Morgan M. Page is an artist, writer and activist who lives in Montreal.
Who has the power to decide what stories get told? This is one of the central questions acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grappled with in her viral TED talk on the dangers of what she calls the “single story.” In it, Adichie cautions against reducing the complex lives of marginalized others – including African women and immigrants – to stereotypical narratives.
Her insightful analysis gained many fans, among them megastars like Beyoncé (who sampled Adichie on her 2013 self-titled album) and, perhaps, some not-quite-so-famous trans women like me.
Recently, while promoting her new book Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, Adichie found herself in hot water. During an interview with Britain’s Channel 4, Adichie expressed discomfort about trans women being considered women.
“If you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then sort of switched 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,” she said.
There is much to unpack in this statement. Adichie is telling a single story about trans women: that, before our transitions, we lived our lives accepted as men and moved through the world with male privilege. Many trans women bristle at this tired narrative, both because it is used to delegitimize our womanhood, and because, for many of us, it simply isn’t true.
I was a visibly gender non-conforming child who transitioned young, in the days before international conversations about transgender youth, such as those currently in the news due to a slew of anti-trans “bathroom bills” in the United States, which would prevent trans people from using the public washrooms of their choice.
My experiences of gendered and sexual socialization don’t match those of the men that I know who are cisgendered, including my own brother. I was bullied and ostracized for my femininity, to the point of having to change schools twice and eventually dropping out at age 16.
Actor Laverne Cox, of Orange is the New Black, tweeted similar experiences in response to Adichie’s comments. “My gender was constantly policed. I was told I acted like a girl and was bullied and shamed for that,” she wrote. “My femininity did not make me feel privileged.” Whatever male privilege I’m supposed to have had didn’t protect me from being harassed, assaulted, and sexually assaulted – all before the age of 18 – experiences that are all too common among trans women, even before we transition.
It’s difficult to reconcile the concept of male privilege with my experience, because the violence I was subjected to came as a direct result of not being considered male. White privilege played a big role in couching the impacts of these events, keeping me housed and fed even in the direst of times, in ways trans women of colour often are not.
While not all trans women have the early transition experience I had – and having it doesn’t make me any more a valid woman than those who transition later in life or in different ways – my experiences do illuminate how Adichie’s single story about trans women holding male privilege simply does not reflect the vast diversity of trans lives.
Adichie is a masterful writer and thinker who has taught us all the dangers of single stories. One hopes that she will take her own lessons to heart and listen to trans women tell our own. We’re more than happy to share them with her, woman to woman.Report Typo/Error
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