- LGBTQ Pride
JKR and Transphobia
- June 25, 2020
Okay. I don’t think anyone would argue with me that this has overall been a pretty lousy Pride Month, and some of the blame for that has to go to J. K. Rowling and her decision to go full-on TERF on Twitter and her personal website. It’s been a couple of weeks, and I’ve had plenty of discussions with plenty of people on this subject. So I’m going to sum up most of my conclusions here.
Much of what I’ll say here I’ve said elsewhere, on Twitter, on Quora, in replies to DA comments, and things like that, but I’m collecting, cleaning up and gathering my points into a cohesive, if somewhat rambly and no doubt still not totally detailed enough whole.
I’ve been a fan of the Harry Potter books since… well, since a much younger me first read the first book during a summer vacation, proceeded to devour book two, three and four, and then spent a gruelling year or so waiting for book five to be finished. I followed the books, I was thrilled that the author seemed to be a decent person who donated a lot to charity and who seemed to be on the side of weaker minorities.
As the years went on, a lot of people started attacking said author for some of her depictions. I read through accusations that goblins were anti-Semitic caricatures, through accusations of homophobia and racism, harmful stereotypes and internalized misogyny. In recent years I went through the more recent “JKR is just pretending to be woke!” outrage and the sillier “JKR said wizards used to shit themselves!” outrage on social media. Most of which was based on quotes taken out of context, in the same vein as “JKR says Harry and Hermione should have been a thing!”, so I didn’t take a lot of it very seriously. I acknowledged that some of her writings based on non-British cultures came across as… somewhat stereotypical and perhaps a little clueless and insensitive, especially when it came to Native American beliefs… but I didn’t think it was done out of any malice, and there was nothing wrong with JKR’s writings that couldn’t be fixed by hiring a sensitivity reader or two. And let’s be honest, I thought the story of the founding of Ilvermorny was a damn good story, and if JKR had written that as an actual book I would have loved it.
I even defended her choice of not outing Dumbledore as gay in the books themselves. Unlike a lot of people, I didn’t just think she made up his homosexuality afterwards for “woke points.” I think she envisioned him as gay all along, but the books were written in a time when having an openly gay character in a kids’ series would have caused a lot of problems, and ultimately Dumbledore’s sexuality didn’t mean anything … I mean, when would it have come up?`”So, Harry, I have reason to believe that Voldemort made seven Horcruxes, and by the way, some men like to have sex with other men”? Seemed reasonable enough that Dumbledore’s sexuality wasn’t brought up here.
I’ll admit it became a lot LESS reasonable when the second Fantastic Beasts movie came out, featured a younger Dumbledore and heavily involved the man he was in love with and may have actually been in a relationship with, and they decided not to even mention that, only some “closer than brothers” handwaving. I mean, come ON. This is the equivalent of trying to do Romeo and Juliet and neglecting to mention that they were in fact in love. What was this all about?
But I always tried to avoid bad faith reading. It really annoys me when people just immediately jump to the worst conclusions. So I gave JKR the benefit of the doubt. I could acknowledge that the HP series wasn’t as perfect as I might have wished it to be… it’s pretty gender essentialist with a lot of outright sexist moments, and overall it isn’t as tolerant and accepting as it likes to pretend it is. But questionable moments aside, the positive messages of the series were still real.
JKR created an amazing world, and for me, part of what made it so amazing was that it wasn’t at all hard to see that the wizarding world was rotten to the core… But that didn’t mean wizards as people had to be. You could always choose to be better. And many wizards DID choose to be better, to stand up and stand together to make a rotten world just a little less rotten. They weren’t perfect, they sometimes failed, but they tried. No wonder so many LGBTQ kids and adults, myself included, found so much comfort and inspiration in the series. We might be called unnatural freaks by the Dursleys or hounded by the Death Eaters, but Hogwarts and Dumbledore’s Army has our backs.
It wasn’t very fun to imagine that the creator of this world would have such Dursely-ish tendencies, but… the small intolerances did pile up after a while. The mockeries. The liking of transphobic tweets. The defense of Maya Forstater. And then finally… the unquestioned confirmation. It was impossible to ignore any longer: JKR, the woman I had admired, was a total transphobe.
Now, don’t get me wrong. “Transphobic” doesn’t mean “monster.” And it’s not like I can’t see why JKR feels the way she does.. the information that she is a survivor of abuse and sexual assault goes a long way to explain WHY she is transphobic; it’s natural that living through something like that would leave you with a ton of fears and issues.
But knowing the cause of a phobia doesn’t mean it’s not a phobia. It also doesn’t excuse the mockery of articles with headlines of “people who menstruate,” (seriously, she could just have not made that comment and none of this would have happened) and it doesn’t excuse the condescending “I know your life situation better than you, I did research” statements. (Especially since she barely references any of her sources and the one book she does name war pretty thoroughly debunked by peers.) It CERTAINLY doesn’t excuse having a misgendering statement about a trans woman talking about “fucking up some TERFS” on your clipboard and posting it, however accidentally, in a tweet responding to a CHILD’S DRAWING.
Being afraid doesn’t make you a bad person. But it can make you do bad things. And JKR has been doing a few bad things lately. It started with liking and following obviously transphobic Tweets, and then Tweeting a defence of noted transphobe Maya Forstater. All of this could have been harmless mistakes or misunderstandings, but then came the Tweet where she mocked the phrase “people who menstruate,” and in such a way that made it BLATANTLY OBVIOUS that she hadn’t read the actual article with the “offensive” headline. When people complained, she made a long series of Tweets about what a BAD thing ot was to say that sex wasn’t real… and it all culminated with the article she put up on her website, in defense of her recent tweets.
Well, a lot of fans have said we should just read the article and we’ll see how totally not transphobic and totally cool JKR is because she says right there how she doesn’t mind trans people and just wants to protect women’s rights… yeah. I read the article, and HOOO BOY does it ever show how transphobic she is.
Most of it was based in half truths, misinformation, strawman arguments and fear mongering, with a healthy dose of “I’m the victim here!” She claims to love and empathize with trans people, while at the same time denying their identity and otherwise presenting them in a pretty bad light. She’s clever enough to pay some lip service to how SOME trans people MAY be genuine, but spends more time talking about how she’s “worried” that trans men are just women who transitioned out of homophobia or misogyny, and how trans women impeach on women’s rights and she just doesn’t trust men who claim to be women.
Being “empathetic to trans people” doesn’t mean anything if you don’t actually respect their identity. Stephen Crowder claims to be “empathetic” to trans people when going “poor them, they’re mentally ill” and I really doubt you’d find many trans people who count him as an ally.
It’s not EMPATHY trans people need. it’s VALIDATION. If you go around spouting gender essentiallist rhetoric that invalidates trans people in favour of “claiming sex is real” (strawman again) or “not wanting women’s experiences to be erased” (note the sly dig that trans women aren’t actually women), then trans people aren’t going to care that you at the same time go on about how much you feel for them and pity them. It’s kind of the equivalent of seeing someone writing in pain on the ground, and instead of doing something to help them, you first go up to them, kick them a little, and then afterwards stand to one side and watch them writhe in pain while saying how sad you are that they’re feeling so awful. And when they ask “why did you kick me then?!” you get offended and accuse them of calling you a hater.
Now, I don’t think she’s being malicious. She probably thinks she’s helping. She herself has been dog whistled so thoroughly that she actually believes what she is saying, and doesn’t get how hurtful she’s being… And as I said, being a sexual assault survivor does explain much of her fear here. Because of course she gets into the “bathroom” issue, you know that fear mongering technique that transphobes use to justify keeping trans people out of female spaces like bathrooms because what if a man lied about being a woman to get access so he could assault the women there?
Statistically it’s not really a very justified fear, because. Well, A: men who sexually assault women generally aren’t going to go through all that trouble when it’s easier to just go in there ANYWAY without bothering to presenting as a woman, B: trans women have had access to women’s bathrooms for years, and even here in Norway where the infamous “self identification clause” is in effect it hasn’t led to more bathroom assaults, and C: it’s super unfair to blame trans women for what a few predatory cis men (a group even JKR has admitted are more likely to be avusers and assaulters) might do.
But when you are an assault and abuse survivor like JKR, fear isn’t always rational. Instinct kicks in and you’re scared. I get it and I sympathize. I know it’s not even remotely the same, but as someone who spent many of her formative years in a household with a stepmother who blamed me for everything that ever went wrong, and sometimes called me up just to yell at me, I still have a bit of a phobia about phone calls and when the phone rings I get nervous and my initial instinct is to pretend I didn’t hear it. And I haven’t been sexually assaulted, but of course (and it’s really depressing that this is an “of course”) I HAVE been sexually HARASSED, both online and IRL. So I have experienced harassment and the feeling of helplessness when nobody listens to you or takes you seriously. I totally get the paranoia.
Thing is, while fear is an explanation for bad behaviour and bigotry, it’s not an excuse. But JKR seems to think it’s not only an excuse, but that it automatically makes you in the right.
And nowhere is that more apparent than in the intro to her article. She opens by saying she needs to explain herself and clarify why she said what she said.
What she does NOT do is apologize. Not once during the article. Not even a token “if I hurt your feelings I’m sorry about that,” not even an insincere half apology like “I’m sorry you took what I said the wrong way.” She genuinely doesn’t understand that people are hurt and upset. She just thinks they’re being angry and mean, and if she can just explain how silly they are for being angry and mean, because she is totally in the right, that’s all she needs.
Funny, I never thought I’d see the day when JKR reminded me of Lex Luthor.
(From Action Comics #894. Yes, that’s Death of the Endless, on loan from Neil Gaiman.)
This does call her “love and empathy for trans people” into question, if she can’t even think to offer an apology for being hurtful, however accidentally. Quite the contrary, what she instead does is write a lot about how very mean the “trans activists” have been to HER and to people who agree with her. She doesn’t hesitate to frame all her fellow TERFs in the most positive light… To the point where she presents people like Maya Forstater and Magdalen Berns as totally innocent victims targeted by the nasty trans activists for daring to say sex was real, conveniently ignoring that Maya had been making anti-trans statements for a while and making her co-workers uncomfortable, and that Magdalen had made statements like (direct quote here) “You are fucking blackface actors. You aren’t women. You’re men who get sexual kicks from being treated like women. fuck you and your dirty perversions. our oppression isn’t a fetish you pathetic, sick, fuck.”
You can just feel the love and empathy here, can’t you?
What JKR is doing here, consciously or not, is using a technique called “dog whistling.“ It means making statements that appear innocent or even reasonable to the general public but they actually hold other meanings that people in the know will hear at once…. like an actual dog whistle, the kind you use to whistle for dogs, can only be heard by dogs. Get it?
Think of her oft-repeated phrase “sex is real.” Sounds perfectly reasonable on the surface, doesn’t it? Sex is real, that’s a fact you can’t argue against unless you want to deny reality. Except it’s a dog whistle. Because it’s not about affirming the undeniable reality that humans have genitals; it’s a sly dig at trans people and those supporting them, who think they can just ignore their sex. Saying “sex is real” in this context is saying “you’re delusional if you accept trans people as their stated gender.”
That’s dog whistling. And of course since the true statement is hidden, the obvious problems with it aren’t as easy to spot either, unless you actually know them from beforehand:
One, it’s a total straw man argument because nobody has said sex wasn’t real. Certainly not trans people who better than anyone know their sex. Which is why they have to make such an effort on their gender and gender presentation. What they have said is that sex and gender are different things and there is more to being a man or a woman than what’s between your legs.
Two, scientists know that even sex isn’t as simple as just “you’re either male or female, nothing in between.” Approximately 1.7 percent of the population is born with intersex conditions; roughly the same number of people are born with red hair. Peer-reviewed studies found that chromosomes, gonads, hormones, and cell receptors (the components of biological sex) are neither binary nor fixed. Sex is real, but it’s not simple.
But if you don’t know any of this, it seems like a logical and reasonable statement. Of course, you might think. It all stands to reason. If people are saying sex isn’t real, they’re being delusional. And there you have it. You’ve been dog whistled, and tricked into not only believing that the transphobic statement was was really just a rational statement of fact… But also a seed has been planted in your mind: if this is the sort of delusion trans people are under, maybe we’re being too lenient with them.
Dog whistling is sneaky. And JKR uses it quite heavily in her statements about trans people.
As bad as the dog whistling and the fear mongering, though, is the blatant misrepresentations, misinformations and blatant untruths. I’m not going to go through all of them here, because really there are so many of them and every time I try going trough them all I end up just getting really depressed… but a couple of the most blatant ones:
- She talks about how worried she is that the “new trans activism” is “pushing to erode the legal definition of sex and gender” and that this might affect the medical research into MS, a disease that “behaves very differently in men and women.” While it IS true that MS behaves differently in men and women, it’s definitely a misinformation to imply that medical research in the field will be negatively affected by the acceptance of trans people, A: Nobody has said they wanted to “erode” sex, B; Even if they had, changing the legal definition would not mean changing the MEDICAL definition, which is what doctors and medical researchers should be concerned with anyway, and C: certain diseases behave differently in trans men and trans women, and might act differently post transition. I notice that JKR never says just WHY she thinks that the trans activism would be so bad for the MS research, she just says that she’s worried it will and moves on. This really feels like fear mongering to me; making vague statements that seem scary but at the end of the day she hasn’t actually made an argument at all.
- She claims that “studies have consistently shown that 60–90% of gender dysphoric teens will grow out of their dysphoria,” but this is a total lie. There was ONE study (which was the subject of controversy in scientific circles for its severe methodological flaws) that claimed that gender dysphoric PREPUBESCENT CHILDREN has a high chance of growing out of their dysphoria, but most studies on TEENS however, have pretty consistently shown that if you’re still dysphoric as a teen, you’re probably suck with it.
- She totally mischaracterizes another study about “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” (a phenomenon that, by the way, has not been scientifically validated) as having been suppressed by some kind of smear campaign… really, though, it’s pretty well known that this study too was criticized for having huge methodological flaws, including biased samples taken exclusively from anti-trans websites… and it wasn’t censored, just given a revision by its scientific journal that highlighted the study’s methodological limitations, which the original scientific paper obfuscated.
Now, if you can’t see the transphobia here… well, JKR isn’t being all “I HATE TRANS PEOPLE HATE THEM HATE THEM HATE THEM!” Her intolerance is a lot more subtle, which is why so many people fail to see it.
It’s transphobic to claim that trans rights in any way impede on, or erase women’s rights, because it’s very blatantly not true. It’s about as far from an objective fact as you can get, since there has been NO evidence WHATSOEVER that this is the case.
It’s transphobic to claim that trans activists are “denying the existence/importance of sex” or seeking to undermine any of the vital conversations around it.” Again, it’s also blatantly false; NO trans person denies the existence of sex, and no trans person tries to deny that it’s important. They DO deny that sex equals gender, which it doesn’t, but that’s another debate altogether.
It’s transphobic to equate being trans with adopting the stereotypes of your gender identity, and using arguments like “Woman” is not a costume or an idea in someone’s head,” because — again — no trans person has ever claimed it was. This is a bigoted deception about what being trans means, and it makes me wonder how many trans people JKR has REALLY talked to…. and of them, how many she bothered to LISTEN to.
And with all this in mind… having drawn the sad, but inescapable conclusion that JKR was a transphobe, I went back to some of her writing, and I did notice a few things that reads a little differently now that I knew the author’s attitude..
I mean, I don’t think this was something she did consciously, but I do note that there are a few female characters in the HP series with physical traits that are traditionally seen as masculine… Aunt Marge’s mustache, Millicent Bulstrode’s Broad shoulders and heavy jaw… and all these characters are without exception unsympathetic and meant to be hated. Rita Skeeter in particular reads like a rather mean parody of a trans woman… Note how she dresses and acts in an exaggeratedly feminine way, while the narrative points out how large her hands are, how square her jaw is, how fake her hair looks… Plus, in one of her scenes she literally drags Harry into a closet for a rather predatory interview, and she spends most of the book in a form not her own so she can spy on school kids. I mean… If this is a coincidence, it’s a pretty weird one.
Now, I don’t know if JKR actually intended for Rita to be trans, but I kinda doubt she did. I think it’s just subconscious transphobia colouring her writing here; she wants to make sure Rita reads as thoroughly unsympathetic, and so she lets the narrative mock her appearance:look at this mannish woman pretend that she’s feminine. It’s a very common tactic for her to make fun of people’s looks if she wants them to come across as unsympathetic; the sympathetic characters don’t tend to be supermodels either, but they’re generally described in more neutral terms or not at all. So that one of the unsympathetic female characters is mocked for having masculine traits… Yeah, it does seem a little weird even if you are giving her the benefit of the doubt.
Such benefit of the doubt cannot, however, be given to her adult novel, The Silkworm, which does include a trans woman character, Pippa, and that portrayal IS transphobic. I might have forgiven that Pippa is portrayed as violent and emotionally unstable, because the book is full of nasty and unlikeable ciscender people too… but I notice that Pippa’s appearance is also mocked with her large hands and protruding Adam’s apple called attention to (the main female character has problems not laughing), and while the problems she faces as a trans person are alluded to they are mostly played for laughs, and Pippa’s mostly just presented as pathetic. The main characters do display some sympathy, but they do so in a very condescending, patronizing way while also mocking her, treating her with contempt, and (this is the big one) alluding to prison rape in order to get her to cooperate.
Consciously or not, I think The Silkworm most clearly reveals JKR’s actual opinion on trans people: she doesn’t wish any particular harm on them, and is happy to allow them to exist… But obviously she doesn’t think they have any right to be taken seriously, and they mostly deserve to be patrionized and mocked because OBVIOUSLY they’re delusional reality-deniers.
Like I said, I don’t like to read in bad faith. But I think we’ve gone way beyond any reasonable doubt here.
So what does this mean for me as a Harry Potter fan? To be honest, probably not that much. I already decided not to spend any money on HP merchandise or seeing the next Fantastic Beasts movies, but I’m not backing out of the fandom. I’m still going to do my sporadic Holly Potter and the Witching World updates and fan art, read HP fanfics and listen to the Potterless podcast, though I may focus a little more on the LGBTQ side of the fandom.
Just because an author I admired turned out to have some nasty intolerances (and, let’s be fair, probably some issues she really should try to work out), doesn’t mean I can’t still be inspired by the good part of her work. Maybe in time I can even build on it to create something better.
Well, you never know, it COULD happen.