On Wednesday, the New York Times received two open letters — one from advocacy and human-rights groups and another from hundreds of contributors — urging the paper to reform its approach to covering stories about transgender people. According to GLAAD, the Times has routinely adopted a devil’s-advocate approach in articles that question medically accepted standards for gender-affirming care. Its reporting has been used by conservative politicians to justify new laws targeting trans youth, and it has published pearl-clutching columns worrying that gender-inclusive language amounts to the erasure of women or that giving children more latitude to express their gender undoes some of feminism’s gains.
For all of those reasons, GLAAD’s first request of the Times is that it “stop printing biased anti-trans stories” immediately. Instead, one day after the letters went public, the paper published another divisive opinion by Pamela Paul, the columnist who authored both of the takes mentioned above. On Thursday, Paul came out with “In Defense of J.K. Rowling,” an op-ed arguing that criticism of the author — whose definition and understanding of womanhood seems to hinge on biological sex — as transphobic is neither fair nor accurate. Paul doesn’t take the time to analyze the Harry Potter author’s actual comments but nonetheless concludes the following:
Nothing Rowling has said qualifies as transphobic. She is not disputing the existence of gender dysphoria. She has never voiced opposition to allowing people to transition under evidence-based therapeutic and medical care. She is not denying transgender people equal pay or housing. There is no evidence that she is putting trans people “in danger,” as has been claimed, nor is she denying their right to exist.
No, she simply doesn’t seem to believe that trans women really are women — an attitude that denies the validity of their existence. When Rowling flags herself as an ally — when she writes that “trans people need and deserve protection” or “I want trans women to be safe” — she routinely follows up with some form of “but” that draws a thick line between trans women and all other women. That is why some of Rowling’s former fans have branded her a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), and while she dislikes the label, she shares the gender-essentialist view at its core: that womanhood is fixed, intrinsic, and anatomically determined. Rowling has stuck to this line for years, even though doctors and scientists agree that sex assignment and gender are not the same thing.
The first controversy came in December 2019, when Rowling tweeted her support for Maya Forstater, a British researcher whose contract was not renewed when the think tank that employed her found “offensive and exclusionary” language — such as her statement that “men cannot change into women” or “transwomen are male,” to name just a few examples — in her social-media and Slack history. In Rowling’s retelling, this was a case of a woman being “forced” out of her job “for stating that sex is real” — an oversimplification but a telling one. Trans-exclusionary feminism relies on the idea that “sex is a biological fact and is immutable,” as Forstater would put it, and that it determines whether a person is a man or a woman.
Operating on that premise, Rowling has identified menstruation as a hallmark of womanhood, wondering what to call “people who menstruate” in a June 2020 tweet. “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people,” she wrote, “Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” This, too, received pushback: Having a uterus is a prerequisite for getting a period, and while many people in that camp are cisgender women, many others are trans men, nonbinary people, the list goes on. At the same time, lots of cisgender women can’t or don’t get periods for a wide range of biological reasons including menopause, an overactive thyroid, and polycystic ovary syndrome. In response to the criticism of her quip, Rowling reiterated her stance: “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.”
The truth is that sex isn’t the decisive factor in determining identity that Rowling thinks it is. What of people born with XXY chromosomes, androgen insensitivity syndrome, or ambiguous genitalia? But Rowling won’t let it go, and her obsession seems rooted in a misplaced fear — that trans women will harass, assault, even rape “natal girls and women” if they are allowed to use the same protected spaces. In an essay addressing the June 2020 Twitter controversy, “TERF Wars,” Rowling acknowledged that trans people, and particularly trans women, face disproportionate rates of violence. According to a recent study, they are more than four times as likely as cisgender people to experience rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault — including at the hands of a partner. But, Rowling wrote, “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.” It’s not, though. There’s no evidence to suggest that trans people are committing crimes in bathrooms.
Every time she starts talking about trans issues, Rowling seems to resurface another damaging and debunked misconception. She has claimed, erroneously, that youths who transition often “grow out of their dysphoria” and regret their decision — an attitude that is, right now, guiding Republicans as they restrict access to gender-affirming care for minors. She has speculated that hormone therapy is just “a new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people.” In that sense, beliefs like Rowling’s are dangerous — particularly when they’re peddled by a figure with her level of reach and influence.
Paul and Rowling are both cisgender women — a status for which neither is under attack (I say all of this as a cisgender woman myself), but which naturally means they can’t speak with authority on what it means to be a transgender woman. Yet when Rowling’s trans readers say, “What you said hurt me and here’s why,” she seems to skip over introspection and springs to self-defense. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, yes, but opinions can be offensive too. They can be bigoted. They can be factually unsupported. They can be damaging. They can do harm — intentionally or not. That’s something Paul and the Times don’t seem to grasp.