A video of renowned feminist author, Chimamanda Nzogi Adichie, circulated the internet in which she uses what many have labeled “transphobic”, “cis-centric,” and “exclusionary” rhetoric to describe the differences in treatment and experiences of trans* women versus cis women. This video has led to many responses, many of which attack Adichie and point out her privileged position. While I have many problems with the way some of these articles attack, dismiss, and label Adichie with harsh terms, I do agree that what Adichie says about the experience of trans* women is problematic. Although some trans* women did/do have the privilege of passing as men, having one privilege does not negate their experiences as women or trans* women’s labor that has intense theoretical roots in feminism.
I do believe that some– not all– trans* women do/once had the privilege of passing as men. This privilege is something that I, as a cisgender woman, do not have; however, where Adichie’s logic crumbles is in mistaking this privilege as beyond or outside the experience of a woman, potentially even beyond or outside efforts of feminism. What Adichie fails to recognize, and what unfortunately many of the articles I read failed to point out, is that all LGBTQ+ people, not solely trans* women, have all labored for feminism in a way that heterosexual cis women have not. More importantly, hetero-cis women benefit from this labor. And to exclude trans* women from the labor of the LGBTQ+ community is intellectually and ethically irresponsible.
Because the constructs of gender and sexuality are so deeply intertwined with each other, it is important to recognize that disrupting one (by presenting as gay, for instance) disrupts both binaries. In other words, for a cis woman to engage in a queer activity with another cis woman is still disrupting the gender binary that relies on heterosexuality to function. Trans* and non-binary people disrupt these binaries even more overtly in terms of systemic structures of pronouns, the legal gender binary, etc. What we need to recognize here is that the entire concept of feminism is rooted in a concept of trans* or non-binary. In western culture, the logical framework for gender is that woman is not the opposite, but the counterpart or other in the face of man. Men serve as an icon of the norm while women serve as the gendered other to that norm. In essence, women are represented in terms of their proximity or relationship to men. And anything non-cis or non-heterosexual disrupts this framework.
What we learn from non-cis people, and through trans* women especially, is that gender is not only constructed as a reflective binary, but that it is entirely performative. Culturally, drag and other types of performance have pointed this out to feminists, which has helped carve the notion of what being gendered as a woman really means. Judith Butler writes, “[Drag] implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation. If this is true, it seems, there is no original or primary gender that drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of limitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself…the naturalized effects of heterosexualized genders are produced through imitative strategies; what they imitate is a phantasmatic ideal of heterosexual identity, one that is produced by the imitation as its effect.” (Butler, 378)
In completely theoretical terms, the practice of performing as non-cis reveals that gender is performative, and there is no original model for this performance. This means that ALL women, even cis women, are performing their gender, which has no original foundation. Because gender is a construct which must be performed, trans* women are not mimicking or appropriating an original model of a true “woman,” they are mimicking a mimic that has been performed for years. So it seems that the crux of the experience of being a woman is performance. So theoretically, it makes no sense to exclude trans* women from this experience, just as it would make no sense to exclude non-binary women from this experience, because they choose to no longer “perform,” so to speak. We know this thanks to the work of the LGTBQ+ community (which includes trans* women!) that has performed and disrupted these binaries in overt and revealing ways that heteronormative cis people could not.
So, even though some trans* women could/can pass for men, recognizing this privilege is not socially or theoretically very productive. What would be more productive, which is what the articles I read were really grasping for, is recognizing the extreme systemic violence that takes place every day against trans* people. Trans* women’s bodies are not safer than cis women’s bodies from sexual harassment and assault. In fact, one in two trans* people will be assaulted in their lifetime. A trans* person has a one in twelve chance of being murdered compared to the 1 in 18,000 chance that cis people have. So, while some trans* women might have once been able to pass as men, this privilege is clearly not strong or rooted enough to protect them from violence. Cis women may not be able to pass as men, but the chances of them avoiding violence against their bodies is dramatically higher. Keeping that in mind, it seems it would be a more productive conversation for feminists to focus not on the validity of the experience of trans* people, but on how to systematically disrupt gender binaries that exclude and violate every radically different kind of women’s bodies.