They Should Know Better
Oh no, J.K. Rowling and Richard K. Morgan
A couple of disclaimers before I dive into this letter:
First: To make it very clear where I stand here: trans rights are human rights. I’m the interloper here. I’m a white, cis male who hasn’t experienced the types of stress, harassment, or trauma that trans folks regularly face. This post is in part an attempt to better understand that, and I hope that I’m not making any errors in my language here.
Second: while working on this, I’ve come across a number of other takes from trans authors, which I’d urge seeking out. In particular, Gabrielle Bellot’s “How JK Rowling Betrayed the world She Created” over on Literary Hub is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it. Another good resource is Cassie LaBelle’s annotated takedown of Rowling’s blog post.
Third: a trigger warning for discussions of harassment and language.
Finally: consider donating to resources that aid those in need. GLAAD has a good rundown of places for crisis response, trans organizations, and general information. I’ve donated.
If you were following Twitter or entertainment news over the last week, you probably saw Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling begin to trend, and not for a good reason. Rowling seemingly took issue with the title of an op-ed published on global development / health site Devex: Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate. “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people,” she wrote. “Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
Rowling continued with some additional tweets, taking issue with someone calling her a TERF (the acronym for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist), and posed a bad-faith argument “if sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.” Moreover, she went on: “I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans.”
Activists and fans have criticized Rowling for these sorts of statements and activity before: she used Twitter to voice her support for a British woman who was fired for making anti-trans remarks last year, and she’s “liked” statements saying that trans women are just men in dresses, as well as other things. There’s a pattern of behavior here that have made some fans uneasy, and it seems as though her rhetoric against trans people has escalated a bit in recent years. It’s an exceedingly worrisome development, given her stature within the arts and entertainment world.
Days later, after the initial outcry, she posted a lengthy and pretty astounding response on her website that pretty much lays out her position on the matter. Her defense is that she has been interested in understanding trans people and has been conducting research (although she doesn’t appear to have actually consulted with anyone who is trans). Because of her beliefs, she has been unfairly piled on by activists, and that she’s speaking up despite the label because she’s speaking her truth.
The arguments that Rowling is advocating for are is rooted in a couple of harmful ideas, namely that the existence of trans people is eroding the legal definitions of sex and gender, which she deems a slippery slope to a world where women have no rights. Additionally, she’s concerned that trans men might change their mind and detransition (potentially taking away their fertility), that trans people are trapped in some sort of echo chamber or bubble that pushes them to transition against their better interests, and that trans people might be doing so to escape discrimination and harassment against women. (Let’s ignore for a moment that her concerns about safe spaces for women “when you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms…” seem ill thought out — she depicted just that spacial very violation in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets!)
What much of these come down to is that transitioning one’s gender harms the greater movement of womanhood, and that your gender is rooted in your physical sex: you’re either a woman, or you’re a man. Most of the people who identify as trans are just going through a phase, she says. She claims that a man can say that he’s identifying as a women, and be recognized as such legally. (This is a misleading claim — the UK Government requires one to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria, “lived in your acquired gender for at least 2 years,” and “intend to live in your acquired gender for the rest of your life.” This isn’t a situation of merely saying “I identify as a woman, therefore I am one” — there’s a formalized process here.)
Moreover, Rowling deflects in her defense, explaining that in her own past, she was in a violent and abusive relationship that left her with long-lasting trauma. She explains that we’re living in an extremely misogynistic era (true). Her entire argument seems to boil down to this point: that the entire trans movement is an avenue for men to find yet another way to oppress women. The actions of trans activists seem to provide her with proof that this is happening.
Rowling isn’t the only SF/F author making this argument: In January, Altered Carbon author Richard K. Morgan began to voice his own anti-trans views, piggybacking off of Rowling’s tweet back in December. He wrote that he considered “TERF” a slur and wouldn’t tolerate it on his feed. Push came to angry tweeting, and he found himself booted from Twitter and Mastodon, another social network.
On his blog, while he affirmed that trans people are people, he trotted out some of the same arguments that Rowling had: “you are either born a man or a woman, and neither sex can change into the other.”
Morgan takes a similar line to what Rowling writes, conflating the issue with protecting women from dangerous men, and that trans woman are really just predators waiting to strike with a lawsuit against perceived discrimination or to sexually assault women. The same harmful arguments have been leveled against the LGBQT+ community by saying that anyone who is gay is likely also a pedophile.
Let’s pause for a moment and consider these sets of arguments:
Trans people are trying to escape harassment by transitioning.
Trans people are simply trying to find another way to abuse and harass women.
This is dangerous rhetoric: by labeling the motives of a group of people as predatory, it opens them up to suspicion and attacks. This isn’t a theoretical concern: last year, the Human Rights Campaign unveiled its annual report on anti-transgender violence in the US, which found that at least 22 trans women were murdered last year — most of them black women. The rhetoric that the two and others have advanced dehumanizes these groups, and normalize this sort of discrimination, furthering the crisis.
These attitudes — and even things like deliberately misgendering someone — are harmful. This past fall, I spoke with a friend who recently came out as trans, who explained that their work environment immediately became a problem: their supervisors who deliberately misgendered them as a way to harass and shame them, which was stressful and uncomfortable. Fortunately, they’ve since found a new job with better protections, and was having a much easier time with things. This sort of language directly impacts their relationships with coworkers and community members, and their mental health.
Over the weekend, I spoke with Lee Mandelo, a transmasc writer who’s written extensively about issues of gender and gender identity for places like Tor.com, and edited an anthology called Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction. He outlines that Rowling and Morgan’s arguments had deep, misogynistic roots that come out early scientific views of the world that are extremely flawed: that the concepts of a strict binary identity linked to your physical biological makeup are products of outdated 19th century science and attitudes.
“The presumption of Binary biological sex existing the way that we understand it today, or especially how they understand it, is basically from the 19th century. The idea of biological women came from scientists who were trying to argue that due to that biology, women were inferior, so building on that idea of biological essentialism... actually ends up supporting conservative misogynist positions to begin with!”
The assumption that there’s a strict binary undercuts the nuances that exist in nature. There are inter-sex people, for example. And Rowling’s definition that women are people who get a period is overly broad — people have pointed out plenty of exceptions here. It’s a shaky foundation for this particular body of arguments.
There’s another danger here: given their stature within their respective communities, both authors are essentially acting as superspreaders of mis/dis information. P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brookings’ 2018 book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media provides a good framework to look at this sort of situation: given the access and wealth of information around us, why does questionable-to-outright-wrong information persist? In short, it’s networks of people who propagate and share information that they tend to agree with. Look at the circles of right-wing media, where you can sometimes watch (in real time!) misinformation pop up in places like 4chan and Reddit, bounce around the right-wing echosphere, and get blasted out of the President’s Twitter feed. People don’t have to necessarily read and internalize the information that they pass along: they just have to pass it along. Moreover, it’s extremely easy for a bad actor to hijack this sort of messaging and steer the conversation to their own ends.
The same thing seems to be happening here: Rowling (and Morgan to a lesser extent) has supercharged some of this series of bad-faith arguments, outdated / inaccurate information, and deliberate disinformation about the nature of trans people. While she’s said that she’s read and listened to people on all sides, it’s clear that she… hasn’t. While I can’t imagine that she’s doing this to be deliberately malicious, intent really doesn’t matter here. Rowling’s assertion that she’d march with people “if” they were being systematically oppressed is a big warning light here. There is no “if”. She would know that if she honestly investigated.
One frustrating element here is that one would think that both authors would have come to different conclusions based on the works that they’re best known for. The Harry Potter series is at its core, about the fight of good against evil, and how love and acceptance ultimately triumphs over hatred. She’s created a magical world where her characters not only take part in fantastical adventures, but change reality of their surroundings and bodies: there’s an entire line of magic called Transfiguration, and frequently, we see characters change their appearance, or their bodies, something that I can imagine trans fans finding the concept of appealing (although thinking a little deeper on it, the purposes for which those transfigurations are used are … not exactly used in a positive light, which may be a bit of a signal.)
For his part, Morgan is best known for a series in which humanity lives in a technological society that allows people to transfer their mind from one body to another (along with all of the other advancements that cybernetics can bring). Cyberpunk at its core is a disruptive genre, one that seeks to break down walls because they can: I can’t think of a better format that supports transgender characters.
In doing so, both do a real disservice to their readers: it undercuts the reasoning and thought that went into those stories and worlds.
Let’s be clear: Rowling and Morgan have outed themselves as transphobes with their statements, and the response has been swift.
While there have been plenty of think pieces about this, I think the most effective rebuttal came from Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, who wrote an op-ed for The Trevor Project (an organization dedicated to “providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25”) in which he writes:
Transgender women are women. 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. According to The Trevor Project, 78% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported being the subject of discrimination due to their gender identity. It’s clear that we need to do more to support transgender and nonbinary people, not invalidate their identities, and not cause further harm.
Others connected to Rowlings’ work have voiced their own disapproval.
Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger in all eight of the Potter films said 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.”
Eddie Redmayne, the face of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, told Variety that “I disagree with Jo’s comments. Trans women are women, trans men are men and non-binary identities are valid. I would never want to speak on behalf of the community but I do know that my dear transgender friends and colleagues are tired of this constant questioning of their identities, which all too often results in violence and abuse.”
Katie Leung, who played Cho Chang in the film franchise, put out a more succinct message: links to places where one could donate to funds supporting black trans women.
Finally, Warner Bros., the studio that produced the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts franchises, released its own tepid statement: “Warner Bros.’ position on inclusiveness is well established, and fostering a diverse and inclusive culture has never been more important to our company and to our audiences around the world. We deeply value the work of our storytellers who give so much of themselves in sharing their creations with us all. We recognize our responsibility to foster empathy and advocate understanding of all communities and all people, particularly those we work with and those we reach through our content.”
Human Rights Campaign on the other hand blasted her: “Let me be clear: J.K. Rowling is trafficking in harmful lies at a time when the trans community is facing unspeakable violence,” wrote HRC President Alphonso David. “Twenty-six trans and gender non-confirming people were killed in 2019 in the U.S.. Since March 28, 2020 alone, we have seen seven violent deaths of transgender and gender non-conforming Americans.”
I’m trying to think of a time when pretty much everyone involved in a major franchise pushed back against something that a creator is saying. The reactions are mixed. Watson and Leung said that they’d either be donating to causes or pointed to causes to donate to. But Redmayne and Warner Bros. didn’t say that they’ll sever ties with Rowling, and it’s not entirely clear what’ll happen next.
So what’s next for Rowling and Morgan? In the days that I’ve started writing this piece, Rowling has doubled down hard with her explanation post, and hasn’t really conceded her points or indicated that she understands why her viewpoint here is harmful. But what consequences will the two of them face?
Let’s put aside the PR nightmare that she’s unleashed upon herself. Rowling is in a rare place for an author: she’s earned billions for her work and is an extraordinarily successful woman who wields considerable power in the publishing and media world. It’s a commendable, enviable place for authors to be, and she’s certainly earned it.
But that level of power, and the entire publishing apparatus that supports it will be reluctant to upend that. Bloomsbury Publishing and Scholastic Press aren’t about to drop sales of the Harry Potter series, and I doubt that Warner Bros. will be moved to outright cancel Fantastic Beasts 3, although I would imagine that at this point, its 2021 release date will slip given the Coronavirus outbreak and that the film was in production in Brazil, which is being hit hard by the virus.
Even if those things happened, Rowling has Pottermore as her own outlet, through which the entire Harry Potter series is available digitally. Plus, Rowling recently began serializing a novel, The Ickabog, for free on her website, with a proper book edition set to hit stores later this fall. I’m reasonably sure that a) the book will continue to hit the web as planned, as well as the physical edition.
And Rowing has (rightfully) gained considerable goodwill over the years for Harry Potter, and has legions of fans set to back her up. (Just look at the comments on her Facebook page). Lots of people are still in her corner. Her books contain powerful messages — although a bit flawed in execution— rejecting racism, sexism, and bullying. They’re powerful works of anti- fascism. They are and should be commended and read for that.
Rowling also hasn’t exactly had the easiest time of things: it’s a real deflection in her post, but she went through a hellish, abusive relationship (which UK tabloids have been making hay about this week), and she’s done a lot to promote the rights of women around the world through her works and through charitable giving. That doesn’t give her a pass here, but people are complicated. I do think it’s possible for people to be extraordinary on one hand, and awful in others. I hope that she will take some of this fervor constructively and reassess her beliefs here.
But she’s squandered some, if not all of that good will for some of her dedicated fans now. Before much of this uproar, fans have pointed to the superficial diversity, overt stereotypes, and racism present in her world (Cho Chang, Seamus Finnigan, African wizard academy Uagadou, Dumbledore being retconned as a gay character are a couple of examples), as well as bizarre shit like this.
Unless she has a major change of heart, I don’t see things improving. There are so many ways in which each of her points have been countered by knowledgeable individuals, but she’s demonstrated an unwillingness to listen — pointing out that her like-minded friends agree with her.
Morgan, for his part, also hasn’t backed down — he’s published a blog post that points to Rowling’s and affirming his agreement with it. While Morgan has been booted from social media, he’s still a well-known figure in the genre community: Altered Carbon is regularly held up as a classic within the genre, and Netflix has its own adaptation of the series streaming on its platform. A quick look at Goodreads shows that he doesn’t seem to have any books coming up (his last was 2018’s Thin Air, which I had been meaning to get to and now… won’t.) Reps for Netflix and Del Rey didn’t respond to a request about his particular situation by the time that I sent out this letter. (I’ll update the letter on Substack if I do hear from them)
At the very least, both authors’ stances run counter to the brands that they and their partners have set up. Rowling has made a show of support for the LGB…Q(?) community with statements like this, which fans now have to question the authenticity of. It tarnishes their written works in ways that are very well irreparable for segments of fans. In the last week alone, I’ve seen more people express their anger, dismay, and sadness at what Rowling has said, and I know that some of them will never pick up a book of hers again.
That’s unfortunate: while Harry Potter has its share of flaws, it’s a book that many people in my generation are deeply attached to: Harry, Ron, and Hermione are heroic characters that stand up there alongside the likes Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Frodo Baggins, and Captain Kirk. They’ve gotten people through extremely difficult times, providing comfort in the notion that love and acceptance will conquer evil, even in the darkest of moments. But like a magic trick, it relies on a sense of faith that there’s something truly wonderful going on that you don’t quite need to understand. Looking behind the curtain to see how it really works ruins the illusion, and the part that made it so wonderful.
I reread Harry Potter a couple of years ago, and had been planning to re-read them to my son, who’s about at that right age to really get into it. I’ll probably continue to read them — the books hold up even if Rowling hasn’t, but I’ll do so knowing that some of that magic is gone.
If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally, please reach out and get support:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
Crisis Text Line – free, 24/7 support for those in crisis. Text 741741 from anywhere in the US to text with a trained Crisis Counselor.
Trans Lifeline – call 1-877-565-8860 for a hotline staffed by transgender people for transgender people. Trans Lifeline volunteers are ready to respond to whatever support needs community members might have.
The Trevor Project – a national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth. If you are a young person in crisis, feeling suicidal, or in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, call 1-866-488-7386 to connect with a trained counselor.