Chimamanda Adichie's Essay and the Rise of Trans Exclusionary Feminism

The author's equivocation bemoaning ‘cancel culture’ while nursing her woundedness is a typical trope of trans exclusionary feminism.

In a note on their 2020 Netflix documentary Disclosure, trans rights activist-actress Laverne Cox and director Sam Feder have cited the ‘visibility paradox’ as the inspiration behind their incisive take on trans representation in the media.

The visibility paradox – about how the greater the trans visibility in everyday spaces, the more ruthless is the backlash – also explains why trans exclusionary radical feminism with all its reactionary violence and micro-aggressions has been more pronounced lately.

In her widely shared essay, released in the Pride month of June 2021, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie bemoaned social media “sanctimony” and “puritanism” where “[w]e are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another.”

Decontextualised, the essay reads like a cogent take-down of the performative ‘wokeness’ that plagues the social media age.

The instances cited by Adichie in her essay, to justify her own sense of persecution, are those of two Nigerian writers, one a nonbinary person and the other a queer feminist. Theirs were among the many African queer voices that critiqued Adichie’s for her trans exclusionary views in her 2017 interview and her essay double-downed against all of them.

“Trans women are trans women,” Adichie had said in the interview, adding, “I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then sort of 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.”

Trans women are women. It’s not a process of metamorphosis where one acquires their felt sense of gender identity only post physical transitioning. The imputation of male privilege to trans women is both an act of misgendering and denial of the acute violence and vulnerability that is the lived experience of trans, non-binary, and intersex persons in a cis-normative world.

Representative image. Photo: Reuters.

Trans exclusionary feminism

Adichie’s essentialist notion of gender, which gives primacy to biological sex instead of one’s own felt sense of gender, is characteristic of trans exclusionary feminism. When in her essay Adichie takes umbrage to “people who wield the words ‘violence’ & ‘weaponize’ like tarnished pitchforks”, hers is an attempt to blunt criticisms of how trans exclusionary radical feminists have weaponised cis-women’s victimhood to perpetuate violence towards trans persons and curb their basic rights. An attempt made much worse with the witch-hunt allusion, an imagery oft-misused by the far-right, including by former United States president Donald Trump, for appropriating victimhood.

Adichie’s equivocation bemoaning ‘cancel culture’ while nursing her woundedness is a typical trope of trans exclusionary feminism. It is important that feminists, with cisgender privilege i.e. the privilege of having a gender identity that corresponds with their biological sex, not contribute to it in any way. More so because of the way trans exclusionary feminists the world over have harped on violence against women in order to code several spaces and resources – from bathrooms to shelters for domestic violence survivors – as strictly female and exclude all gender non-conforming identities.

Trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), who go by the self-label ‘gender-critical’, have been around since American radical feminist Janice Raymond published her 1979 book Transsexual Empire. It is only in recent years, as a backlash to the assertion of trans pride, that the anti-trans feminists have muscled their way into the mainstream policy space. Its seedbed is the UK, where several mainstream writers, feminist philosophers, and journalists are its main advocates and who, as in few other countries, often align themselves with the political right to further their culture war.

This June, tax consultant Maya Forstater got a United Kingdom employment appeals tribunal ruling in her favour after she was sacked for tweeting a transphobic article that said self-identifying pronouns are akin to a rape drug, implying that trans women are lascivious men. Forstater managed to crowdfund over £100,000 to fight her case.

Author J.K. Rowling not only rallied behind her but penned a detailed essay on why trans women need to be barred from ‘women only’ spaces, using her own experience of domestic assault by a cis-gender man to justify the demand. An essay which Adichie described as “a perfectly reasonable piece”.

Setbacks to trans rights and the role of cis women 

Many of the setbacks to trans rights of late have been all a result of cis women instrumentalising their perceived fears to seek greater protections – against trans women who they view as essentially males claiming to be women solely with the purpose of infiltrating their spaces. This claim has zero basis in empirical evidence. Julia Serano, the author of the trans feminist book Whipping Girl, has in fact shown how this ‘trans-misogyny’ has much to do with the way the media portrays trans women as “male ‘perverts’ who transition to female in order to fulfil some kind of bizarre sexual fantasy.”

It speaks to the growing clout of this brand of feminism that in 2021 alone, almost 30 states’ legislatures in the United States, citing cis-women’s rights, introduced or passed bills to ban transgender girls from competing on girls’ sports teams in public schools and colleges.

Or, when following the lobbying for cis-women’s rights groups, including by Rowling, last year the UK government backtracked on its decision to change the Gender Recognition Act that would have allowed people to self-identify their gender.

Canadian writer and journalist Meghan Murphy and other trans exclusionary feminists were the staunchest opponents of an amendment to Canada’s rights act prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and gender expression; this, they argued, would lead to predatory men claiming to be women. In February 2020, over a hundred feminists in France signed a letter, published in the Huffington Post, arguing for the trans exclusion from single-sex spaces, such as sports locker rooms, public toilets, hostel dormitories, prisons, and emergency shelters.

Similar violence is enacted on trans and non-binary children, whose gender identity is dismissed by trans-exclusionary feminists as misguided and a result of indoctrination. Over the last couple of years, the UK and many US states have made it difficult for trans kids to access gender affirming healthcare on these grounds. In Australia, a bill meant to amend an education legislation was introduced in the state legislature last year banning mention of gender fluidity in classrooms with punitive provisions against teachers if they provide any kind of support to gender non-conforming students.

India’s case

India’s own Transgender Persons Act, 2019 is a case in point of how cis persons rammed through, in the face of sustained protests by trans persons, a legislation that denies them their basic right to self-identity and mandated that a district magistrate certify their gender. The mainstream feminist movement in India is just as implicated in this erasure.

File photo of protestors raising slogans in Bengaluru against the Union government over the passage of the transgender bill, on November 27, 2019. Photo: PTI

Last month, trans persons rightly called out well-known feminist Kamla Bhasin for her talk where she insisted on according centrality to the victimhood of cis women while dismissing trans and caste identities as peripheral. Trans exclusionary feminism is not only harmful but also deflects from the very structural issues of survival.

Also read: The Modi Govt’s Handling of the Trans Rights Bill is Transphobia in Action

Indian writers such as Living Smile Vidya and A. Revathi have, through their searing autobiographies, documented the lack of livelihoods and the police-state violence faced by the many trans communities in India, especially those from oppressed castes.

The knowledge production industry has always been the preserve of the more privileged. Any knowledge that refuses to constantly evolve beyond the established canons renders itself irrelevant. It’s rather ironic that Adichie, while holding on to her own ossified views dismisses trans experiences as the “prevailing ideological orthodoxy”.

Yes, Harry Potter-creator Rowling and celebrated feminist Adichie are trans exclusionary.

By all means, one feels let down when your much-cherished icons fall. But use your cis privilege to hold them responsible for the harms done. Holding people accountable is not equal to ‘cancelling’ compassion or condemning people to eternal damnation for their mistakes, nor is it precluding the ability and space for individuals to grow, as Adichie would like us to believe. It does, however, seek an acknowledgement of the privileges, and the humility to concede space to those historically marginalised.

Shalini Nair is a journalist and a Gender Studies PhD scholar at the University of Sussex, UK.