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The ways in which J.K. Rowling’s critics silence trans voices

ByRob Lownie

Oct 19, 2020

Content warning: discussion of misogyny and transphobia; mentions of domestic abuse and sexual assault

There are few current issues which inspire as much rancour as the debate over trans self-identification, and no individual, surely, who receives as much vitriol for their views on the subject as the author J.K. Rowling. She has been involved in two large-scale Twitter storms in recent months, one coming after her comments concerning ‘people who menstruate’, the second an entirely manufactured outrage following the publication of her novel Troubled Blood. A great deal has been written by commentators on both sides of the discussion, but a neglected area of focus is the extent to which Rowling’s many trans supporters are abused for daring to defend the apparently indefensible. Particularly pertinent here is the role of University of Edinburgh students in this bigotry. 

To reiterate, Troubled Blood is the fifth novel in Rowling’s Cormoran Strike series, an otherwise unremarkable detective saga written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. There is a brief mention of a killer donning a wig and woman’s coat as a disguise. That’s it. This innocuous description did not, however, stop Pink News from shrieking, inaccurately and perhaps libellously, that the book is ‘about a murderous cis man who dresses as a woman to kill his victims’. In turn, this prompted scores of internet wastrels, when nobody had read the book barring a handful of reviewers, to suggest that Rowling had characterised all trans people as murderers. 

As fury descended on the children’s writer from all angles, a post appeared on Edifess, the most popular of Edinburgh’s Facebook confessions pages. #Edifess4884, shared on 22nd September, stated: ‘im trans and i genuinely don’t think jk rowling’s new book is actually transphobic […] you can be cool with all sorts of racist/ sexist fiction stories and when a successful woman writes something negative about a man who dresses up as women, everyone hates on her [sic]’. 

In a debate as sensitive as trans rights, it is vital that the voices of the group in question are amplified. Whether members of the trans community support J.K. Rowling or vehemently disagree with her, we cannot afford to disregard them. The individual responsible for #Edifess4884, unfortunately, was not deemed to be a trans person worth listening to. They were told in the comment section, by various students both within and outside the trans community, that ‘being (or posing as) trans doesn’t give you the right to say what you like and harm the rest of us’, that they were guilty of ‘internalised transphobia’, and to ‘sit yourself down and maybe have a long, hard look at yourself.’ For another commenter, Rowling’s beliefs were ‘transphobic objectively no opinions needed [sic]’. Most disgusting, perhaps, was, ‘Odds on whoever wrote this not being trans?’

The questioning of this person’s gender identity, the suggestion that they are not really trans because their view differs from the rabid orthodoxies of a radical lobby, is unquestionably transphobic, far more so than anything Rowling has publicly said. This breed of trans person apparently does not have the right to ‘say what [they] like’, on a point of discussion where, it is claimed, ‘no opinions [are] needed’. This invalidation of a human being’s very existence is at best intolerant when it comes from another member of that community; when a cisgender student is responsible, it is extremely offensive. 

Six days later, there was a rare voice of solidarity for the earlier post. The author of #Edifess4933 expressed that, in response to #4884, ‘they were ‘baffled at how you, as a trans person, decide to share your genuine opinion about the book, and immediately are swarmed by presumably cis people in the comments telling you that you’re wrong and need to be offended.’ The poster added that, ‘as soon as your lived experience doesn’t align with their narrative, they try to silence you…It is mob mentality at its finest and it’s terrifying.’ 

The mistake here was the inclusion of the words ‘presumably cis’. The bulk of the comment section’s outrage was directed at this generalisation, when trans people were perfectly capable of abusive language too, thank you very much. In amongst all that was a particularly intriguing observation: ‘I am yet to know anyone who stands by JK Rowling, trans or otherwise.’ Said offhand, it reveals the ideological bubble that too many students occupy, when really Rowling’s views are, whether correctly or not, entirely mainstream. A YouGov poll from July shows that the majority of Britons do not think the process by which trans people can change their legal gender should be made easier. The same poll revealed that a majority of the population, both male and female, did not feel comfortable with pre-op trans people using changing rooms for the gender they identify as. 

Just as we increasingly reject binaries in the realm of gender, we must resist pigeonholing people based on their identity. Rowling has received support from the transgender community, with individuals choosing to speak out against a lobby which purports to have their best interests at heart. Trans activist Rose of Dawn appeared on Good Morning Britain last month to defend the Harry Potter creator, and accused those who were critical of Troubled Blood of conflating transvestites and transgender individuals, adding that Rowling’s views are widely shared and acceptable. Trans broadcaster India Willoughby spoke on the same programme three months earlier, after the whole ‘Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?’ debacle. According to Willoughby, the author made “really good points”, and gender self-identification had “set back trans rights, awareness and acceptance by at least ten years.” As with the anonymous Edifess poster, slurs levelled at Willoughby online would suggest that she is the wrong sort of trans woman. 

In an age where everyone with a Twitter handle can have a say, misinformation abounds. One of the great lies, and it is a lie rather than a misunderstanding, in circulation is that Rowling ‘wants trans people to die’. This is in spite of her repeated assertion that she believes in the inherent value of trans lives. In this discussion, there is no margin for nuance. The transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf has made clear that, “if you want to know what is best for trans people, listen to trans people.” This is entirely fair: trans people must be listened to when it is their rights which are at stake, but this umbrella cannot exclude the trans people who take Rowling’s side over that of the often cis-dominated trans lobby. Intolerance of ideological difference only causes the less discerning observer to confuse the trans community with the hard-line lobby. This leads, in turn, to a greater level of transphobia, where blameless individuals, already struggling to live a life free of prejudice, are tarred with a brush of extremism which bears no resemblance to their actual views.

I must make an authorial intervention here. As Editor-in-Chief, not every view I express matches those of the people who make up the wider community of The Student. However, I can confidently speak for everyone associated with this paper when I state that we, without hesitation, uphold trans rights. There are editors, writers and readers within our ranks who identify as trans or non-binary, and we will always fight for their voices to be heard. By necessity, this must include those who believe that this is an issue worth discussing, and that sending a woman rape and death threats for expressing an opinion is never the right course of action. 

There is legitimate criticism to be levelled at Rowling’s arguments, and this is present in some quarters, yet this has been drowned out by shrill, baseless cries of ‘witch’. When multiple male Twitter users invite a woman – a survivor of sexual and domestic abuse, no less – to ‘choke on my dick’, and express a desire to ‘smack’ her, ‘progressive’ is not the first word that comes to mind.

On 17th July of this year, we published an article addressing Rowling’s statements regarding ‘people who menstruate’. Two days later, on the 19th, it was taken down from our website amid a small hailstorm of name-calling and acrimony. When shared on Facebook, the comment section served as an early harbinger for the Edifess fanaticism to come. Critical insight ranged from ‘Bad take’ to ‘This take is bad and you should feel bad’, factoring in ‘Yo this fucking sucks’ and ‘This is Very Bad’. There was also a clamour among a couple of would-be revolutionaries to ‘burn this rag’, in reference to The Student. With Bonfire Night coming up, we have no qualms about readers using our pages for that purpose, provided they pick up a copy in the first place. Burn away, folks – we’ll even lend you the Bic. 

It is doubtful these commenters took the time to read the article. Had they done so, they would have seen that it was not wholly celebrating Rowling’s point of view. The piece (written by a cisgender author) made clear that she was ‘mistaken’ in implying that only women menstruate, and unequivocally defended the belief that ‘trans women are women’. It made entirely fair points about the erasure of biological sex at the expense of self-identification, and the effect this might have on female-only spaces and athletic competition, among other spheres. These are discussions which must take into account the views and rights of both biological and trans women. Any situation in which either of these parties is disregarded or belittled is a deeply unpleasant one.

The article established the distinction between sex and gender, but insisted that this distinction ‘does not override the concept’ of the former. According to the author, ‘trans rights and women’s rights are related spheres…for progress to be made, both sides may need to recognise this fact.’ In addition, Rowling’s comments ‘concern themselves with the way in which trans women’s rights might be achieved and implemented without undermining [biological] women’s rights and free speech’. Surely, this is the aim: reaching equality in a manner which gives trans individuals the dignity that they deserve without compromising the freedoms of those born into female bodies. That is the goal of so many trans women, and it is a shame that their voices are drowned out by a small number of people who claim to represent their interests.

Having been up for a little under 48 hours, the piece, totalling 1100 words or so, was taken down. It was later run by a different student website in Edinburgh, one that had the backbone to publish it and stand by that decision. As I wind towards the end of my editorial term, it is one of my great regrets in the role that I did not stand my ground on this issue. An editor should always prioritise principles over the avoidance of criticism, and I was guilty of genuine cowardice and intellectual dishonesty when I allowed the article to be removed. 

This is in contrast to the bravery of the trans women and men who take a risk they do not need to take. In defending J.K. Rowling’s right to express her views, regardless of whether they agree with her, they stand in opposition to the sanctimony of those non-trans people who seek to tell them what to think. They stand in opposition to the bullies who see no problem with telling a woman she is better off dead. They stand in opposition to those who deny their identity because they dare to diverge from what they are expected to say.  And I will gladly stand with them.

Image via Facebook

By Rob Lownie

Writer