JK Rowling’s blinkered views on gender show a callous disregard for trans people – and her own fans

With her latest string of tweets about trans people, the Harry Potter author seems intent on dismantling her own legacy at a time when being a positive ally is more crucial than ever, writes Roisin O’Connor

Tuesday 09 June 2020 11:27
Related video: JK Rowling criticised over ‘transphobic’ tweet about menstruation
Related video: JK Rowling criticised over ‘transphobic’ tweet about menstruation

As protestors took to the streets in the wake of yet another murder of an unarmed black person by police, and as Pride Month got underway, JK Rowling decided to speak up. Not in support of Black Lives Matter, or for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, but against trans people. “‘People who menstruate’,” she tweeted on 6 June, taking issue with a headline promoting “a more equal post-Covid-19 world for people who menstruate”. “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

Many were quick to point out the essential flaw in Rowling’s apparent critique: not all women menstruate, and not everyone who menstruates is a woman. Rowling responded by comparing the term “terf” (“trans-exclusionary radical feminist”) to slurs used against women during gender debates. Apparently, she is the real victim here.

But Rowling wasn’t finished. “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction,” she continued. “If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.”

It is unclear what the origins of Rowling’s outburst were, given mainstream discussions of trans issues have not, to date, attempted to “remove the concept of sex”. Perhaps Rowling confused this – a claim perpetuated by anti-trans campaigners – with the belief of many LGBTQ+ activists and supporters that gender is fluid. But this is just the latest of many efforts by Rowling to dismantle the positive legacy of Harry Potter.

With those books, younger readers were able to identify with the overarching theme of tolerance and acceptance of those who are different to ourselves. For many, they were a comfort, even a life-saver, given how they preached inclusivity in a world filled with hate. Later, though, perhaps especially after the books were adapted to film, the Harry Potter series began to be scrutinised for its stereotypes and general lack of representation.

Rowling’s initial, and misguided, response, was to make increasingly outlandish claims about her characters’ identities despite there being no real evidence in her books to support them. Dumbledore was gay, Hermione could be “read as” black, the minor character Anthony Goldstein was Jewish ... so extensive was her revisionism that it’s become a meme.

Others received scrutiny for stereotyping: the sole Irish character had a habit of blowing things up; the most prominent Asian character was called Cho Chang and her most important storylines involved being in relationships and snitching on her fellow students.

Amid all of this, Rowling has caused consternation over increasingly regular anti-trans comments. In December last year, she tweeted her support for a woman who was fired for sharing transphobic views on social media. In her latest outburst, she shared an article that quoted an anonymous lesbian who felt “bullied” into silence by (although the piece was somewhat vague as to the identity of the bullies) the wider LGBTQ+ community. This same author has claimed the LBGTQ+ community has become “pro child abuse” because it supports therapy for children and young people suffering from gender dysmorphia.

A number of Rowling’s LGBTQ+ fans have expressed their dismay at her views on trans people. “I grew up as a trans child reading your books as an escape,” one follower wrote in response to a diatribe last year. “I would often pick out names from characters to give to myself, before I ever felt comfortable in who I was. This decision, to support people that hate me, and want to do me harm. It brings me to tears ... Why. Why?” Rowling, for once, was silent.

Critic Katelyn Burns wrote about Rowling’s unsettling views on trans people in 2018, referencing a scene from the author’s novel The Silkworm, published under her male writer alter-ego, Robert Galbraith.

“In the scene, a trans woman, Pippa, follows and tries to stab the protagonist, Cormoran Strike, before getting trapped in Strike’s office,” Burns observes. She goes on to note how Rowling makes a point of commenting on her trans character’s visible Adam’s apple, and the fact her hands are jammed in her pockets. After Pippa attempts to escape a number of times, Strike says: “If you go for that door one more time I’m calling the police and I’ll testify and be glad to watch you go down for attempted murder. And it won’t be fun for you Pippa… Not pre-op.”

“I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them,” Rowling said in her latest tweet, made over the weekend. “I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.”

With her use of “if” when discussing discrimination, Rowling shows a callous disregard for the widely documented abuse that trans people have experienced, and continue to face around the world. I have yet to see Rowling make any public statement expressing solidarity with victims of transphobic abuse, not even after multiple attacks on trans people last year in her home country of Scotland. Rowling claims to support trans people but does both them and cis women a disservice with her extraordinarily limited terms for what makes someone a woman. She’d do well to read Carol Hay’s superb essay for the New York Times about this very issue. “The attempt to exclude trans women from the ranks of women,” Hay writes, “reinforces the dangerous idea that there is a right way to be female.”

As for what makes someone a “real woman”, Hay comments: “Is it menstruation or childbirth? Nope – lots of women don’t experience those, either by fate or by choice. What about being subject to sexual violence and harassment? Trans women face as much if not more sexual violence than cis women… And surely we don’t want to go back to the days of defining women by their hormones or even their chromosomes – if for no other reason than we’d leave out the estimated 1.7 percent of women who are intersex.”

It’s telling that Rowling’s most prominent supporters have been straight white men, such as Jonathan Ross, who jumped in to hail Rowling as “right and magnificent”, only to be checked by his own daughter, Honey. Among her most prominent critics, however, are Munroe Bergdorf, Ashley C Ford, Mae Martin, Jolyon Maugham QC, Halsey and Sarah Paulson – trans women and allies coming together to condemn Rowling’s misguided and harmful words. Harry Potter fans may be devastated by her views, and they are justified in being so. But hopefully, all she has done is emphasise the need to be an ally to those less privileged than ourselves, and to amplify voices who have previously been silenced. Also, read a different book.