Harry Potter and the Author Who Won’t Stop Tweeting

During lockdown, a time already fraught with fear, anxiety, and literal and emotional isolation (particularly for members of the LGBTQ+ community who may have found themselves locked down with families who don’t accept their identity), J.K. Rowling wrote an essay about her notorious anti-trans views. In the article, published on her own blog (but summed up much better on other sites, so you do not have to give her page clicks which she presumably profits from), Rowling explained her defence of tax specialist Maya Forstater, a woman who’d claimed that a distinguished non-binary CEO was “a white man who likes to dress in women’s clothes”, and later lost a tribunal debating whether the philosophical belief that sex is determined by biology is protected by the law. She then went on to similarly defend her support of Scottish activist Magdalen Burns, who had compared being transgender to being in blackface. In the rest of the essay she uses tired, offensive arguments to defend what Andrew J. Carter called her ‘half-truths and transphobic dogwhistles’. These statements included pointing out the risk trans activists apparently pose to children who may be questioning their identity: ‘I have deep concerns about the effect the trans rights movement is having on education and safeguarding’; the risk trans women apparently pose to cisgender women: ‘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’, and the erasure of free speech that apparently occurs when laws are enshrined to protect trans people.

Since then, J.K. Rowling has promoted an online store which carries merchandise saying “f*ck your pronouns” and “lesbians don’t have penises“, and spoke in a Good Housekeeping interview of the “challenges to [women’s] fundamental rights posed by certain aspects of gender identity ideology”

All of this is ironic given that Rowling herself has directly profited from using a male pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, to write the Cormoran Strike novels, and before that used the gender-neutral ‘J.K.’ instead of Joanne Kathleen for a little series of books about a boy wizard that you probably haven’t heard of. Of course, using a male name in order to write is very different to identifying as male, but it’s striking that Rowling’s own arguments seem to go against her own condemnation of ‘deception’.  

In the Twitter debate following the essay’s publication, people also brought up Rowling’s historic relationship with minorities; a clumsy one at best and a dangerous one at worst. This mainly focused on the contents of the Harry Potter books, in which many stereotypes were employed either consciously or unconsciously. The books’ only established Asian characters are given stereotypical (the Patels) and inaccurate (Cho Chang, which is actually two surnames shoved together) names. The goblins, who oversee all the money, are described as being greedy, and have ‘hook-noses’, details that many people have pointed out hints at anti-Semitic tropes. Some claim that the house-elves’ positive feelings towards being enslaved is a sign of Rowling’s messy relationship with race. Naturally, we can never truly know her intentions when writing these books, and if we’re to give her the benefit of the doubt, we could say these are clumsy mistakes. However, when put in the context of her recent outbursts against members of the trans community, these behaviours become somewhat suspect. Poe, who is non-binary, summed up their feelings like this: “let’s just say it makes some kind of sense that the woman who wrote that kids who get sorted into one of four distinct personalities stay that way forever can’t understand that gender is just a tad more versatile than ‘men have penises and women have vaginas’”.

Perhaps the most distressing facet of Rowling’s transphobic views is the way in which they  have now become a plot-point of her writing. In Troubled Blood, the very recent 5th book in her Cormoran Strike crime thriller series, the murderer is a man who dresses as a woman to gain access to victims. Many have pointed out the dangerous stereotype this promotes: that transgender women are falsely claiming a gender just so they can prey on women and children (a claim that comes up regularly in the bathroom debate).  As one early reviewer put it, Troubled Blood is “a book whose moral seems to be: never trust a man in a dress”. 

The Harry Potter books represented hope for so many people, including many members of the LGBTQ+ community who longed for the acceptance Harry is afforded at Hogwarts, away from his abusive aunt and uncle. It is particularly tragic, therefore, that Rowling feels the need to broadcast her ‘transphobic bigotry’, especially given the general rise in transphobic hate crimes. Research shows that exposure to transphobia can increase suicidal ideation in trans youths. It is safe to assume that logging into Twitter and seeing trans rights activist Munroe Bergdorf tweeting that the author of the very series that gave you hope “is dangerous and poses threat to LGBT people“, has put many people in emotional distress. 

The question therefore is: to what extent can we separate the author from the wizard? Can fans still enjoy Harry Potter and use it as a source of comfort? With a new Hogwarts-based video game coming out in 2021, many people have been asking themselves these questions. Many have called for a complete boycott on Rowling’s work, while others have suggested that watching and reading the series is still okay as long as you’re not financially supporting her work (e.g. by buying the films or books, playing the online game Pottermore, or visiting any Potter-themed attractions). This is, of course, complicated by the fact that many other people (staff at the studio tour, developers of the game, to name a few) rely on the Potterverse for their income.  

I think the most important thing to do in this situation, whether you choose a full or soft boycott, is to demonstrably show your support for trans and non-binary folk. If you have the financial means to be able to donate money, there are some links at the bottom of this article. If you don’t, there are petitions you can sign. Our trans and non-binary friends deserve our full and unconditional support. We all need to speak up when we see and hear transphobia. After all, one of the most important elements of Potter’s charm is the friendships Harry forms that pull him out of many difficult and traumatic situations. Poe summed it up like this: “I used to like telling people I was a Hufflepuff, and I stand by that. Helpful, kind, and painfully loyal. And my loyalty will always lie with my trans siblings.” 

If J.K. Rowling has become an Umbridge figure, it’s our responsibility to be Dumbledore’s Army.  

If the issues raised in this piece affect you, Mind has a list of some places you can reach out to (and if you’re an ally, these are good places to donate to): 

The University Trans and Non-Binary Café is a chance for staff and students to come together to talk. Email transcafe@exeter.ac.uk for more info. 

Caitlin Barr

Featured Image Source: RAZZ Magazine

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