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Why eurocentricity benefits none of us in the Black transgender community

Funmi Adebayo
By Funmi Adebayo

Digital nomad entrepreneur, writer, avid solo traveller, mental health advocate, spoken word poet, public speaker and ex-finance professional

Posted on Thursday, 1 July 2021 18:30, updated on Friday, 2 July 2021 09:07

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie attends the Malaria Summit, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, in London, Wednesday April 18, 2018. (Dominic Lipinski/Pool Photo via AP)

I wouldn’t dare speak for a whole community, because I believe every individual has a unique way in which they move through and navigate the world we’re in, even if we share the experience of being within a marginalised group.

So, instead, I will speak for myself – about my life and why Chimamanda’s letter is so important to me and how traumatic I found the backlash, which made me feel a certain sense of multi-layered erasure.

I am a non-binary Black womxn. This firstly means I’m human. Societally it means that I don’t comfortably feel my gender fits into the Western Eurocentric gender binary model.

Many people know me as Britgerian – a term I coined after many years of feeling like I didn’t belong to either end of the Atlantic Ocean.

Being born and growing up in Britain as a Black girl meant I always felt othered. I was also what many would consider a “tom-boy” and for many years of my life – I genuinely felt uncomfortable as a girl and with other girls. My internal sense of self resonated much more with what British society deemed “boyish” things.

Chimamanda’s letter triggered a series of articles and discussions that completely erased the intersectionality of experiences, particularly those such as my own.

I was often mocked for acting like a “boy” i.e. having a deeper voice, walking a certain way, playing PlayStation games all day. Another consequence was getting teased for ‘acting like a lesbian’, and the word at the time was thrown at me like some sort of slur. This experience contrasts wildly with how I felt amongst Nigerians or the wider Black community.

My “girlhood” was constantly commented on by older Black men around me. Having experienced sexual assault by a man at a young age, I lived in constant fear of being a young vulnerable girl alone with men. In fact, I hated the very idea of being a girl as I associated it with weakness, because of this experience.

This was also reinforced by older women in my life who warned me about how to conduct myself around men – what to wear or not to wear, etc.

Non-binaries

Gender is whatever characteristics and behaviours society generally associates with different sexes – what people are and aren’t comfortable with expecting from you as a perceived “man” or “woman”. There are clear consequences of sitting even slightly outside of those expectations.

In Nigeria, where homosexuality is illegal, she has been a staunch supporter of LGBTQ+ rights. Her error, it seems to me at least, is around her use of language.

Being non-binary means I am also part of the wider Black transgender community. However, much of the dialogue around transgender identity is centred around medically transitioning, which most people in the transgender community don’t do.

This is not to say that the experience of medically transitioning doesn’t matter within the community, but experiences of this vary so much.

Not to talk of even the ability to access such procedures, which is a privilege not afforded to transgender people on the African continent. It’s retriggering to see people speak of the transgender community in such a monolithic and Eurocentric way.

It means I and many others like me constantly feel erased from dialogues. There’s also a certain form of transmisogyny that focuses on transwomen and their perceived threat to ciswomen’s spaces.

In my view, this is a result of concerted and purposeful misinformation around sex and gender, because many of us were not taught (or taught incorrectly) about these subjects.

Chimamanda’s letter triggered a series of articles and discussions that completely erased the intersectionality of experiences, particularly those such as my own.

Chimamanda did not deserve the backlash

Chimamanda’s world doesn’t look like mine. Her life isn’t my life. Her upbringing and particularly her Nigerian socialisation are worlds apart from my own.

In Nigeria, where homosexuality is illegal, she has been a staunch supporter of LGBTQ+ rights. Her error, it seems to me at least, is around her use of language.

In Nigeria, there is no legal codified sense of transgenderism. There is also an entirely different framing of gender, with different implications:  what the “western” world may view as feminine or masculine isn’t applicable in most cases – for example, women with short or no hair are in positions of power and not considered lesbians or acting like men.

With the introduction of Abrahamic religions and through the passage of time, globalisation and the internet as a catalyst, gender roles and homophobia have become rife and polluted with dated colonialist Western ideas. This has meant a distinct fracturing over African generations on what is societally acceptable or not.

It’s traumatising in another way for me, as a Black womxn, that due to Chimamanda’s perceived eloquence and success as an author, she is being held to a ridiculous standard that only seems to be demanded of by Black womxn.

For those of us whose truth is denied by the society we exist in, it doesn’t matter if I consider myself a non-binary womxn – if the world doesn’t accept that, then I am just as at risk of the violence targeted at ciswomen.

This is not a potential scenario either, this is my lived experience. In the case of feminine men and transwomen, in Africa they are often read as potentially just gay feminine cismen, which brings with it its own type of violence, if they rightly refuse to accept not living their life authentically, simply to survive.

I don’t believe that calls for Chimamanda’s head is fair and I certainly see no reason, particularly after her Facebook statement where she clarified her language, for accusing her of being transphobic.

She is worlds apart from the likes of J.K. Rowling, who very clearly sees transwomen as a threat to ciswomen and is an unapologetic trans-exclusionary feminist and wrote to this effect, citing the clearly academically debunked perceived “bathroom threat” of cismen pretending to be women, which is so disgracefully transphobic that it beggars’ belief.

It’s traumatising in another way for me, as a Black womxn, that due to Chimamanda’s perceived eloquence and success as an author, she is being held to a ridiculous standard that only seems to be demanded of by Black womxn.

Bottom line

Chimamanda should have never been expected to understand the nuances around language, particularly not in 2017, particularly not as an African woman, where English isn’t even her first language, and her cultural frame of reference is entirely different.

It took me 26 years to understand my identity. It is still a constantly ever-flowing fluid experience, so to expect somebody who is a cisgender heterosexual older African woman to understand all these nuances is not only ridiculous, it’s dangerous.

I know the difference between the people who want people like me to not exist and those who are still trying to navigate and understand concepts entirely foreign to them.

It’s a grace that I extend to so many loved ones in my life, who very clearly care about myself and the community, but are still on a journey of understanding what language is appropriate.

This may not be grace that everybody in the community is willing to offer, which they also have their right to, considering the emotional and mental labour we already go through.

However, it’s not a question of whether Chimamanda’s language was transphobic or not. It’s a question of why she was ever asked this question in the first place? And what possible answer could a successful Nigerian woman have given that would assuage a Eurocentric binary that only allows for you to be wrong or right and not simply just different.

Read the full version here.

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