In the summer of 2020, J.K. Rowling, author of the famed Harry Potter series tweeted the following:
‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?
Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate https://t.co/cVpZxG7gaA
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
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.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
As Megan Phelps-Roper writes in The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling “It’s hard to capture the breadth of the firestorm that followed”:
Rowling’s words led to a “revolt” among the staff at one of her publishers, an outcry from some of her most ardent fans, and a torrent of negative headlines in news outlets around the globe. Actors who had grown up on the “Harry Potter” film sets—people she had known since they were children—distanced themselves from her. Many of Rowling’s former fans began calling for boycotts. They removed photos of her from their websites and Potter tattoos from their bodies. TikTokers started a trend of covering her name on books and book jackets, and tore her books apart. Players of Quidditch—the fictional sport she invented—ultimately changed its name to dissociate themselves from her. The abhorrence of Rowling has at times been so intense that it’s led to the actual burning of her books. A recent novel even includes a scene where Rowling herself is killed in a fire.
In response to a flood of calls for her to apologize, Rowling refused to back down.
Instead, she published an essay on sex and gender issues, including an account of her violently abusive ex-husband. She said she was writing “out of solidarity with the huge numbers of women who have histories like mine, who’ve been slurred as bigots for having concerns around single-sex spaces.”
For many, Rowling’s clarifications didn’t help. They only further cemented her transformation from a progressive hero into a hateful reactionary. The head of the biggest Potter fansite in the world said she was “heartbroken” and shared a guide on “cancelling” Rowling, while others accused the author of “destroying her legacy.”
Writes Pamela Paul, “In Defense of J.K. Rowling” in the New York Times:
“This campaign against Rowling is as dangerous as it is absurd. The brutal stabbing of Salman Rushdie last summer is a forceful reminder of what can happen when writers are demonized. And in Rowling’s case, the characterization of her as a transphobe doesn’t square with her actual views.
So why would anyone accuse her of transphobia? Surely, Rowling must have played some part, you might think.
The answer is straightforward: Because she has asserted the right to spaces for biological women only, such as domestic abuse shelters and sex-segregated prisons. Because she has insisted that when it comes to determining a person’s legal gender status, self-declared gender identity is insufficient. Because she has expressed skepticism about phrases like “people who menstruate” in reference to biological women. Because she has defended herself and, far more important, supported others, including detransitioners and feminist scholars, who have come under attack from trans activists. And because she followed on Twitter and praised some of the work of Magdalen Berns, a lesbian feminist who had made incendiary comments about transgender people.
…But nothing Rowling has said qualifies as transphobic. She is not disputing the existence of gender dysphoria. She has never voiced opposition to allowing people to transition under evidence-based therapeutic and medical care. She is not denying transgender people equal pay or housing. There is no evidence that she is putting trans people “in danger,” as has been claimed, nor is she denying their right to exist.
Take it from one of her former critics. E.J. Rosetta, a journalist who once denounced Rowling for her supposed transphobia, was commissioned last year to write an article called “20 Transphobic J.K. Rowling Quotes We’re Done With.” After 12 weeks of reporting and reading, Rosetta wrote, “I’ve not found a single truly transphobic message.” On Twitter she declared, “You’re burning the wrong witch.”
Rowling could have just stayed in bed. She could have taken refuge in her wealth and fandom. In her “Harry Potter” universe, heroes are marked by courage and compassion. Her best characters learn to stand up to bullies and expose false accusations. And that even when it seems the world is set against you, you have to stand firm in your core beliefs in what’s right.
Defending those who have been scorned isn’t easy, especially for young people. It’s scary to stand up to bullies, as any “Harry Potter” reader knows. Let the grown-ups in the room lead the way. If more people stood up for J.K. Rowling, they would not only be doing right by her; they’d also be standing up for human rights, specifically women’s rights, gay rights and, yes, transgender rights. They’d also be standing up for the truth.