J.K. Rowling’s transphobia isn’t just a Twitter rant

Wednesday, July 15, 2020 - 9:10am

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Twitter is no stranger to controversy, so it comes as little surprise that J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, has come under fire for some bad remarks regarding transgender people. But this time, there’s something far more important than another poor-taste “cancel culture” debate or reminding people that freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from social consequences. Unlike most bad tweets, Rowling’s can do tangible harm — and they already have — through the spread of dangerous misinformation and the exploitation of marginalized communities.

Rowling has explicitly categorized herself as “speak(ing) the truth” in these tweets, despite spreading misinformation at almost every turn. She made a show of responding to the use of “people who menstruate” rather than “women” in a sarcastic tweet. As both a woman in her 50s and a professional writer, she should know the two terms are not synonymous, transgender people notwithstanding — menopause exists, as do hysterectomies. On her website, in response to the condemnation she got for her tweets, she wrote, “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 would have merit if we had bouncers at every bathroom door, but we don’t. Nothing was ever stopping men from walking into a women’s restroom — they won’t go through the trouble of getting a certificate to do it now. Sex crimes perpetrated by someone to take advantage of the legal provisions afforded to transgender people are rare. Trans people avoiding bathrooms out of fear and trans youth being sexually assaulted because they couldn’t choose the safest bathroom are depressingly common. That is the simple truth.

These deceptive claims do have shreds of truth to them in that people who menstruate are typically women and men aren’t physically prevented from entering female restrooms. The same cannot be said of many of Rowling’s other arguments. She warns of “the increasing numbers (of trans people) who seem to be detransitioning.” In truth, they are overwhelmingly the minority. Eight percent of trans people have detransitioned, the majority only doing so temporarily, and the most common reason is pressure from parents; in full, only 0.4 percent of trans people detransition after realizing transitioning wasn’t for them. To claim the risk of regretting transition is significant is a bold-faced lie. The risks associated with detransitioning are far more real and far worse; people who detransitioned in some fashion were almost twice as likely to attempt suicide than those who hadn’t. 

Even more blatant a lie is the claim that minors are being prescribed hormones indiscriminately. It is downright impossible for anyone in the United Kingdom, Rowling’s own country, to start hormones until they are 16 — and those who do start so young have to go through plenty of other hoops first. Sixteen is generally the earliest an American can start hormones as well. And yet, she likens hormone therapy to “conversion therapy” for gay and lesbian youth and claims hormones are overprescribed like antidepressants. (I wish I had known about that when I spent months searching for a provider willing to see me for hormone replacement!) By the way, that “lifelong path of medicalisation” doesn’t need to be lifelong unless someone’s body can no longer produce sex hormones (they’re needed to prevent osteoporosis). Otherwise, you can stop at any time and your body will return to its natural hormone levels and even reverse many of the changes caused by hormone replacement.

One of the most troubling aspects of Rowling’s rhetoric is how she disguises it as being in the interest of cisgender women (e.g. public restrooms and “people who menstruate” tweets) and/or gay, bisexual and lesbian youth. Her “conversion therapy” argument is the most obvious example of the latter, comparing the very real, very horrific abuse of LGBTQ+ children (and yes, that includes conversion therapy specific to trans kids) to potentially life-saving health care that must purposefully be sought out and asked for, if one can even find a doctor who both can and will help them. This isn’t the first time Rowling has exploited gay people as a means to an end; claiming that Dumbledore, a main character in her Harry Potter series, was gay all along while refusing to write so much as a throwaway line to prove it is textbook queerbaiting — a no-effort way to drum up hype among LGBTQ+ audiences for a new movie. This time exploitation comes in the form of crying wolf over conversion therapy via hormones and protecting the existence of same-sex attraction from people who are supposedly arguing sex doesn’t exist. By dressing her reactionary views as progressive, she can convince those not paying attention to agree with her out of a sense of obligation to these other marginalized groups in the same manner (that is to say, without actually helping said groups, if not actively harming them).

J.K. Rowling is far from the only person to believe and spread this sort of transphobia or misinformation in general. The real danger is that she’s one of the most influential people to do so. For one, she’s incredibly wealthy. Rowling is the second-highest paid author on earth (second to James Patterson), last confirmed to be a billionaire in 2012; it’s very likely she’s been worth more than a billion dollars in recent years, too, but she is notoriously secretive about the scope of her wealth. It also matters that she is, specifically, an author — perhaps even more than her wealth. When someone is well known for their words above all else, people are apt to value those words more than they may have otherwise — and she is indisputably well-known. The Harry Potter series has sold more books than any other series in history — beating runners-up with far more entries and that have been around for far longer — and by a huge margin at that. In the U.K., seven of the top 10 best-sellers are Harry Potter titles — that’s the entire main series. She has 14.3 million Twitter followers and her words have massive reach; they’ve already reached the floor of the U.S. Senate in opposition to a civil rights bill for LGBTQ+ workers. If that isn’t proof of the damage she’s doing, even to the people she claims to help, nothing is.

Ray Ajemian can be reached at rajemian@umich.edu.