What Makes a ‘Real’ Woman? Welcome to the New Liberal Transphobia

Author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie doesn’t believe trans women are women because they once had the ‘privilege’ of being men. And she’s not alone.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

The word “tranny” doesn’t bother me anymore.

Neither do the pundits and bloggers who peddle pseudoscience to try to delegitimize transgender identity, despite overwhelming medical evidence of its legitimacy.

Hatred of the “other” has been around for a while and, given polling data showing that younger Americans overwhelmingly support transgender rights, the more overt forms of anti-trans prejudice will only fade or move to the margins of society over time.

But liberal transphobia is terrifying. It may be milder but it is far more insidious, able to travel unrecognized within circles of people who should know better than to further marginalize the already marginalized. And ever since the election—perhaps especially since the election—it has been out in full force.

Most recently, we witnessed it when Nigerian author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie conspicuously avoided saying that transgender women are women during a Channel 4 News interview—and in not one, but two Facebook clarifications thereafter—citing tired, decades-old arguments about privilege and socialization.

“So when people talk about, you know, ‘are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women,” Adichie said in her Channel 4 News segment last Friday. “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 changed—switched—gender, it’s difficult to accept for me 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.”

Apparently worried about how those remarks might come off, Adichie added that she believes that transgender women should “be allowed to be.”

Transgender people have long endured opposition from certain feminists who tout these talking points, but Adichie—whose words were sampled in a 2013 Beyoncé single—was a more surprising figure to give voice to this argument.

And Adichie's was just the latest in a long series of examples of the left turning on transgender people precisely when they are at their most vulnerable.

First, there as the kneejerk urge to pin the outcome of the 2016 election on the fight for transgender equality, dismissing the bathroom debate as a distraction that drove anti-PC elements of the electorate into Trump’s arms.

The far-right gleefully trumpeted that narrative, which was to be expected, but it gained a foothold outside of those circles as well. As transgender writer Katelyn Burns summarized for The Establishment, “Everyone from Saturday Night Live to The New York Times to The Washington Post joined in, blaming Hillary Clinton’s loss on the fight for a safe place,” thereby abandoning a “core human rights issue.”

Colin Jost joked on SNL that Tinder adding gender identity options is “why Democrats lost the election” and, most memorably, Columbia professor Mark Lilla claimed in a widely-read op-ed that “America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.”

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HBO host Bill Maher had even primed the pump for this narrative in advance, referring to the bathroom debate as one of many risky “boutique issues” in an “Armageddon election.”

But that narrative, of course, was ridiculous. Blaming transgender people for Trump is a bit like blaming global warming on polar bears. As we’ve seen so far, transgender people have been one of the Trump administration’s first targets—and there’s no data whatsoever to suggest they were not one of its primary causes, as Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi observed.

If anything, there’s reason to believe that visible public support for transgender people was a deciding factor in the opposite direction: As author Jennifer Finney Boylan pointed out, there was “really only one [2016] race in which LGBT rights played a major role,” and North Carolina governor Pat McCrory—who championed his state’s notorious “bathroom bill”—is now out of a job and reportedly having a tough time finding work.

But liberal transphobia has only snowballed since January, flourishing even under the first 100 days of the Trump administration.

First, there was Bill Maher’s shameful statement in February that it was not “unreasonable” for a guest on his Real Time talk show to be worried about protecting “women and girls” from “men who are confused about their sexual identities” entering “their bathrooms.”

In reality, as The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern noted, transgender people are quite likely to be victims of sexual assault themselves—and non-discrimination protections for transgender people in the many states and municipalities that have them have not led to upticks in bathroom assaults.

Earlier this month, too, Dame Jenni Murray, the feminist host of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, penned an op-ed for the Sunday Times with the headline: “Be trans, be proud—but don’t call yourself a ‘real woman.’”

Her op-ed opened with the defensive claim, “I am not transphobic or anti-trans” and yet she went on to refer to the first transgender vicar in the Church of England as “a man [who] claimed to have become a woman”—and to bizarrely criticize India Willoughby, the first transgender female co-host of an all-women’s talk show, for not explicitly condemning a luxury hotel’s leg-shaving policy for female employees during a Woman’s Hour interview last year.

In that interview, Willoughby said, “I think if you’ve got a job in a five-star luxury hotel as a female or a man that certain grooming standards are expected” adding that she wouldn’t want to be served by someone with “hairy legs”—perhaps not the hardline feminist position on the issue, but certainly not one that disqualifies her from being a woman. 
Murray, however, cited the longstanding controversy around grooming standards for women and immediately suggested that Willoughby’s opinion might be due to her transgender status, pointedly asking her guest, “Is that something you’re not really aware of because you’ve come to this fairly recently?”

Willoughby was taken aback.

That exchange foreshadowed Murray’s basic argument in her recent Sunday Times op-ed that transgender women have been raised with “privilege” and therefore cannot be considered real women. And that argument was echoed by Adichie during this latest controversy. 

But more specifically, these arguments about privilege and socialization are situated in a long-line of trans-exclusionary feminism stretching from Janice Raymond’s 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male to Germaine Greer’s 2015 attacks on Caitlyn Jenner to the writing of Julie Bindel, who has crudely referred to transgender women as “men disposing of their genitals.”

Anti-transgender ideology on the left isn’t new, even if it is becoming more mainstream.

That’s why transgender women—from Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox to YouTuber Kat Blaque to the Transgender Law Center’s Raquel Willis—were more than prepared to expertly lay out the obvious flaws in Adichie’s argument: Transgender women do not claim to have had the exact same life experiences as cisgender women but are still women nonetheless.

Even if we use privilege as a barometer for womanhood, transgender women not only lose social advantages once they transition, they endure harrowing rates of sexual assault, violence, poverty, unemployment, and discrimination afterward.

Furthermore, no two cisgender women in the world are raised with the exact same set of privileges and disadvantages, so who’s to say that transgender women—just under half of whom, statistically speaking, have tried to kill themselves—should be barred from womanhood, simply because a small handful of transgender women, like Caitlyn Jenner, are wealthy? (Let’s not forget that Jenner, too, for all of her privilege, thought about killing herself after the paparazzi photographed her leaving a surgery that she wanted to keep secret.)

Oppression isn’t a requirement for womanhood, and gender isn’t solely a matter of privilege. But as transgender people slowly gain acceptance, we can expect to see more ostensibly progressive commentators like Murray and Adichie whip out their “oppression rulers” to decide whether or not transgender women have suffered enough to be considered members of their own gender.

This trend of liberal transphobia wouldn’t be quite so exhausting if we hadn’t been through it all before in the last two decades with other LGBT issues.

As Vennochi pointed out in her Boston Globe op-ed, pundits were blaming John Kerry’s loss on same-sex marriage thirteen years ago. There wasn’t any data to support the LGBT-blaming that time around, either. But the power of that narrative comes from prejudice not evidence. As LGBT activist Arline Isaacson told Vennochi, when elections go wrong, we tend to “blame the queers.”

And even the argument about whether or not transgender people are “real” men and women has a predecessor of sorts in the liberal defense of so-called “traditional” marriage that was the norm not so long ago.

In the year 2000, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton responded to a question about same-sex marriage with this circuitous but typical-of-its-era response: “Marriage has got historic, religious and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time, and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman. But I also believe that people in committed gay marriages, as they believe them to be, should be given rights under the law that recognize and respect their relationship.”

Clinton, like many Democrats in her day, effectively argued that only marriages that have always been considered marriages could be real marriages and that “gay marriages”—with the critical qualifier “as they believe them to be”—should still receive rights, of course—because good liberals believe in equal rights, don’t they—but they can’t be real marriages. Sound familiar?

That Clinton statement might not have been overtly homophobic, but it would be hard to argue today that it wasn’t a prime example of liberal homophobia: opposing human rights—but without using any anti-gay slurs.

Liberal transphobia contains that same trap: Those who circulate it are so self-assured that they are not prejudiced that neither they—nor their audiences, in many cases—can see how they are shoring up the same myths and misconceptions that have been used to deny rights to transgender people for decades.

They do so, too, in a media environment that, by virtue of not having enough transgender voices, is ill-equipped to unpack their statements.

Case in point: Much of the media has fundamentally misunderstood the transgender opposition to Adichie’s remarks—or the reason they started circulating within the community in the first place. Mic headlined their coverage: “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests trans women and cis women don’t have the same experience.” The Washington Post went with: “Women’s issues are different from trans women’s issues, feminist author says, sparking criticism.”

Transgender women weren’t arguing that they have identical experiences to cisgender women, nor were they suggesting that transgender women’s issues overlapped completely with cisgender women’s issues. Those points were not the center of the ensuing internet maelstrom.

The Independent’s headline was rare among mainstream outlets in hitting the nail on the head: “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie faces backlash for suggesting transgender women are not real women.” That was the reason for the backlash—nothing more, nothing less.

All of these subtle digs at the transgender community are particularly ill-timed. So far, in the first three months of 2017, the Trump administration has withdrawn crucial guidance for transgender students, the Supreme Court decided not to hear a case that could have set nationwide precedent for transgender equality, and at least seven transgender women have been murdered.

Faced with this threat, it would be great if liberals who definitely aren’t transphobic would spend less time reassuring themselves of that fact and more time learning not to repeat history’s mistakes.