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J.K. Rowling Triples Down on Transphobia

J.K. Rowling. Photo: Greg Allen/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

J.K. Rowling, as you may have heard, has some Opinions about trans identity, some of which she aired on Twitter in early June. Sharing an article on period poverty, the author took aim at the phrase “people who menstruate.” As became clear from her subsequent explanation, Rowling believes that womanhood somehow hangs on this biological function, logic that excludes trans women and gender-nonconforming people. Many read her comments as transphobic, and with criticism growing, Rowling published a 3,690-word response on June 10. In this essay, entitled “TERF Wars,” she both broadly declares her support for trans people, while doubling down on her original suggestion that trans women do not actually qualify as women.

And now, weeks after publishing her controversial essay, Rowling has reiterated those beliefs at length, while also implicating people who take mental health medications. It is, as you may have intuited, a lot to unpack.

Rowling’s June essay sparked outrage for its reliance on anti-trans talking points.

In the June 10 post, Rowling named five core reasons for her position. The two that animate the essay, however, are a suspicion that young people who decide to transition (particularly adolescent girls heavily influenced by their peers, an idea that has been thoroughly debunked) often “grow out of their dysphoria” and come to regret their decisions; and Rowling’s fear, as a survivor of sexual assault and domestic abuse, that opening the doors of a women’s restroom to “any man who believes or feels he’s a woman” means “open[ing] the door to any and all men who wish to come inside,” jeopardizing female safety.

Naturally, the existing online criticism of Rowling’s position did not cool with the publication of this rebuttal. One reader summed it up as a “TERF bingo card,” and indeed the term TERF — which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist and in its current usage, often describes a liberal woman whose brand of feminism excludes transgender women from its push for equal rights — is one that Rowling heard many times between hitting send the tweet that kicked off the controversy, and the birth of this essay.

Jen Richards, a transgender writer, actress, and producer, summarized Rowling’s argument as “garden variety anti-trans bigotry” that distracted from the Black Lives Matter movement “at the very moment” it “has taken the global center stage.”

Others took issue with Rowling’s disclosure of past trauma as a justification for a fear of trans women. “Like JK Rowling, I am also a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault, both of which occurred in my teens,” one user wrote. “These awful experiences don’t justify bigoted and trans-exclusionary views and I find it pretty disgusting that she’s using them as a shield to deflect criticism.”

In a lengthy thread that provides a point-by-point fact-check of Rowling’s essay, Andrew James Carter, co-founder of a user-moderated social network called Podium, underscored that “there are no end of checks required before trans people receive [gender affirmation] surgery,” if they decide to do so. And indeed, the process is long and very costly; it’s not something that can be undertaken on a whim, particularly not by the minors Rowling seems so concerned about. As for restroom-based perils, Carter notes, “The danger to women (trans and cis) comes from cis men. By campaigning for trans women to be excluded from women’s spaces, transphobes are actively calling for trans women to be subjected to the very danger from which they (wrongly) claim to be protecting themselves.”

And indeed, the available numbers suggest that very few people (0.4 percent of 27,715 respondents, in one U.S. survey) detransition because of a belated change of heart, and there simply is no evidence to suggest that trans women are attacking people in bathrooms. On the contrary, allowing people to use the bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity appears to promote safety and wellbeing. Because, as Rowling seems almost to acknowledge, we are not lacking for examples of cis men exercising fatal violence against transgender women.

There is, of course, a lot more in the essay, which you can read in full here, if you feel so inclined.

Now, Rowling has followed that up with a Twitter rant conflating conversion therapy and hormone therapy.

Since all of this started, Harry Potter cast members and a number of other celebrities have publicly condemned Rowling’s views. Multiple fan sites have disavowed the author. But the sustained backlash has not deterred her. On Sunday, Rowling fired off 11 tweets in response to a Twitter user who noticed that she had liked a tweet arguing that “hormone prescriptions are the new anti depressants.”

“Yes they are sometimes necessary and lifesaving, but they should be a last resort,” the tweet said. “Pure laziness for those who would rather medicate than put in the time and effort to heal people’s minds.”

This parallel did not sit well with people who take daily medications to manage their mental health, nor did it land with people who have been prescribed hormones. Rowling apologized to no one. In her response, she instead wrote that, while she has “ignored porn tweeted at children on a thread about their art” along with “death and rape threats,” she is “not going to ignore this.” Which is to say, people retweeting a screenshot of a tweet she liked.

“I’ve written and spoken about my own mental health challenges, which include OCD, depression and anxiety,” Rowling wrote. “I did so recently in my essay ‘TERF Wars’. I’ve taken anti-depressants in the past and they helped me.” And then, she pivoted quickly back to another of the points made in that essay.

“Many health professionals are concerned that young people struggling with their mental health are being shunted towards hormones and surgery when this may not be in their best interests,” she argued on Sunday. “Many, myself included, believe we are watching a new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people, who are being set on a lifelong path of medicalization that may result in the loss of their fertility and/or full sexual function.”

Conversion therapy encompasses tactics ranging from emotional shaming to the use of electric shock and induced vomiting, all in an effort to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. In the opinion of the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “‘conversion therapies’ … lack scientific credibility and clinical utility,” and run a high risk actively harming subjects. Therefore, the AACAP believes, they “should not be part of any behavioral health treatment of children and adolescents.”

Hormone therapy, meanwhile, is a medical treatment eligible patients can pursue only after extensive consultations with a doctor. So again, the logic gets pretty tangled here. Forcing gay people to transition as a means of eliminating same-sex attraction would be a convoluted and counterintuitive means to an end, to say the least.

Meanwhile, as model and transgender activist Munroe Bergdorf notes, “Not supporting a trans kids transition doesn’t stop them from being trans. If anything forcing them to live as a gender they don’t identity as, is conversion therapy.”

“If you want to know what is best for trans people, listen to trans people,” she added. “Listen to supportive parents who have watched their children flourish after being listened to.”

This article has been updated.

J.K. Rowling Triples Down on Transphobia