With the wave of protests and important activism currently sweeping the world, social media platforms such as Twitter have been utilised positively by many to share information, petitions, and support. However, the social media platform can also be a place where problematic viewpoints are freely shared—such is the case with J.K. Rowling and her most recent series of tweets, which many see as being hateful and openly engaging in transphobia. Since Rowling first expressed these views, she has received anger from trans activists and allies whilst also receiving much support from trans-exclusionary accounts. Many celebrities have also spoken out against her statements, including Harry Potter cast members Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Katie Leung (Cho Chang), Bertie Gilbert (Scorpio Malfoy), and Chris Rankin (Percy Weasley).
So, where did it all begin?
On Saturday 6 June, Rowling re-tweeted an op-ed titled “Opinion: Creating a more equal post-Covid-19 world for people who menstruate”. She wrote in her tweet: “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”.
The online reaction was swift in condemning Rowling, with many pointing out its transphobic nature. Rowling however refused to acknowledge this and instead created a thread which doubled down on her previous statement. She wrote that, “I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives”.
Rowling has since expanded upon her views in a blog post released on Wednesday, 10 June. In the lengthy post, she references her support in December 2019 for Maya Forstater, a tax specialist whose transphobic tweets led to her being “fired from her job” (she was actually just working on a contract, which expired, and her employer chose not to renew). For many, this was the first instance that Rowling revealed herself to be transphobic. However, she details in the post that there were two previous turning points which both occurred on Twitter: firstly, the accidental liking of a negative tweet, and secondly the following of a lady named Magdalen Burns, a “young feminist and lesbian dying of an aggressive brain tumour…[who] was a great believer in the importance of biological sex”.
It is clear from Rowling’s words that she does not understand why these actions created backlash against her. What she fails to mention however, is that this ‘accidental like’ was for a tweet calling trans people “men in dresses”, something which her team claimed was a “clumsy and middle aged moment”.
Rowling then spends the rest of the blogpost detailing the support for her beliefs from a “cross-section” of people and lays out five reasons why she believes she must speak out against the “new trans activism”. Her reasons include the work she does for her charitable trust for women and children, her work as an ex-teacher which led to her interest in education and safeguarding, her advocacy of free speech, her personal fear about “the huge explosion in young women wishing to transition…and the increasing numbers that seem to be detransitioning”, and finally her experience as a victim of sexual and domestic abuse.
It is important to note however, that although there is not a lot of data freely available in terms of those who detransition, a 2015 survey of around 28,000 people conducted in the USA found only 8% reported a detransition, and of those people 62% stated they did so only temporarily due to outside pressure (e.g. from a parent). Only 0.4% stated that they detransitioned fully after realising transitioning was not the correct path for them.
Ultimately, Rowling appears to be stating in the post that her own identity, as well as the identity of those she deems to be ‘women’, is constructed entirely around the traditional views of sex as being male and female. Because the majority of transgender activists appear to be invalidating her view of sex, Rowling believes this will have terrible consequences in the future and thus she feels compelled to speak out against it.
Many trans activists and allies have pointed out in the past that these beliefs are incredibly harmful, especially to young transgender youth. Numerous celebrities have also made their disapproval known; shortly after J.K. Rowling posted her first tweet, Katie Leung (who played Cho Chang in the Harry Potter film series) appeared to be clickbaiting her Twitter followers by starting a threat titled, “So, you want my thoughts on Cho Chang? Okay, here goes…(thread)” which was then followed by a link to a fund supporting homeless Black trans women in America, a petition for more protection for Black trans women in the UK, a link to the UK Black Pride organisation, and an article by Vice detailing organisations you can donate to in order to support Black trans youth, before ending with the tweet #AsiansForBlackLives. Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson made individual statements against Rowling’s beliefs.
On 8 June, Daniel Radcliffe posted on the Trevor Project’s page politely but firmly rebuking Rowling’s comments. He wrote that, “transgender women are women”, and went on to refer to how damaging comments like Rowling’s can be to transgender and non-binary people, as this exacerbates the discrimination they already face on a daily basis. He finished his post by apologising to the fans of the novels and films and urged them to keep their positive memories and associations with the stories separate from the author’s present-day beliefs and comments. Since the post’s publication other characters from the films, namely Bertie Gilbert who played Scorpio Malfoy and Chris Rankin who played Percy Weasley, have also voiced their support for Daniel’s words on Twitter.
On Thursday 11 June , Emma Watson took to Twitter in a series of tweets to affirm her support for the transgender community, saying in one tweet, “Trans people are who they say they are and deserve to live their lives without being constantly questioned or told they aren’t who they say they are”.
It seems then that this is a subject that is under fierce debate. While J.K. Rowling is free to express her own opinions, if this current climate has shown us anything it is that we as a race need to question how we silence the voices of those that are oppressed through the centring of more dominant groups when it comes to issues such as transgender identity.
Words by Yasmin Bye