If JK Rowling appeared in headlines before 2020, it was most likely in relation to a new Harry Potter film or a celebration of the wizarding world.
But over the past six months, the author has been making headlines for very different reasons.
The 55-year-old has been accused of transphobia following multiple comments she has made about transgender people and what she calls the ‘radical trans rights movement’.
Back in 2018, she claimed a ‘middle-aged moment’ was to blame for her, apparently accidentally, liking a tweet which called trans women ‘men in dresses’.
At the end of 2019, Rowling defended researcher Maya Forstater, who did not have her contract renewed when she tweeted that transgender women can’t change their biological sex; Rowling tweeted: ‘Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleeping with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWith Maya.’
And by June this year, the author, riled up by the phrase ‘people who menstruate’, argued that same-sex attraction and the reality of women are erased if ‘sex isn’t real’.
Since then, Rowling has doubled down on her views. She has liked a tweet opposing a ban on conversion therapy; she has claimed there is a conflict between ‘the radical trans movement and women’s rights’; and she has handed back a human rights award after having her views questioned. And this week, it emerged that her new adult fiction book Troubled Blood features a killer who is a cross-dresser. All the while, denying she is transphobic.
However, many former fans do not believe this. Two major Harry Potter fansites have distanced themselves from the author, while stars of the franchise including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Eddie Redmayne have all spoken out to affirm their support for trans people in the wake of her comments.
Of course, Rowling has also had plenty of support – most recently from Robbie Coltrane, who plays Rubeus Hagrid in the Potter films. The 70-year-old told Radio Times: ‘I don’t think what she said was offensive really. I don’t know why but there’s a whole Twitter generation of people who hang around waiting to be offended.
‘They wouldn’t have won the war, would they? That’s me talking like a grumpy old man, but you just think, “Oh, get over yourself. Wise up, stand up straight and carry on.””
Many people, particularly from the Boomer generation and Generation X, may agree with Robbie’s views. ‘Why are people so offended? Whatever happened to free speech? Why can’t they just accept that somebody has a different opinion?’
Except Rowling’s opinion isn’t just ‘I prefer Blur over Oasis’ or ‘I vote Tory over Labour’ or ‘Pineapple on pizza is a disgrace’. Her views are damaging to real people – people who are already disproportionately marginalised – and are downright dangerous.
Rowling is followed by 14.3 million people on Twitter. When she tweets, it is being seen by millions of people; not just the 14.3 million that follow her, but the thousands more it will be retweeted to. And having somebody so beloved, so established and respected, share those views will embolden others who have been using faux concern to mask their transphobia. Transphobia is frequently excused as feminism and a concern for women’s rights – ignoring that trans women are women too, that women’s rights apply to them also, and that trans rights do not steal away from cisgender women’s rights.
Her views also perpetuate an ‘us vs them’ climate – that there’s only enough human rights for one section of society, and if trans people are awarded them, well, that’s clearly taking away from those of cisgender straight women and lesbians. In this view, trans people are the danger – and while many may not see that, trans people are the ones who will see this internet stereotype impacting on their lives.
One of these stereotypes is, according to reports, played out in Rowling’s new book Troubled Blood. According to The Telegraph, ‘the meat of the book is the investigation into a cold case’ of a woman killed by a cisgender man described as a ‘transvestite serial killer’. The reviewer added that the moral of the story seems to be ‘never trust a man in a dress’.
Non-binary writer Jamie Windust said: ‘The way that literature works and the way the literary world works means that she must have had this book ready and with her, knowing that she was going to cause this uproar for a very long time.’
Metro.co.uk columnist Owl said: ‘The trope of the man who dresses as a woman in order to abuse women is a trope that’s many decades old; it’s fuelled the fire of the whole debate about gendered spaces.
‘There is no precedent for all these alleged dangers that trans people and their rights pose — while there is plenty of evidence that shows we face heightened levels of discrimination for simply being who we are. Recycling this trope will only continue to make life harder for people like me, who will be seen as sexual perverts and violent men who pretend to be something they’re not. It’s really harmful and deeply prejudiced.’
And trans activist and writer Fox Fisher added: ‘If anyone was in question what her true thoughts and intentions were, it should be quite clear now. No one accidentally writes a depiction of a trans person that enforces the harmful myth that trans people are just men who dress up in order to abuse women.
‘She’s showing herself to have really outdated and harmful views about minorities, and the fact that her alias is the name of a infamous LGBT conversion therapist is really unsettling. The main reason this is so wrong is because it’s literally creating a panic and imposing that there is a danger when there is none.’
The statistics show that trans people are far more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than be the perpetrators. In 2018-2019, transgender hate crimes recorded by police in England, Scotland and Wales had risen by 81% in comparison to the previous financial year. A 2018 report by Stonewall found that two in five trans people have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity, and two in five trans people adjust the way they dress because they fear discrimination or harassment. And a report four years earlier by the same organisation found that one in four trans people had attempted suicide.
Yet in Rowling’s work – which has now featured both a trans character and a cross-dresser as murderers – and in her personal tweets, trans people are held up as the danger.
Defenders of Troubled Blood have cited The Silence Of The Lambs, saying that the Oscar-winning film also featured a transgender character and nobody complained about that. Well, they did – we just didn’t have the internet then to amplify the complaints. Many LGBTQ+ people criticised the depiction of Buffalo Bill as transgender at the time. And that was nearly 30 years ago – art made in 2020 shouldn’t be held to the same lesser standards, particularly at a time when trans people are so vilified and marginalised. And Rowling, somebody whose work was an escape for many young trans kids, should also be held to account.
A spokesperson from Mermaids, a charity supporting young trans people and their families, said: ‘We are concerned by reports that J.K.Rowling’s new book features a violent character presenting as another gender. This is a long-standing and somewhat tired trope, responsible for the demonisation of a small group of people, simply hoping to live their lives with dignity. In fact, Ms Rowling has previously cast a transgender character, Pippa Midgley as a murderer in the Cormoran Strike series in 2014. We are disappointed to hear that the author might be propagating the same, long-standing and hurtful presentation of trans women as a threat.
‘As a children’s charity, we are bearing witness to the very real hurt felt by young people who once saw Ms Rowling’s fiction as a place of comfort, friendship and escape. The author recently expressed support for trans people’s right to live free from persecution. Her latest book might cause those still enjoying her books to question that sentiment.’
Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. But when those opinions start to infringe on the human rights of others, it’s doubtful those views are on the right side of history.
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