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A Tortoise File

Trans Rights

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

Trans Rights

First published
Monday 2 November 2020

Last updated
Tuesday 17 November 2020

Why this story?

JK Rowling built an empire – and she built it with care. It began with the publication of the first Harry Potter book in 1997. And it continued with a million more words across a series of meticulously planned sequels and spinoffs. There were blockbusting film deals, but not many appearances in the press. She amassed a mega-fortune, then distributed lots of it to charitable causes. She was untouchable.

But, this year, something changed. Rowling had occasionally involved herself in political debates, including those over Scottish independence and Brexit – but nothing like the one she stepped into in June. In a number of tweets and one extended essay, she situated herself in the middle of an argument about trans people and their rights. For some, Rowling was bravely standing up for natal women. For many others – including many Harry Potter fans – she was betraying the tolerant values espoused in her books.

This Tortoise File asks a simple question: why? Why did JK Rowling dive into such a fractious debate and potentially risk her empire in the process? To answer the question, we traversed a lot of ground – from Rowling’s past to the current legislative battles around trans rights, from fan culture to generational divide. Here is what we found.