Yesterday, I made a mistake.
Steeped in the sunlight pouring through my lap onto the floor and the cats, I paused my idle scroll through sunrise and elk photos and Buzzfeed ranked compilations, and I replied to a Facebook comment.
Not just any Facebook comment; it was a comment made by someone in response to an article about the new Harry Potter video game. (You can probably see where this is going.) I answered a question someone didn’t really want answered, and dozens of people rushed to dismantle (or mock) my response.
The question was: why are so many trans “activists” attacking this nice lady for things she never said? Can anybody tell me what JK Rowling said that’s “transphobic”?
It was an easy question to answer. I didn’t even bother with the time she called herself a “proud TERF”; instead, I referenced her most famous post on her own website. I wrote:
She published a blog post, on her own blog, arguing that trans people 1) should not be allowed in public spaces, 2) should be denied access to healthcare, and 3) should not express themselves in ways that she’s uncomfortable with. She has effectively said that she does not want trans people to exist in public, or--ideally--at all.
One man had a very intelligent response. He replied: she never said that! Your reading comprehension sucks.
It’s true that none of those three arguments I referenced are direct quotes. But, contrary to what Random Internet Man seems to believe, reading comprehension isn’t about your ability to copy and paste words out of context. It’s about looking at the use and implication of words in their context to gauge what effect they have.
So, dear reader, I am taking you on a magical reading comprehension journey through that old, hateful blog post’s arguments so that even a transphobe could see why they might be problematic. And at the end we’ll take a little peek at the terrible, horrific world which might emerge if we stop treating people differently based on how we imagine their genitals look. Frightening! Sensational! Off we go!
Rowling starts out her TERF Wars post by assuring readers this isn’t a call for pity. Then, immediately afterward, she weaponizes her story of surviving sexual assault. She uses that story to justify banning trans women from gendered spaces, like bathrooms. In this argument, Rowling takes a subject she knows many are sensitive toward and uses our related feelings of compassion or fear (or pity) to punish a group unrelated to that sexual assault. She posits that, since cisgender men have harmed her, some women should not be allowed in her proximity.
According to Rowling, any woman who has genitals shaped differently enough from her own--especially any woman who has, or at one point had, a penis--should not be allowed to use the women’s restroom. Now, dear reader, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a women’s restroom, so I’ll let you in on a little secret: women’s restrooms have stalls. Women don’t head into the restroom to compare clit size. As a general rule, when you’re in the women’s restroom, you never see your neighbor’s genitals.
Yet Rowling’s argument is that, because there is a long history of men committing violent acts, some women, whose genitals are completely hidden from her, shouldn’t be allowed to sit near to her, because she is preoccupied with what their genitals might look like. Let me repeat: none of the other woman’s body is exposed to Rowling, except maybe her ankles (cue Victorian-era screaming).
Rowling’s discomfort originates in her own imagining of what someone else’s genitals look like and her assumption that the imagined shape of those sex organs makes them inherently a threat. She projects her learned fear of men onto trans women because she believes trans people don’t really exist--that all people who call themselves trans women are actually predatory men. That is transphobia. What’s more, this transphobia isn’t limited to a bathroom.
What’s another instance of two people (both with their genitals hidden from each other) sitting near one another in a generally gendered space?
What did you envision? The nail salon? A Super Bowl watch party? Your book club which quickly became wine night? How about a hair salon? If you agree with Rowling that some women shouldn’t be allowed in women’s bathrooms because thinking about their genitals makes you uncomfortable, will you still be thinking about their genitals when they’re outside of the restroom? Rowling’s obsession with the body of the person sitting next to her transcends the toilet and extends to every other encounter.
Let’s do a little thought experiment.
Say Person A enters a room. Person A is wearing a green shirt and a long jean skirt.
Person B, in a yellow unitard, enters.
Person B notices that Person A is wearing a green shirt.
Person B becomes enraged. Person B does not believe that people with vulvas should wear green shirts.
Person B has never met Person A before, but Person B is pretty sure Person A has a vulva.
Person B proceeds to scream at Person A, for wearing a green shirt, because Person B, a complete stranger, imagines that Person A has a vulva.
Who, in this instance, is behaving inappropriately? Person A for, possibly, having a vulva while wearing green? Or Person B for basing the entire encounter around what they imagine Person A’s genitals to look like, and attacking them for it?
If Rowling is so preoccupied with how a neighbor’s concealed genitals might look in a bathroom that she can’t function--and says she needs them banned from the space in order to function again--then she’s probably still thinking about a neighbor’s concealed genitals in the hair salon. What’s to stop her from demanding other women be banned from that space next? Her call to exclude some women from select public spaces is based on reasoning that would ban them from all public spaces. And this reasoning has nothing to do with that neighbor--how she acts or looks--and is based solely on the banner’s fear-disguised bigotry (transphobia).
So, yes, I would say that she uses her blog post to argue that trans people 1) should not be allowed in public spaces.
What’s so baffling to me about this argument is that, in it, this accomplished writer, who you’d assume knows how to do some basic research, provides no evidence that trans women are an actual threat. (Hint: that’s because research shows the opposite.) The only threat Rowling identifies in this blog post is men. But she’d rather attack trans women than expect accountability from those men. You can see why I’m not convinced.
Time for #2: Rowling’s argument for denying trans folks access to health care.
She bases most of this argument on echoes of a familiar rallying cry, to “protect the children.” Rowling, of course, just wants what’s best for children, which is scientifically proven to be:
denying them health care recommended by every major medical association,
forcing them to go through hormonally-induced changes that will negatively impact their physical and mental health for the rest of their life,
denying them any sense of bodily autonomy,
continuing to invalidate them when they’re no longer children, and
punishing anyone who gets in the way.
Let’s break down how she makes this little, oh so reasonable, leap (reading comprehension time!).
Rowling writes that if we allow kids to think they might have a future as a trans person, and then support them as they seek counseling, puberty-blockers, and encouragement through social transition (think: shift in name/pronouns and gender expression via clothing), that those kids might regret it. Or might later make choices as adults that they’ll regret. And that’s such a horrific possibility to her, that she says we shouldn’t provide gender-affirming support to those kids at all.
Right away you, yes, you--since you’re very smart, dear reader--can see two issues with that argument.
1) It hinges on the idea that transitioning can ruin someone’s life and is regretted at astronomical levels. And, 2) it misconstrues affirming health care, while prioritizing the possible regret of hypothetical cisgender children over the proven benefits of affirmation that doctors, counselors, trans people, and researchers have documented.
It’s premised on the belief that the rights of actual trans people should be valued beneath the coddling of hypothetical cisgender ones.
Because you might not be trans, dear reader, and thus might be grossly under informed on trans healthcare (and also immensely biased toward shielding hypothetical misguided children from regret), I’ve got some facts and statistics for you.
Fact: children are not getting gender-affirming surgeries. The only gender-focused genital surgeries happening on children are the non-consensual “corrective” genital surgeries performed on intersex infants in order to make their genitals more “intelligible” to others. (Geez, I wonder which understanding of sex and gender is hurting kids here.)
When a certain sex or gender isn’t being forced on them by adults--there are no gender affirming surgeries available to children. They have to be 18 or older and, generally, go through a rigorous review process in order to be eligible for gender-affirming surgeries.
Fact: what is available to children is support through social transition and, sometimes, puberty blockers. Yup, all they’ve got on this crazy journey is your love (hopefully they have that) and a pause button.
Are you worried that if you support your child, and they later decide they’d rather be someone else, that they might resent you for supporting them in every iteration? No, that’s silly? So your concern is medical intervention then?
In that case, let me give you some reassurance: puberty blockers are reversible, have fewer and less concerning side effects than birth control, and, like surgeries, are only available after rigorous evaluation. Puberty blockers simply delay, or ideally prevent, the hormonally-induced changes that we associate with one gender or another until a child gets old enough to be eligible for HRT. Again, puberty blockers are reversible.
You know what isn’t easily reversed? Forced puberty. Many people who were denied access to puberty blockers--forcing them to go through a transition chosen by others--require multiple surgeries later in life in order to be treated appropriately for their gender. So here we are, at the big, scary, hugely-regretted topic of medical transition. Time for the statistics:
That’s less than one in every hundred people. In order to protect (less than) one person from regret, is it really appropriate to deny 99 people life-saving healthcare?
How about we put this in the context of other regret rates. Do you know what the regret rates are for common decisions we allow people to make?
20% for knee replacement.
45% for first marriages (and that’s just the people who regretted it enough to divorce).
54% for dog ownership.
66% for “educational regret.”
And here’s an irreversible decision that people can make: having children. You don’t want to know what the regret rate is for that, but I’m going to tell you: in the USA in the 2010s, it was ~15%.
Yet people are allowed to have children, and knee replacements, and shitty marriages, and demanding dogs, and terrible college experiences. Denying trans adults the ability to make decisions about their own bodies, and denying children access to healthcare and support out of the fear that it will allow those children to grow up into trans adults, is unique.
It’s widespread transphobia that allows Rowling to hide her dismissal of the needs and autonomy of trans people behind a thin screen of professed concern for the regret of a single misled cisgender child. It’s only an argument that seems convincing if you think a) trans people don’t actually exist, or b) transgender people’s lives are worth exponentially less than cisgender people’s lives. Since it’s an argument that Rowling is making, and must think is convincing, I’m inclined to believe that she sees the lives of trans people as worthless.
Read any of her work closely. Try and argue otherwise.
Argument 3: trans people should not exist in any way that makes her uncomfortable, or--ideally--at all. If you’ve read this far, or read her blog post, there’s not much left to say. I’ll give you one final thing to consider, though.
Rowling claims that she has one (1) trans friend: an older woman who is, by her judgment, actually a woman (probably!), and doesn’t make her uncomfortable. What a high honor for that woman to have a “friend” who believes--as long as you meet her conditions--you are allowed to exist. To have that “friend” believe you should be able to use public restrooms or call your grandchild your grandson (he has a vulva, that hopefully your “friend” has never seen, but it still makes her angry!)--that would be too much to ask for. No, it’s best to settle for being used as a shield against any claim that your “friend” is transphobic, because she tolerates you.
That’s what friendship is all about, right? Acting only within strictly outlined parameters? And that’s who deserves basic rights and protections, right? Only “friends,” who behave exactly how you want and expect them to and never deviate? That’s how Rowling believes trans people should exist--without deviance. This trans “friend” she has is allowed to exist because her (claimed) existence is useful to Rowling.
But when we’ve been calling any sort of gender expansiveness or unexpectedness “deviance” for over a century, that belief ultimately translates to the idea that, at the root of it, trans people simply shouldn’t exist. Rowling’s trans “friend” is only useful so long as she is proof that other trans people are too much themselves, too difficult to understand, too “unbelievable” when compared to this arbitrary standard of what an “acceptable” trans person would be. It breaks my heart.
I sometimes wish I could read Harry Potter, or really any of Rowling’s writings, and see only some silly little plot points and silly little names, and not the threads of transphobia, and racism, and antisemitism that weave through it. Unfortunately, I have this thing called basic reading comprehension.
Or, not unfortunately, rather: --unsettlingly I am able to see what some statements encourage (transphobia, racism, antisemitism), and I would rather speak out against them than slip into a quiet agreement that would give me cute little witches in exchange for my silence and ultimately my soul.
Responding to that Facebook comment was a mistake not because my response was regrettable or incorrect, but because that was a forum where no one cared to listen. It was still a comment worth repeating here.
It was worth repeating here because I believe that it’s important to understand your own and other people’s guiding morals and to address how they’re influenced.
For example, the transphobia that guides Rowling is based on a common conflation: genitals with gender. There’s a folk belief that if you look at a baby’s genitals, you’ll be able to foretell what colors they’ll like, what toys they’ll play with, what sports they’ll compete in, and what genitals this baby--when they grow up--will be aroused by. Then adults will use gendered pronouns to refer to that baby so everyone else knows what genitals they have and can project similar expectations onto them. It’s a creepy and nonsensical belief, but it’s deeply ingrained into our culture. Rowling is diametrically opposed to any disruption of this belief and seems to think that dismantling it would harm cisgender women.
So let’s walk through one final thought experiment together. Let’s go to a (frightening! sensational!) world where we can’t look at someone, guess what genitals they have, and make a series of assumptions about them based on that guess.
In this world, we have to hold the door open for more than half the population (how arduous!). We have to ask our coworkers which of them actually enjoys watching soccer games. We have to remember which of our friends likes baking so we know who to ask about recipes. We don’t know who to pay >30% less for doing the exact same job! We’re not discouraged from moving through certain aisles of the grocery or clothing store or from pursuing careers that excite us by people who know nothing about us. Our only concern in the bathroom is whether or not there’s enough toilet paper. We take the time to listen to and observe those around us so that we know how to treat them with care.
There you have it, the horrifying new world transphobes are so scared of. If this is the world that comes about when we let people take a piss or we show our children unconditional love, then really, I'm not too worried.
The alternative is a world where we coerce and legislate people out of existence because they confuse us or make us uncomfortable, and that's one I want to prevent.