When I was 16 years old one of my friends said she would unfriend any of us if we told her we were lesbian. "God hates that" she quoted from the Bible she often carried in her school dress pocket. She was newly born again and finding her feet as a Christian -- a path I would soon walk myself. I would say: "I'm OK with people being homosexuals, as long as they do it 'over there' and it's not one of my children."
We were at an all-girls school where everyone knew who the lesbians were and would whisper about what they were probably "up to" every time they went to the bathrooms together. Our school had a number of lesbian teachers, yet girls were not allowed to bring their other girls to official school dances. Everyone knew one of our deputy mistresses was lesbian, and we would murmur about how she and her partner were seen holding hands or were mildly affectionate at sporting events. Many of us would get somewhat offended by the insinuation that we must be into other girls because we were at an girls-only institution, as if it was some sort of insult.
Sometimes looking back on who I was then I am deeply ashamed. Mostly because I contributed to shaming some of my high school friends who could not be themselves around us. Then I congratulate myself for unlearning that behaviour and understanding a world I was not raised in. I am proud that I am "accepting" and educating myself on the experiences of those who are not like me -- a heteronormative cisgendered black woman.
As I revel in my self-congratulatory bubble, I hear a small voice asking me a question I can relate to, a question I often ask of black men when we talk about sexism and feminism: if I don't think white people should be impressed with themselves for not being racist, why should I be for not being a homophobe?
Just this week, renowned author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a woman known for her powerful thoughts on feminism, was faulted for her comments on intersectional feminism and the experience of transgender women. Adichie's main comment was that women's issues and trans issues were not the same and therefore should not be "conflated".
"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 because I don't think that's true," she said during an interview with U.K.'s Channel 4.
The main criticism was Adichie's statement that trans women had male privilege prior to transitioning.
"It's not about how we wear our hair or whether we have a vagina or a penis. It's about the way the world treats us, and 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 change 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 as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are," she said.
I only saw Adichie's comments after I read a Twitter thread by Laverne Cox where she shared her experience growing up. To Cox, hers could not have been a life of male privilege because she was shunned and called a girl for refusing to conform to gender stereotypes of what a boy should and now after transitioning she's called a man.
"...though I was assigned male at birth I would contend that I did not enjoy male privilege prior to my transition," Laverne wrote. "Patriarchy and cissexism punished my femininity and gender nonconformity," said Cox on Twitter.
Adichie was right to say the issues were not the same, but she was wrong to insinuate that trans women's experiences were a single narrative that could be applied to all -- a lesson many of us should have learned through Caitlyn Jenner, a trans women whom many have criticised for her views as someone with her public profile.
To me, the concern was the interviewer putting her on the spot to answer a question on an issue that was not hers to own. Yes, she's a voice on intersectional feminism and has said much that we can admire. But would it be fair to assume she has the answers to everything? Is she not similar to me, a cisgendered woman unlearning the patterns of a heteronormative society?
But at the same time, it is likely I sympathised with Adichie, even before she clarified her comments, because what she said did not affect my life. And Adichie should not be satisfied with just fighting against transphobia in her spaces -- she should now understand her place in the conversation. It's like trans activist Raquel Willis said to Teen Vogue last week: "It wouldn't have been remiss for her to say 'That's not my experience and so I don't feel comfortable positioning myself as an authority.'"
Yes, I am not the person I was when I was 16, but no matter how many articles I read, no matter how many conversations on intersectionality I take part in, I will still be unlearning and I remain the perpetual learner. Perhaps it's time that those of us who are in this position admit that we are recovering from a state of heteronormativity and prejudice against the LGBT+ community, just like white people are recovering from racism.