JK Rowling and transphobia have become hot-button topics online. Now, with the recent announcement that HBO Max (excuse us, MAX) will be adapting the novels for the small screen, the discussion seems likely to only accelerate.
Let’s break the controversy down. What has Rowling said, and in what context has she said it? Is JK Rowling transphobic? If so, what does that mean for not just fans of her works, but for trans people?
Prologue: Trans People Are People
This article isn’t going to go terribly in-depth trying to dismantle arguments often cited by anti-trans people. That said, it is going to take the position that trans rights are human rights. Factually, gender is biologically not a binary. Not in terms of chromosomes or body structure.
Considering how much we have discovered about biology only recently, there’s presumably a lot we still don’t know that might change how we view biological gender. Even if we are not talking about biology, we would all agree that there are other factors besides our bodies that make us who we are.
Trans people are who they say they are.
For people who are genuinely confused, we recommended YouTuber Natalie Wynn. Also known as Contrapoints, Wynn uploaded a lengthy essay explaining the issue and going over Rowling’s supposed concerns in detail and in-depth. Wynn’s video is not only extremely comprehensive but also offers an actual trans woman’s perspective.
JK Rowling and Transphobia: ContextWhatever the correlation between JK Rowling and transphobia, transphobia does have very stark consequences. Anti-trans laws have been proposed in a number of U.S. states, and have been passed in several. For example, Idaho recently passed a law making it illegal for kids receiving gender-affirming care to continue doing so.
The volley of new laws has made trans issues into the latest hot-button talking points. However, the problem with this is that the humanity of the people involved tends to get lost very quickly when people focus on trying to legislate experiences they can’t understand.
There are very dire consequences to this, too. To quote the linked article:
Trans Americans are four times more likely to be victims of violent crime than their cisgender peers, according to a 2021 study. Trans youth, who have been the primary focus of anti-trans legislation this year, are experiencing a mental health crisis: A 2022 survey by the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention group focused on LGBTQ youth, found that 86 percent of trans or nonbinary youth reported negative effects on their mental health stemming from the political debate around trans issues.
Essentially, a culture that perpetuates hate for trans people hurts trans people. That might seem obvious, but we mention it now to point out that while no one person’s comments can be responsible for someone else’s deteriorating mental health, transphobic comments don’t occur in a vacuum.
Trans people face real threats to their lives each and every day. The 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference literally called for the “eradication” of trans people. Hence, transphobic comments do matter.
JK Rowling’s Own ContextNow let’s switch to discussing Joanne Rowling, author of the beloved Harry Potter series. Rowling’s transphobia is just the latest in a series of controversies for the author… controversies that may make the transphobia accusation seem far less serious than it actually is.
Rowling has always been a proponent of LGB rights. She revealed that she considered Dumbledore gay after the release of the final Harry Potter book. Rather than comforting many fans, though, it angered them. If he was gay, why wasn’t it mentioned in the series? That’s not representation!
Frankly, it’s not. That said, Rowling never outright claimed it was representation. Also, 2008 was a wildly different time. Gay marriage was only legal in a handful of US states. It wasn’t legal in the UK, where Rowling lives, until 2014.
Still, Rowling found herself at the center of a firestorm several times over the years. “#JKRowlingisoverparty” trended on Twitter in 2016 when fans believed she denied Sirius Black was gay. (She denied she had ever said this.)
Other IssuesBeyond LGB issues, Rowling also lost popularity with the Fantastic Beasts franchise, which most would agree was not close to par with the Harry Potter books. Plus, there were real-life controversies around Fantastic Beasts’ stars, and people kept complaining about Rowling adding to her lore. (Let’s assume these people don’t know about how much Tolkien added to Middle-earth lore post Lord of the Rings.)
In other words, Rowling had lost a lot of public support long before she said anything that could be considered transphobic. While some of that loss of support makes sense, others definitely seem people interpreting the innocuous in bad faith and taking every new detail about Harry Potter as something that was a personal prescription that they had to alter their enjoyment over. That has kind of never been how literature or fandom works. It is, alas, how Twitter works.
Given all of this, people may want to give her the benefit of the doubt when it comes to her alleged transphobia. However, let’s take a look at what she’s actually said and done in regard to trans issues.
Is JK Rowling Transphobic?Unfortunately, Rowling’s transphobia has become pretty apparent and alarming. For a while, it was quiet likes on transphobic tweets.
Rowling first tweeted support of Maya Forstater, a woman who is openly anti-trans. Forstater lost her job over how she spoke about trans people. Free speech, defenders cry.
Except, it wasn’t just about Forstater’s personal thoughts, and she wasn’t fired. Forstater’s contract ran out, and her company opted not to renew. Forstater also used Slack to speak to other employees about her views.
After this, Rowling went on to post a blog about how trans people are a cover for predators. Things only escalated from there. Rowling has written distasteful tweets that read things like:
War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. The Penised Individual Who Raped You Is a Woman.
Rowling, women can actually be predators too…
Deeply amused by those telling me I’ve lost their admiration due to the disrespect I show violent, duplicitous rapists.
This is a pretty terrible thing to say about an entire group of people. She’s not only talking about trans women who are predators. She’s talking about trans people as a monolith when no group of people is a monolith.
Also, statistically, it seems highly likely that trans-women are more likely to become victims of sexual assault than to be perpetrators. Kind of like, well, women.
In a March 2023 podcast, Rowling openly admitted:
I believe, absolutely, that there is something dangerous about [the trans rights] movement and that it must be challenged.
JK Rowling’s Transphobic Novels
Unfortunately, JK Rowling and her transphobic saga haven’t stopped with a few tweets. No, instead Rowling’s incorporated her transphobia into two books she’s written under the pen name Robert Galbraith: Troubled Blood (2020) and The Ink Black Heart (2022).
Troubled Blood contains a murderer who dresses as a woman. Whether the character actually thinks of himself as trans or not isn’t entirely clear, but it certainly reflects her tweets about trans people being a danger to women. While some critics insist the novel as a whole isn’t transphobic, that would be easier to believe if the author…
- 1) hadn’t made those tweets
- 2) there were any positive representations of trans characters in her work…and there aren’t.
The Ink Black Heart, Rowling’s latest novel, portrays a woman being killed after being accused of transphobia. Yes, really. While Rowling’s own fears for her safety shouldn’t be mocked, the irony is that she’s actively making the world less safe for trans people. Plus, trans people have far fewer resources to protect them than a multi-millionaire author.
Is JK Rowling transphobic? The answer is, sadly, yes.
The thing is, JK Rowling and transphobia never had to clash, and that’s what sucks. She has purposely put herself in this position.
JK Rowling And Transphobia: The DangerWhat exactly is so dangerous about the trans movement, though? In Rowling’s mind, that is. What does she fear from them?
There are likely two factors here, both of which have been documented by Rowling herself.
The first is her own identity as a woman. Rowling literally published under “JK” instead of “Joanne” because publishers feared boys would not want to read a book written by a woman. She is far from the first female author to do this. That she was ultimately so successful in spite of her gender is probably something that she values.
The irony is that in seeming to fear that her own identity as a woman is being whittled away, Rowling is denying others their identities. Of course, the fact that she’s still publishing under a male pseudonym seems odd.
Rowling has also made it clear she thinks of gender as a binary and has cited this as part of why she supports LGB rights. Again, as we’ve said earlier, this is not, genetically speaking, true. She genuinely doesn’t seem to understand trans people, and so views it as an attack on her worldview and identity as a woman.
The problem is that she doesn’t seem to want to try to understand them, either.
The second is that Rowling clearly distrusts the intentions of certain men. Considering her first husband went on to use her transphobia controversy to openly brag about abusing her, that’s fair. What’s not fair is projecting that fear onto people who have done nothing to deserve it.
What is truly dangerous about JK Rowling and transphobia is how dangerous her words are making the world for trans people.
The Harry Potter Cast’s ResponseIn light of the controversy around JK Rowling and transphobia, the stars of the Harry Potter films have largely stood up for trans rights. Lead actor Daniel Radcliffe, for example, penned an open letter stating his support for trans rights. Most recently, he partnered with The Trevor Project to sit down with trans kids to discuss their lives.
If you’re going to talk about trans kids, it might be useful to actually listen to trans kids.
Other stars, including Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), and Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood) have stated their support for the trans community. Some, like Lynch and Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy) have also stated that they still maintain respect for Rowling and her work.
To be honest, that’s rather fair. Even if someone has done something terrible, they can still have done something good, too. Judging people who actually know Rowling for not cutting her off seems to expect a level of transaction in loving relationships that just doesn’t seem a reasonable expectation.
At the same time, if someone you love is doing something hurtful, it’s important to step up and help stop the hurt however you can. Donations like Watson’s and advocacy work like Radcliffe’s go a long way to promoting trans rights.
Unfortunately, Radcliffe’s advocacy work landed him on transphobe’s hit lists. They’ve spread Twitter rumors about his long-term girlfriend, who is currently pregnant with the couple’s first child, being trans. So much for biology as the basis of their arguments.
Death of the AuthorOf course, the JK Rowling and transphobia controversy have brought up lingering questions. Namely, what exactly is Hogwarts’ legacy?
With the release of Hogwarts Legacy and the announcement of an upcoming TV adaptation of the books, this debate isn’t going away any time soon.
Actually, it’s never going away. It’s foolish to ignore the cultural impact of Harry Potter. It’s counterproductive to claim that the books were really bad stories all along, as seems to be the trend on Twitter because a good story written by a person who can do bad things seems beyond 240 characters.
Of course, some may find flaws in the works that they didn’t previously see. Some may no longer be able to enjoy these books, and that is completely fair. Some never liked it. That’s also fair.
Some argue “death of the author,” or the idea that a literary work ceases to be the author’s the moment it’s read by others. After all, stories mean different things to each reader. Others argue that buying books and merch supports anti-trans legislation.
The morality of authors is hardly a new debate. Charles Dickens (yes, he of Scrooge fame) tried to have his wife committed to an asylum. Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace, and Anna Karenina (which ironically chronicles the struggles of women in society) treated his own wife horrifically. Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender’s Game, flouts his homophobia.
Tolkien had “a certain distaste” for things Irish, which isn’t as simple as a preference in the context of British-Irish history. Let’s not even get into Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitism or Rudyard Kipling’s (The Jungle Book) extreme racism.
EmpathyThe answer is simply that there is no one right answer. Is JK Rowling transphobic? Yes. What that means for fans of her works, however, is up to individual fans.
It does a lot of harm to the trans community to try to explain away Rowling”s harm. She has said truly terrible things. Her words have power. Denying it only makes this worse.
However, some fans, as Radcliffe once said, may still find value in a story about a boy who escapes life in a closet and saves the world. Some find comfort in a story that tackles raw grief for a parent in a way that most stories just don’t.
If you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life — then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred. And in my opinion nobody can touch that.
Fans who still enjoy the world of Harry Potter can do so, but shouldn’t deride fans who can’t. We all have our own backstories and baggage, and can more easily overlook some issues than others. That’s not excusing; that’s just real life because again, no group of people, including fans, are a monolith.
However, still being able to enjoy a story doesn’t mean that fans have no obligation to protect the rights of trans people. Especially when considering the current discriminatory laws.
They’re human rights, and as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said
injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
The work of advocates like Radcliffe can inspire fans everywhere to consider what they can do to promote trans rights in their community. (Here are some resources.)
The previously mentioned podcast aims to provide empathy for Rowling, as did part of this article. However, we want to clear two things up and to do so we’ll go back to Natalie Wynn’s words. Wynn was also a part of that podcast but has expressed pain from her experience.
I don’t think empathy is a finite resource, but… Maybe instead of being interested in the sad backstory of JK Rowling’s comments on trans people, try to get a little more interest in the victims behind these hate movements.
The empathy the podcast provides, and part of this article aims to do, needs to be applied to trans people as well. The sad reality is that Rowling and many other “TERFs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) are applying zero empathy for trans peoples’ fears, safety, and dignity as human beings.
Not everyone can feel empathy for each and every person alive. We all have our own baggage and triggers. However, the New York Times (repeatedly) and other mainstream media aim to give empathy to Rowling and refuse it for trans people.
Rowling herself appears to be digging in her heels. However, maybe someday she will reread her own work and reconsider. If Harry Potter teaches us anything, it’s that there are forces beyond the physical, but what happens in the physical life still matters. As Dumbledore himself once said:
Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?
If only Rowling would someday consider this applying to love and identity, and not to fear. Even if she doesn’t understand what makes someone trans, she should perhaps listen to trans people and understand that their identities, which may or may not impact their physical bodies, are real.