“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Once upon a time Judith Butler said, “Gender is a performance.” She said this among a lot of other things. She even clarified and corrected the statement later.
Yet, so many trans and genderqueer people still hear this from cis allies trying to be cool, in a manner which suggests they are faking it.
Maybe the people who say it don’t realise the full impact of their words. It’s a nice quotable quote after all. But when the listener - a trans or genderqueer person - thinks about it, they wonder if their gender is just a performance. Because that’s what so many people have dismissed with: You’re faking it.
When a friend repeats the sentiment, we wonder if that really is the case.
And that’s why it’s hard to dismiss Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's recent statements, even though we’re far away.
Maybe this is just one of those things that happens on the internet for a few days, and everybody will forget all about in a month at best.
But can we say so for sure? We’re living in a time when stupid politicians utter offensive political statements all the time, and writers and thinkers and almost everyone who believes in progressive politics react to these statements too.
But Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is not a stupid (or pretending to be stupid) politician.
For those who don’t know, Adichie said that trans women’s experiences are different from the experiences of cis women. “So when people talk about you know, are trans women, women - I believe trans women are trans women,” she said, then going on to talk about the ‘male privilege’ that she said trans women have, which cis women don’t.
She didn’t say cis. As she clarified later in a Facebook post, cis-trans is not a part of her vocabulary.
Which really is a nice thing - we should get rid of the cis-trans boxes! But not one at a time. As long as there are trans women, the other part better be cis women.
The channel which did the interview - UK’s Channel 4 - released that answer by Adichie as a separate clip, which I believe is a part of a larger interview. They knew what reactions will arise, in support of and against it. So, in a way it feels orchestrated.
We react as we are supposed to. There is no real choice too.
But this dialogue is not an expectation for Adichie to be perfect in her articulation because she as a cis woman has the power to appropriate a trans woman’s womanness.
But as a woman of colour talking about intersectional privilege, and as a writer whose words have an impact on a large audience, especially women (all of them), she holds a certain power that all artists have.
As Rebecca Solnit in her recent piece pointed out, the conservatives throughout history have been aware of the power of art, and have tried to manipulate and ban it. As an artist, as a writer she can change the world, and she has already done so with her novels.
That is the reason to expect Adichie to be perfect in her articulations, whoever she is speaking about.
Adichie calls out trans women for having male privilege when they ‘were a man’, she clarified it as ‘when they were perceived as a man’ by society.
There is no denying that some people have more privilege than others, especially in India. We know how queer people still have caste privilege inside and outside the queer community.
But if asked, can Adichie elaborate on it? Can she talk about the experience of a trans woman’s male privilege?
Living Smile Vidya in her autobiography and her recent article on Vikatan’s Aanpaal Penpaal series beautifully articulated how she, as a trans woman, groomed by the family as a boy, had education where her sisters were denied the same.
Reading her autobiography, one can also see how that education is repeatedly disqualified by the society in the name of her trans identity. And she has to rebuild things from scratch every single time. So this privilege, unlike caste privilege, exists with no real benefits for trans women over cis women. Adichie would call this the power to tell our own stories.
The comments to that interview and the discussions that followed were mostly frightening.
There were a few trans women of colour supporting Adichie - from their perspective, they understood her saying the experiences of trans women and cis women are different, and they found nothing wrong with it, for the experience of every woman is different.
But these are the exceptions. Most of the comments came from men and cis women, thanking Adichie for speaking out their heart - that trans persons are trans persons who can be ‘allowed to be’, but why would they want to 'steal' the binary identities?
Adichie in her clarification was defensive of her perspective, but never criticised such explanations. But of course, she probably wasn’t aware of them.
One more thing that Adichie said was that we can’t conflate one issue on another. As far as I read, she offered no clarification for this statement.
Whatever her intentions were, in the short few lines, she resonated with the age old dialogues, dismissing most of the progressive side. It is akin to saying, let us bring gender equality and then talk about caste discrimination among women.
As another tragedy affirms it - When equality is denied, Everything is denied.
Though appropriation is tool of men in most places, cis women, too, hold the power of appropriation in certain circles. In the sisterhood of women, the support systems, the intellectual spaces of feminism - a trans woman’s womanness can still can be appropriated by them.
We still have no equality there, and as long as that’s the case, even good intentions and ‘well meaning words’ will go wrong.
Watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's interview clip:
Valli is a writer and a translator, and identifies as a trans woman.
(Views expressed are the personal opinions of the author.)