from the individual that cancel culture has reared its ugly head once again. If I had a penny for every time a transphobe cited ‘cancel culture’ after making a hateful comment, I’d be way closer to finding a way to oust Rishi Sunak from 10 Downing Street.
It’s important to note that trans women from Africa have been largely ignored in this conversation. Nigerian members of the LGBTQIA+ community face serious and daily discrimination. Their omission from discourse about the threats to their own identities reflects the racism that still exists within queer conversations and media coverage.
One very valuable voice in this discussion has been the Nigerian transgender model and human rights spokesperson Miss SaHHara. Speaking to the BBC, the activist stated: “What happened to being inclusive and tolerant of all women, no matter their life histories? I get a lot of online messages from Nigerian trans girls who are there now and they find it so difficult. A nightmare. There’s no male privilege for trans women in Africa.”
SCREENSHOT spoke with Yvee Oduor, a gender non-conforming journalist and human rights activist in Kenya. Oduor is definitely conflicted over her feelings for Adichie and offers valuable insights into that emotional confusion: “For me, Chimamanda has been a representation of what it means to be conflicted about someone because [her] early work was my introduction into what African feminism would look like outside of my understanding of queer feminism and Black feminism. I felt that her voice was very crucial in defining for me what African feminism could look like or would look like.”
“Chimamanda was very accessible in her analysis about gender and how women were situated in an African context, so I love Chimamanda, and her recent transphobic outbursts have thrown me off completely because, honestly, she disagrees with her former self. The Chimamanda who wrote Half a Yellow Sun and who spoke about why we should all be feminists and who did all this work, wouldn’t agree with the Chimamanda who sometimes says transphobic things,” Oduor continued.
The activist concluded: “I feel she is not a trans advocate, she does not advocate for trans women or trans issues, that is very clear. But I’m yet to find situations where she’s outwardly or openly being transphobic. The last instance, it was because she was in conflict with a trans person and she avoided addressing any direct questions or targeted responses—these are very hard to get from her when it comes to trans issues and that’s super problematic. It’s been hard for me to pin her down. I’m very conflicted about her, it’s really disappointing to see pioneers and people who did a lot of work to open doors for women and minorities turn around and go against what they actually believe in to try and promote hate of any form and transphobia in this instance. It’s been really disappointing.”
One final point that Oduor makes, which I think is incredibly reflective of today’s society, is the fact that we often put these people on pedestals and will them to grow and become advocates for us all. We want so badly for our heroes to fulfil these expectations that it hurts so much more when we realise that they cannot always satisfy those needs.
While we can recognise Adichie’s serious contribution to third-wave feminism, particularly as an African woman, we can also emphasise the need for absolute allyship from cisgender women. Having these conversations and impressing upon people the sheer danger in which trans individuals currently find themselves is not an option, it’s a dire necessity.