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Let’s Break Down Exactly What Makes J.K. Rowling’s Views So Harmful

JK Rowling gives a sort of smug smile on the red carpet for secrets of dumbledore

J.K. Rowling has gotten into more than a little hot water over her takes on trans people.

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In fact, I compiled a sassy timeline detailing the issue about a month ago. It all started with a tone-deaf tweet from Rowling that snowballed into a years-long battle of attrition between the author and her supporters and trans activists. The battle is ugly. Rowling has doubled down on her point of view with a disturbing amount of alacrity, retweeting exclusionary think pieces from fringe members of the queer community to dubious medical “research” that casts gender-transitioning, especially in young people, in a net-negative light. On the other side of the issue, Rowling has been met with an avalanche of personal attacks. In her words, she has received thousands of messages calling her every slur under the sun, and she has been threatened with physical bodily harm.

While I vehemently disagree with threatening Rowling with violence or resorting to abusive language, my personal temptation to verbally dogpile on J.K. Rowling is high. I’ve written derisive pieces about her in the past, and I believe myself to be justified in that anger as a trans person. However, after reading a long essay written by Rowling herself on why she chooses to continually speak out on sex and gender issues, I am going to put aside the snarkiness in an attempt to understand what it is about this issue that truly makes her tick. While J.K. Rowling has a more “nuanced” point of view on the issue than the blanket hatred that is common in far-right political ideologies, her beliefs about trans people are nonetheless harmful. I’ll explain why by using her words.

The origins of Rowling’s transphobia

“When I started taking an interest in gender identity and transgender matters, I began screenshotting comments that interested me, as a way of reminding myself what I might want to research later. On one occasion, I absent-mindedly ‘liked’ instead of screenshotting. That single ‘like’ was deemed evidence of wrongthink, and a persistent low level of harassment began.”

While I don’t know exactly what “like” Rowling is talking about, I do know that the first well-documented example of Rowling taking a side in the issue was in the form of a tweet from the author. She lampooned the use of the phrase “people who menstruate” rather than “women” in an opinion piece by a separate author. The language was used in order to provide inclusivity to trans men and non-binary people. However, Rowling appears to have seen it as the beginning of the “erosion of women’s and girl’s rights”, as she points out in her essay.

Curiously enough, Rowling herself does not seem to have a clear handle on what her definition of a woman even is. I’m sure the author herself would balk at reading that sentence and accuse me of being derisive, but judging by her own words, she appears to waver on what constitutes a woman. Or rather, who should be allowed to claim the mantle of womanhood. This is an especially important component in J.K. Rowling’s political and personal worldview. After all, she only appears to take umbrage against trans women and not trans people as a monolith. With regard to trans men, she extends more sympathy than antipathy, even though it is often misguided.

Rowling and TERFs

Later in the essay, Rowling shares her experience with the word TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) and how she was labeled as one due to her statements. She cites examples of TERFs, including “the mother of a gay child who was afraid their child wanted to transition to escape homophobic bullying” and an “unfeminist older lady who’s vowed never to visit Marks & Spencer again because they’re allowing any man who says they identify as a woman into the women’s changing rooms.” She then goes on to claim that “radical feminists aren’t even trans-exclusionary—they include trans men in their feminism, because they were born women.” While there is no way to verify this statement with regard to TERF ideology as a whole, it provides insight into J.K. Rowling’s point of view with regard to trans men, and the trans identity in general. While this statement appears to be in support of trans men on the surface, it is actually a subtle erasure of the transmasculine identity as a whole. By saying that TERFs support trans men because they were “born women,” it is effectively saying that the trans men are worthy of TERF support because they immutably are women, rather than using the trans-preferred descriptor of “assigned female at birth.” The difference is that one is not born a man or a woman; one chooses one’s identity regardless of perceived notions of gender in relation to genitalia or socialization. But according to Rowling, being born with a vagina makes you a woman, not a “person who menstruates” (whether you identify as a woman or not).

In Rowling’s eyes, this distinction makes some trans people “safer” than others. Anyone with a vagina, regardless of gender expression, is deemed less of a threat than a person with a penis, according to Rowling’s worldview. What she fails to realize is that by reducing trans identity to a “penis vs vagina” dichotomy, she frames trans identity by the very idea that it rails against: the idea that gender and genitalia are irrevocably linked. Rowling later provides a straw man example who she believes to be the most “dangerous” type of trans person: “a man who intends to have no surgery and take no hormones [who[ may now secure himself a Gender Recognition Certificate and be a woman in the sight of the law.” While this certificate is not available in the United States, this particular straw man has been used by right-wing politicians to ban trans women from bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams all across America. According to Rowling, these trans women are indistinguishable from men who simply want to disguise themselves as women to dominate college sports teams or enjoy access to spaces reserved for “real women,” where it is inferred that they ogle and assault them. And yet trans women who are not on hormones and who are not currently pursuing surgery constitute an extremely small subsection of an already minuscule demographic. These types of women do exist, but they are very rare.

I should know, I’m one of them.

There’s no such thing as a safe space

I am on the transfeminine spectrum, yet I am not currently pursuing hormones or surgery. Why? Because I personally don’t feel the need to pursue them to be secure in my femininity. While I suffer from dysphoria from time to time, I find myself to be quite beautiful, and am comfortable in my own skin more often than not. I am also not interested in chasing an unattainable standard of femininity that people like Rowling will never afford me anyway. I’m not interested in having to “earn” the right to be feminine in the eyes of another. I do not have to “claim” femininity because it is a fundamental part of my being. Hormones and surgery will neither augment nor diminish that.

And do you know what’s worse? I’m a lesbian. And do you know what’s worse than that? I’m 6’1″. I’d probably crush the competition on the women’s basketball team. I’m being facetious, of course, those women would eat me alive on the court. But I am in fact a “worst nightmare” scenario for J.K. Rowling. I meet all of her criteria for being a man: I have a penis untouched by estrogen or a surgeon’s knife. Eek! And therefore I am dangerous. I’m no different than the man who wants to sneak into the women’s bathroom or sexually conquer cisgender lesbians, right? J.K. Rowling simply can’t abide by that. Rowling is a sexual assault survivor herself, and she cites this in her essay as one of the main reasons why the issue is so close to her heart. In her words, a man “capitalized on an opportunity” while she was “in a space where [she] was vulnerable.” Bathrooms and other single-sex spaces are where women are the most vulnerable of all, right? She says so herself:

“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.”

But I have a sad truth for J.K. Rowling: men do not need to identify as women to be able to assault women. They do that easily enough as men.

A man who wants to rape a woman inside a women’s bathroom doesn’t have to wait to obtain legal certification to do so. All that man has to do is wait until she goes in alone. Just like the man who threatened to break my jaw after he found me walking home alone in heels one night. Just like the 5’2″ woman who sexually assaulted me when I was alone and too drunk to know where I was. Just like the man who groped me multiple times on a crowded dance floor in a queer space. Except I wasn’t even alone that time.

I’d like to point out another sad truth of the world: there is no such thing as a “safe space.”

No matter who you are, no matter where you go, no matter how like-minded you think the people around you are, you are always at risk. The man who killed 50 people at the Pulse Nightclub didn’t need “certification” before he went in and shot the place up. All he needed was a motive. Barring whoever you perceive as a man will not keep safe spaces “safer,” it will simply deny access to people who need support and community the most. And this is the fundamental root of J.K. Rowling’s transphobia. In her attempt to combat what she sees as the world “playing fast and loose with women and girls’ safety,” she is in fact playing fast and loose with the safety of women and girls herself. In her eyes, only some women and girls are worthy of that safety. Only some trans women deserve to be seen as such. In her words:

“I happen to know a self-described transsexual woman who’s older than I am and wonderful. Although she’s open about her past as a gay man, I’ve always found it hard to think of her as anything other than a woman, and I believe (and certainly hope) she’s completely happy to have transitioned. Being older, though, she went through a long and rigorous process of evaluation, psychotherapy and staged transformation. The current explosion of trans activism is urging a removal of almost all the robust systems through which candidates for sex reassignment were once required to pass.”

But when was her friend “officially” a woman? Was it before or after she put on a dress for the first time? Was it before or after the hormones? Was it before or after her breasts grew in? Before or after she received bottom surgery, if she got it at all? Did the doctor give her a certificate? Did that make her a woman? After all, a certificate was all it took to make her a man in the first place. A doctor wrote a little “M” on her birth certificate when she was born. I suppose you could say she was on a different sort of hormone then, but as she hadn’t even gone into puberty yet, its effects were negligible. I assume that all that she had at the time was a penis. Is that really it? That’s what once made her a man? That little nub of flesh forced her to have to go through years of hormones and doctor’s appointments before she could be called a woman? Countless hours in waiting rooms. Cold kisses of scalpels on flesh. Years. Scars. Tears. Blood. Pain. Joy. Suffering. All the things a woman can know already without ever having to take a pill. All things I’ve known already.

Why must the path to womanhood be a mountain to climb when it could be a valley to walk? Why make the journey hard for some and not others? Why can we not all walk in the sun together? If the journey were easier, perhaps more trans women would be alive today. So I ask again, can we deny womanhood to those we feel have not earned it? Have not suffered for it? Have not died for it? No, J.K. Rowling. We cannot.

(featured image: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

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Jack Doyle
Jack Doyle (they/them) is actually nine choirs of biblically accurate angels in crammed into one pair of $10 overalls. They have been writing articles for nerds on the internet for less than a year now. They really like anime. Like... REALLY like it. Like you know those annoying little kids that will only eat hotdogs and chicken fingers? They're like that... but with anime. It's starting to get sad.

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