What's happening with J. K. Rowling?
J. K. Rowling has a history of posting anti-trans opinions and this most recent backlash began and spread quickly from a tweet she made on June 7th. Responding to an article discussing menstruation, which was titled Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate, the author wrote: "‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?"
Rowling is implying, of course, that "women" are people who menstruate. But the thing is, we know this just isn't true. Many, many people outside the definition of "women" that Rowling is using menstruate. Transgender men, or those who were assigned female at birth before realising their gender identity as a man, intersex individuals, gender-nonbinary people and uh... young girls—all people who are not women who menstruate.
The article in question was just using inclusive language and doesn't even reference the unique dysmorphia issues that might come with menstruation for people who aren't cis-women. For J. K. Rowling to take a stab at this, on a platform which more than 14 million people follow her on is deeply unkind, and speaks to a transphobic and reductive understanding of sex and gender.
Her comments divide the world of women into segmented camps: people who are "legitimate" women who are assigned female at birth, and "lesser" or fundamentally different transgender women. We're not sure if Rowling also realises that she's implying that if you don't menstruate (for whatever reason, such as a hysterectomy or other medical situation) that you're not a woman? It's an incredibly hurtful thing to say, no matter what. She then doubled down on her comments with a Tweet thread that suggested recognising transwomen as women somehow erased the experience of cisgender women. If you find it hard to read or understand, that's because... it's nonsense.
Absolutely nobody is suggesting that sex isn't real. What's happening here is that Rowling appears to be conflating the concepts of sex and gender, which are two very different things. FYI, sex is a biological characteristic, generally determined by someone's chromosomes: XY for males, and XX for females, though there are other variants that are often forgotten. On the other hand, gender is a cultural characteristic, which encompasses people's experiences and presentations of their gender, you can think of it loosely as the psychological (what you feel you are inside) and the social (what our upbringings train us to feel, dress and act like and how it shapes our experience the world).
They crossover a lot, but they are not the same. Syrup has a guide on transgender identities if you'd like to understand it further. These recent tweets, along with Rowling's previous comments paint a really unfortunate picture. Despite retroactively throwing in gay characters into her books and supposedly being an ally to the queer community, she has a history that suggests she is sympathetic to TERF causes.
J. K. Rowling and Trans-Exclusionary Feminism (TERFs)
So, the full scope of Trans-Exclusionary Feminism is beyond the scope of this article, but jsyk, it's worth noting Rowling's continual insistence on these damaging views. Trans-Exclusionary Feminists, or TERFs are people who believe transwomen aren't "real" women. Most intersectional feminists disavow this and would argue that if your feminism doesn't include transwomen it's... you know, not feminism. The argument that transwomen aren't real women is used to exclude them from female-only spaces, services, and anti-discrimination laws. On the uglier end of things, it's used to discredit transwomen and paint them as men who are "masquerading" as women for benefit.
In June 2019, Rowling came under fire for her following a YouTuber who was aligned with the TERF movement, Magdalen Berns. While we don't know why Rowling was following and liking Berns content, her alignment with TERFs came up again in March 2019. In a high profile case, Maya Forstater claimed she was unfairly discriminated against (her work contract expired and was not renewed) for tweets where she implied sex changes weren't possible and that trans people shouldn't be referred to as the genders they identify as. She made a tonne of other transphobic comments, but be warned, they're awful.
Also awful? Rowling tweeted in support of her. Because she couldn't just stop at "wizards shit on the floor and magic it away."
Why do people care about J. K. Rowling's opinions?
Rowling has a big platform, and when she expresses these harmful opinions it gives them legitimacy, especially since people generally think she's pretty progressive. The Harry Potter books themselves were also pretty progressive: Muggle-borns are equal to those from Wizarding families, Hermione's crusade to emancipate the house-elves, anyone can be a heroic figure etcetera.
If you grew up with these books you're more likely to be younger and more accepting of transgender people and the issues they face. In Australia, transgender and gender diverse people are four times more likely to experience sexual violence. In the U.S. the story is sadly similar: transgender people suffer high rates of mistreatment and violence, economic hardship and mental health issues, which are only compounded by other factors like someone's race or disability.
If you're a transgender person and Harry Potter was a source of comfort, hope, inspiration or a light in the darkness for you, hearing the creator of the books spout these views is hurtful at best and traumatic at worst. Thankfully, the Boy Who Lived has spoken out against Rowling's transphobia.
Daniel Radcliffe's response to transphobia
In an essay published on The Trevor Project's blog, Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry in the movies, took a clear stance in advocating for transgender people. "Transgender women are women," he wrote. "Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations who have far more expertise on this subject matter than either Jo or I."
Radcliffe is a long-time supporter of The Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQI+ young people, and notes that "78% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported being the subject of discrimination due to their gender identity."
Radcliffe stressed the importance of doing more to support transgender and non-binary people, instead of invalidating them and hurting them, asking people to join him using The Trevor Project's guide to being an ally to trans and nonbinary youth. And, because he's truly the best person to write the legacy of Harry Potter, he finished his post with a message that the joy the books brought us shouldn't be tainted by Rowling's comments. Read it below, because we're busy crying now.
To all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished or diminished, I am deeply sorry for the pain these comments have caused you. I really hope that you don’t entirely lose what was valuable in these stories to you. If these books taught you that love is the strongest force in the universe, capable of overcoming anything; if they taught you that strength is found in diversity, and that dogmatic ideas of pureness lead to the oppression of vulnerable groups; if you believe that a particular character is trans, nonbinary, or gender fluid, or that they are gay or bisexual; if you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life — then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred. And in my opinion nobody can touch that. It means to you what it means to you and I hope that these comments will not taint that too much.
Among the other ex-Harry Potter stars who've come out in support of transgender people are Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Katie Leung. Watson, who is also using her platform to highlight the Black Lives Matter movement tweeted that "Trans people are who they say they are and deserve to live their lives without being constantly questioned or told they aren’t who they say they are."
Meanwhile, The Times shared a statement from Grint that said, "I firmly stand with the trans community and echo the sentiments expressed by many of my peers. Trans women are women. Trans men are men. We should all be entitled to live with love and without judgement."