Earlier this year, the obsessively private author stepped into one of the fiercest debates of our time – gender and trans rights. Why?
On 6 June, the world had a lot to contend with. George Floyd’s death was filling streets with protests, lockdown was only fractionally easing, and it was LGBT+ Pride month. In the midst of all this, JK Rowling sent out a tweet to her 14 million followers, questioning an article’s use of the phrase “people who menstruate”:
I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?
Controversy rumbled. But rather than let it die out, more tweets followed, that day and the next. She insisted 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, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.” Finally, on 10 June, Rowling published a 3,600-word essay online, elaborating yet further on her views.
Over the course of just four days, JK Rowling had waded straight into one of the fiercest battles in the UK today, one that thrives on social media but spills out into the real world, too. One that sits at the intersection of trans rights, women’s rights, inclusive language, and whether people should be allowed to change gender without a medical diagnosis.
In the following days, Potter stars Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint rushed to denounce Rowling’s position – solemnly, even a little sadly, but unreservedly asserting that “trans women are women”. Soon, the full spectrum of celebrity, ranging from Margaret Atwood to, well… Jedward, had pitched in publicly.
Universal Parks & Resorts, Warner Brothers and Scholastic – respectively among the world’s most powerful theme park corporations, film studios and publishing houses – all issued statements reiterating their commitment to inclusivity and diversity.
Nor were fans silent. On 10 June, the hashtag #IstandwithJKR took off among Twitter users eager to show their support for Rowling (though it was hijacked by detractors, too). Over the course of seven days, a total of 12,296 original tweets bore the hashtag, reaching a probable audience of around 7 million people.
It didn’t, however, end there. Come September, around the publication of Rowling’s new Cormoran Strike book, Troubled Blood, and more accusations of transphobia, her detractors took up a different battle cry. In the seven days from 14 September, 28,475 original tweets, reaching a likely audience of more than 91 million, bore the ominous hashtag #RIPJKRowling.
It appeared that almost everyone on the planet had expressed a view in 280 fiery letters or fewer. Not many, however, had asked… why? Rowling had waded into an argument that, for a minority, touches on the very most personal and pertinent of questions: their true identity and their security to inhabit and express it without challenge or prejudice. For others, it is a question of the possible erasure of the political class of “woman”, and all the hard-fought rights that entails.
What caused a woman who had accrued fame and adoration in quantities almost unparalleled in living memory to risk it all over an issue that had hovered on the fringes of many people’s awareness till the world’s most famous author pressed a blue button on a social media platform? What would it mean for the Wizarding World she had dedicated the last 30 years of her life to building? And what did it say about gender and generational divides, free speech and feminism, in our own?
A barrier has been erected around JK Rowling. It is almost as pronounced as that noted by a New Yorker journalist granted a rare interview in 2012: “The conifer hedges in front of J. K. Rowling’s seventeenth-century house, in Edinburgh, are about twenty feet tall. They reach higher than the street lamps in front of them.”
Because, in fact, it is not quite true that everyone on the planet had expressed a view. One small community has remained conspicuously silent. Over the past months, almost all my requests to speak to those close to Rowling have met with polite – but firm – rebuttal. Doors close, with a smile. Those I have managed to reach have given scarcely more away. There will be no interviews, no appearances, no inner-circle insights, they all insist.
It has been this way all along. The legend of JK Rowling’s life couldn’t be more widely known: “she was a poverty-stricken single mother. She was bringing up her child on benefits in Scotland, in the mid-nineties, and she somehow used her writing skills to forge a better life for herself,” summaries Cassie Brummitt, academic at the Cinema and Television History Institute at De Montfort University, who wrote her PhD on the development of the Harry Potter franchise. Beyond that, however: “she’s always been perceived as a private person. She didn’t do a lot of interviews.”
That meticulous privacy means piecing together the life of Joanne Rowling – the woman, not the Harry Potter deity – is like completing a cryptic crossword. You examine the clues forensically. You scrutinise the context and then you pencil in the answer that best fits, rubbing it out and replacing it as more of the picture emerges.
There are snippets to collect from a smattering of interviews: her sister Dianne, who scooped Rowling up in 1993, giving her Christmas in Edinburgh after the author left a violent marriage in Portugal with only her baby, a suitcase of unpublished writing and no winter coat. Dianne’s husband Roger Moore, in whose café, Nicolson’s, Rowling continued to write. Sean Harris, the school friend who lent her the deposit for a flat and once drove a turquoise Ford Anglia that would be immortalised forever in Potter lore.
But Rowling no longer works in cafes. “I gave it up reluctantly,” she says, “part of the point of being alone in a crowd was being happily anonymous and free to people-watch, and when you’re the one being watched, you become too self-conscious to work.” Today: “I try to start work before 9am. My writing room is probably my favourite place in the world. It’s in the garden, about a minute’s walk from the house. There’s a central room where I work, a kettle, a sink and a cupboard-sized bathroom.”
To find out about the current team around her, you can’t simply open Hello magazine or flick through a Vanity Fair profile. You have to dig through a rather drier document: Joanne Murray vs Amanda Donaldson. In April last year, Rowling’s PA was found to have misused a business credit card. Various figures close to Rowling (or, to use her married name, Murray) testified in court, painting a picture of a circle described by Sheriff Derek O’Carroll, a judge in one of Scotland’s 49 sheriff courts, as the “small… office team she values extremely highly”.
The sheriff’s judgement mentions the family’s chartered accountant, Steven Simou. And it mentions Rowling’s husband, Neil Murray. He was originally a friend of Dianne’s; a GP who once worked in a methadone clinic; and, for the relevant period at least, also co-managed Rowling’s business affairs. Murray is father to Rowling’s two youngest children.(Her eldest, Jessica, born of that short first marriage, is now described on the YouTube channel where she posts makeup tutorials as “studying administration”.)
There’s Fiona Shapcott, nanny to their children for 16 years and working in the Edinburgh office part-time. Di Brooks, office manager and previously Rowling’s security consultant, who has worked for her for 16 years, too. Soon, a picture builds of a very tight, very long-standing and rather insular circle, fulfilling multiple roles rather than letting others in.
Consider too that Neil Blair, Rowling’s agent, first worked on Potter at Warner Brothers, then moved to Rowling’s first literacy agency, Christopher Little, and finally launched his own where he continues to represent her, helped her to launch her digital publishing company Pottermore, and is Chair of her charity Lumos. Rowling also followed her PR, Mark Hutchinson, when he left the Colman Getty agency and founded his own in 2011 (type his name into Google News and the top results are all now accompanied by variations on the phrase “declined to comment further”).
Minna Fry, former marketing director of Bloomsbury, once described “these layers of people to protect her… people who I think made her feel safe,” calling the author, “quite thin-skinned”. Rowling herself admitted to being “too thin-skinned” in a 2003 interview, saying fame “is incredibly isolating and it puts a great strain on your relationships”.
But at the height of Potter mania, in the noughties, a mushrooming cast of agents, editors, publicists and PR people stage-managed every public appearance Rowling made with painstaking attention to detail. Non-disclosure agreements proliferated. Journalists were forbidden from taking notes while reading new books. A book signing might require a dozen people to hire a room in the Groucho Club and deliberate exactly the number of copies Rowling could autograph.
Fry coined the term “denial marketing” to characterise their strategy for all things Potter: the more people want, the less you give. Rowling’s stream of tweets and eventual essay on sex and gender appear the polar opposite – written and published in a state Rowling describes as “triggered”, they are unmediated, controversial and authentic.
So are we finally seeing JK Rowling unleashed? If so, why now? And why would someone characterised by her neighbour and fellow author Ian Rankin as “quite quiet, quite introspective… [wary] of situations you can’t always control—in the real world” choose trans rights for the inaugural unveiling of this freedom?
Perhaps there’s a clue in an extremely rare, and extremely brief, interview given by Neil Murray in A Year In the Life, a documentary made by James Runcie in 2007. “What’s JK Rowling like to live with?” Murray is asked as the couple travel by private jet. “When she gets very stressed, she’ll detach herself and only trust one person, and that’s herself,” he says. “So everyone else gets blocked out, and she becomes more and more stressed and less and less able to accept any help. The barriers go up… She’s got to do everything herself, despite the fact that it’s not possible to do everything herself.”
Why would a wealthy, powerful cis woman be “triggered” by the word choice in a rather obscure article about menstrual products? In her 10 June essay, Rowling lays out the reasons that trans issues began to interest her. She writes that her work as an author and with charities gave rise to concerns about the impact of “trans activism” on issues ranging from freedom of speech to education and safeguarding.
Her interest is not only professional, though. In 2009/10, 40 girls across the UK were referred for gender treatment. In 2017/18, the figure totalled 1,806, resurfacing Rowling’s memories of her own, sometimes difficult, childhood: “I’ve wondered whether, if I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition,” she writes. “The allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge. I struggled with severe OCD as a teenager. If I’d found community and sympathy online that I couldn’t find in my immediate environment, I believe I could have been persuaded to turn myself into the son my father had openly said he’d have preferred.”
Back in 2007, Rowling and her sister Dianne elaborated further, telling James Runcie that, as a child, Joanne was dressed in blue, “because I was supposed to be a boy…. I was supposed to be Simon John, I even know who I was supposed to be”. Though Peter Rowling attended his daughter’s wedding to Neil Murray, in 2001, they were estranged two years later, when he sold a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire given to him on Father’s Day and signed, “Lots of love from your first born,” with seven kisses. It reached £27,500.
Peter Rowling is not the only difficult man to emerge in her essay. Misogyny, sexual discrimination and violence are threaded through it. Donald Trump and his “long history of sexual assault accusations” sits alongside “activists who declare that TERFs need punching” (coined in 2008, the acronym TERF was first reserved for trans-exclusionary radical feminists but has now morphed into a catch-all insult, aimed at any woman seen as anti-trans-inclusion). Rowling also writes of her own sexual assault, and the domestic abuse she suffered in her first marriage, to Portuguese journalist Jorge Arantes.
The two met after Rowling moved to Porto in the devastated aftershocks of her mother’s death from multiple sclerosis in 1990. The couple’s daughter was born in a short and unhappy marriage, but when Rowling decided to leave there was, in Arantes words: “a violent struggle. I had to drag her out of the house at five in the morning, and I admit I slapped her very hard in the street.” (This June, in the wake of Rowling’s essay, he insisted that: “I slapped her, but I didn’t abuse her.”)
“The scars left by violence and sexual assault don’t disappear, no matter how loved you are, and no matter how much money you’ve made,” Rowling writes. “My perennial jumpiness is a family joke – and even I know it’s funny – but I pray my daughters never have the same reasons I do for hating sudden loud noises, or finding people behind me when I haven’t heard them approaching.”
Then follows the wobbling, precarious balancing-act that sits at the core of the essay. The weighing-up of such vulnerabilities against those of trans people:
“I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.
“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 is the simple truth.”
There, then, is our first clue to the question: why now? In 2018, the Westminster government launched a consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act. Those seeking to change the gender on their birth certificate might have been granted the power to “self ID”, no longer requiring a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria (defined by the NHS as “a sense of unease that a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity”).
In Scotland, however, the timeline has been different and distended. “The first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has made very clear her commitment to self-ID, persistently denying any adverse effects on women’s rights,” says policy analyst Lisa Mackenzie of Murray Blackburn Mackenzie, which has been scrutinising the Scottish Government’s actions on gender recognition reform.
Holyrood launched its consultation on GRA reform earlier than Westminster’s, in 2017. But the story did not end there. In fact, it still hasn’t. Westminster announced at the end of last month that England and Wales would not move towards a self-ID system. Scotland, however, has yet to make any decision. Instead, it wobbled, launched a second consultation then postponed its conclusions to focus on the pandemic. And, says Mackenzie, “the persistent failure of government and other public authorities to make clear statements about the parameters of existing anti-discrimination laws have meant that the issue has been left to be slugged out in the public square, in an atmosphere of increasing tension and antipathy.”
How so? Well, it depends who you ask. “It was widely suggested, and it was received by 90 per cent of people as saying, that [GRA reform] 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 born, go online, fill in a form,” says Finn Mackay, senior lecturer in sociology at the university of West of England in Bristol, who is currently finishing a book on the gender wars.
“All his legal paperwork will change overnight to say ‘F’ on them,” she continues. “He could then go out and use that the next day to get access to a women-only changing room… and commit 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.”
That, she argues, would never be the case: “in countries where they have taken away some of the reliance on medical criteria… it is still a legal process. 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, it’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…”
“Self ID gives predators the green light,” shouted the ad, placed in the Scotsman on 6 March this year, by the group formed to oppose Scottish government reforms. It encouraged readers to join a demonstration outside the Scottish Parliament against a bill that would “be exploited by predatory men who pose a real threat to women and girls”.
Were the timings of Rowling’s own interventions, and the provocation of her own traumas, tied to Holyrood’s management, or lack-thereof, of GRA reform? In her essay, she implies that her interest in trans issues dates to around 2017, placing us around the time of Scotland’s first consultation. Its second consultation was launched in December 2019, when Rowling wrote her first controversial tweet on the subject of trans rights and in support of Maya Forstater, a tax expert whose contract at the at the think tank Center for Global Development went unrenewed after she tweeted that transgender women can’t change their biological sex. That tweet read:
“Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill”
After that… quiet. Till 6 June 2020 and Rowling’s explosive tweet which, she explains in her essay, was issued after she read “that the Scottish government is proceeding with its controversial gender recognition plans”. Since there were no dramatic developments in Scotland’s GRA reform in early June, it seems likely she was referring to statutory guidance published on 2 June and relating to the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Act 2018. It sets a “gender representation objective” that 50 per cent of a board’s non-executive members should be women.
Sounds uncontroversial enough for a proud feminist like Rowling, but it was the definition of “woman” that rankled some women’s groups, since it didn’t require trans women to have had surgery nor, in the words of the guidance, “dress look or behave in any particular way” in order to qualify.
“I’ve read all the arguments about femaleness not residing in the sexed body, and the assertions that biological women don’t have common experiences, and I find them, too, deeply misogynistic and regressive,” writes Rowling. “It’s also clear that one of the objectives of denying the importance of sex is to erode what some seem to see as the cruelly segregationist idea of women having their own biological realities or – just as threatening – unifying realities that make them a cohesive political class.”
“I expected the threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate, to be called cunt and bitch and, of course, for my books to be burned,” writes Rowling. “…accusations of TERFery have been sufficient to intimidate many people, institutions and organisations I once admired, who’re cowering before the tactics of the playground. ‘They’ll call us transphobic!’ ‘They’ll say I hate trans people!’”
Rowling was, she implies, fully aware of the violent backlash that June’s tweets would trigger, yet she pressed send anyway, to strike a blow for freedom of speech. Ruth Serwotka is co-founder of Woman’s Place UK, a group set up in 2017 to ensure, in the words of its website, that “women’s voices would be heard in the consultation on proposals to change the Gender Recognition Act”.
The group held 27 meetings across the UK during the consultation process and at virtually every one, says Serwotka, the women who attended were “intimidated… heckled and pushed.” The group’s strategy, she says, remained firm: forge on with every meeting, not only to ensure that the women’s voices were heard but also to air the ugliness of their opposition in public.
“You know you’re going to get a misogynistic response,” says Serwotka. “You do the meeting because you want to draw out the response, and that’s what [Rowling]’s done. She wrote the essay. She knew the response was going to be misogynistic and sexist, and she’s done it anyway because that’s what that women’s rights activism has become. It’s literally gone back to that kind of suffragette model of… you have to stand up and be that brave.”
Serwotka has never met or conversed with Rowling, though she says that the author did follow Woman’s Place UK on Twitter. She has, however, seen the effects of Rowling’s public statements: “I think she has had a massive, massive impact on morale. That’s just been amazing. Just making women feel like, ‘yes, it’s worth keeping going’… The authority of her essay has been really important. We’ve seen more women being confident in saying that they do support us.”
Ruth even sees Rowling’s intervention reflected in the recent announcement of an independent review into NHS gender identity services for children and young people, and new department of education guidance for schools: “These things were going in that direction, but… being so high profile and having such a massive platform, what she injected was urgency…. Most policymakers now will be thinking: ‘I don’t want to be left holding this kind of problem and not looking like I’ve done anything about it. It’s becoming part of the mainstream discussion. So perhaps we need to have some reviews.’”
Lisa Mackenzie agrees. In Scotland, she says: “JK Rowling’s interventions have undoubtedly raised public awareness of this issue. Many of the feminist campaign groups regard her long-form essay as the perfect articulation of the concerns they have been raising with politicians over the past few years. The draft hate crime bill being considered by MSPs is bringing some of the same issues to the fore and there will be a judicial review of the Scottish government’s redefinition of ‘woman’ under the Gender Representation on Public Boards Act 2018. GRA reform is already coming up during candidate selection hustings and it seems highly likely that it will be an election issue next May, as it was during the 2019 UK general election.”
Sarah Steelman, a therapist specialising in “trans affirmative practices” in Las Vegas and, till now, a mega Harry Potter fan, also thinks Rowling’s interventions were politically motivated: “She understood what she was doing and she was doing it purposefully, at the time that she needed to do it, in order to try and push these laws into action, and have people think about trans people in these ways. I don’t think it’s a problem for celebrities to talk about politics, but… I think that she should have been upfront about why she was talking about this when she was talking about it and what she was trying to do politically, because that is a very different conversation than that which most of us thought we were having.”
If Rowling’s effect on political and cultural attitudes is hard to measure, its effect on the trans community is abundantly obvious to Steelman: “Since her June statements, I have been incredibly overwhelmed with calls,” she says, citing an 11-year-old child who told her: “I don’t know how my parents will take it, if I tell them what I am now realising, because we’ve had conversations about JK Rowling and my dad and my mom said these things and now I don’t know if they’re going to be safe with what I have to tell them.”
Rowling’s essay reveals that she has been accused of “literally killing trans people with my hate”. “I don’t think JK Rowling is leaving her home and actually murdering a trans person,” says Steelman, “but that isn’t what you need to do anymore to have that impact. When you have power, you have responsibility. And she knows that because the books are about it.”
In the early stages, says Steelman, LGBT+ organisations including the trans youth charity Mermaids contacted Rowling and her office privately to offer what Mermaid called ‘a calm conversation around the issues she has raised’. They had no reply. Instead, says Steelman: “she’s just been louder.”
Hate crimes against trans people, as recorded by the police in England, Scotland and Wales, rose by 81 per cent between 2016-17 and 2018-19, from 1,073 to 1,944. Last month, Joe Biden called their incidence in the States an “epidemic that needs national leadership”. “JK Rowling is fuelling that fire,” says Steelman, “in a way that it didn’t need to be fuelled.”
She sees a painful irony. The Potter books’ theme of embracing your difference might easily resonate with a young trans person: “so I think there probably is merit in saying that a lot of the fans that got into Harry Potter that ended up recognising and coming out as trans could have done so because of Harry Potter.”
Data published by the NHS’s Gender Identity Development Service shows that the number of child referrals for gender identity issues rose from 97 in 2009-10 to 2,519 in 2017-18, a phenomenon that worries Rowling. Yet that very rise, suggests Steelman, could even be linked to the books: “allowing yourself the ability to explore, being affirmed, being told that you don’t have to be any one way, does open you to be able to question these things.”
It is not only the trans segment of the fan community, however, that has been hurt and enraged by Rowling’s statements. “A lot of our readership got very angry,” says Kat Miller, creative and marketing director at MuggleNet, one of the franchise’s very oldest fan sites, attracting between 80 and 100 million visitors a month.
There is a further irony here. In 2014, a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology claimed that reading Potter books left readers more sympathetic to stigmatised groups such as immigrants, refugees and, yes, LGBT+ people. While Rowling has often led fan’s liberal leanings by personal example – making charitable donations so vast and generous she dropped off Forbes‘ list of billionaires; founding her own charity; dutifully paying tax; and comparing Donald Trump to Voldemort – she does not appear to have courted or even felt comfortable with the deification that followed. “There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher,” she said in the New Yorker interview. “I was always, I think, completely honest.”
Yet both Miller and Steelman are now witnessing a growing boycott. A community of fans, says Miller, are saying: “I’m not going to the theme parks. I’m not going to see films. I’m not going to buy new books.” Will that boycott have any real impact on the future and profitability of the franchise?
“This is going to hurt me to say it, but no,” says Miller. “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… But the Harry Potter machine, the wizarding world machine is very large…”
Steelman, on the other hand, can foresee a longer-term whittling away of the Potter cool-factor. As with Chick-fil-A, the fast food chain that faced protests last year over its opposition to same-sex marriage: “You might not remember exactly what they have or haven’t done along their history, but you know that people have opinions about Chick-fil-A. And I think that Harry Potter could get to that place for people. Maybe we won’t remember the origins of a boycott, but we’re going to remember there’s something to Harry Potter… some sort of complication.”
The noughties were a simpler time. Bloomsbury published Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone in the UK in 1997 and Rowling sold the film rights for Harry Potter to Warner Bros. two years later. According to Cassie Brummitt, Rowling’s reputation as the saviour of childhood literacy – with millions of children eager to read thanks to the Potter books – gave her an extraordinary degree of influence over the movies’ production: “She managed to escape the idea that she’s commercial in any way. So she had a lot of prestige.” That, and the fact the early movies were made while Rowling was still writing the books that would end their story.
If a creature (or, indeed, Kreacher) was to be cut from a movie, Rowling would personally intervene in the script writing, to explain that he would have a vital role in future films. If she didn’t like the idea of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys (and she did not), the idea was nixed.
The franchise developed apace. While Warner Bros. owned film and video game rights (and, eventually, the studio tour at Leavesden), Universal Parks and Resorts announced its acquisition of theme-park rights to the Potter franchise in 2007. A deal with Disney had reportedly broken down over the possible extent of Rowling’s involvement, but before the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Universal Studios Hollywood, samples of the food from restaurants and shops were flown to Scotland, so that Rowling could test them.
Then came 2011, a landmark moment in the franchise’s evolution, says Brummitt. The final Potter film was released and with it, the possibility that the franchise might lean on Rowling less. Yet, in a real-life echo of the human chess game at the climax of The Philosopher’s Stone, it seemed Rowling had yet to play her final move.
That year, Rowling jumped ship to a brand new literacy agency, The Blair Partnership, with which she developed Pottermore, an online platform giving her the power to sell her own e-books directly (now called Wizarding World, it has expanded into a fan site). In 2016, having also retained the stage rights to her work, she launched The Cursed Child – the epically long, two-part stage-play about the next generation of Hogwarts students. And while Warner Bros was still in the game, releasing the first of a reported five Fantastic Beasts movies that year, Rowling had expanded her reach here, too. Merely credited as a producer on the Potter productions, she would both write and produce these new prequel movies.
Everyone seemed content with this checkmate by the queen, and for good reason. “The Harry Potter books changed children’s publishing,” says Brummitt, “completely rejuvenating what was considered to be a struggling industry. The films changed the way that franchising works, now studios like Marvel owe their success to Harry Potter. The Cursed Child has changed the way that plays work, making the play into two parts over a whole day, and the theme parks have sold more tickets than ever before, completely changing Universal’s fortunes and making them a real rival to Disney. So Harry Potter is, in some ways, the most culturally influential franchise that’s ever existed.”
Yet it does not, always, appear to have been an unqualified success. In 2018, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald brought in 20 per cent less at global box offices than its 2016 predecessor, and a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 36 per cent compared to 74 per cent.
“Warner Bros.’ willingness to continue the series even though it’s on a downward path financially is evidence of playing the long game,” says Jeff Bock, senior media analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “Franchises like Harry Potter come around once in a blue moon in Hollywood. Outside of their DC properties, the Wizarding World arguably has the largest upside, so keeping on JK Rowling’s good side is of the utmost importance.”
Potter keeps on paying the bills, even in his twenties. During lockdown, Harry Potter books returned to bestseller lists. In August, a 3D release of The Philosopher’s Stone in China made $13.4 million in its first weekend, despite the original film’s vintage. Unsurprising, then, that those at the top of the franchise insist that it will continue developing apace, undaunted, unslowed and ultimately unaffected by the latest controversy.
“While some of her comments obviously polarised on social media,” says Bock, “it will be very interesting to see if the general public care about all the hubbub. The only way to accurately gauge that is to see if they open their arms – and, more importantly, their wallets – if, and when, another Harry Potter film drops.”
That does not, however, mean that it isn’t causing some heavy headaches within the franchise. In June, Rowling’s American publisher Hachette was forced to quell an apparent staff mutiny, when a group of employees objected to working on Rowling’s new children’s story, The Ickabog. “We will never make our employees work on a book whose content they find upsetting for personal reasons,” said Hachette in a statement, “but we draw a distinction between that and refusing to work on a book because they disagree with an author’s views outside their writing, which runs contrary to our belief in free speech.”
A week later, a group of authors resigned from the Blair Partnership over the agency’s response to the controversy, having asked it “to reaffirm their commitment to transgender rights and equality,” but ultimately concluding that it was “unable to commit to any action that we thought was appropriate and meaningful”.
Within days, Bloomberg reported that developers working on a hotly anticipated Potter video game, Hogwarts Legacy, were uncomfortable with Rowling’s comments. When, in September, Warner Bros released an FAQ about the game, it stated that: “JK Rowling is not directly involved in the creation of the game.”
“Isn’t that incredible?” says Brummitt. “To think where the Harry Potter franchise came from, completely predicated on JK Rowling’s influence. And now Warner Bros. is having to do damage limitation.”
Within the franchise, it seems, those reaping the greatest rewards from Rowling’s Midas touch are united in their support for her. Those lower down the paygrade? Less so. There’s more than money at work here, however. Beneath the power dynamic are generational fault lines.
Finn Mackay suggests that some roots of the current controversy can be found in the 1970s, when debates arose over whether women’s consciousness-raising groups and collectives in the US and the UK should include trans women. Indeed, Janice Raymond’s 1979 book The Transexual Empire argued that trans women reinforce traditional gender stereotypes by “reducing the real female form to an artefact, appropriating this body for themselves”.
Today, though young women do attend WPUK meetings, Serwotka sees a younger generation of feminists kicking back against the values of their predecessors. A natural instinct, she says, but one that results in “a policing of women”.
The generational divide is so deep that it extends beyond grassroots politics and into celebrity. Radcliffe, Watson, Grint… all millennial, all immediately and earnestly disavowing Rowling’s position. By comparison, when 58 famous names including Tom Stoppard and Lionel Shriver went public with their support for Rowling via a letter in the Times their average age hovered somewhere in the 60s.
A similar point about the average age of the authors could be made about the 150 writers who signed a letter published in the October edition of Harper’s Magazine, warning of “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”.
Read the story this way, and the young are shutting down free speech, aided by social media. Kat Miller, however, views this generational divide differently. Millennial fans grew up in an environment so saturated with Potter films, books and merchandise, that the Wizarding World and their own were almost impossible to disentangle. So: “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.”
“I feel like this generation, the millennials and the Gen Z… we’re not going to put up with that BS anymore,” she explains. “You know, we’re done. The world that we have been left is mostly trash and we’re done. We’re going to stand up. We’re not going to take it anymore.”
On 6 June, of course, there were plenty of opportunities to feel that an old guard had created a frightening dystopia, and that they were the ones silencing less powerful voices. A septuagenarian president refusing to wear a mask, police brutality against ethnic minorities, and now… this.
Aaron Devor occupies the world’s first Chair in Transgender Studies, at the University of Victoria in Canada. He’s also founder of the world’s largest transgender archives and is trans himself. Does he believe, as Rowling claims in her own essay and her supporters have asserted too, that research into and debate on trans issues is being stifled by a fear of protest or online attack?
“This kind of ideological pressure on people, to conform to a particular point of view and not engage in what I think is healthy, scientific scepticism is very widespread in society, in almost every topic,” says Devor, pointing to opposition to vaccination and climate change – subjects, he suggests, that have proven equally incendiary.
What of Rowling’s concerns that allowing self-identification might endanger cis women who use single-sex spaces? Trans women are women too, contends Devor. Opening up those spaces will in fact decrease the level of violence against women overall, because forcing trans women to use changing rooms, bathrooms and prisons for men frequently results in violent assaults against them.
“Now, is there evidence that cisgender women are being harmed by having transgender women in those spaces? No,” he says. “What we see is it’s not transgender people who are 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… that those heterosexual male predators gain access to that space by dressing themselves up as women.”
Nor does Devor think that research supports the claim made by Rowling in her essay that detransitioning (or, to use his preferred phrase, retransitioning) is happening in anything more than tiny numbers. A 2015 survey from the US-based National Center for Transgender Equality, one of the most robust available to Devor’s mind, puts the proportion of those doing so for at least a temporary period at eight cent, and those doing so for the long term at around three per cent.
Will 60 to 90 per cent of teens “grow out” of gender dysphoria, as Rowling suggests? Devor says that such claims often stem from old studies, dating from a time when all children and young people exhibiting gender non-conforming behaviour might be lumped together. Many of them, of course, were never trans and thus would not become trans adults. Today, says Devor, if children reach their teens having been persistent, consistent and insistent about their dysphoria, research indicates that they will remain so.
What of Rowling’s suggestion that social contagion (so called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria”) is influencing the 4,400 per cent increase in girls being referred for transitioning treatment in the UK over the past several years? Devor suggests that it is not necessarily the case that more girls are experiencing dysphoria, rather than the number who sought help was, till recently, artificially deflated because many believed treatment was only available to those transitioning from male to female. What we are witnessing now is a rebalancing, he suggests, as more information becomes available, especially online.
Indeed, Devor believes we are in the middle stages of a gender revolution: “where it’s going to end, I wouldn’t begin to predict right now. I see it going in the direction of a decoupling of the idea that who we are in everyday life in terms of our gender expression needs to be connected to our physical bodies… we will increasingly see people having the freedom to be very fluid and changeable in how they express their gender and that we will have… an infinite range of options available to us.”
Will JK Rowling then appear, as her critics insist, “on the wrong side of history”? It seems a risk she’s willing to take. She did not blunder into this argument. This is, after all, the woman who wrote a detailed family tree for every major surviving character in the Potter series, naming offspring who would never appear in the books, filling in their lives with birthdays and backstories that would never be read.
Like all of Rowling’s stories, June’s narrative was planned and researched. And while it is likely to have little commercial implication for the Wizarding World, it has sent profound shockwaves through her own: putting a spotlight on the things that define us as individuals and as a society, probing the boundaries of both identity and freedom of speech.