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Trans Rights | Earlier this year, JK Rowling stepped into one of the fiercest debates of our time – gender and trans rights. Why?

JK Rowling and the Unfinished Business

JK Rowling and the Unfinished Business

The Tortoise Slow Newscast pieces together the story of the Harry Potter author’s very political, very personal interventions on gender and identity


Ceri Thomas: One of the big debates in journalism for as long as I’ve been around has been about the role of the reporter. The question’s been, should you be neutral, stand-offish – looking at things from a distance? Or engaged, and committed. Should you actually be part of the arguments and the action?

I’m Ceri Thomas – one of the editors here at Tortoise – and for me, this week, that debate (in my head) didn’t last long. Basia’s away – I’ve got my fingers crossed that she’ll be back soon – and we’re making a Slow Newscast about JK Rowling and her intervention in the hornets-nest of a row about trans rights and women’s rights.

It’s a really hard row to summarise, but at the heart of it is the question of whether granting more rights to trans people undermines women’s rights.

In case it needs to be said, I haven’t been directly involved in the row. I’m definitely an observer here. And the truth is, of course, I’d have had to go a long way out of my way to get involved. But like a lot of people in this country I’ve been fascinated, watching the arguments play out. This is a debate which has taken on a really particular flavour in the UK, and it just hasn’t in most other countries.

I’m hoping – in a sense, I have to hope – that not being involved might help, might help me answer some important questions which I haven’t been able to figure out before.

It’s always puzzled me. Why is this the issue which has split progressives in Britain? I can’t see anything else which has done that in the same way.

Why is this the question which seems to have set feminists of different generations against each other?

One person more than any other has helped me see things more clearly: one of the most famous women in the world, JK Rowling. The odd thing is, I’m not sure she entirely meant to.

The story begins with some tweets, but it doesn’t end with them. It becomes a tale about trust and power and – most of all, I think – about unfinished business. The unfinished business of women’s equality and tackling male violence; and the unfulfilled promise of more rights for trans people.

I’m lucky to have had a lot of help with this. My colleague Hattie Garlick has spent months trying to piece this story together, and her reporting is the backbone of this podcast.

With Hattie’s help, what’s become clear to me is that this story is more than just a case of a celebrity sounding off. It really is a way of getting to grips with this whole, bitterly fought-over issue.

There’s a lot at stake for JK Rowling:

Clip from video game advert:“The journey ahead will reveal what you stand for…”

Ceri: The journey we’re talking about began in June…

Clip: “…the choices you make now will define the legacy of Hogwarts.”

Ceri: And quite quickly it became a battle about JK Rowling’s reputation, her fan base, her business empire, and the debate about women’s rights and trans rights. So let’s get into it. Here’s Hattie:

Hattie Garlick: If you think lockdown was only fractionally easing and then George Floyd’s tragic death was provoking protest. It was also in fact, LGBT awareness month – so lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender – that’s four weeks set aside annually to commemorate the Stonewall riots.

And in the midst of all this. JK Rowling sends out a tweet to her 14 million followers highlighting an article on a pretty niche site called Devex. It’s a media platform for the global development community. Anyway, it’s about menstrual products and she questions its use of the phrase “People who menstruate”. She tweets: “I’m sure there used to be a word for these people. Someone help me out. Womund? Wimpun? Woomud?”

So the tweet itself is retweeted 45,000 times. It’s commented on 31,000 times and it’s liked 86,000 times, but, more interestingly, it sets off a chain of reactions with a seismic effect offline as well. And it all focuses on the trans community.

Ceri: As Hattie says, JK Rowling’s got 14 million followers on Twitter, so maybe it didn’t tell us all that much that she got thousands of retweets and likes for that post. The fact is, she can tweet about the pictures in The Ickabog and get quite a few thousand likes. So at this stage, if she’d wanted to avoid getting into a huge row then, I suspect, she could have let it all drift away.

But people had started to notice, and the arguments were kicking off. Because some of them immediately saw that June 6th tweet not simply as a defence by JK Rowling of the right to say, straightforwardly, “women’ instead of “people who menstruate” but actually as an attack on trans people.

Hattie: So there’s one tweet issued in response to JK Rowling’s one, which I think articulates it pretty well. And this person has written: “I know, you know, this. Because you’ve been told over and over and over again, but transgender men can menstruate, non-binary people can menstruate. I, a 37 year old woman with a uterus, have not menstruated in a decade. Women are not defined by their periods.”

Ceri: Hundreds of people weighed in. This wasn’t JK Rowling’s first controversial tweet on the subject, and that goes some way to explaining why…

Hattie: And the reason that claiming she continues to align herself is because, back in December, Rowling had tweeted something else that caused offence. I don’t know if you remember, but Maya Forstater, a tax expert whose contract at the think tank Center for Global Development went unrenewed because she tweeted that transgender women can’t change their biological sex.

She took her case to a tribunal and lost, at which point Rowling tweeted this: “Call yourself whatever you like, sleep with any consenting adults who will have you, live your best life in peace and security, but force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IstandwithMaya hashtag #thisisnotadrill.”

Ceri: And so half a year on from that last tweet, we’re back. But this time, JK Rowling is not stopping…

Hattie: So I think there is so another clear reason this controversy didn’t die out and that’s because Rowling didn’t step away from it. After that tweet, she followed it up with a series more, insisting among other things that “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,” she tweets, “but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.”

On June the 10th, Rowling published a 3,600 word essay, further elaborating on her stance.

And then, of course, in September, her new book, Troubled Blood, was published and there follows a fresh storm of accusations of transphobia because the book features a murderer who sometimes uses women’s clothes as part of his disguise. And that’s when the hashtag #RIPJKRowling went viral.

Ceri: So now we’re really off and running. We aren’t just dealing with a few tweets, we’ve got a whole 3,600-word position-statement from JK Rowling. Which means that if anybody wants to pick a fight with her about her views on trans rights, women-only spaces, what you need to prove in order to transition from one gender to another, they’ve got all they need to keep that fight going forever.

That essay… that blog… is such an important piece of evidence in this story that we’re going to come back to it, and dig deeper into it. But before we do that, there’s something else I want to try to understand, which is how this huge row has affected – could affect – the business of Harry Potter. Because it’s quite a business.

It’s really striking if you look at JK Rowling’s Twitter feed that it’s a very incongruous mix of “thank yous” to children, promotional stuff about her latest thing – whatever that is – and then this massive argument with the trans community. Most really successful book, movie and game franchises – and that’s what JK Rowling sits on top of – just wouldn’t do that: they’d run a mile from any sort of controversy.

So it didn’t take long for JK Rowling’s opponents to see the businesses she’s involved in as a pressure point. And also for ripples from this controversy to start flowing through them. And there are quite a few high-profile companies involved…

Hattie: So Bloomsbury published The Philosopher’s Stone in the UK in 1997. Cast your mind back. Rowling sold the film adaptation rights for Harry Potter to Warner Bros. two years later, and then everything changed extraordinarily quickly.

Universal acquired the film rights in 2007. Then there’s the incredibly long stage play The Cursed Child, which follows in 2016. And that was the same year too, that the prequel films, Fantastic Beasts, were first launched. Obviously, a lot has changed within that franchise. Since the end of the 1990s, when the first Potter book came out, it’s now an enormous, many-legged beast.

Ceri: It’s become a huge franchise

Cassie Brummitt: There’s also this idea that, um, she’s the saviour of children, in a way, because a lot of people tend to quote this idea that Harry Potter sparked a generation of young people becoming readers.

Ceri: That’s Cassie Brummitt, she wrote her PhD on the development of the Harry Potter franchise…

Cassie: So these… products, these texts, have essentially changed, I would argue, every single industry that they’ve been in. So the Harry Potter books change children’s publishing. The Harry Potter books were not like other children’s books at the time, but they completely rejuvenated, um, what was considered to be a struggling industry. Harry Potter is, in some ways, the most culturally influential franchise that’s ever existed

Ceri: Influential, and lucrative.

It’s exactly the sort of situation which gives big corporations the shivers. There are hundreds of millions of pounds – literally – riding on this; there’s a very public row brewing between the author who laid the golden egg and trans rights campaigners, and everyone is shouting at the companies: “Whose side are you on?”

Hattie: Each of them has issued a statement in response. Each painfully, carefully crafted, reiterating their commitment to diversity and inclusivity, or actually in Warner Bros.’ words, “inclusiveness”, while not distancing themselves from this woman who, after all, was and remains totally instrumental in their fortunes.

So in the aftermath, back in June, the publisher Hachette had quite a mutiny when a group of its employees objected to working on Rowling’s new children’s story, The Ickabog, and then, shortly afterwards, a group of authors actually resigned from the Blair partnership, that’s Rowling’s literary agency, over its response to the controversy.

And then just days after that, Bloomberg was reporting that developers working on a new Potter video game were uncomfortable with her comments as well. And in fact, when Warner Bros released an FAQ about that game – it’s called Hogwart’s Legacy – it stated that JK Rowling is not directly involved in the creation of the game.

Ceri: As Cassie Brummitt puts it, it’s quite the turnaround in these franchises’ relationship with Rowling…

Cassie: Isn’t that incredible! To think where the Harry Potter franchise came from, completely predicated on J K Rowling’s influence. And now Warner brothers is having to do damage limitation.

Ceri: So there’s no doubt that businesses have had to react quickly to the row. But Hattie’s conclusion, after she’d talked to a whole load of people involved, was that it might cause them a headache but it won’t hurt them where it matters most:

Hattie: I had conversations with a couple of executives who gave me a real sense that this recent controversy isn’t going to have any real or lasting effect on the future of the franchise.

Kat Miller: This is going to hurt me to say it, but…. no. Not because there’s no desire there to boycott and not because there isn’t a huge community of people who support trans folk and want to see change and really want her to apologise or whatever. But, um, the Harry Potter machine, the Wizarding World machine, is very large.

Ceri: That’s Kat Miller, the creative and marketing director at MuggleNet. It’s a really popular website for Potter-heads.

If you’re my age, you know the Harry Potter books, of course. But maybe you don’t really know what they mean to younger readers. You have to appreciate that they’ve been read as great, long pleas for tolerance, for living comfortably with difference.

Kat: So when something like this happens, when somebody who for so long, so many people have looked up to and revered and… you know… called their queen for goodness’ sake, comes out and says something that is so incredibly hurtful to so many people and is just unapologetic about it, you rally together. And the internet allows for that. The communities allow for that and you can make a bigger, stronger noise and make more people aware of it quicker. So I honestly think that just the sense of community that we have and the outlets that we have to reach those people is what made it feel so strong and, I mean, we are, I feel like this generation, you know, the millennials and the Gen Zs are, we’re not going to put up with that BS anymore. You know, we’re done. The world that we have been left is mostly trash – and we’re done. We’re not going to stand it. We’re not gonna take it anymore.

Ceri: Nothing is ever completely black and white in an argument as complicated as this, but I’ll stick my neck out on one thing: JK Rowling’s fans are mostly young, so are her opponents and critics.

Her friends and supporters are mostly older. That takes us back to one of my original questions: why is this the argument that’s created a generational divide which no one, so far, seems to have found a way to bridge?

I talked to a couple of friends last week. And both of them wondered if the generational divide isn’t the great cultural gulf it can sometimes appear – with younger women on one side of it, brought up to be more comfortable with identity and identity politics – so much as it’s about the different life experiences of women of different ages.

The idea those friends put to me is that, if you look at what feminism and equality for women was supposed to deliver, one of the big pieces of economic unfinished business is what happens to women’s careers after they’ve had children.

As younger women, they said, they could look around the places they worked – and they looked equal. The women were doing as well as their male colleagues; actually better, quite a lot of the time. But then came children – and men’s and women’s career trajectories suddenly headed off in different directions.

That’s not just an anecdote, it’s broadly true. And for my friends, it meant that if you wanted to have children and you wanted a career, biology still tipped the scales in favour of men.

Now, of course, there are always exceptions. There are loads of different ways of having and raising children. But for a lot of women, the evidence is that the push for women’s equality has done many things, but it hasn’t – yet – overcome biology as an important factor in their lives and their careers.

I’m floating this cautiously because, after all, it’s not my theory – but perhaps something in that argument does help explain why, in the row over trans rights – basically what it is to be a woman – as a rule, older women seem more focused on sex and biology, and younger women more on gender and identity?

And that’s definitely at the heart of the row about women’s rights and trans rights. The row that JK Rowling waded into.

Either way, that’s one piece of unfinished business: feminism and 57 varieties of equality legislation haven’t equalised the effect on men and women of having and raising children…

And meanwhile, people on the other side of the argument – the campaign, the movement, for rights for trans people – had a big piece of unfinished business of its own…

Hattie: So Scotland launched its consultation on GRA reform earlier than Westminster did because, unlike Westminster, which announced at the end of last month that England and Wales won’t move towards a self-identification system. That means dropping the need for a medical diagnosis. Scotland still hasn’t reached a conclusion because instead it wobbled and launched a second consultation and then postponed its conclusions to focus on the pandemic.

Ceri: What all that meant practically was making it easier for trans people to get legal recognition of their gender. You wouldn’t have to go through surgery or hormone treatment to formally transition to a new gender as you would have done a long time ago. You wouldn’t need a psychological assessment as you do now. You’d have to meet a bunch of legal requirements, but it wouldn’t be a medical process any longer. The World Health Organisation thinks that’s right, by the way…

That’s self-identification. And that was the unfinished business trans activists in the UK were focused on. They had every reason to think it was coming – it had happened in Ireland without any big controversy, and it didn’t seem to have caused any problems there – and the governments in London and Edinburgh seemed to be heading in the same direction.

But now – suddenly – there was real opposition. JK Rowling was one of the leaders of it. And the timing of her tweets and her blog looked like a carefully timed attempt to throw a major spanner in the works…

Hattie: Now you can actually map Rowling’s statements about trans issues almost directly onto the milestones in Scottish GRA reform. So in her essay she says that her interest predated Maya’s case – that’s Maya Forstater’s case – by almost two years. So that would place us in 2017, when that first consultation kicked off. The second consultation launched in December last year, two days before her tweet about Forstater.

Ceri: One of the things you have to remember about JK Rowling is that her public image as deeply private, almost reclusive… isn’t the full story. Not at all. She’s actually got a long track record of very carefully targeted interventions in big political issues. She supported Gordon Brown when he was having difficulties as Labour leader. She came out against Scottish independence just before the 2014 referendum. She makes a splash when she wants to.

Hattie: And then on June the 2nd, this year, just a few days before her “people who menstruate” tweet, Scotland published statutory guidance on the Gender Representation On Public Boards Act. Now that sounds really dry and I appreciate to an extent it is, but what that act did was to set an objective that 50 per cent of the board’s non-exec members should be women – which sounds pretty uncontroversial for a feminist like Rowling, but it was the definition of “woman” that rankled some women’s groups, because it didn’t require trans women to have had surgery, or dress, look or behave in any particular way, in order to qualify.

Ceri: For people who are in favour of self-identification, JK Rowling has got this badly wrong. Here’s Finn Mackay, who’s a senior lecturer in sociology at a university in Bristol…

Finn Mackay: So it was widely suggested and it was received by many people as saying there would be a legal change, which meant that somebody, a man or a woman, could wake up in the morning, decide that they wanted to be the other sex to that which they were, go online, fill in a form online.

All his legal identification and paperwork will change overnight to say F on them instead of M. He could then go out and use that the next day to get access to a women-only changing room, a women-only swim session, a communal women-only changing room in a gym… women’s toilets… and he could then commit acts of voyeurism and abuse against those women. And if he was challenged, he could simply say, “Oh, actually I identify as a woman I’ve filled in the form”. Then he could go home that night, fill in the form again, and change back.

Now that was never suggested. And in countries where they have taken away some of the reliance on medical criteria and on anonymous panels that recognise, or don’t recognise, your gender, it is still a legal process. Nowhere has it happened that someone can change their sex marker on all their official documents at a whim, and then change it back again the next day. It’s still a legal and witness process, often in the form of a statutory declaration. You sign up to it, for all intents and purposes, this change will apply for life and you have to sign up for that. You understand if you use it for nefarious means that is fraudulent. That’s a fraudulent use of the process.

It was never going to be some sort of gender free for all. And yet you have groups like the LGB Alliance taking out full-page adverts in Scottish newspapers, for example, saying it’s a gender free for all, and it will give a green light to predators.

Ceri: So, as I promised, let’s go back to Exhibit A in the case of JK Rowling and trans rights – that 3,600-word essay she published in June. It doesn’t just tell us a lot about JK Rowling’s thoughts on the issues, it tells us a lot about JK Rowling herself. So private, so controlled, usually…

Hattie: I think Rowling’s stream of tweets and that eventual essay are really the polar opposite of that, aren’t they, you know, they’re written and published in a state that Rowling herself in the essay describes as “triggered”. They’re talking about domestic abuse and sexual assault for the first time, and they’re totally unmediated – they’re controversial and they’re authentic.

Ceri: The thing I found inescapable reading that essay is that the business of being a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault is never really finished, certainly not for JK Rowling. She says it herself: “the scars left by violence and sexual assault don’t disappear, no matter how loved you are, no matter how much money you’ve made.”

It’s striking that, in the essay, JK Rowling gives five reasons for worrying about what she calls the new trans activism. And three of them are about the danger of violence being done to women and girls.

She’s still jumpy because of what she’s been through, she says. It’s a family joke. She hates sudden bangs or people coming up behind her when she hasn’t seen them. Her husband now, Neil Murray, has spoken about her tendency in a crisis to trust only herself.

So if the figure of the predatory man colours JK Rowling’s thoughts, and completely colours that essay, we’ve got to understand that, surely? The questions are about where she takes that argument…

The three examples JK Rowling gives of how trans activism could make women and girls less safe are… by damaging the charity she set up for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse… by undermining the safeguarding of children… and by putting natal women and girls in danger in single-sex spaces. The fourth reason she gives is freedom of speech. And the fifth – which, I think, really does have the power to offend campaigners for trans rights – is that too many young women are questioning their gender identity because they’ve got swept up in a kind of hysteria and had their heads turned by their peers.

There are echoes there of very old debates about kids being turned gay…

All the way through the essay, JK Rowling tries to stand on this knife-edge between the risks posed by trans campaigners and the vulnerability of trans people…

Hattie: She writes that “I believe the majority of trans identified people, not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable.

“Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. So I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman.

“And as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones. Then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That’s the simple truth.”

Ceri: As we heard from Finn McKay, it’s not really that simple. And there’s another question: if (as JK Rowling puts it) any man who feels he’s a woman can go into a bathroom or changing room – or, to put it another way, trans women who’ve had no surgery or hormone therapy are allowed in women-only spaces – what happens when they get there?

Aaron Devor: Now, is there evidence that cisgender women are, um, being harmed by having transgender women in those spaces? No.

Ceri: Hattie got hold of Aaron Devor. Aaron’s a sociology professor who researches transgender issues at the University of Victoria in Canada. And he’s trans himself.

Aaron: To the extent that cisgender women do get attacked in washrooms, it is not by transgender people. It is by heterosexual males. So is there evidence of cisgender women being harmed in women’s washrooms? No.

And the evidence is that to the extent that that happens – which has always happened to some degree, and has always been rare – what we see is it’s not transgender people who were doing that. It is heterosexual, male predators who are finding a way to get into that space. And then attacking women.

And it is almost unheard of – I can’t say definitively unheard of, because I don’t know of every case everywhere every time – but it is almost unheard of that the way that those heterosexual male predators gain access to space is by dressing themselves up as women.

Clip [JK Rowling on Oprah]: ‘JK’ so that boys wouldn’t know she was a woman: “it hasn’t held me back”

Ceri: There’s JK Rowling again proving – ironically – that it’s complicated…

So why do I think – at the end of all this – that her intervention has helped me understand the arguments about women’s rights and trans rights better than before?

Let’s go through it carefully. It is all about that sense of unfinished business; personally, and on both sides of the argument.

For the trans rights campaign, self-identification is a huge thing – and in the UK they thought they were on a conveyor belt towards it. There was really no reason for them not to think that. It had happened in other countries with no major issues.

Then – from that perspective – along came an almost untouchably rich and powerful woman with a huge platform who, in a very political and deliberate way, tried to stop the conveyor belt in its tracks. That was bound to cause a real problem.

From the women’s rights point of view, I think there’s something in the idea of unfinished business, too. It’s obvious… the women’s equality project is incomplete. Maybe children and careers make older women more acutely aware of it than younger ones? And perhaps that explains why there’s such a strong reaction if it looks as if other people are trying to move the rights argument on? Or if women are convinced that more rights for trans people will undermine women’s rights.

But, in the end, there’s no way round her: JK Rowling sits right at the heart of this. In that blog she laid herself bare. She went out of her way to remind us how vulnerable she is in spite of everything.

The never-ending unfinished business of the sexual violence and domestic abuse she suffered seems to frame her worldview almost completely. You have to be sympathetic to what she’s gone through; and it really does help you to understand where she’s coming from.

She worries that there’s a political project to erase women and girls as a category. It’s a fascinating philosophical point. But against it she puts up a series of very practical challenges. Above all, she says, if transgender women are allowed to self-ID, women and girls will be in physical danger in places like changing rooms and toilets. And on that, it’s hard – actually, I think it’s impossible – to find the evidence to agree with her.

Next in this file

JK Rowling and the Unfinished Business

JK Rowling and the Unfinished Business

Why did a famous author wade into the debate over trans rights?

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