J.K. Rowling: the bitter row over trans rights

Three months into the pandemic, “it is reasonably safe to conclude that coronavirus has not killed off the culture wars after all”, said Douglas Murray on UnHerd. Indeed “the political madness of our age has flared up like never before”. Witness the case of J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter author, once the darling of liberals everywhere, is now regarded by a large section of her public as “an evil bigot”. Why? Because, over the transgender debate, “Rowling has taken the same view that the majority of the British public holds”: that trans people should be given full rights, dignity and support, but that “they do not have the right to redefine biological reality”. The row began when she took issue with a campaign group that referred on its website to “people who menstruate”. “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people,” she tweeted jokily. “Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

Later, she doubled down, saying: “If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.” The words provoked such a furious backlash, said Amanda Platell in the Daily Mail, that Rowling decided to reply to critics with a long essay detailing her concerns about the trans-rights lobby’s doctrines. She’s worried about men being able to simply say they’re women, then use spaces such as female changing rooms and toilets. She’s worried about the soaring number of young women wishing to transition. Rowling delved into her own life, explaining how ambivalent she had felt about being a woman when young; how she had been sexually assaulted in her 20s; and how she had escaped her violent first marriage. Some of the Twitter responses to Rowling “made my hair stand on end”, said Jemima Lewis in The Daily Telegraph. “Not just the torrent of obscene threats, but the wilful misinterpretation, the cod psychology, the belittling of an intelligent woman.”

The young actors whose careers were launched by Rowling also turned on her with “breathtaking” speed, said Peter Stanford in the same paper. First to cry “Expelliarmus!” was Daniel Radcliffe. “Transgender women are women,” he retorted in a statement, while fretting that her words might ruin the books and films for some fans. Emma Watson and Rupert Grint followed suit. Meanwhile, the editor of the biggest Potter fansite, The Leaky Cauldron, tweeted “a guide to cancelling Rowling” – not buying her books or watching her films. The case epitomises everything that’s wrong with today’s “Twitterised” debates, said James Kirkup in The Spectator. Anyone who does not repeat “the catechism of transgenderism (‘trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are non-binary’) is guilty of mortal sin”. Is it possible “to disagree with someone on one thing without presuming them evil”? No. “Can’t you dislike an artist’s stance on an issue while also seeing merit in their work? Apparently not.”

Is it really a surprise that trans people have responded furiously, asked Dale Sheridan in The Sydney Morning Herald. Rowling and her supporters are effectively saying: “Why… we denied you, your existence and your worth in a civil and measured way. There’s certainly no need to get angry or ‘cancel’ anyone when we’re being so damn polite and expressing our deeply held beliefs.” The lives of trans women such as myself are difficult and dangerous enough without the likes of Rowling carrying on this toxic “debate” about my womanhood. “I’m already a woman. It’s not a matter that requires debate.” She is “essentially saying that we aren’t real, just figments of our own deluded imaginations”, said Diana Thomas in The Daily Telegraph. At the same time, she thinks that we pose a grave and violent threat to women’s safety. When this “dangerous nonsense” is spouted by someone as influential as Rowling, it can only make “our lives even more precarious”.

For trans and non-binary people, this really is an existential matter, said Aaron Gabriel Hughes in The Independent. The Government seems intent on rowing back on its plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act. Currently, to change gender legally, you have to prove that you have been living as your acquired gender for at least two years, and to provide two medical reports diagnosing gender dysphoria. You have to live in another gender for two years without legal recognition, which is both stressful and frequently dangerous. This is the status quo that some feminist groups – and Rowling – would like to retain. For many Harry Potter fans, all this is an emotional business, said Amelia Tait in the New Statesman. A whole generation grew up on her books. Many of them owe their world view to Rowling. She created “an army of liberals”, with her stories about standing up for the oppressed, tolerance and fighting autocracy. Many fans now consider Rowling’s statements a complete betrayal of her own books – and of the values that she helped instil in them.