David Remnick: Pretty presciently back in 2012, Joe Biden said that trans rights would be the civil rights battle of our time. On his first day in office as president, Biden rolled back some of the Trump administration's orders on trans rights, but civil rights don't just happen by executive order. They're argued in the court of public opinion, in popular culture, on television series and talk shows, and they take sometimes a very long time to play out. Producer Ngofeen Mputubwele has a story about that part of the struggle.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: The story starts in March of 2017 with an interview that the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was giving. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is probably the most famous African voice in the US alongside Trevor Noah and Lupita Nyong'o. She's a hugely acclaimed novelist, but also at the time, my generation's go-to public feminist.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Now I get sent every book that has anything to do with gender, but I don't feel that I'm the authority on feminism.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: She had given this viral TED Talk that was featured on the song by Beyonce.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, "You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man." Feminist, a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
Beyonce: You wake up, flawless. Post up, flawless.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: It's 2017, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and British journalist Kathy Newman from Channel Four News are seated on these red armchairs. There's a wood table with a purple orchid plant growing up between them. Then the interviewer asks this question.
Kathy Newman: Staying with this issue of feminism, femininity, does it matter to how you've arrived at being a woman? For example, if you're a trans woman who grew up identifying as a man, who grew up enjoying the privileges of being a man, does that take away from becoming a woman? Are you any less of a real woman?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: When people talk about a trans woman, my feeling is trans women are trans women. I think if you've lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then change, switch 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. I don't think it's a good thing to talk about women's issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Do you remember this happening when this controversy was happening back in 2017?
Dr. B Camminga: Yes. I crossed the African continent like social media blew up, but it just didn't ring true for many people's experience of being trans on the African continent.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: This is Dr. B Camminga. They are a South African scholar. Camminga, who's trans, and their community disagreed intensely with Adichie's take.
Dr. B Camminga: Do we need to put out statements? Does this mean that we give her more traction?
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Dr. Camminga started writing an essay, an article, and a scholarly journal that basically says, "Okay, let's break down Adichie's statements." I came across that essay recently after Adichie came out in support of JK Rowling, who has made numerous transphobic comments. Scrolling through Black Twitter, as I do, there were Black Africans, Black Europeans, and Black Americans all positively retweeting and recommending this essay by Camminga who's a white South African.
I approached Camminga wanting to learn what had resonated so much. The essay basically takes one African lens to very universal questions. What is a feminist, and who is a woman? It has to do with TERFs, T-E-R-F. What does the term TERF mean? Explain that to me in the context of what we're talking about.
Dr. B Camminga: It means trans-exclusionary radical feminist. It is a way to name a kind of feminist belief and practice for a particular group of people who believe that at their most mundane or at the most like simplest level that trans women are not women, and at its most extreme and violent level that trans women are somehow violent interlopers and are using their ability to transition, to infiltrate cis women's spaces and they present a danger to those spaces.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: How do you then, in the paper, respond to that?
Dr. B Camminga: Well, I think in the way in which Adichie frames her argument, she makes three fundamental assumptions. The one was this idea that people just switch gender, which is a very antiquated understanding of what it means to be trans. It's embedded in that language of one day a person might be this and another day a person might be that, as though it is that simple, but also that that's a kind of A to B linear journey. The word switching, it's problematic, but it's also a little bit aggressive. It undermines the authenticity of a person's gender identity by suggesting that it's clothing in a closet that we can just pick one day or the next and be in the world, and that's a true experience of what it's like to be trans.
The second thing that she alluded to was that all people who are trans women always live in the world as men. They are never acknowledged as children, as girls, and then raised as women when they express themselves. I think many people might think about the African continent that way in that very backward barbaric understanding where it just would seem impossible that any family would acknowledge and love their trans daughter and raise a child that says, "I am a girl," as a girl.
Then the last thing she does is that when she talks about this idea of switching and male privilege, she discounts the fact that these people are women, that they are misgendered as children, and that we live on a continent with very few rights for trans people, and that male privilege and patriarchy are prized possessions, and that a person who's assigned male who expresses femininity will experience generally quite harsh and brutal backlash to that expression of self. To frame that as somehow a privileged position is to overlook the ways in which a person might have to survive being consistently misgendered.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Tell me what you set out to do when you were writing this.
Dr. B Camminga: One of the things I really want to bring across is that trans-exclusionary feminism is a particularly global northern idea. It is a minority position that is being taken up in the media and being treated as a very mainstream position. It's being treated as the fundamental facet of feminism. It is not the fundamental facet of feminism in that there are many strands of feminism, and in the global south, this doesn't seem to have much traction.
Then I really wanted to, as a white trans scholar, elevate the voices of particularly Black trans women who had written. The one hashtag I note in an article is #ChimamandaKilledME, and you'd think using a hashtag like that would gain some notice or traction, but it just didn't. I think that's because Black trans women from the global south are often maligned and sidelined in the global conversation about trans rights.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: How does whiteness and your whiteness connect to this, because I noticed as I was talking to people about doing this interview, I was talking to a friend, and they're like, "Oh, you're speaking to a white South African."
Dr. B Camminga: I mean, that carries a reputation.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Yes. How do you think about that?
Dr. B Camminga: When you approached me to do this, I had a moment of, "I'm a white person. I don't want to do this." I understood myself in this paper. As far as we know, I'm the first trans person on the African continent to get their PhD. I recognize there's a very deep sense of privilege in who I am based on whiteness, based on masculinity, based on historical power and privilege that has allowed me to enter the institution. I hoped in writing this paper to elevate the voices of these trans women who have really been my guides and my touchstones to become who I am.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Yes. You, I see you citing everywhere.
Dr. B Camminga: Yes. I want to make it clear that some of this is my thinking, but a lot of it is really difficult work that these people are doing, and it's just not getting the acknowledgment that it should have gotten.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: You explain this idea that in the West, we imagine there's a trans experience, and that that's across the globe.
Dr. B Camminga: As much as with this idea that there's a global womanhood, there's this idea that there's a global trans experience, and that is you recognize that you are a trans man or a trans woman, and then you move from point A to point B. Often, that includes medicalization, access to affirming healthcare. There is this idea of a very linear movement, and it always includes a kind of medicalization.
On the African Continent, medicalization just really isn't an option in most countries. The ways in which trans existence is imagined often, and that doesn't include this kind of medical imaginary. Then how does transness work outside of that? A handful of the people who are in my book, Transgender Refugees, they talk about coming to South Africa because they knew there were trans rights here and leaving all their clothes behind, these are people who identify as trans women, and coming with a bag of dresses, and their idea of South Africa was that they would finally just be able to wear their dresses, and that was what trans womanhood meant for them.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: One brings one's dress. I bring all my dresses to South Africa. Me being a trans woman here is like fully fulfilled in the ability for me to actually just present and wear my dresses, like that medicalization isn't necessarily a part of it. That doesn't make something missing.
Dr. B Camminga: No, not at all. It makes me a little bit sad in one space and a little bit really happy in another because it speaks to this very beautiful utopic idea of what gender could mean. Across the continent, many trans women have beards. That's either because it's to maintain a sense of safety because they are living in societies where they're not accepted and having to pass as men sometimes. For some trans women, it is just a part of who they are.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: A lot of people got to know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie through this TED Talk, that's how a lot of us were introduced to her.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: That is how to create a single story, show our people as one thing, as only one thing over and over again, and that is what they become.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: The single-story, the idea of it's dangerous to have one story of anything really and what it is to be African, I feel like may be at the heart of her explanation of it.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this, it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: You bring that back in the paper and bring this idea of, are you, Adichie, creating a single story here? Tell me what you're getting at. I can ask you a better question.
Dr. B Camminga: No, it's fine. I'm willing to answer her. I just--
Ngofeen Mputubwele: The question isn't meant to be a confrontational one.
Dr. B Camminga: No, not at all. When you suddenly have this rising sense of guilt, because you really respect this person, I respect her writing. As many of the people who respond in this paper do, she has done so much for the ways in which we understand feminism and for the kind of freedom of writing, even Akwai Kiyamizu, who tweeted this paper, and that's when the traction started, comes out of Adichie's writing school. It's just hard to answer because I feel like a naughty kid when I wrote this.
I am taking her narrative of a single story, attempting to take it back to her and ask the question about where-- if we understand trans women as not to be women, then we can only end up in one narrative. If we actually listen to two trans women and what they're saying, and we listen to actually cis women who are defending this position and saying, "You've got it wrong," you have several other voices that are telling you completely different stories to this narrative of male privilege, switching and always being seen as men, because I do believe her when she says she supports LGBT rights, she certainly has done a lot to support LGBT people, but all of us can be on the wrong side of the narrative at some point.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Yes.
David Remnick: That's producer Ngofeen Mputubwele, and he was speaking with Dr. B Camminga. You can find Camminga's paper called Disregard and Danger at newyorkerradio.org
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