August 3, Bangkok, Thailand: anti-Rowling signs at a Harry Potter-themed pro-democracy rally (Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
August 3, Bangkok, Thailand: anti-Rowling signs at a Harry Potter-themed pro-democracy rally (Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)

OPINIONBooksSeptember 20, 2020

JK Rowling and the damage done

August 3, Bangkok, Thailand: anti-Rowling signs at a Harry Potter-themed pro-democracy rally (Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
August 3, Bangkok, Thailand: anti-Rowling signs at a Harry Potter-themed pro-democracy rally (Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)

It’s been revealed that an upcoming novel by the Harry Potter author features a crossdressing serial killer. 

In the last several years Joanne “JK” Rowling has doubled, tripled, and as of last week, quadrupled down on her bigotry towards transgender people, both in her public statements and in her popular fiction. Anyone who’s not a white conservative has Donald Trump, Māori have Don Brash, and so on – trans people have Rowling.

There has been pushback: four authors left the literary agency that represents Rowling, dismayed by what they claimed was its refusal to reaffirm its support of trans rights. Harry Potter fansite The Leaky Cauldron has published a disavowal of Rowling, and stars of the film franchise, including Daniel Radcliffe, have stated that they do not agree with her views.

The Potter books are often considered the best-selling youth fiction of all time. I never held them particularly dear. (I was much more preoccupied with Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines novels.)

Rowling has moved on from Harry Potter, too: since 2013 she has been producing contemporary detective fiction under the extremely feminist pseudonym, “Robert Galbraith.”

News broke a few days ago that her latest Galbraith-penned novel, Troubled Blood, features a murder-mystery whose culprit is a serial-killing crossdresser. Combined with the non-passing trans woman Pippa from 2014’s The Silkworm, Rowling has now published the holy duopoly of lazy and harmful media portrayals of trans* fems: the deceitful and the pathetic trans fem respectively.

September 14, Lahore, Pakistan: a protest over the killing of a transgender woman (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images)

Outside of her work, Rowling has repeatedly antagonised trans people, primarily through Twitter, notably showing support for figures who have lost their job for being transphobic in the workplace.

(A quick digression on freedom of speech: nobody in the world has been punished by the legal system for misgendering someone. There are lots of things you can say that are allowed under freedom of speech that an employer is still allowed to fire you for, especially if you consistently make your co-workers uncomfortable or unsafe.)

Troubled Blood has been dubbed Rowling’s “personal fantasy novel,” and it’s easy to see why. In an essay defending her views on trans people, there’s a big emphasis on how changes to make trans women feel safe to use the correct gendered spaces will allow “men” to directly enter women’s spaces, suggesting that straightforward gender recognition for people who seek it will enable assaults. This sort of notion presumably informed the actions of the latest novel’s villain, and it is fantasy logic. The stick person sign on the changing room door is not a magical ward that prevents people of the wrong gender entering that space to do harm. What does is the fact that most people, most of the time, don’t want to do terrible things to people. Also there’s the illegality, not to mention the improbability of succeeding at a sex crime in a populated, public place.

It is this kind of scaremongering that recently put on hold changes to New Zealand’s Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Act that would have made changing gender markers on birth certificates accessible for trans people. To be very clear: no facts about sexual or gendered violence support these fears. As Rowling, a survivor herself, should know, the vast majority of abuse and sexual violence takes place between intimate partners. (Further, as evidenced by the total lack of serial killers with the uniqueness, nerve and talent to make it on RuPaul’s Drag Race, serial killers can totally find and kill women without crossdressing.)

But while any increase in violence that comes as an incidental side effect of trans people’s safety and dignity is purely hypothetical, the harm faced by trans people is very real.

Showing just how vulnerable transgender people in New Zealand are is a landmark study called Counting Ourselves, published in September last year. It stands as one of the best surveys in the world of a trans population, with plenty of data directly comparable to statistics for New Zealand’s general population as well as data on issues unique to transgender people. It showed that trans people are much more likely to be harassed and discriminated against, as well as faring worse in every wellbeing metric.

Trans women, in particular, are actively harmed by the myths Rowling is perpetuating. In June a US senator quoted her while actively blocking a bill that would have entitled LGBTQ people to civil rights protections, harming all trans, gay and bisexual people in his country. The idea that trans women are actually “men in dresses” gives people permission to be disgusted by us, to harm us. Transgender women in real life often face real violence from men as retaliation for their mere existence. In parts of the USA the “trans panic defence” sees men literally found innocent of murder as a consequence of their bigotry.

All of this teaches us to hate and be disgusted by ourselves, both for nonconformity to our assigned gender, and for the way that trans women specifically can threaten the sexuality of straight men, who initially recognise our womanhood only to turn on us when they find out the way in which we deviate from the norms of women (this, along with other prejudices against trans women, is called “transmisogyny”).

Rowling seems to be aware of the obscene violence trans women face, but opposes including us in any of the protections from male violence that cis women have, arguing that doing so would ruin the safety of women’s spaces. (Violence against trans men doesn’t get a mention, because Rowling insists trans men are women and only face violence as women, while advocating for the violent approach of not allowing trans-masculine people to medically transition.) She invokes “women’s rights” as a way of reframing the argument that trans people shouldn’t get to exist in public spaces. This strategy, coupled with the refusal to listen to how her ideas might harm trans people, means Rowling and those who think like her can push an anti-trans agenda with a veil of innocence.

As it stands, trans people have the right to use whatever gendered spaces they want, and yet almost invariably trans people avoid places like public changing rooms – sometimes avoiding using bathrooms to the point of developing urinary infections – because we don’t want to risk being harassed or assaulted.

September 12, London, England: Trans Pride march (Photo: Maciek Musialek/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

I spoke to Jackie Clark of The Aunties, a group supporting survivors of domestic violence and abusive relationships, for her thoughts on the idea that safety for trans women infringes on the safety of vulnerable cis women. “That’s spurious, and completely untrue,” she said. “Domestic violence is really gendered, and that doesn’t mean that cis men are just beating up cis women, it means that many cis men have a problem with how they treat their partners.” In other words, gender-based violence affects everyone who isn’t protected by patriarchy. Classifying this sort of violence as “women’s issues” leaves vulnerable gender-diverse people unprotected.

On shelters for trans survivors of abuse or violence, Clark said, “what really offends me is that there aren’t spaces for trans and nonbinary to go. A trans woman has every right to go to a women’s refuge, but most would never risk it because they’re afraid of being rejected or ridiculed.” Noting that in the 80s, policing of women’s spaces would even exclude some cisgender women for being “butch dykes,” Clark argues that gender should not be policed, and that calling a safe space for survivors a “women’s shelter” is ultimately a disservice to the many people who aren’t cis men who can be excluded by that label. Instead, she believes they should be simply called “shelters”.

But for now, the reality is that trans and nonbinary people aren’t making shelters unsafe for cis women – cis women are making them unsafe for trans and nonbinary people, reinforcing a patriarchy that doesn’t just sexistly privilege men over women, but also prioritises those who conform to gender norms, privileging cis people over trans people.

It’s worth noting that most popular articles published so far criticising Troubled Blood have made an effort to distance the transgender community from the killer, referring to the character as a “transvestite’ or as a cis man in a dress. While the common conflation of a transgender woman expressing her womanhood and a cisgender man expressing his femininity (and vice versa for trans men and butch women) is a real issue, nobody should throw crossdressers under the bus. At the same time, Rowling’s assertion that some trans women are just “men in dresses” is harmful to transgender people because of how it excludes us from spaces and services we may need. It also excuses violence we may face as a consequence of this conflation. Untangling the public conception of trans women and crossdressing men is only part of the solution. Nobody deserves to be treated badly for how they present themselves.

June 28, Minneapolis, US: Black trans rights were a focus of this Pride march (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Ultimately, despite Rowling’s claims to support and have sympathy for the occasional trans person, she is arguing for the right of her and all other cis people to judge whether any given trans person is “really trans”. Similarly, she claims to care about trans children, while asserting that children should not be allowed to transition because they cannot know who they are, that their self-asserted gender isn’t real – never mind that medical intervention for youth is reserved for acute distress in teenagers who have to fight hard to get it, and never mind that virtually every trans person cites being forced to grow up as somebody other than who they are as a huge source of trauma.

Furthermore, Rowling believes it acceptable, or even necessary, to misgender any trans person who chooses a transition that does not involve medical aid. You cannot support trans women when at any moment you are willing to dismiss a trans woman’s experience by calling her a “man who believes or feels he’s a woman”. Here Rowling, who herself writes that she often doesn’t feel particularly womanish, indulges in cissexism, a common form of discrimination against trans people, where cisgender people’s feelings and knowledge of their gender is considered more authentic or reliable than transgender people’s self-knowledge.

Cissexism, unfortunately, has a much darker impact on trans lives and wellbeing than whether or not trans people are gendered correctly by people we meet. Many medical professionals, scientists who defined what trans healthcare looks like, and public intellectuals refuse to take transgender people’s accounts of ourselves seriously. If it appears that there are suddenly so many transgender people today, that’s because early trans healthcare would not grant any aid in medical transition to transgender people who didn’t perform their gender “convincingly” enough. Even then, support was only granted if they believed the trans person would never be misrecognised as the gender they were forced to act as at birth. Even then, trans people were often barred from care unless they were willing to leave behind everyone who ever knew them behind to go “stealth” – permanently closeted. The establishment had control over our lives. They got to control our narrative, how we were defined, what “makes” a trans woman, or trans man. Today, this leads to people like Abigail Shrier, who is not a social researcher, nor a scientist of any kind, who has no authority with which to speak on transgender people, writing a book like Irreversible Damage and being taken seriously. Cis non-experts can outright lie, or grossly misunderstand and misrepresent any facts about trans people, yet be listened to, cited, given a platform. By contrast, actual trans people’s experiences are ignored or dismissed out of hand. Academics would call this an example of “epistemological violence”.

So the real threat that Rowling signifies to transgender people goes a lot deeper than the personal loss of a childhood hero or the re-seeding of harmful anti-trans propaganda. The fact that Rowling is even considered part of the conversation on transgender people and our wellbeing is a consequence of the standing assumption that cisgender people are more able and qualified to speak on transgender people and our lives than we are. And the conversation too many cisgender people want to have is not a conversation about our hardships but a conversation about cisgender people’s delusional fears. It’s time to start listening to the real experts on trans issues: trans people.

Keep going!