Part of me doesn’t even want to write this article. It’s not that I’m tired of writing about trans rights (I will always be thirsty for some Respect Trans People Juice), but because I’m not sure we should even be giving JK Rowling this much screen time and thought.
If you’re just joining us now, over the weekend, JK Rowling tweeted about an article talking about investment in menstrual health and hygiene in a post-COVID world. That tweet, and Rowling’s subsequent defense of it were labelled as transphobic (because they were) and also because of her past tweets that have drawn criticism for being harmful to and ignorant of the trans community. Then, LaineyGossip favourite and downright lovable human being, Daniel Radcliffe, penned a letter in support of trans people. Since then, Eddie Redmayne has also thrown his hat in the ring for “Best Harry Potter Star to Stand Up for Basic Human Rights” along with others like Emma Watson.
Trans people are who they say they are and deserve to live their lives without being constantly questioned or told they arenâ€™t who they say they are.— Emma Watson (@EmmaWatson) June 10, 2020
Yesterday, Rowling wrote an essay on her website (that she stupidly captioned “TERF wars” in a tweet), reacting to the criticism that she’s faced over the past week and “explaining” her position in more detail. And it’s long. Like 3,663 words long. Like if it were a Harry Potter book, it’s definitely Order of the Phoenix (which is also the worst book, in my opinion).
There’s SO much wrong with what’s written. And as much as I would like to go through each individual argument and counter it, I don’t think I have that kind of time and there are many more people who are much more qualified than me to do it. In fact, here are a couple of tweets that are a good start, along with Amrou Al-Kadhi’s article in the Independent and an article from a few days ago written by Kacen Callender, a trans author.
Zack Ford’s thread:
Funny, she heard from and listened to a lot of people â€” none of them trans women!— Zack Ford (@ZackFord) June 10, 2020
So much derp in here, but let's start with: THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS RAPID-ONSET GENDER DYSPHORIA. https://t.co/ZdHLbEo19w https://t.co/pXlHu1qCCW
A systematic catalogue of “half-truths and transphobic dogwhistles”:
Since JK Rowling has blocked any reply to this litany of half-truths and transphobic dogwhistles, I thought I'd catalogue them properly here: https://t.co/vo3AsrZJLz— ðŸ¤¦â€â™‚ï¸ Andrew James Carter (@Carter_AndrewJ) June 10, 2020
There are, however, some interesting reflections that we can take away from this whole debacle. As I understand it, JK Rowling is defending the importance of biological sex, because if it were to be done away with, it would trivialize and sweep away the experience of cis-gendered women and the systemic oppression they face. Sure…but…
It quickly falls apart because J.K. Rowling dives into a quagmire of transphobic language and ideologies that have historically been used to oppress trans people and deny them of their rights. The most glaring example is her suggestion that people may use concessions for transgendered people as avenues for predation and assault. She says, “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.”
This sort of language and argument is the very same used to support “bathroom bills” and other legislation that takes away the rights of trans people. And like most of the arguments put forth in JKR’s essay, it’s provided without any real sources or further reading. Here’s a Vox article that debunks this myth by the way. Even if that statement were true (which it most definitely is not), Rowling places the blame on trans people and not the men who are committing these crimes. It’s the same issue with people telling women to dress modestly to avoid rape.
There are many such claims and points that are thrown out willy-nilly. Like equating other mental health issues and gender dysphoria or talking about “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria”, like it’s a disease that you could catch if someone sneezes. (Maybe a mask will help with that?) These sort of claims are substantiated either by one-off papers and studies, or by a general vague gesture towards her own personal research. My favourite, “I’m also aware through extensive research that studies have consistently shown that between 60-90% of gender dysphoric teens will grow out of their dysphoria.” It’s basically like saying, ‘here’s a vague number with a huge range that I read somewhere sometime.’ Sounds like you did some quality research there, Jo.
Gender and sex are fascinating issues because they are both at the core of the human experience and also boxes that constrict us. Rowling seems to be genuinely interested in them for her literary and charity work. But she’s strayed far off the path from these innocent inquiries and uses her enormous platform to espouse misinformed, insulting, and harmful ideas under the guise of “free speech.” (I often find that those who use the defense of free speech are more concerned with being allowed to use harmful, inflammatory language than they are about their fundamental rights.)
It’s a shame because there are points in this letter where I could sympathize with JK Rowling. She admits that she is the survivor of sexual assault, and she also details what it was like to be in an abusive marriage with her husband, Jorge Arantes. I would never wish those experiences on anyone, and I am truly happy that she has found a supportive, loving relationship since. I actually think that Rowling could contribute a lot to the conversation as a powerful and successful woman who has had to overcome these challenges. But that doesn’t seem to be the point of her bellicose attitude.
In that initial Tweet, JKR used language that intentionally baited her critics. And for what? The article she shared was about menstruation and access to menstrual products. Lots of women don’t menstruate, and lots of people who don’t identify as women do. In an article focused specifically on periods, hygiene, and equal access, it is absolutely correct to use the term “people who menstruate.” Equating menstruation to womanhood excludes swathes of the population (including those who have gone through menopause). How exactly is that asserting the importance of sex-based experiences?
Duana wrote about JKR’s tweets on Monday, and she made probably the most important point of all. “To unleash those ideas in a sneering, mocking tone on Twitter, though – a platform that (while deeply troubled itself) is actively being used to educate, organize, and protest against police brutality targeting Black people and their supporters – is nothing short of trolling. It’s actively harming people, and she did it anyway.”
What’s especially frustrating is that JK Rowling probably genuinely thinks she’s being supportive. JKR’s problem is that like many privileged people, she refuses to listen to the voices that criticize her arguments or speak from their lived experiences. Except for waving around a few “I have trans friends” statements, she seems unwilling to learn and grow from the people trying to educate her, the very problem she laments in her essay!
It’s not surprising though. Ever since people have started reading Harry Potter critically, she has shown her reticence to accept valid criticism. “Oh ya, Hermione was Black.” “Dumbledore was gay, I just didn’t feel the need to include it.” “Here’s this Jewish wizard I invented but never mentioned.” Rather than accepting her faults and learning from them, she has chosen to rewrite history, retcon her work, and put on a ridiculous spectacle of revised wokeness that has lent itself nicely to an enormous amount of (hilarious) memes.
Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. We all know a JK Rowling. Someone who refuses to accept when they’re wrong and finds some convoluted, circuitous way to prove the validity of their stance. How do you deal with those people? You can keep arguing and educating and pointing to resources to no avail. Or you can sigh and move on. I think it’s time we all collectively sighed and moved on from JKR.