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JK Rowling and the Chamber of Transphobia

  • Published at 04:43 am August 12th, 2020
Transgender pride flag | Image: Bigstock

A Harry Potter fan writes in response to Rowling’s recent remarks about transgender identity that trans rights activists have found deeply damaging for their community. 

JK Rowling knows the power of words. As a multimillionaire who made her fortune from books, it would be an insult of the highest order to even imply that she is unaware of how language influences mass perception. With that knowledge in mind, it therefore becomes impossible to defend her transphobia and the very real damage it causes.

Rowling’s stance is based on a very specific context of anti-trans hate speech. It is not a situation that is readily applicable to a society like Bangladesh, so I hope readers will forgive me for providing some background. Since the late 20th century, the West has seen an acceptance and understanding of how complex transgender identity is. Part of this has been due to the growing realisation that gender and biological sex are two different things, and that expectations of gender expression are far more diverse than have been traditionally understood.

Despite the conventional transphobia that is rooted in right-wing conservatism, a political movement that has since 2010 elected several governments, including that of the UK, trans rights have largely expanded in historic ways. Amidst this progress, a group of self-proclaimed “gender critical” feminists entered the fray and spearheaded a different strand of transphobia.

These feminists claim that transgender identity—which they insist is an ideology and choice, rather than a lived gender identity—is a threat to womanhood because it apparently redefines what a woman is. By holding on to a rigid biological definition of womanhood that is dependent on reproductive organs, they aim not only to negate the validity of trans women and non-binary femmes, they also wish to frame these vulnerable people as violent and predatory “men in dresses”.

Unlike traditional conservative reservations, this attack on transphobia is much harder to challenge because the people who espouse it are claiming to have experienced patriarchal oppression. They are not explicitly worried about trans folks getting more rights; they are worried that women’s safety will be demolished. Never mind the elephant in the room: in their activism they refuse to think or talk about trans men despite the violence they face for their own gender expression.

These trans-exclusionary radical feminists (or TERFs) have had significant success in shaping the discourse around trans rights in recent years. Although many claim to be progressive or liberal, they are the strongest allies of the far right’s campaign against trans self-determination, precisely because their credentials provide an unearned sense of respectability. Rowling has become the poster child for the TERF movement.

While this may be surprising for her many long-time fans, it is chillingly expected if we take a closer look at her work. No, I do not mean Harry Potter, though that series has already been on the receiving end of renewed scrutiny since Rowling’s transphobia came to the fore. When Rowling wrote The Silkworm in 2014, one of the characters is a transgender woman, Pippa.

In a harrowing encounter, Pippa fails in her attack on the protagonist, Cormoran Strike. After being subdued, her ID card outs her as a trans woman and Rowling takes great pains to highlight her noticeable Adam’s apple and her large hands—a transphobic (and, frankly, sexist) dog whistle that implies her womanhood is conditional. Strike then threatens her with imprisonment, noting that it “won’t be fun” for Pippa, “not pre-op.”

Misgendering trans people and placing them in prison populations of the wrong gender is a traumatic experience. It is inhumane and considered illegal under standard human rights law. For Rowling’s protagonist to support such an evil punishment should have been a warning sign for her supporters. Note that this was the first time that one of her characters was explicitly LGBTQ+ in the actual text of her work; Albus Dumbledore’s post-script coming out does not count, especially since it has been quietly removed from his subsequent on-screen portrayals as well.

Trans critics and charities did call her out at the time, of course, but idols are hard to replace. With her liberal image, it was much easier to pretend that The Silkworm was a case of unfortunate writing rather than the revelations of Rowling’s malicious inner politics. As is far too often the case, her popularity outshone the criticism.

Then the Maya Forstater case happened. Forstater was a researcher whose contract with an anti-poverty thinktank ended in March 2019. Due to her public transphobia on social media channels as well as her active misgendering of colleagues, the contract did not get renewed. Forstater claimed that she was being punished for her beliefs and took her former employer to court. In a landmark ruling, she lost, signalling that the British judicial system was on the right side of history when it came to transgender rights.

It should have been a celebratory moment, but TERFs knew full well that Forstater could become a visible martyr for their cause. Rowling certainly thought so and, in a series of tweets, came out in favour of Forstater’s right to free speech. The author categorically lied, saying that Forstater had been fired (as opposed to simply not having her contract renewed) because of anti-feminist office politics.

With many people outside the LGBTQ+ community unaware of the exact details of the employment tribunal, Rowling’s massive Twitter following became the first point of reference for many people just hearing about the case. Instead of being seen as a bigot who was treated fairly by the justice system, Forstater became a defenceless woman at the mercy of a vindictive transgender lobby.

It would take another major scandal for people to belatedly take full notice of Rowling's intentions.

This scandal happened in two successive waves. First, while encouraging children to send in artworks for her forthcoming book The Ickabog, Rowling “accidentally” tweeted a profanity-filled transphobic quote to a young fan. She apologised for the mistake in sending out the tweet, but not for its content. Effectively, she was sorry for being caught, not for what she actually did.

Soon afterwards, following a global campaign to support people who menstruate during the coronavirus pandemic—the language being intentionally inclusive of transgender men and non-binary folks with a uterus—Rowling doubled down. She attacked the inclusivity of the campaign as an erasure of womanhood—once again ignoring the fact that not all cisgender women fall under her dogmatic biological need for menstruation—and decided that the focus of her following in the middle of a devastating pandemic should be on a marginalised community.

When she was rightfully challenged about her bigotry, she once again tapped into her experience as a writer, penning a long essay defending her position. In it, she cites several debunked and misleading studies that erroneously claim that medical transitioning is dangerous. She claims that accepting trans identity will allow paedophiles and abusers to attack women and girls by dressing up as women. She goes so far as to weaponise her own experiences as a survivor of assault to support her stance.

There, however, are some key facts she leaves out in her impassioned writing, apart from the aforementioned scientifically incorrect “studies”. She ignores the reality of the extremely difficult and invasive process people have to go through in the UK to medically transition. It is a humiliating experience for many and there have been a grand total of zero global cases where an abuser has claimed transness as a defence for their actions.

In fact, many parts of the world still allow a trans panic defence where abusing someone for being trans is considered legitimate self-defence. Given the ongoing debates around bathroom usage in the USA—something that is starting to take hold in the UK—it is therefore far more likely for a trans woman (or man) to be attacked.

Additionally, the pandemic has seen a sharp rise in domestic abuse of women by cisgender men. Rowling herself admits that her own trauma stems from being attacked by a cisgender man. None of these cases involve any sort of cross dressing, let alone a more complex element of gender expression. Yet, Rowling’s ire is aimed not at actual abusers, but at some of their victims. 

The problem, of course, is what I said at the beginning. Rowling knows the power of language. It is of absolutely no importance that what she is spouting is an unequivocal falsehood—her status as a survivor and her invocation of having unnamed, ambiguous trans friends who support her stance is apparently enough of a legitimate defence.

Worryingly, others agree. She has already forced an apology and a payment out of an independent children’s news site which called out her transphobia by threatening legal action. Her essay has been referred to, in the USA by lawmakers who successfully passed anti-transgender legislation in July. Her publishers have disciplined staff members who wanted to stop working on her latest book. She continues to silence critics online using defamation and libel cases, despite claiming her own free speech rights when spreading hate.

Rowling is part of a breed of bigots whose danger lies in being apparently progressive. After all, she has spoken out against the Conservative Government in the UK, has consistently voted for left-wing parties, and has used her platform to support important charities like Lumos (that, importantly, has since gone on to disavow her because of her transphobia). Being a self-made author allows her to evoke a working-class identity and being a woman in a patriarchal industry highlights her own struggle—in spite of her actual politics being quite right-wing, classist and transphobic.

That is why it is doubly important to call her out. She is not a writer of the past whose legacy needs to be re-evaluated like Asimov or Naipaul, although it is also high time we reckoned with the elitism, racism, neo-colonialism and anti-Semitism in her books. She is a real threat to vulnerable groups because she continues to wield immense amounts of social and monetary capital. Many of us remember her work fondly—indeed, I myself used to be a devoted Potterhead—but that cannot excuse the damage she causes.

If we claim to stand for justice, a lesson so many of my generation say we picked up from Harry Potter, we should do what actors like Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Eddie Redmayne and Evanna Lynch have done. Let us do the work necessary to be worthy of being called allies to the transgender community, the first step of which must be unconditionally condemning Rowling and her influence.

Ibtisam Ahmed is a PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham, working on utopias and decolonisation. His work often touches on literature, language, and the power of popular culture.

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