A number of individuals and organisations have responded swiftly, eloquently and comprehensively to J.K. Rowling’s recent ‘essay’ in which she detailed her reasons for speaking out about sex and gender issues. I won’t pretend that I have anything unique to add. However, I am also aware that in moments like these, the trans community shoulder the burden of countering such arguments and the consequences of this can be overwhelming. As a cis woman, although angry and frustrated by Rowling’s words, I have the luxury of responding safe in the knowledge my existence is currently not up for debate.
I am a UK-based author of several novels for young adults. My debut The Art of Being Normal explores the experiences of two transgender teenagers growing up in the UK and was inspired by the two year period (2010-2012) I spent working at the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), a highly specialised NHS clinic for under-eighteens struggling with their gender identity. Prior to landing the job, my knowledge and understanding of the transgender experience was limited to sensational headlines in tabloid newspapers and the odd television documentary. This quickly changed. In my role as administrator, one of my tasks included typing up therapy sessions notes. Via this process, I soon found myself slipping into the shoes of the young people who visited the service. Although no one patient’s experience was identical, they all seemed to share a similar wish – to be listened to and taken seriously, at the same time as not being defined purely by their atypical gender identity. With this in mind, and having noted the severe lack of young adult literature featuring transgender characters, I set about writing The Art of Being Normal. The book was published in early 2015 – a watershed year for trans visibility in the arts and media. The timing was not engineered, but I was proud to be part of what felt like a real shift forward, optimistically assuming the increase in coverage would eventually lead to wider-spread understanding and acceptance. I certainly didn’t imagine that five years down the line, one of the UK’s best loved children’s authors would dedicate over 3500 words to spreading ignorance and fear about a community that already has its very existence ‘debated’ on an everyday basis. Although I’ve read countless versions of Rowling’s argument, I’ve never witnessed someone with her influence and reach speak out in this manner. At a moment in time where marginalised groups are more vulnerable than ever, her decision (as a white, straight, cis billionaire with over 14 million Twitter followers) to punch down, is quite extraordinary.
The essay raises a number of curious points, some of which I will address here. The suggestion that confused young lesbians may be pushed into transition is at serious odds with the current waiting times to be seen by GIDS – between 22 and 26 months. Likewise, surgery is not an option until adulthood and waiting lists are notoriously long. The overall pace of transition is actually slower than ever, and in the majority of cases, teens will have to wait several years before being able to access physical treatment of any kind. In the meantime, there is ample opportunity for thought and reflection, should a young person realise they no longer wish to pursue treatment.
The focus on the sanctity of single-sex places is likewise disquieting, especially when you consider the fact trans people have been legally able to use single-sex spaces since 2010 (see the Gender Recognition Act) – long before it became front page news. This particular issue has become an obsession in the media over the past few years, especially in The Times and The Sunday Times, whose track record for negative coverage of trans issues has been well-documented by Christine Burns MBE (see her excellent recent twitter thread for further details). The idea that a cis man would go to the trouble of transitioning (a process with a minimum three year waiting list) in order to sexually abuse women in a single-sex space is not only preposterous and entirely theoretical, but perpetuates the damaging myth that trans women are somehow predatory.
Rowling’s insistence that women are defined by their ability to menstruate makes it abundantly clear that her definition of what it is to be female is not only incredibly narrow, but hopelessly old-fashioned. As a cis woman, I’m sure I’m not alone is stating that my period is pretty low down on the list of things that come to mind when I consider my gender identity.
Although I was shocked and saddened to read of Rowling’s experiences of domestic abuse, I was initially confused as to why they’d been included in this particular essay, until it dawned on me that she is able to link the two issues (trans rights and domestic abuse at the hands of cis men) because ultimately she believes trans women are not women.
I was 17 when the first Harry Potter title was published and although I’ve read a few of the books, and seen some of the films and enjoyed them, the world Rowling built was not an intrinsic part of my childhood experience. I know of countless people – cis, trans and non-binary – who feel acute disappointment and despair that the creator of the characters they hold so dear, has expressed anti-trans views at a time when the world already feels so broken. As an author for young people, whether you like it or not, you have a certain responsibility towards your audience. This does not mean you have to be ‘perfect’, or adopt views that are not your own. However, it does mean you should take a moment to consider the consequences of your words and actions. No one asked Rowling for her opinion on this issue and yet she felt it appropriate to publish her essay knowing full-well that it would be read by millions. For every person who felt outrage reading her words, there were very possibly many more who found themselves convinced by her carefully crafted arguments, forming opinions of their own off the back of them. Rowling’s views are troubling, but her calculated decision to share them with her huge audience, putting the lives and rights of trans people everywhere at risk in the process, is just as painful.
By Lisa Williamson