There is a lot to unpack in the essay J.K. Rowling recently posted on her website in which she addresses her recent tweets about transgender women. In a nutshell, Rowling is a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) and folks like Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Eddie Redmayne who have benefited from Rowling’s success have called her out on her transphobia–which they should.
More importantly, transgender people and transgender activists have called Rowling out on her nonsense, which should be enough. We need to believe people who are living the experience, not someone who is watching it from afar. I hesitated to read her “defense” because she doesn’t have one. She has excuses and poorly veiled transphobia that she denies by telling stories about people who agree with her. It’s like a racist saying they aren’t racist because they have a Black friend. JK Rowling isn’t simply gender-critical or looking out for the best interest of women; she is looking out for herself.
I am a nonbinary person, LGBTQIA+ advocate and educator, and am raising a transgender daughter. I know transgender stuff. I don’t speak for the entire transgender community or transgender women, but I do have educational expertise in these topics as well as the lived experience of a woman. I also have the frustrating experience of living as a trans nonbinary person in a binary society.
I pulled a few lines of Rowling’s essay to explain why she is not an ally to the transgender community. Here are my responses:
1. “Ironically, radical feminists aren’t even trans-exclusionary – they include trans men in their feminism, because they were born women.”
As JK Rowling dips her quill into the ink, she starts out by defending TERFs, which stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” These folks are often women, even lesbians, who define their identity based on their biological sex. However, science tells us sex does not equal gender and one’s assignment at birth should never trump the identity one knows to be true.
Rowling is regurgitating her own words here: TERFS are absolutely excluding transgender people because they see trans men as women based on their sex. Every transgender person’s journey is different, but it’s more accurate to say that a transgender man was assigned female at birth based on his body parts. He wasn’t born a woman; he was born a man who was mislabeled. Gender is a social construct that begins with the first ultrasound, and unfortunately transgender folks, myself included, have to fight against the likes of Rowling to prove we are real.
2. “The more of their accounts of gender dysphoria I’ve read, with their insightful descriptions of anxiety, dissociation, eating disorders, self-harm and self-hatred, the more I’ve wondered whether, if I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition. The allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge… I struggled with severe OCD as a teenager. If I’d found community and sympathy online that I couldn’t find in my immediate environment, I believe I could have been persuaded to turn myself into the son my father had openly said he’d have preferred.”
While most people go through some sort of discomfort and even dysphoria when they go through puberty and may develop negative patterns of self-harm and self-hate, one’s (perceived) gender is not always the cause. Cisgender folks with mental health struggles don’t transition because it would be easier to be another gender. Transgender folks who do have mental health struggles often find relief from their pain when they do transition because it allows them to live authentically, even in the face of discrimination.
Rowling then goes on to talk about the over-transitioning of transgender people, cites bad science about early-onset gender dysphoria, and focuses on her own struggles and misfortunes as a child. Transgender children who are given the affirming care they need see a decrease in anxiety, depression, and self-harm. And the claim that being a man would have solved her problem is off, because trans women who have lived experiences as men clearly did not hold those privileges as being more important than their true identity. Trans women are disproportionately at risk for physical and sexual assault.
3. “Moreover, the ‘inclusive’ language that calls female people ‘menstruators’ and ‘people with vulvas’ strikes many women as dehumanising and demeaning. I understand why trans activists consider this language to be appropriate and kind, but for those of us who’ve had degrading slurs spat at us by violent men, it’s not neutral, it’s hostile and alienating.”
Rowling makes her stance very clear here: She is invalidating a trans woman’s right to be called a female because she hasn’t suffered through menstruation, misogyny, and fear of physical attack by men. The problem is with violent men and our patriarchal society, not with inclusive language. I menstruate. I have a vulva. I am NOT a woman. I am a trans masculine nonbinary person who is also at risk for violence. So is a transgender woman. What is demeaning is to make the assumption that all females menstruate (trans women don’t) and that men don’t (some transgender men do). And it’s dehumanizing to make the assumption that we all fall into a binary system.
4. “So I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. 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.”
Rowling really hits her TERFness out of the park when she opens her yap about bathrooms. One of the most transphobic things you can do is deny someone the right to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. What Rowling is saying here is that sex trumps gender. She is defining what it means to be a woman and where said woman can pee based on what is between her legs. Homerun, Team TERF.
Allowing a transgender woman the right to use the women’s bathroom is NOT throwing open the door to men, because trans women are not men. Nor have the bathroom doors ever been closed from allowing cisgender men from opening them. What is stopping a man from entering any space? There are far more rapists who choose not to throw on a dress before attacking someone, and I have yet to find any reports of transgender women attacking people in a bathroom. Rowling believes in single-sex spaces because she thinks that is safer for women, yet the people at risk in single-sex bathrooms are transgender folks. Transgender teens in particular are at higher risk for sexual assault when their bathroom use is restricted.
And to say a trans woman needs a vagina to use the women’s bathroom is to equate a transgender person’s transness to having had surgery or using hormone therapy. The simple truth is that being trans is not dependent on either.
Rowling’s overall message is this: She supports transgender people, even transgender women, as long as they don’t get in the way of her perception of what it means to be a woman. And if you want to be a woman, you need to show your vagina card and tell your stories of being catcalled on the street while walking around with your birth vagina. Also, because she really needs to solidify her internalized transphobia, she wants transgender women to be safe and protected unless her fear gets in the way. In that case, sex equals gender so fuck everyone with a penis, no matter how they identify, because she has deep-seated roots of bias and shame to work through before she can realize that transgender women are not a threat.
You can’t be a transgender ally while denying transgender rights. You can keep talking, Jo, but that’s not how any of this works. My hope is that someday you are able to lose the insecurities that make you believe that the experience of another human takes away from your own. If a person naturally writes with their right hand, that person does not hinder another person’s natural ability to write with their left hand. A writer is a writer. A transgender woman is a woman. And JK Rowling is a TERF.