For two decades, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series has delighted and inspired readers of all ages. The books, in which good triumphs over evil despite the all hardships along the way, are a household name. They have a place on nearly every millennial’s bookshelf, and yet, her fans have been left reeling by JK Rowling’s recent transphobic tweets and, unfortunately, it’s not the first time.
In December, the writer posted a tweet which may not seem like much more than straightforward feminism at first, but in which she aligned herself firmly with a British woman named Maya Forstater. Forstater has been referred to as a vocal TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) – a supporter of a transphobic political movement which argues that transgender women are men, and therefore should not be allowed the legal and social protections afforded to women who are biologically female at birth.
Forstater, who was contracted at a think tank called the Centre for Global Development (CGD), had built up a reputation online for tweeting a number of dehumanising opinions about trans people, which eventually made her colleagues uncomfortable. As a result, in March 2019 her contract renewal with CGD was declined. Forstater sued, but the court dismissed her claim citing her long history of transphobic remarks.
By aligning herself with Forstater, Rowling deeply disappointed many of her fans – a lot of whom identify as part of the community that Forstater attacked online – and shocked them further when it was revealed that she follows a number of other TERF accounts on the social media platform. Despite all the fan backlash, though, Rowling continued to share and like posts that belittled, dehumanised and denied the experiences of non-binary communities. As recently as June 6, she seemed to openly belittle transgender people when she mocked a headline about “people who menstruate”.
‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?
Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate https://t.co/cVpZxG7gaA
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
Then in an effort to justify the behaviour that many feel betrays the magical and inclusive world that she created, she published an entire essay titled “TERF Wars” on her site. The essay uses groundless arguments and harmful stereotypes about trans women, outdated science, and exclusionary viewpoints to explain her stance, but instead of vindicating her, only succeeded in convincing many of her millions of readers to pack away their Harry Potter books for good.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 10, 2020
“Rowling masked obvious transphobia as a personal appeal to reason,” writes Romano, “rooted in her own experience as a woman and an abuse survivor. She asked for empathy and respect for her experiences while showing none for her targets.”
In the words of Vanessa Thorpe at the Guardian, “one of the most successful writers in the world stands accused of deserting some of the most vulnerable in society, those who feel they were born in the wrong body”. Readers who one found solace in the fictional halls of Hogwarts, and admired Rowling for the world she created, can no longer reconcile the author of the books they loved, with the stark reality that their author denies their very humanity.
Rowling Emerges as a Brand New Villain
Romano writes that disappointing her fans – many of whom form part of a more open-minded, liberal generation – is not the most heart-breaking thing about Rowling’s transphobic behaviour. “More importantly, it perpetuated the type of pernicious hate and misinformation that leads to trans women, especially teens and black trans women, becoming victims of sexual assault, violence, and hate crimes at an appallingly frequent rate.”
Furthermore, Rowling’s decision to write this essay now –clinging to her TERF cause in the wake of global protests against anti-blackness and police brutality – is particularly tone-deaf. That she can ignore all that’s going on in the world and instead choose to try and strengthen her argument that trans women shouldn’t be allowed in the ladies’ room indicates a single-mindedness that cannot be overlooked.
What makes matters worse, writes Romano, is that Rowling’s online behaviour targets a community that is extremely vulnerable – and who, for that reason, have also been championing the Black Lives Matter movement that the author has seemingly ignored. Romano cites statistics that indicate that 44 percent of trans teens in the US have considered suicide, “and that was before many of them found out that a beloved author thinks their identity is a joke”.
Previously admired for inventing her magical world, in which young readers of any gender or orientation could seek solace, Rowling is fast becoming the villain in the story. “No effort to separate the art from the artist can ever be fully successful when the artist is right there, reminding you that she intended for her art to reflect her prejudice all along,” Romano writes.
Fortunately, Hogwarts was good for something
And it’s not only the fans that are distancing themselves from the author’s opinions. Many of the actors that brought Rowling’s world to life on the big screen have spoken out against her controversial comments.
Daniel Radcliffe, who plays the books’ namesake released an essay of his own in response to Rowling’s. In it he writes that “Transgender women are women.” He adds that “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”.
In a statement to the Sunday Times, Rupert Grint – who plays Ron Weasley – emphasised that he too “firmly” stands with the trans community. “Trans women are women. Trans men are men,” he said. “We should all be entitled to live with love and without judgment”.
In a separate statement, Emma Watson of Hermione Granger fame echoed this with “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.”
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.
— Emma Watson (@EmmaWatson) June 10, 2020
It’s clear that despite the bigoted and misguided opinions of the story’s creator, Hogwarts has taught its students well.
The world that Rowling created taught a generation of children to be uniquely themselves in the face of adversity. The series may even have played a part in allowing them to become more progressive than the books themselves, and certainly more progressive than the woman who authored them.
It’s deeply disappointing then, that books which provide so much room for debate about the potential gender-fluidity of its characters (remember Tonks?) and even their race (reasonable arguments can be made that Hermione Granger would be better portrayed as a black girl) are now being tainted by hyper-conservative and even dehumanising opinions from their creator. More disappointing is the fact that a writer with such a massive reach, and who has the power to promote change, is advocating for the withholding of rights from one vulnerable group, and ignoring the plight of another.
While it remains to be seen how this will affect Rowling’s career, and many readers are mourning the end of a long relationship with the series, Gabrielle Bellot, staff writer for Literary Hub, writes that perhaps we don’t need to burn all our books just yet.
“I fear that some of the series’ magic has faded for me”, she writes, “but I also know that there is still beautiful, affirming power in the novels”.
She cites Hagrid, one of the series’ most beloved characters: “I am what I am, an’ I’m not ashamed. ‘Never be ashamed,’ my ol’ dad used ter say, ‘there’s some who’ll hold it against you, but they’re not worth botherin’ with.”
“We can no longer talk about Harry Potter without foregrounding the prejudice lurking beneath the surface-level morality of Rowling’s stories. Many aspects of Harry Potter are already up for debate and reevaluation,” writes Romano. While it’s true that the novels will now be read in a completely different light, these debates are opening doors that could bring about meaningful change in what has long been a predominantly white, cis-gendered space.