J.K. Rowling’s Transphobic Tweets Shouldn’t Be A Surprise

Photo: Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic.
On Saturday — while people across the U.S. and globally marched in protest of systemic racism and police violence against Black people and people of color — author J.K. Rowling decided it would be a good time to send a tweet taking issue with a headline that used the phrase “people who menstruate.” "I'm sure there used to be a word for those people," she wrote. "Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?" Rowling’s tweet was implying that only women get their periods, erasing the nonbinary and transmasculine people who also menstruate.
Many people expressed shock and dismay that the Harry Potter author aligns with TERFs — trans-exclusionary radical feminists. But Rowling has been tweeting her thinly veiled “gender critical” (another term for TERF-y) viewpoints for a long time; these latest examples are just the most explicit. She’s been showing us who she is for years, and trans folks, especially trans women, have been telling us for years. So why is it only now that cis people are finally coming around to seeing her true self?
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Rowling didn’t leave it there, doubling down as people responded and called her out on the transphobic argument she was making. "If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased,” she tweeted. “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.”
She went on to describe herself as someone who has been “empathetic to trans people for decades,” saying, “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.”
The fact that Rowling chose to tweet these anti-trans screeds now — in the midst of an international uprising against police violence and anti-Black racism and during Pride month — is especially problematic, given that trans people are 3.7 times more likely to experience police violence than the general population.

Rowling Has A History Of Transphobia

Rowling’s tweets may not seem troublesome or hateful to people who don’t have a good grasp on the language of “gender critical feminism,” which is a movement that has grown to prominence in the United Kingdom, where Rowling lives. But her statements are insidious; they remove trans people’s ability to define their gender for themselves, instead using genitalia, chromosomes, and assigned sex at birth (known as biological essentialism) as the only way to determine someone’s gender. While Rowling’s initial tweet invalidated the identity of AFAB (assigned female at birth) trans people, “gender critical feminists” are most concerned with trans women, believing them to be men infiltrating women’s spaces and threatening cis women’s safety (despite no evidence to support this, and the fact that trans women are more likely to be the victim of an assault in those spaces than the perpetrator).
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But while Rowling’s tweets are appalling and hateful, most trans people were unsurprised by them. In fact, they’ve been telling us for a long time that Rowling is a TERF. In December 2019, she made into text what had up until that point been subtext when she tweeted her support for Maya Forstater. While Forstater’s name is not well-known in the U.S., at the time she had been making headlines in the U.K., where she had been fired from her job for tweeting that a person cannot change their biological sex. The case became a battleground for the TERF wars happening over there.
As Katelyn Burns laid out in detail at the time for Vox, the trans-exclusionary radical feminist movement has been growing in the U.K. for a while now, but it really gained steam in 2017, when the government announced a proposed law allowing people to “self-ID,” or legally pledge their intention to live their lives as a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth. The trans-exclusionary viewpoint has been helped along by the tabloids and media, who often publish stories with anti-trans bias.
Rowling’s Twitter transphobia can be linked to that timeline. In 2017, she liked a tweet that linked to a Medium piece full of vitriolic speech targeting trans women. In March 2018, Rowling liked a tweet that called trans women “men in dresses,” which her representatives called “a middle-aged moment,” claiming her finger accidentally hit the like button. At this point, however, it’s clear that Rowling’s “gender critical” views are no accident. “Wealthy white women have used essentialism to devalue more marginalized women for centuries,” tweeted Raquel Willis, a writer and activist.
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The trans community, however, has been telling us that Rowling’s transphobia has been evident in in her writing for years. As Rob Zacny laid out for VICE last year, her book The Silkworm, a 2014 British mystery she wrote under the pen name Robert Galbraith, is dripping with problematic characters and passages. Zacny writes that Rowling’s descriptions of the character of Pippa, a young trans woman, are “consistently objectifying and othering in ways that are very familiar from the ways transphobes describe and debate the validity of trans men and women's identities.”

Refocusing The Conversation On What Matters

Rowling saying that she would march with trans folks “if [they] were discriminated against on the basis of being trans,” erases the mountain of data that shows trans people absolutely are discriminated against. There is a court case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court about whether trans people can be fired for being trans. Transgender people have double the rate of unemployment of their cisgender counterparts. Trans people are more likely to be homeless, to live in poverty, and to attempt suicide due to the harassment they face. Trans people also face pervasive discrimination while seeking healthcare.
In 2019, at least 26 transgender or gender-nonconforming people were violently killed. Of those, 91 percent were Black trans women. The American Medical Association says “it’s an epidemic,” Lisa Armstrong wrote for ZORA magazine last year, “and yet violence against Black trans women still goes unreported or under-investigated.” The focus on Rowling’s bigotry takes attention away from the very real issue of violence against Black trans people, an issue that already is too often ignored. While the nation mourns George Floyd and activists fight to make sure Breonna Taylor’s name remains in the news, Tony McDade, a Black trans man who was killed the same week as Floyd, has been mostly left out of the conversation.
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Instead of spending time being shocked that a beloved children’s book author — one who created entire worlds of wizardry and magic but somehow lacks the imagination to conceive of a world in which gender is expansive and fluid — is a TERF, we should focus our energy where it should be this Pride month: on uplifting the stories and memories of Black trans folks. Donate to one of the many organizations supporting Black trans people; email Tallahassee officials and demand the officers who killed Tony McDade be fired; do not allow them to be erased from the conversation.
Some Harry Potter fans are even calculating how much money they spent on items related to the franchise and redistributing it.
And next time, when trans people tell you who someone is, believe them.

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