The other day, Owen Jones, a columnist at The Guardian, shared a Twitter thread that I really think people need to check out. It details a story from another time that feels all-too-familiar to a lot of us today.
This piece is going to be lengthy, it’s going to include a lot of blockquotes, and it’s being written by me on March 31, 2022, which just so happens to be Transgender Day of Visibility. And I’m tired. And I’m sad. And I’m really worried about the future.
I’ve blocked her accounts on social media, muted her name and the names of the characters she’s created, and genuinely do my best to just live without thinking about her. If I never hear the name of the person I’m writing about in this piece again, it’ll still be too soon.
That said, I’m not calling on anyone to boycott anything (I’m not your mom, you can make your own decisions about what books and movies and video games to buy), nor am I calling anybody (including her) a bad person. Please don’t pull me into online arguments about her, don’t @ her on Twitter thinking that you’re helping me or trans people, generally; and just try to be chill.
Here’s the text from the thread (the individual tweets have been embedded at the bottom of this post, but the first tweet can be found here):
History rarely repeats itself, but it often rhymes. The parallels between the backlash against trans rights and gay rights are astonishing.
This is Anita Bryant, chart-topping singer, orange juice promoter — and the face of the anti-gay rights movement in the US in the 1970s. Anita Bryant was very popular in her time. She topped the Good Housekeeping magazine poll as “Most Admired Woman in America” in 1978, 1979, and 1980. A Gallup poll listed her in the top 10 most popular women on earth.
As you can see from Time magazine in 1977, she was presented as the victim of a militant, violent male gay mob, and of what is now called “cancel culture.”
Anita Bryant spoke, at great length, about how she was subjected to death threats, bomb threats, threats to kidnap her kids, and "received hate mail with human faeces and voodoo dolls regularly." This was used as evidence that the gay rights movement was violent and dangerous.
Anita Bryant did famously have a pie thrown in her face by the gay rights activist Thom L. Higgins. That led to the New York Times and some liberals at the time to leap to Bryant's defence, arguing she had the right to her views "without suffering abuse."
Now, Anita Bryant claimed that she was not motivated by homophobia or prejudice at all. She declared: "My stand was not taken out of homophobia, but of love for them [gay people]."
Instead, Anita Bryant claimed to be defending the rights of children. Her coalition was called “Save Our Children.” She believed that the gay rights movement discriminated against childrens’ rights, and that gay people sought to brainwash and recruit vulnerable children.
Anita Bryant set up a "charitable organisation" which claimed to treat gay people - to detransition them, if you will - and to provide inspirational case studies of "ex-gay" people.
Today, of course, we call this conversion therapy.
Now, today, Anita Bryant is not seen as a victim of a violent "militant" gay rights' movement, but as a villain who made life considerably harder for a marginalised and besieged minority.
Anita Bryant is still alive today, and has lived long enough to watch the anti-gay laws she championed be overturned, and US public opinion towards gay people dramatically change for the better.
Her granddaughter is gay.
There's a lack of appreciation today of how bitterly controversial gay rights was once deemed to be, how the gay rights movement was portrayed as a really dangerous, abusive, "militant" and violent rabble.
This is exactly how trans rights is portrayed today.
He doesn’t say the name of the modern Anita Bryant, who went from wildly-popular and beloved celebrity to anti-gay activist seemingly overnight, but she does exist. She is J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series of books, movies, etc., mirrors Bryant in a number of ways. Or maybe not. I’ve been wrestling with it.
First, let’s clear up a misconception or two.
Contrary to what Dave Chappelle said, trans people are not angry because Rowling said “gender was fact.” If that was actually what she said and that was the end of it, or if she said “sex was fact,” or even if she stated the obvious that trans women and non-trans women have a lot of differences between them, she would have been met mostly with shrugs and probably some nods from trans people. Nobody needs to remind trans people that we’re different. We are. We get it. But that’s not what any of this was about. Let’s review.
In 2014, under the pen name Robert Galbraith, Rowling wrote a trans character in her book, The Silkworm. Lines about the trans character include, “The Adam’s apple on her scratched, marked throat was still prominent,” and “[It] won’t be fun for you inside [prison], Pippa,’ he added. ‘Not pre-op.’” Feeds a bit into some anti-trans tropes, but eh, nothing to get too worked up about.
And then in 2018, Rowling liked a tweet that referred to trans women as “men in dresses.” This was chalked up to what one of her representatives called a “middle-aged moment.” Okay, fine. One of those moments that probably made some of her trans fans feel a little disappointed, but it is what it is.
In 2019, she expressed support for a UK woman whose contract at a nonprofit think tank wasn’t renewed after she posted tweets referring to trans women as men. “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep 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 sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill,” she wrote.
“…for stating sex is real,” is… an interesting interpretation of what happened. This is where things took a turn. Being trans is not about “dress[ing] however you please,” and I’m genuinely perplexed by the mention of who trans people sleep with or what we call ourselves. “Live your best life in peace and security” is a nice sentiment, though, so that’s good, even if it’s contradicted by the case she’s describing here. But to say that the woman Rowling was referring to was forced out of her job “for stating that sex is real” just isn’t an accurate way to describe that dispute at all.
Here’s what Veronica Ivy had to say about that case at the time. I recommend reading the piece in its entirety but also understanding that the case in question is complicated. The ruling that sparked Rowling’s tweet has since been overturned, and I don’t really know what the current state of it is, suffice it to say that it was more than just “stating that sex is real” and much more about whether there should be special carve-outs in the law to create hostile work environments for trans people.
By using her massive platform to offer her support for Forstater, Rowling is actually expressing her support for the what the courts called an “absolutist … view of sex” that trans women are not women, and promoting the transphobia that got Forstater in trouble in the first place.
There's no drill here; there's no law in the world that is forcing Forstater out of her job for stating that "sex is real." Tayler didn't even rule that Forstater had to call trans women "women," refer to any trans woman as “female” or use appropriate "she/her/hers" pronouns; he said that she could simply choose not to refer to trans women in gendered terms at all. Forstater, though, admitted that she would continue to behave in a way that the law defines as harassing, and which would contribute to a "intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment" — which is why the court ruled that the nonprofit was entitled to not renew her contract.
And it's that which Rowling is defending when she stands with Maya Forstater: the absolute right to create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive work environment for transgender or gender nonconforming people, because Forstater has some beliefs that don't comport with scientific reality or U.K. law.
Basically, should a trans person be able to exist in a workplace without being harassed, tormented, called the wrong name, and misgendered? Personally, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. For instance, I think it would be just as inappropriate for a Christian to sign off on all of his emails to an atheist coworker with, “Just FYI, you’re going to hell where you’ll burn until the end of time! Have a nice weekend!” or to stomp around calling gay couples “abominations.” But that’s just my view, I guess. Moving on…
On June 6, 2020, Rowling mocked an article from Devex with the headline, “Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate.”
The point she was making (which I’ll get to in a minute) is that the headline would have been better if it read, “Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for women.” Okay, sure. But… it wouldn’t have been better, and here’s why: the article was specifically about menstruation. Using “people who menstruate” in that headline makes sense. I imagine that had the headline read “women who menstruate,” Rowling’s criticism would have been that adding “who menstruate” to the end of it was some sort of attempt to acknowledge trans women or something of the sort.
But here’s what the text of the article actually says:
Importantly, advocates are calling attention to the many gendered aspects of the pandemic, including increased vulnerabilities to gender-based violence during lockdowns, and the risks faced by primary caretakers — particularly women in the household and health care workers, approximately 75% of which are women.
An estimated 1.8 billion girls, women, and gender non-binary persons menstruate, and this has not stopped because of the pandemic. They still require menstrual materials, safe access to toilets, soap, water, and private spaces in the face of lockdown living conditions that have eliminated privacy for many populations.
Of equal concern, progress already made or underway around important gender issues is now halted or reversing. Menstruation serves as a proxy for this observation. 2020 started out as a year of progress, with a groundswell of interest and potential for improved investment to address the menstrual health and hygiene needs of girls, women, and all people who menstruate.
Investment is urgently needed, as a recent report estimates that over 500 million women worldwide do not have what they need to manage their menstruation. The inability to manage menstruation with safety, dignity, and comfort may negatively impact the physical and mental health of those who menstruate around the world.
The word “girls” is mentioned six times in the article. “Women” is mentioned 10 times. If your complaint is that a 900-word article that only uses the words “girls” and “women” 16 times is somehow “erasing” anyone or making it impossible to say the word “women,” then I’m just going to guess that you didn’t bother to look at the article itself.
But beyond that, this was an ad. It was sponsored content. That’s all it was.
And yet, from that ad, which did not erase anyone’s lived experiences or make claims about sex not being real, she decided to go on an anti-trans rant that had nothing to do with the content of the article, tweeting:
If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.
The idea that women like me, who’ve been empathetic to trans people for decades, feeling kinship because they’re vulnerable in the same way as women - ie, to male violence - ‘hate’ trans people because they think sex is real and has lived consequences - is nonsense.
I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.
This language was really setting up what was to come next. “I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans?” “IF?” To think that trans people aren’t currently and constantly being discriminated against indicates a complete and total disconnect from reality. Also, nobody is saying that anybody can’t “meaningfully discuss their lives.” You can acknowledge that when discussing abortion, the massive and overwhelming majority of the people affected by the issue are women — without going out of your way to tell a trans man who had an abortion that he’s “actually a woman.” Someone can be exclusively attracted to cisgender (non-trans) women without going into a rant about how trans women are “men.” At that point, you’re not “meaningfully discuss[ing]” your life, you’re discussing someone else’s life.
Just the other day on Twitter, someone was talking about Lia Thomas, the trans swimmer who just competed at the NCAA national championships, winning one of her three events, said something to the effect of, “Men shouldn’t be competing against girls!” Now, setting aside the fact that this person made the common move of using “men” (adult) and “girls” (child) for obvious reasons, the truth is that there’s no reason to go out of your way to refer to Thomas as a “man,” “male,” “he,” “him,” etc. You can make a perfectly coherent argument for why you think that trans women who’ve gone through a testosterone-driven puberty shouldn’t compete in women’s elite athletics without calling them “men.” It’s those sorts of needless jabs that take perfectly valid arguments and statements from being reasonable points and making them needlessly antagonistic and yes, transphobic.
In June 2020, Rowling posted a blog titled, “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues.” I could write a lot about the flaws, false equivalences, and general points of contention in that blog post, but Zinnia Jones already did a far better job than I ever could, as you’ll see in a moment.
We the Mudbloods.
Back in 2020, Zinnia Jones wrote what I view to be the most thorough point-by-point takedown of Rowling’s anti-trans statements (at least the ones she had already made at the time. There… have been more since). I planned to just link to the three-part series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), but I’d like to highlight a few of the specific parts that stood out to me.
Anyway, back to what Zinnia Jones wrote.
Responding to Rowling’s assertion that she was “concerned about the huge explosion in young women wishing to transition and also about the increasing numbers who seem to be detransitioning (returning to their original sex), because they regret taking steps that have, in some cases, altered their bodies irrevocably, and taken away their fertility. Some say they decided to transition after realising they were same-sex attracted, and that transitioning was partly driven by homophobia, either in society or in their families,” Jones wrote:
Because Rowling provides no sources or citations that would substantiate the claim that there are “increasing numbers who seem to be detransitioning”, it is unclear what is actually meant by this. If the number of people transitioning increases, then all else being equal, the number of people detransitioning would also be expected to increase. For instance, suppose that 1 in every 100 people who transition will regret doing so and ultimately detransition. Should the number of those transitioning increase from 1,000 to 2,000, those detransitioning would accordingly increase from 10 to 20. One could then say, as Rowling has, that there are “increasing numbers” of people detransitioning – but this would obscure the underlying reality that the likelihood of detransitioning among those who have transitioned is actually no greater than it was before.
Rowling may have no interest in clarifying her statement or even attempting to substantiate it at all, but this is indeed a testable claim. Dhejne et al. (2014) studied all 767 individuals in Sweden who had undergone legal change of sex and surgical sex reassignment from 1960 through 2010, finding that the number seeking this treatment per 100,000 people did significantly increase over that time – and that the proportion of those expressing regret decreased. While 2.2% regretted transition over the entire time period, by the period from 2001-2010 this had declined to only 0.3%. Wiepjes et al. (2018), studying 6,793 youth and adults referred for evaluation at a gender clinic in the Netherlands from 1972 to 2015, found that “Despite the large increase in treated transgender people, the percentage of people who underwent gonadectomy but regretted their decision was still very small (0.5%).” Notably, five of the 12 patients who expressed regret did not experience the “true regret” of transition being wrong for them or the result of misdiagnosis, but rather regretted the way they had been treated by others socially since transitioning.
Jones added that a 2020 study of 143 young people receiving puberty-blocking medication in the Netherlands found that 3.5% of people discontinued taking puberty blockers and stopped transitioning. “These would be the cases where their bodies were not altered irrevocably, such as by treatment with cross-sex hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgeries. None of this reflects a ‘huge explosion’ or ‘increasing numbers’ of cases of regret.”
We can similarly evaluate the plausibility of her claim that large numbers of trans people “decided to transition after realising they were same-sex attracted, and that transitioning was partly driven by homophobia, either in society or in their families”. Does personal and societal homophobia actually serve to make being trans seem more appealing in comparison to being cisgender and gay? Everything that is known about the prevalence of and relationship between homophobic and transphobic attitudes suggests that this is not the case at all, and that transitioning as an escape from homophobia is a notion that simply makes no sense. Norton & Herek (2013), surveying the attitudes of adults in the United States, found that prejudice against lesbians, gays, and bisexuals was tightly correlated with negative views toward trans people, and attitudes toward trans people were broadly even more negative than views of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. This sample did not express a pattern of belief that being trans is a more appealing alternative to being gay; instead, there was “evidence of a strong psychological linkage between the two attitude domains” of anti-trans prejudice and anti-LGB prejudice. Rye, Merritt, & Straatsma (2019) also compared these attitudes among college students, and found a stronger correlation between anti-trans sentiment and anti-LGB sentiment than there was between anti-trans sentiment and any other variable studied, concluding that “homophobia is likely to always be the ‘best’ predictor of transphobia and these two constructs probably share a common foundation”.
A family or society that hates you for being gay is very likely to continue hating you for being trans, and Rowling has proposed an incentive that does not appear to exist in reality. As Ashley (2019) points out, many parents and clinicians of gender-diverse youth have openly expressed that they would actually find it more desirable to have a cisgender gay child than a trans child. Moreover, trans people’s transitions broadly do not map to a pathway that proceeds from apparently cisgender and gay, to transgender and straight; Ashley finds that when combining several surveys of trans youth, only 8.7% reported being straight, a rate similar to that found among trans adults. By and large, transitioning isn’t a way to become not gay.
In this update, Zinnia Jones tackles Rowling’s claims about “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria,” a condition that does not officially exist and has fallen apart when attempting to study it. The basic idea is that you’ll have girls who are perfectly happy being girls see YouTube videos of trans men and suddenly go, “I’m trans!” (and vice versa with boys seeing videos of trans women) or people will come out as trans to fit in or be “cool” and whatnot. But the study Rowling pointed to didn’t actually find what it originally argued. I’ll again quote some of Jones’ post, but you should really check the whole thing out.
Littman’s study (Littman, 2018) is a legendary example of pervasively bad anti-trans science, as if transphobia itself tore off a piece of its corrupted soul and embedded it in a paper. This is a publication containing so many egregious errors, with such thorough disregard for the entire body of literature that already exists pertaining to the topics it touches on, it is difficult to know where to begin; in the years since this study came out, I’ve published several Rowlings worth of dissections and criticism of its numerous shortcomings. What Littman created is a paper so deeply flawed from start to finish that it is practically useless and provides no credible results of any value whatsoever.
The fundamental problem with this study is its choice of methodology: it proposes the existence of a new syndrome called “rapid onset gender dysphoria” without once interacting with a single person who has this alleged condition; instead, its entire dataset is based on an anonymous online survey of individuals claiming to be parents of trans or gender-variant youth (although the ages of these “youth” ranged from 11 to 27). This is why the 2018 paper, originally titled “Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults: A study of parental reports”, was corrected and republished in 2019 as “Parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria” – it is only a study of parental perceptions, not a study of transgender youth themselves. (Littman, an OB/GYN, later admitted at a conference that she had never worked with a single trans patient.)
Talk to any trans person on earth and I’m willing to bet that they’ll tell you that the “onset” of their gender dysphoria wasn’t the precise moment they told a family member (or anyone else). Jones has this covered, too:
A parent’s awareness of their child’s transgender identity, obtained at the moment of the child’s coming out to them, is not something that occurs contemporaneously with the emergence and development of the child’s gender dysphoria itself. By relying solely on parent-reported perceptions, Littman has wrongly treated the former as a reliable proxy for the latter, creating the appearance that gender dysphoria itself has manifested “rapidly” on the basis that parents found their child’s disclosure unexpected.
Many studies on the course of transgender self-awareness, identity development, and disclosure show why it is a mistake to make this assumption. This process has distinct milestones occurring years apart; one does not suddenly become gender-dysphoric the moment one voices the thought aloud to a parent. Grossman (2005), actually surveying trans people themselves, found that trans girls reported a feeling of being “different from others” at an average age of 7.6 years, privately considered themselves transgender at 13.4 years, and first came out as trans to someone else at 14.2 years; among trans boys, these respective milestones took place at an average age of 7.5 years, 15.2 years, and 17 years. Grossman & D’Augelli (2006) studied another group of trans youth, who reported that they “first became aware that their gender identity or gender expression did not correspond to their biological sex” at an average age of 10.4 years, labeled themselves as transgender at 14.3 years, and first disclosed their transness to someone else at 14.5 years. Restar et al. (2019), surveying young trans women, found that they had an “initial self-awareness of transfeminine identity” at an average age of 9.9 years, first engaged in “transfeminine expression in private” at 12.9 years, and disclosed their transness to others for the first time at 15.8 years. Kuper, Lindley, & Lopez (2019) specifically studied trans youth aged 6 through 17, finding that trans girls first identified as their gender at an average age of 9.9 years and first disclosed this to others at age 12.2; trans boys first adopted their identity at 10.7 and first disclosed this at age 13.1. This reflects a similar progression of identity milestones in the LGB population: awareness of difference, explicit self-identification in private, and coming out to others, all typically taking place years apart.
To put it in Harry Potter-related terms:
Littman’s approach, disregarding this extensive body of literature in order to construct a timeline of gender identity development in perhaps the most deficient and unsuitable way possible, is akin to skipping to the end of Deathly Hallows and exclaiming “Wow, that came out of nowhere!”
Jones goes on to discuss some of the methodological errors in the study Rowling cited, and she pushed back on Rowling’s claim that “studies have consistently shown that between 60-90% of gender dysphoric teens will grow out of their dysphoria.”
Studies have not consistently shown any such thing. “Desistance” research examines the differing courses that childhood gender dysphoria can take, with the onset of puberty being accompanied by either the persistence of gender dysphoria into adolescence and adulthood, or its seemingly permanent remission and the development of a cisgender identity. The studies she is referring to are not about whether gender dysphoria that is already present in adolescence will persist into adulthood – there is no similar forking path of persistence and desistance at the threshold of adulthood. This is a particularly dangerous misrepresentation, because it suggests that necessary gender-affirming treatment should be withheld from trans adolescents in the hopes that their transness will vanish upon reaching adulthood, when it is overwhelmingly likely that this will not happen – and by the time adolescence is over, they will have missed that window to use puberty blockers to prevent the development of dysphoria-inducing undesired secondary sexual characteristics, many of which cannot be fully corrected by medical or surgical means.
Even certain studies tracking childhood gender dysphoria and whether it persists into adolescence have at times found that, rather than “60-90%”, possibly only 45% of these children will cease to have gender dysphoria after the onset of puberty (Temple Newhook et al., 2018). Moreover, the strength and intensity of a child’s cross-gender identity and behavior are usefully predictive of the likelihood of persistence of gender dysphoria into adolescence. But Rowling’s assurances that she believes transition is appropriate for “some” people with gender dysphoria rings rather hollow when she seems most comfortable with the presence of perhaps only a few dozen trans youth in the entire UK.
Zinnia Jones (sorry, I keep using first and last name to differentiate between her and Owen Jones, who I opened the piece with) takes exception with the portion of Rowling’s argument that allowing trans people to access restrooms and other spaces in line with their gender identity put women at risk.
Numerous jurisdictions explicitly protect trans people from anti-trans discrimination in the use of public accommodations such as restrooms and changing rooms, and these laws and policies have not been followed by an influx of predatory men invading women’s spaces. It is already not a common practice (if this is even practiced anywhere) to require presenting an ID, a birth certificate, or in the case of the UK, a gender recognition certificate, before one can walk into a public restroom, changing room, or dressing room appropriate to one’s gender. Women’s domestic and sexual violence services across the UK have likewise explicitly stated that there are no issues with providing refuge to trans women, there are no requirements for a legal gender recognition certificate as a precondition to accessing services, and there are already risk assessment processes in place to screen out individuals who could pose a danger. Yet Rowling feels it’s important to warn us that terrible things are sure to follow if we do something that’s already been taking place without causing any actual problems.
Later, Jones responds to Rowling’s point that “if I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition. The allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge.” This common point comes up in pieces you’ll usually find on right-wing sites like The Federalist and The Daily Wire. It’s a lot of concern-trolling based on the idea that boys who indicate they like playing with dolls are being whisked away and pushed to transition to girls and girls who play sports and like to play with toy trucks are pushed to transition to being boys. That’s just not factual, and again, Jones has the receipts.
We know that parents typically prefer to have a cis child rather than a trans child – and we know that this is just one of the many, many things about trans youth and transitioning that Rowling does not know. How is she in any way qualified to “believe” with any meaningful certainty that she “could have been persuaded” that she was actually an entirely different gender? What would have persuaded her – an Imperius curse from my highly infectious blog? How does she know that the clinicians evaluating her would have concluded that she had gender dysphoria and that medical transition was advisable for her? How does she know that she would have been so convinced of this that she would wait at least two years just for a first appointment at Tavistock and Portman? If, at the end of all that, she was approved for treatment, how does she know she wouldn’t be in the 3.5% of youth who discontinued puberty blockers without pursuing any gender transition?
And if, ultimately, she did go on to transition and live as a trans man, how does she know this would have been bad? Studies of trans youth who transition consistently show remission of gender dysphoria, improvement of mental health symptoms (including suicidality), greater well-being and quality of life – and no reports of regret. There is nothing that supports a scenario where gender clinics are actually packed full of little cis J. K. Rowlings headed down the wrong path of unnecessary transition. Rowling certainly isn’t the first one to assert that she might have transitioned in some alternate universe – such vague guesses are a mainstay of anti-trans rhetoric, and they’re invariably rooted in arguments that are about as solid as “because I had OCD”. If she had taken a moment to consider that perhaps trans people’s transitions are not about her, the cis protagonist of reality, she might have noticed the story this really tells: there were trans people 30 years ago who did not have to “wonder” anything; they would have benefited from receiving these treatments in adolescence but were unable to access them. How can imaginary overtreatment be more concerning than this real undertreatment? I would have benefited immensely from the prompt recognition and treatment of my gender dysphoria in the early 2000s at the onset of puberty, but the community around me had none of the necessary knowledge to identify this and none of today’s treatments were yet available. There are trans youth who lack access to these crucial resources even now.
Another point Rowling made in her blog post was that she feared that “the new trans activism is having (or is likely to have, if all its demands are met) a significant impact on many of the causes I support, because it’s pushing to erode the legal definition of sex and replace it with gender.” The cause she specifically lists there is multiple sclerosis, which she notes “behaves very differently in men and women.” Jones wrote that Rowling’s concern was misplaced, telling the story of how her own wife had just been hospitalized a week earlier after having a series of strokes:
If there had been any aspect of her case and her treatment that touched on a disjunction involving “the legal definition of sex” and its alleged replacement with gender, I would not have allowed anyone caring for her to remain unaware of those relevant details. But such a conflict, with definitions of legal sex and/or gender somehow compromising the quality of medical research or care, is an illusory one. Multiple sclerosis is indeed a condition that varies in its prevalence and course of disease by assigned sex. Researchers have examined the medical aspects of this disparity in detail, which potentially involves hormonal differences as well as “genetic and epigenetic differences, nervous system and immune response differences, and possibly sex-based human microbiota differences”. These researchers appear to be fully aware of these many complexities, and unlikely to be stopped cold by features of case histories such as assigned sex, hormonal treatment, or surgical history. I’ve personally heard back from one MS organization which clarified that “trans activism” has not at all posed an impediment to their work, and that they assist many trans people who have MS. Are we to believe that Rowling has chosen to give $19 million to a multiple sclerosis organization only for it to be staffed with researchers whose work is hopelessly stymied because they’re baffled by basic medical histories? To accuse trans people of interfering with necessary medical care for those with serious conditions, or claim that our rights and equality will cause harm to those suffering from MS, is baseless and disgusting.
And finally, Jones responded to Rowling’s extraordinarily misleading description of her support in the legal case of Maya Forstater. Rowling wrote, “For people who don’t know: last December I tweeted my support for Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who’d lost her job for what were deemed ‘transphobic’ tweets. She took her case to an employment tribunal, asking the judge to rule on whether a philosophical belief that sex is determined by biology is protected in law. Judge Tayler ruled that it wasn’t.”
This glosses over a great deal of important detail on Forstater’s beliefs and the extent of the protection she sought for them. This was not the abstract and vague idea of “sex is determined by biology” that Rowling portrays it as; in practical terms, Forstater wanted her insistence on misgendering trans people to be considered a protected philosophical belief even if this created an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” for those working with her. The right she sought was the “right” to create a hostile work environment for trans people – if this had been affirmed, it would have opened the door to all manner of openly bigoted behavior in the workplace being protected as a “philosophical belief”. As Oxford’s Human Rights Hub states, Forstater’s belief was found to be “incompatible with others’ dignity and fundamental rights”. Forstater’s tweets regarding pronouns and misgendering provide a more detailed look at her beliefs than simply “sex is determined by biology”. One of her tweets, referenced in the employment tribunal’s judgment, approvingly linked to an article which made the following claims:
Pronouns are Rohypnol. They change our perception, lower our defences, make us react differently, alter the reality in front of us . . . . They’re meant to. They numb us. They confuse us. They remove our instinctive safety responses. They work.
For some reason, Rowling did not feel the need to describe Forstater’s position as a philosophical belief that not misgendering a trans person is tantamount to acquiescing to being drugged in the course of someone attempting to rape you. Rowling elsewhere states that she “supports projects for female prisoners and for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse” – would even one of those projects agree with the claim that failing to misgender a trans person is equivalent, or even comparable, to being drugged and raped? Nor did Rowling go into any meaningful detail about this individual:
Months later, I compounded my accidental ‘like’ crime by following Magdalen Berns on Twitter. Magdalen was an immensely brave young feminist and lesbian who was dying of an aggressive brain tumour. I followed her because I wanted to contact her directly, which I succeeded in doing. However, as Magdalen was a great believer in the importance of biological sex, and didn’t believe lesbians should be called bigots for not dating trans women with penises, dots were joined in the heads of twitter trans activists, and the level of social media abuse increased.
Magdalen Berns chose to spend her precious time on this earth calling trans women “fucking blackface actors” and “men who get sexual kicks from being treated like women” while blaming a Jewish billionaire for the recognition of trans rights. Nothing about this requires any bravery, let alone an immense degree of it. Are we meant to be grateful that J. K. Rowling was able to learn so much from this bright spark before her untimely passing? Anyone can be “a great believer in the importance of biological sex” when some aspect of biological sex is actually important to one issue or another. The MS researchers Rowling funds are surely great believers in the importance of biological sex. The neurosurgeons, neurologists, hematologists, and other ICU staff who saved Heather’s life are great believers in the importance of biological sex. I’m a great believer in the importance of biological sex. But in none of these cases does this therefore entail calling trans women “fucking blackface actors” with “dirty fucking perversions”. Magdalen Berns was a great believer in the latter kind of behavior, but Rowling can’t bring herself to care about the “level of social media abuse” that she herself is enacting by endorsing such a person – it’s all about her.
I found Jones’ conclusion to be a powerful one that directly addresses the issues many trans people find with her anti-trans advocacy:
And that’s the thread that runs through every one of Rowling’s supposed “concerns”. It’s hard to see how the lives of trans people could be any more unimportant to her. Rowling says “Trans people need and deserve protection”, yet as soon as we so much as use a changing room, we become the faceless and threatening “any man who says they identify as a woman”. She says she has “nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men”, but if a trans woman should ever seek refuge from an abusive partner, her need to access the services offered by women’s shelters is now having “a significant impact on many of the causes I support”. She says “of course trans rights are human rights and of course trans lives matter”, until we need to use the bathroom, at which point we apparently “throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman”. She says “None of the gender critical women I’ve talked to hates trans people”; to Rowling, calling trans women “fucking blackface actors” does not fall under hatred toward us. She describes young trans men as “a group of notably sensitive and clever people”, who are apparently not clever enough to know their own genders better than cis woman J. K. Rowling knows their genders. She says “the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined”, then approvingly cites the work of a researcher who describes the very act of trans people befriending and talking with each other as dangerous and pathological.
To Rowling, not only should we be forced to live lives so tightly circumscribed that we cannot even use public restrooms or try on clothes for fear that someone may get raped, or access domestic violence services when fleeing an abusive partner, or even talk to one another about our lives and our experiences. No, there should be fewer of us living our lives altogether – much, much fewer. The converse of finding a 4,400% increase in our numbers to be dismaying and anomalous is finding a 98% reduction in the trans population to be comforting and appropriate. Rowling endorses “a long and rigorous process of evaluation, psychotherapy and staged transformation”, while opposing those who allegedly support “a removal of almost all the robust systems through which candidates for sex reassignment were once required to pass”. Trans youth now have to wait for two years just for a first appointment for evaluation at the Tavistock and Portman gender clinic, with any possible treatment only being given months or years later – how rigorous and robust of a system is Rowling looking for? One rigorous enough that it would turn away 98% of the trans people who’ve now transitioned and are happily going about their lives? I have thousands of trans friends online and all I can think about when I read her essay is how many of us she believes shouldn’t be there at all. Which of the amazing people I’ve met should be missing? Whose presence in our lives is considered disposable to some cis person who doesn’t know any one of us?
And then… just… so much more.
She’s since argued that making it easier for trans people to update their identifying documents would “harm the most vulnerable women in society,” which really puts the scene where her trans character in The Silkworm gets harassed for having an ID listing a male name and gender marker in perspective.
For all the “dress however you please” stuff and “live in peace and security” stuff, Rowling sure doesn’t seem to care about what happens when trans women are forced to constantly out themselves by walking into the men’s restroom, or what happens when a trans man shows the wrong bartender an ID that lists him as female, or a non-binary trans person has to either endure endless harassment at work or quit their job, or even how to help trans kids who would be best served by gender-affirming care. It’s not that she necessarily has any particular responsibility to care, but I would hope that she did, given that these are issues that are affected by her advocacy. These are all just treated as acceptable losses. Sacrifices to be made to the gods of rigid gender norms. She can invent hypothetical situations all she wants about how passing laws that provide legal protections for trans people will somehow result in a rise of bathroom assaults, but they’re not built on facts.
The more I’ve sat with this, the more I’ve written and edited this, the more frustrating it’s been. Rowling isn’t the evangelical nightmare that Bryant was in the late 1970s, but like Bryant, she frames advances in certain people’s rights (gays for Bryant, trans people for Rowling) as something that needs to be stopped in the name of “protecting” others. Bryant denied being homophobic, though she clearly was based on her actions; Rowling denies being transphobic, though she clearly is based on her actions.
I think there’s still time for Rowling to reflect and recalibrate, to not view her loudest and harshest critics as representative of the average trans person or activist organization. Bryant dismissed her critics by painting them as “militant.” (Someone even hit her in the face with a pie.) And yes, people certainly tweet a lot of vile stuff at Rowling, a lot of which is totally uncalled for.
She doesn’t need to be the next Anita Bryant. She doesn’t need to be remembered for advocating in favor of the oppression of a misunderstood group. There’s an off-ramp she could take right now if she wanted to. But there’s nothing I or anyone else can do, especially if thoughtful criticism and factual corrections to false statements are set to the side unaddressed.
So is Rowling the new Anita Bryant? I don’t know. What I do know is that she doesn’t have to be — if that’s what she chooses.
Coming up in part 2:
I’ll more directly discuss Bryant’s history and parallels to modern times, from politicians to press, to chip away at LGBTQ rights as a whole.
And as promised, here’s the thread from Owen Jones in its entirety: