Ceri Thomas: One of the big debates in journalism for as long as Iâve been around has been about the role of the reporter. The questionâs been, should you be neutral, stand-offish â looking at things from a distance? Or engaged, and committed. Should you actually be part of the arguments and the action?
Iâm Ceri Thomas â one of the editors here at Tortoise â and for me, this week, that debate (in my head) didnât last long. Basiaâs away â Iâve got my fingers crossed that sheâll be back soon â and weâre making a Slow Newscast about JK Rowling and her intervention in the hornets-nest of a row about trans rights and womenâs rights.
Itâs a really hard row to summarise, but at the heart of it is the question of whether granting more rights to trans people undermines womenâs rights.
In case it needs to be said, I havenât been directly involved in the row. Iâm definitely an observer here. And the truth is, of course, Iâd have had to go a long way out of my way to get involved. But like a lot of people in this country Iâve 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 hasnât in most other countries.
Iâm hoping â in a sense, I have to hope â that not being involved might help, might help me answer some important questions which I havenât been able to figure out before.
Itâs always puzzled me. Why is this the issue which has split progressives in Britain? I canât 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, Iâm not sure she entirely meant to.
The story begins with some tweets, but it doesnât end with them. It becomes a tale about trust and power and â most of all, I think â about unfinished business. The unfinished business of womenâs equality and tackling male violence; and the unfulfilled promise of more rights for trans people.
Iâm 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 Hattieâs help, whatâs 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.
Thereâs a lot at stake for JK Rowling:
Clip from video game advert:âThe journey ahead will reveal what you stand forâŠâ
Ceri: The journey weâre talking about began in JuneâŠ
Clip: ââŠthe choices you make now will define the legacy of Hogwarts.â
Ceri: And quite quickly it became a battle about JK Rowlingâs reputation, her fan base, her business empire, and the debate about womenâs rights and trans rights. So letâs get into it. Hereâs Hattie:
Hattie Garlick:Â If you think lockdown was only fractionally easing and then George Floydâs tragic death was provoking protest. It was also in fact, LGBT awareness month â so lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender â thatâs 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. Itâs a media platform for the global development community. Anyway, itâs about menstrual products and she questions its use of the phrase âPeople who menstruateâ. She tweets: âIâm sure there used to be a word for these people. Someone help me out. Womund? Wimpun? Woomud?â
So the tweet itself is retweeted 45,000 times. Itâs commented on 31,000 times and itâs 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 Rowlingâs got 14 million followers on Twitter, so maybe it didnât 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 sheâd 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, âwomenâ instead of âpeople who menstruateâ but actually as an attack on trans people.
Hattie: So thereâs one tweet issued in response to JK Rowlingâs one, which I think articulates it pretty well. And this person has written: âI know, you know, this. Because youâve 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.â
Ceri: Hundreds of people weighed in. This wasnât JK Rowlingâs first controversial tweet on the subject, and that goes some way to explaining whyâŠ
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 donât 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 canât change their biological sex.
She took her case to a tribunal and lost, at which point Rowling tweeted this: âCall 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.â
Ceri: And so half a year on from that last tweet, weâre back. But this time, JK Rowling is not stoppingâŠ
Hattie: So I think there is so another clear reason this controversy didnât die out and thatâs because Rowling didnât step away from it. After that tweet, she followed it up with a series more, insisting among other things that âif sex isnât real, thereâs no same sex attraction. If sex isnât real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people,â she tweets, âbut erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isnât hate to speak the truth.â
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 womenâs clothes as part of his disguise. And thatâs when the hashtag #RIPJKRowling went viral.
Ceri: So now weâre really off and running. We arenât just dealing with a few tweets, weâve 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, theyâve got all they need to keep that fight going forever.
That essayâŠ that blogâŠ is such an important piece of evidence in this story that weâre going to come back to it, and dig deeper into it. But before we do that, thereâs something else I want to try to understand, which is how this huge row has affected â could affect â the business of Harry Potter. Because itâs quite a business.
Itâs really striking if you look at JK Rowlingâs Twitter feed that itâs a very incongruous mix of âthank yousâ to children, promotional stuff about her latest thing â whatever that is â and then this massive argument with the trans community. Most really successful book, movie and game franchises â and thatâs what JK Rowling sits on top of â just wouldnât do that: theyâd run a mile from any sort of controversy.
So it didnât take long for JK Rowlingâs opponents to see the businesses sheâs 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 involvedâŠ
Hattie: So Bloomsbury published The Philosopherâs 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 thereâs 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, itâs now an enormous, many-legged beast.
Ceri: Itâs become a huge franchise
Cassie Brummitt: Thereâs also this idea that, um, sheâs 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: Thatâs Cassie Brummitt, she wrote her PhD on the development of the Harry Potter franchiseâŠ
Cassie: So theseâŠ products, these texts, have essentially changed, I would argue, every single industry that theyâve been in. So the Harry Potter books change childrenâs publishing. The Harry Potter books were not like other childrenâs 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 thatâs ever existed
Ceri: Influential, and lucrative.
Itâs exactly the sort of situation which gives big corporations the shivers. There are hundreds of millions of pounds â literally â riding on this; thereâs a very public row brewing between the author who laid the golden egg and trans rights campaigners, and everyone is shouting at the companies: âWhose side are you on?â
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.â words, âinclusivenessâ, 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 Rowlingâs new childrenâs story, The Ickabog, and then, shortly afterwards, a group of authors actually resigned from the Blair partnership, thatâs Rowlingâs 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 â itâs called Hogwartâs Legacy â it stated that JK Rowling is not directly involved in the creation of the game.
Ceri: As Cassie Brummitt puts it, itâs quite the turnaround in these franchisesâ relationship with RowlingâŠ
Cassie: Isnât that incredible! To think where the Harry Potter franchise came from, completely predicated on J K Rowlingâs influence. And now Warner brothers is having to do damage limitation.
Ceri: So thereâs no doubt that businesses have had to react quickly to the row. But Hattieâs conclusion, after sheâd talked to a whole load of people involved, was that it might cause them a headache but it wonât 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 isnât 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, butâŠ. no. Not because thereâs no desire there to boycott and not because there isnât 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: Thatâs Kat Miller, the creative and marketing director at MuggleNet. Itâs a really popular website for Potter-heads.
If youâre my age, you know the Harry Potter books, of course. But maybe you donât really know what they mean to younger readers. You have to appreciate that theyâve 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 andâŠ you knowâŠ called their queen for goodnessâ 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, weâre not going to put up with that BS anymore. You know, weâre done. The world that we have been left is mostly trash â and weâre done. Weâre not going to stand it. Weâre not gonna take it anymore.
Ceri: Nothing is ever completely black and white in an argument as complicated as this, but Iâll stick my neck out on one thing: JK Rowlingâs 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 thatâs 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 isnât the great cultural gulf it can sometimes appear â with younger women on one side of it, brought up to be more comfortable with identity and identity politics â so much as itâs 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 womenâs careers after theyâve had children.
As younger women, they said, they could look around the places they worked â 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 â and menâs and womenâs career trajectories suddenly headed off in different directions.
Thatâs not just an anecdote, itâs 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 womenâs equality has done many things, but it hasnât â yet â overcome biology as an important factor in their lives and their careers.
Iâm floating this cautiously because, after all, itâs not my theory â but perhaps something in that argument does help explain why, in the row over trans rights â basically what it is to be a woman â as a rule, older women seem more focused on sex and biology, and younger women more on gender and identity?
And thatâs definitely at the heart of the row about womenâs rights and trans rights. The row that JK Rowling waded into.
Either way, thatâs one piece of unfinished business: feminism and 57 varieties of equality legislation havenât equalised the effect on men and women of having and raising childrenâŠ
And meanwhile, people on the other side of the argument â the campaign, the movement, for rights for trans people â had a big piece of unfinished business of its ownâŠ
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 wonât move towards a self-identification system. That means dropping the need for a medical diagnosis. Scotland still hasnât 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 wouldnât 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 wouldnât need a psychological assessment as you do now. Youâd have to meet a bunch of legal requirements, but it wouldnât be a medical process any longer. The World Health Organisation thinks thatâs right, by the wayâŠ
Thatâs 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 â it had happened in Ireland without any big controversy, and it didnât seem to have caused any problems there â and the governments in London and Edinburgh seemed to be heading in the same direction.
But now â suddenly â 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 worksâŠ
Hattie: Now you can actually map Rowlingâs statements about trans issues almost directly onto the milestones in Scottish GRA reform. So in her essay she says that her interest predated Mayaâs case â thatâs Maya Forstaterâs case â 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 reclusiveâŠ isnât the full story. Not at all. Sheâs 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 âpeople who menstruateâ 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 boardâs non-exec members should be women â which sounds pretty uncontroversial for a feminist like Rowling, but it was the definition of âwomanâ that rankled some womenâs groups, because it didnât 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. Hereâs Finn Mackay, whoâs a senior lecturer in sociology at a university in BristolâŠ
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 gymâŠ womenâs toiletsâŠ and he could then commit acts of voyeurism and abuse against those women. And if he was challenged, he could simply say, âOh, actually I identify as a woman Iâve filled in the formâ. 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 donât 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. Itâs 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. Thatâs 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 itâs a gender free for all, and it will give a green light to predators.
Ceri: So, as I promised, letâs go back to Exhibit A in the case of JK Rowling and trans rights â that 3,600-word essay she published in June. It doesnât just tell us a lot about JK Rowlingâs thoughts on the issues, it tells us a lot about JK Rowling herself. So private, so controlled, usuallyâŠ
Hattie: I think Rowlingâs stream of tweets and that eventual essay are really the polar opposite of that, arenât they, you know, theyâre written and published in a state that Rowling herself in the essay describes as âtriggeredâ. Theyâre talking about domestic abuse and sexual assault for the first time, and theyâre totally unmediated â theyâre controversial and theyâre 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: âthe scars left by violence and sexual assault donât disappear, no matter how loved you are, no matter how much money youâve made.â
Itâs 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.
Sheâs still jumpy because of what sheâs been through, she says. Itâs a family joke. She hates sudden bangs or people coming up behind her when she hasnât 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 Rowlingâs thoughts, and completely colours that essay, weâve got to understand that, surely? The questions are about where she takes that argumentâŠ
The three examples JK Rowling gives of how trans activism could make women and girls less safe areâŠ by damaging the charity she set up for survivors of domestic and sexual abuseâŠ by undermining the safeguarding of childrenâŠ 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 â which, I think, really does have the power to offend campaigners for trans rights â is that too many young women are questioning their gender identity because theyâve 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 gayâŠ
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 peopleâŠ
Hattie: She writes that âI believe the majority of trans identified people, not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable.
âTrans people need and deserve protection. Like women theyâre 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 heâs a woman.
âAnd as Iâve 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. Thatâs the simple truth.â
Ceri: As we heard from Finn McKay, itâs not really that simple. And thereâs another question: if (as JK Rowling puts it) any man who feels heâs a woman can go into a bathroom or changing room â or, to put it another way, trans women whoâve had no surgery or hormone therapy are allowed in women-only spaces â 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. Aaronâs a sociology professor who researches transgender issues at the University of Victoria in Canada. And heâs 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 womenâs washrooms? No.
And the evidence is that to the extent that that happens â which has always happened to some degree, and has always been rare â what we see is itâs 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 â I canât say definitively unheard of, because I donât know of every case everywhere every time â 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]: âJKâ so that boys wouldnât know she was a woman: âit hasnât held me backâ
Ceri: Thereâs JK Rowling again proving â ironically â that itâs complicatedâŠ
So why do I think â at the end of all this â that her intervention has helped me understand the arguments about womenâs rights and trans rights better than before?
Letâs 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 â 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 â from that perspective â 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 womenâs rights point of view, I think thereâs something in the idea of unfinished business, too. Itâs obviousâŠ the womenâs equality project is incomplete. Maybe children and careers make older women more acutely aware of it than younger ones? And perhaps that explains why thereâs 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 womenâs rights.
But, in the end, thereâs 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 sheâs gone through; and it really does help you to understand where sheâs coming from.
She worries that thereâs a political project to erase women and girls as a category. Itâs 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, itâs hard â actually, I think itâs impossible â to find the evidence to agree with her.