Ignorance Is Strength: Discussing the Privilege of Transwomen

Updated on April 23, 2020
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A.P. Petty is a published poet and short story writer. She's currently working on her B.A.in English.

Laverne Cox.


When Privilege Meets Oppression

Imagine a woman who's a breast cancer advocate. She's speaking about getting screenings, what to look out for, treatment options, and diagnoses rates. But, then, a group of irate people storm the room. They start calling her careless, stupid, selfish, and narrow-minded because she's representing one kind of cancer. They believe she can't be a true advocate of cancer if she's not speaking about lung, prostate, colon, brain, and cervical cancer. All cancers are bad, they say. She should be advocating and using her platform for all cancers, not just one.

This doesn't seem fair, does it? One person being the spokesperson and responsible for educating others of an illness that takes millions of lives. And because of the stance she has regarding breast cancer, her character and values are slandered. She's shamed for no other reason than because others feel she's being too exclusive. Now frame that rhetoric as to what transwomen and followers are doing to women. If women aren't discussing their issues, it must mean they don't care about transwomen and should be made examples of. If transwomen aren't mentioned in the same light as women, they have the right to get aggressive and manipulate the situation. Sounds familiar, right?

Over the past year or so with the bathroom issue taking precedence in news outlets and social media, there's also been debates such as transwomen having male privilege, whether they're women, and the misappropriation of feminism and intersectionality as part of their fight. It seems as though as anyone showing opposition to their views is considered transphobic, a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist), even if their hearts are in the right place and support transwomen.

To start, male privilege is the sociological, political, and economic advantage of men over women. It's what someone is born into. It's not a feeling or whether one identifies with it. However, transpeople have managed to tailor its definition to suit their purpose. Trans writer Kai Cheng Thom of Everyday Feminism says:

"We cannot receive male privilege--because male privilege is by definition something only men and masculine defined people can experience."

By this logic, black people shouldn't be oppressed as long as they don't identify with being oppressed. Same for women. If women don't identify with oppression, they shouldn't be oppressed. Thom's message is insidious. It implies privilege is a choice. On the other end it's perfect, because Thom and others have managed to reinvent a universal, concrete definition of what male privilege is based upon what they define privilege as.

Another example is non-binary and queer transactivist Ugla Stefania. In Why I'm Sick of Your 'Male Privilege' Argument, Stefania suggests:

“Surely, being perceived as male for a part of your life can give you a privilege to an extend - but it is also a crushing and a forceful assignment of identity that no trans woman has ever been or will ever be comfortable with. Having to hide a way a part of yourself and being scrutinised and greeted extremely aggressively by society if you so as show a sign of femininity is not a privilege.”

Stefania's words are just as dishonest as Thom's. They are saying that effeminate boys are not male and don't have privilege for not embodying toxic masculinity. But that's not what male privilege means. Stefania is intentionally modifying the context, because they weren't like other boys. To a degree, Stefania believes that being a girl and feminine are inextricably linked. That actually reinforces patriarchy and the notion that men have to have certain traits to be men and that women have to have certain traits to be women. It contradicts this binary Stefania identifies with.

Transwomen are born male, which by default means they have male privilege. They weren't born in a female body. They didn't experience being told help out in the kitchen or to cross their legs. They didn't develop breasts, get a period, or get called derogatory names for speaking their mind. They may not have had "typical" interests associated with boys or traits associated with masculinity and were probably ostracized for it. But, because of patriarchy, many transwomen feel they're women from this and that it's somehow negative.

Transactivist and actress Laverne Cox has said, she was punished for being a feminine child and that she didn't "enjoy male privilege." Equating femininity with girlhood or womanhood is sexist. There are lesbians who are masculine, but they're still women and treated like women. Cox also implies that effeminate men can't have male privilege, despite having been socialized as boys. And perpetuates that if men don't "accept" male privilege, then they don't have it.

If transwomen were women there would be no need for an argument. It would be obvious. The prefix "trans" means on the other side of. In fact, transwomen often use this logic of being a different kind of woman to their advantage. They don't agree that chromosomes are an indicator of biology. Or see that biological sex, experience, and treatment are linked. They believe anyone can be a woman based upon feelings, interests or having a "lady" brain. Girls in the Congo don't get the option to feel like a boy to avoid FGM. A woman can't feel like a man to be taken seriously in her profession. A woman can't feel like a man undergoing an abortion. No, women aren't a monolith, as far as traits, likes, or gender expression, but it doesn't mean women produce sperm. And, contrary to the misinformation, there's no such thing as a male or female brain. They're just brains.

As for feminism and intersectionality, transwomen and followers subscribe to the logic: If transwomen aren't included in feminism, it's not feminism. It must be intersectional, they say. Feminism has to do with the rights of girls and women. Intersectionality, or intersectional feminism, has to do with women of color integral in feminism. It was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 to give black women a voice and place in the fight for equity. The bigger issue within this is that a movement that has garnered equality for women and girls is now misused for the rights of male-identified women in women's spaces. And these standards are being forced upon women by them.

In an interview with Channel 4 News, feminist and scholar Chimamanda Adichie said:

"When people talk about 'Are transwomen women?' my feeling is that transwomen are transwomen. I think the whole problem of gender in this world is about our experiences, it's not about how you wear your hair or whether you have a penis or a vagina, it's about the way the world treats us. And I think if you've lived in the world as a man with privilege that the world accords to men, and then sort of changed, 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, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are. And so, I think there has to be - and, of course, to say this - I'm saying this also with sort of certainty that transgender people should be allowed to be. But, I don't think it's a good thing to conflate everything into one. I don't think it's a good thing to talk about women's issues being exactly the same as the issues of transwomen, because I don't think that's true."

The blogs and vlogs alike rebuked Adichie's words for days. Articles such as Trans Women Are Women. This Isn't A Debate and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Under Fire For "Trans Women Are Trans Women" Views and videos titled What Chimamanda Gets Wrong About Trans Women and Ms. Chimamanda Adichie, Why Are You So Obsessed With Trans Women? with the vlogs running more than an hour long each. They scolded Adichie for not agreeing that sociology is biology and that the experiences of men and women are different. She said nothing offensive or negative. But since her opinion didn't align with their pedagogies they went for blood to shut her down.

Imagine if transwomen had that much outrage and defiance about patriarchy and used that power to dismantle it instead of working with it. Imagine if they stopped being angry at women--the very sex the parody--and realized women didn't create patriarchy. Imagine if they didn't gaslight every women's issue by pulling the oppression olympics cards on women, how many allies they'd have. Imagine if they realized that the arrogance and antagonism they hold towards women only adds to the tension.

Transwomen sought to hold Adichie accountable because they believed she was against them in the fight against patriarchy. They believed her statements to be transphobic and divisive. However, their insurgence reinforced what men generally do to women to keep women compliant - react aggressively to get their way. And, to some extent, it worked with even more acclaim.

Women aren't obligated to fight everyone's problems, to be the voice for injustices other than their own, or be the bulletproof vests that protects the welfare of others. Because when someone else's adversity is hijacked for selfish gain, it eludes the larger problems in society.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.


For Harriet On Chimamanda


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