J.K. Rowling's transphobia isn't original or surprising
Many things about being transgender are hard, and that has never surprised me. But being a 36-year-old adult who now wonders if it is time to boycott all things Harry Potter is an indignity I never expected.
Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling can’t seem to stop herself from sharing her transphobic opinions. In June, she penned a manifesto explaining them in detail. As if that wasn’t enough, her new book includes a serial killer character named Dennis Creed who dresses in a wig and a dress to entrap women. Many fans are fed up, myself included.
I have long loved Harry Potter because of the magic the wizarding world brought into my own. I have read and enjoyed the books since Rowling first began publishing them, but they’ve never been my favorite. The problems with the stories have long been obvious to me: They lack any well-rounded characters of color; house elves make a poor metaphor for slavery; and by the end of the series the goblins are alarmingly close to anti-Semitic caricatures. What has warmed my jaded heart, however, is the fan culture.
As a child, I loved reading and playing pretend, and Harry Potter is the biggest, longest imaginative game I’ve ever witnessed. I adore children on homemade broomsticks, Yule Balls at libraries, Wizard Wrock bands and every other manner of DIY Harry Potter celebration.
I am heartened by fans of color who’ve made the series their own through cosplay, criticism, and fan fiction. Likewise, Potterheads tend of to be an accepting bunch and many a queer and trans teenager has found a home among them. All of this has brought me joy.
But now thanks to Rowling’s transphobia, mention of the Potterverse makes me feel as though I’ve just swallowed an earwax flavored Every Flavor Bean.
It’s certainly ironic that an author who writes about a woman who can transfigure herself into a cat can’t support transgender people. However, Rowling’s transphobia isn’t original or surprising.
Creed is not Rowling’s first transphobic character. In her 2014 crime novel, The Silkworm, Rowling created Pippa Midgley, a violent transgender woman who she describes as pathetic, irrational, and with a voice “as rough and loud as a docker’s.” Rowling’s hero threatens her with rape, saying: “I’m calling the police and I'll testify and be glad to watch you go down for attempted murder. And it won't be fun for you inside, Pippa...not pre-op.”
For years, transgender women have written about the harm Rowling causes through these characters. What’s different this time is that cisgender people are finally listening. Too many, though, are under the impression that Rowling’s transphobia is unique. Sure, it’s richly imagined, but it’s far from original – and that’s why it’s dangerous.
In Rowling’s June essay, she advances two arguments about transgender people that have held sway in some circles within the feminist movement for decades.
First, Rowling claims that some trans men decide to transition to avoid sexism and homophobia and that they are manipulated into doing so by transgender activists. She writes, “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.” In the original “L-Word” series, character Kit Porter makes the same argument when she urges trans man Max not to get top surgery. She says, “It just saddens me to see so many of our strong, butch girls giving up their womanhood to be a man. We’re losing our greatest warriors, our women, and I don’t want to lose you.” The fact that this rhetoric is always masked in concern only makes it more harmful.
Second, Rowling argues that allowing transgender women into women’s spaces threatens the safety of cisgender women. Criticizing proposals to simplify the process of changing gender markers on identity documents, she writes, “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman … then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside.” This claim has a very specific history dating back to 1973, when lesbian separatists and radical feminists in California claimed that trans woman Beth Elliott was a man and that she must be excluded from the West Coast Lesbian conference. Lesbian separatist Robin Morgan claimed that Elliott’s desire to participate in the conference reflected the mentality of a rapist. That argument began to hold sway in many feminist circles. In 1979, Janis Raymond spun it into a rambling, conspiracy theory that today would hardly stand out in a QAnon comment thread. She published it in a book called The Transsexual Empire. Rowling’s arguments are much the same, simply expressed more politely
Casting Rowling’s transphobia as unprecedented obscures the long history of transphobia. Likewise, when cisgender feminists argue that trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) are not feminists, they ignore the welcome that TERFs found in feminist spaces and the influence they exerted. While transgender women have long contributed to feminist thought and many feminists support transgender struggles, transgender people are well-aware that our cause has only recently become a priority in the movement.
Transphobia and cissexism have been real problems within feminism. Anyone who considers themselves a feminist – and I do – should be willing to say so. Until we really wrestle with this history, we won’t be successful in challenging rhetoric like Rowling’s.
I am no longer willing to give Rowling any financial support. However, when condemning her transphobia, we would do well to remember that transgender children and teenagers who love Harry Potter are listening. For them, Rowling’s words have a special sting. They will find “breaking up” with the Potter series as painful as losing a friend. They need us to help them survive this heartbreak.
There is no need to pressure transgender kids to abandon the characters they love. For them, claiming a place in Potter fandom challenges transphobia as much as deciding to boycott Rowling’s work. For adults, our priority should be loving and supporting them and challenging the misinformation that Rowling is spreading.