Oh, wait – what? Oh, it’s not that book series? Oh, okay. Well…
It’s been a while since I’ve blogged on here. Feels like it, anyway.
There is, though, a recent matter that I feel it necessary to comment on. And that is the nagging issue of one Joanne ‘J.K.’ Rowling, aka Robert Galbraith, and the acrimonious Twitter flare-up of which she is currently the centre.
I’ll be commenting on this at length. I hope you can bear with me.
J.K. Rowling is fairly universally known as the author of the terrifyingly popular Harry Potter books and the massive multinational franchise built on them. Just for the record, not that I’m suggesting it may become relevant later, Rowling has a personal net fortune of £750,000,000, according to the Sunday Times Rich List (*bleurgh*) in 2019, and she has a Twitter following of 14.5 million accounts.
You may want to keep those stats in mind as we move on.
Rowling is currently being fiercely criticised, and equally fiercely defended, over tweets she chose to make recently which have been widely interpreted as transphobic. This, incidentally, she chose to do in the midst of a global pandemic and a wave of huge social unrest and anger across many countries, particularly the USA, at the racist oppression and all-too-frequent murders of Black people at the hands of the police forces that are supposed to be protecting them.
Oh, and it’s also Pride month. Happy Pride Month!
But this was the moment Rowling chose to make snarky comment about an article she’d seen on the Devex website (a ‘global development community’) whose headline she took umbrage at.
So, what did she say that was so wrong?
The article carried the headline “Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate”.
This obviously got stuck in Rowling’s craw. She tweeted in response:
“‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
After an initial round of criticism for this tweet, Robert doubled down, and issued the following response:
“If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. 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.”
And, just in case anyone thought she might be speaking out of ignorance, she took pains to ensure the world knew that wasn’t the case:
“I’ve spent much of the last three years reading books, blogs and scientific papers by trans people, medics and gender specialists. I know exactly what the distinction is. Never assume that because someone thinks differently, they have no knowledge.”
All right. So that’s the inciting incident, as they say in fiction writing.
Okay… But why was it wrong?
The response to what she said has been… vocal. Masses of people expressing opposition, disappointment, hurt and anger; and lots of other people explaining that actually she’s Entitled To Her Opinion, that it’s all about Free Speech, that she was Just Stating Facts, a lot of rambling guff about the “Trans Agenda”, and that Lobby we’re supposed to all be in only my membership card never arrived, and how we want to control everybody’s thoughts with our magic degenderising queer brain rays.
In amongst all this squabbling to-and-fro there are a number of people exclaiming that they don’t understand and what’s it all about and why are people so upset and it’s all so very confusing… Truthfully, many of those people are very obviously sealioning – that is, asking questions with a pretence of sincerity when in fact they already know damn well what the answers are going to be but they just want to waste people’s time and cause more upset. And if trans people and their allies are reacting dismissively and angrily towards people asking questions, you have to understand that they have to deal with sealioning all the time. It gets tiring, and depressing, and frustrating. Many if not most openly trans people (that is, those who make it part of their public identity – bear in mind many will want to treat it as a private matter, and they have every right to do that) want to explain things to people who don’t understand. We get that this stuff is unfamiliar to most people. But when you spend time sincerely trying to answer people’s questions and address their concerns, only to find the person you’re talking to is taking the piss… Honestly, it gets wearing. People get tired.
Still, I like a bit of punishment, so I’m going to offer as thorough an explanation as I can. Brace yourself. It gets tangly. And very, very wordy. But it’s a complicated issue, and it takes words.
I’m going to have to assume a basic understanding of the transgender ‘condition’ on your part. I use the word ‘condition’ cautiously. I’m not seeking to imply that being trans is a medical condition: it might once have been considered such, but medical science and psychologists around the world now conclude that it is simply an aspect of human variation, like sexuality; though, like other such variations, it can require accommodation, at least in social terms, in order to avoid the development of psychological stress, and distress, in the individual. So by ‘condition’ I simply mean ‘the condition of being trans’, as opposed to, well, not being.
Still, the general manifestation of the transgender condition is a mismatch between the gender role that has been assigned to you by your society based on your physical sexual characteristics, and the gender role that you feel psychologically attuned to, which may be more commonly associated by that society with someone who has ‘the other set’ of physical sexual characteristics. In short, if you’re observed to have a penis when you’re born, you’re probably going to end up with a “boy’s name”, given a lot of stuff that’s blue, expected to play with ‘action figures’ rather than dolls, be interested in sports and guns, and ultimately grow up and go into a career doing something traditionally associated with men. If you’ve got a vagina, then it’s “girls’ names”, pink, dolls rather than action figures, be interested in princesses and domesticity, and you’re likely (even in 2020) to be nudged, even if implicitly, into traditionally “feminine” careers.
Yes, there’s a whole shitload of gender stereotyping in there, but that’s kind of the point: society fits people into assumed gender roles – including all those expectations, whether explicit or implicit – based on the physical characteristics they’re born with.
So immediately we can see there are two elements at play here: there’s someone’s physical sex, and there’s the person’s gender – that is, the role they’re expected to play in society based on those sex characteristics. Transgender people may – as I did – feel that the sexual characteristics are themselves wrong, and seek to change them (what is now less commonly, though I still use the term to describe my own case, called being ‘transsexual’); or they may feel that the gender-role assignment specifically is wrong, and wish to assume a different gender role, but may be less specifically concerned about the physical features. ‘Transgender’ covers both of these; and it includes people who don’t feel they belong in either gender classification. You’ll often hear these people referred to as ‘non-binary’ – i.e. they don’t see themselves as either male or female.
(If you take nothing else from this, cling to the fact that transgender matters are godsdamned complicated and the experience is very, very individualised.)
I’d ask you to stick a pin in all this stuff about sex and gender, because it too will become relevant again later.
So. Why’s Rowling getting all this stick for saying she believes in physical sex? Why has this drawn such ire from trans people and their allies; and why has their ire been met with such derision and dismissal from Rowling’s own?
To examine the factual and logical faults in what Rowling has said, I’m going to take the first and second tweets that I’ve quoted above as a single block, because it’s necessary to understand the one to appreciate the impact of the other.
Rowling is arguing that “people who menstruate” equates to “women”. She indicates that they are synonymous. Now taken on its own, that wouldn’t seem unreasonable, and it’s quite possible to imagine that comment, stripped of all other context, to have been a simple matter of being a little inconsiderate of human variety. But the simple fact is that the terms are not equivalent. This becomes a trans issue because there are trans men: that is, people who were observed to have female sex characteristics at birth and so have been placed into a female gender role in society, but who psychologically feel themselves to be, and therefore identify themselves as, men. Many of them menstruate. Thus, by Rowling’s assertion, those trans men are women – despite the fact that they are expressing their internal sense of themselves as being men.
By insisting on this equivalence, Rowling is also denying the womanhood of those women who were born with female sex characteristics – in other words, non-transgender women – who for whatever reason do not menstruate. Some may have, at some point in their lives, so it would be possible to backpedal Rowling’s assertion and broaden it to take in ‘people who menstruate or who have menstruated’ – but already then we’re starting to see cracks in the confidence of the assertion; and still, we exclude born women who have never had the experience.
Remember, I’m taking the two tweets together here, since the second of the two reinforces the intent of the first. It could be argued that she was merely caught out by an odd phrase she hadn’t met before, but the second tweet tells us that she is very aware of the issues surrounding what she’s saying and that she is deliberately seeking to comment on those issues.
So from a very basic, factual reading, the assertion Rowling made in her first tweet – the intent of which was reinforced by the second – is in itself wrong, or at best, hopelessly imprecise to the point of being functionally wrong. Womanhood cannot reasonably be defined as and limited to the experience of menstruation. It would rope in a lot of people who do not consider themselves to be women; and it would rule out a lot of people who do. The question of What Makes A Woman/Man is a difficult one, but it is clear that it’s far from being something that can be defined by reference to a single sexual characteristic.
Then, there’s the invented ideology that she’s presenting herself as opposing:
“If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.”
The thing is… nobody’s saying sex isn’t real. Literally no-one. This is what’s called a straw man: that is, it’s an artificial opponent that’s easy to attack. A straw man argument is one that attacks a position one’s opponent in a debate does not actually hold and has not expressed, because it’s easier than engaging with what they have said. This particular straw man is a very common one used by anti-trans campaigners, and trans people are confronted with it very frequently: it’s designed to make trans people seem threatening, and to be irrational enough an argument for it to be easy to defeat.
But it’s not an argument trans people are making. Nobody’s saying sex isn’t a real thing. The case made by trans people and by specialist professionals around the world is that sex and sexuality and gender are complicated, and don’t always fit comfortably. That’s the argument. Sex isn’t just a simple A or B, 1 or 0. It’s complex, it’s nuanced, and as I said, it’s not a simple thing that can be fully defined by reference to this or that characteristic, because there are always exceptions; there is always a blurred line. And, as we’ve seen, sex and gender used in these contexts are not the same thing in any event. A penis is a male sexual characteristic. A vagina a female one. Literally nobody is arguing otherwise. Yet it is a standard trope of anti-trans campaigners that trans people wish to make sex disappear which obviously would negate any self-identity based on one’s own sex characteristics. But that’s not a thing anybody is trying to do. Sex is complex. That’s the point trans people would ask people to recognise. Gender is also complicated. The way the two interact is incredibly complicated.
But nobody – at least nobody in the trans community – is trying to make sex or sexuality go away. If you identify yourself as a woman or a man because you have those physical attributes, that’s just fine. If you define yourself as straight because you experience opposite-sex attraction, great! Nobody’s trying to take that away from you. And if you identify yourself as gay or lesbian because you experience same-sex attraction, also great! Nobody – at least, no trans person – is trying to take that away from you either. If you go for both, as I do, and call yourself bi- or pansexual, that’s fine! That’s safe too.
But we do recognise the argument that Rowling is using. It is very well known to us, and we know the context in which it generally appears. It’s not a supportive context.
Now you’ll notice that Rowling refers in her tweet to “the lived reality of women globally”. That’s an important phrase. She’s concerned here about the “lived reality” of women and there are two problems arising from this phrase in this context. First, she professes concern for “lived reality” when it is that of a group she recognises and which includes people she approves of: people whom she acknowledges as women. However, taking an anti-trans position necessarily requires denying the “lived experience” of trans people. The difference, then, apparently being that she approves of one population, but not the other. Therefore, it’s not a matter of the “lived experience” so much as the approval Rowling feels for the group in question.
Additionally, Rowling makes a fundamental mistake in presenting the “lived experience of women globally” as though it is a single, uniform experience. The simple fact is that principles of intersectionality mean that women around the world in different socioeconomic settings will have vastly different experiences. An argument commonly levelled against trans women is that we don’t really understand what it is to be a woman – that we don’t suffer the hardship and the discrimination of growing up female. And for many trans women that might be true. It’s certainly true that I did not have the experience of growing up as a girl and a young woman. But as a child I was fortunate to live in a relatively (on average) well-off rural area. It is just as true to say that the girls I grew up alongside, while not rich, any more than I was, certainly had a more privileged upbringing than many of their contemporaries in more economically disadvantaged urban settings, or even in the place I live now which is not that far away from where I grew up. The girls from my area were also white, growing up in an almost entirely white area. It’s likely they didn’t have anything like the same experience as Black girls growing up in majority-white communities where ethnic or racial tensions were more of a factor. In fact, it’s as true to say that the women (as with the men) who grew up in these different circumstances will have had vastly different experiences on average – though there will undoubtedly be similarities, they may be quite difficult to find.
Rowling is a white woman, and as we’ve noted, she is very very rich. Of course she’s told the story of the poverty she experienced before her books met with global success – but as a white woman growing up in the UK it is absolutely true to say that she enjoyed a degree of privilege that other women in the same country, even doubtless the same town, did not benefit from. Her “lived experience” pretty likely does not even translate to other women in her own neighbourhood, much less “globally”.
Trans people have also had a different experience from hers. We often grow up without confidence, without any sense of where we belong or what we can or should do. We miss opportunities because we don’t feel they’re ‘for’ us. We grow up as people who look in the mirror and see someone we don’t recognise looking back at us. We grow up feeling ashamed of ourselves, of our bodies, our voices. We go through puberty with horror, as we watch and feel our bodies being mutilated by floods of chemicals our minds are telling us we should not have. Trans men watch breasts appear that they then have to carry around with them and attend to despite knowing their chests should be flat and they shouldn’t have to be dealing with this: they shouldn’t have to wear bras or get tired from carrying weight that shouldn’t be there. They bleed every month when everything they are is screaming at them that this is wrong, this is wrong.
Conversely, trans women experience erections that cause us revulsion because what the hell is that thing doing there anyway? Sex itself is not an intimate act, sharing your deepest self with someone you love. It’s a reminder that you’re not what you’re presenting to the world; that you’re lying to everyone around you – including, probably, that person you’re engaged in intimacy with. It’s a reminder that you’re not what you should be. So you try to make yourself more ‘real’. You try to be more who you are, and not what your body, your physical… stuff… has invited society to tell you you are. You change your clothes. You change your hair. You put up with the looks and the whispers, the giggling, and the sneering grins. You change your voice; change your name; you try to tell people, “This is who I am really”, and, sure – some of them will accept you. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have had almost universally accepting friends, family and colleagues. Many don’t have that good fortune.
Even then, you still don’t feel right; you’re still struggling with your own body, so you might – you might – go and have your body altered. Sure, it can’t be perfect: as anti-trans commenters love to point out, you can’t change your chromosomes. And of course, you can’t. You can make an approximation at best. So you go through your surgery. You have parts of yourself taken away; other parts reconstructed – all in an effort to make your brain accept the body it’s in, and to persuade society that you’re serious about showing them who you are. So you go through the pain – and the pain doesn’t stop, by the way: I had my surgery over a year ago and I still hurt every day – but you go through it because you want people to know who you are. You want to feel closer to who you are.
Or maybe you don’t undergo those alterations. Maybe you don’t want to… that’s fine, it’s not compulsory… But maybe you do want to but you just don’t have the opportunity; or you try and it doesn’t help; or you go through it and no-one accepts you; or for fear of never being accepted you never dare try… and the pressure inside, the distress, the conflict, builds up and up and there’s nowhere for it to go, no way for it get out, and eventually all you can do is step onto that railway line and wait for…
Okay, yes, I think I might have got distracted there. But, since we’re here, I’d ask you to bear in mind that this is how real this “lived experience” is for trans people. These are the things trans people go through, put themselves through, just to try to be who they are. This is what they do just to try to please, please, just make it stop.
And this is what people on Twitter so casually, so breezily ask us to ‘debate’ in order to satisfy them that we’re real.
This is why we get tired.
Still, the point here is that there is no “lived experience of women globally” that can serve as any kind of metric for what women go through as they grow up and live their lives. Every woman is different, as every man is different. Conditions, contexts, socioeconomic situations, race and ethnicity, religion, degree of physical ability or mental capacity, natural attributes and aptitudes, social attitudes – all of these differ for just about everyone. There is no uniform women’s or men’s experience. Trans men, and trans women, are simply people, with their own experiences, some similarities and many unique differences, and recognising us as who we are does nothing to negate the validity of your own experience.
JK Rowling is a woman. I know that because she tells me she is. But that’s how I know it. Not because she’s had the same or even a similar experience as every other woman.
I said this was a long bastard of a post, didn’t I?
One last part, then.
Why did it hurt people?
Why did what she said hurt so many people, to the point that they responded with such anger and pain?
For this we need a little context. Rowling has, over the last few years, been observed to have been engaging in what’s referred to as ‘queer baiting’. This, in short, refers to her tendency to make announcements about the backstory of her characters which indicate more LGBT diversity and representation than is actually present in the stories. Her famous announcement that Albus Dumbledore was gay was met with enthusiasm from gay and questioning readers who felt the character – a prominent ‘good’ figure in the stories, wise and moral, and a mentor to Harry Potter – might represent that aspect of their own identities in a favourable light. But aside from a vague and ambiguous reference in the Fantastic Beasts movies, nothing Dumbledore said or did ever really addressed the supposed fact of his being gay. It seemed that Rowling was keen to win points for inclusion of minorities in her stories, without having to actually stick her neck out and include any.
When, more recently, Rowling started to associate publicly with anti-trans campaigners via interactions she initially claimed were ‘accidental’, she caused a lot of hurt amongst her transgender readers – and now that she has more openly advertised her position as an anti-transgender commentator herself, she’s caused a great deal more.
But why? Why are the trans being so sensitive about this?
The first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published in 1997, with the following books released every one or two years after that, through to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007. I never read the books myself – I’m not a big reader – but I watched the movies and I’m reasonably familiar with the stories; certainly with the overall themes.
A lot of people have grown up with these books. I was already a grown-up of sorts when the first book came out; but these books have been a huge part of many people’s childhood. And I’d ask you to understand that, for many young LGBTQ people, people who didn’t feel ‘right’, who didn’t feel they belonged, didn’t feel they were accepted by society, and felt obliged to hide who they were, these books and the world they portrayed, the Wizarding World, were quite literally lifesavers. A story world in which there was a place you could go where you could be who you were; you didn’t have to hide any more. A world where people understood you, where they’d had similar experiences to you and wouldn’t reject you for them. A place where your character and your spirit mattered more than what you looked like or where you’d come from. This was precious, deeply precious, for a lot of people.
In the real world, the mundane, Muggle world, Harry was just the nuisance orphan. He wasn’t wanted; wasn’t cared for. Who he was inside didn’t matter. The circumstances of his life made him an irrelevance to the Dursleys. They had, technically, to look after him, but they made it quite clear he didn’t matter to them. He wasn’t one of them. He didn’t fit in. But then… Then, he was invited to attend Hogwarts. He was given an opportunity to be who he was inside, not merely to spend his life living up (or down) to the Dursleys’ expectations of him.
Throughout the books, it’s made clear that the ‘good guys’ are the ones who accept people for who they are, no matter where they’ve arrived from. Hermione isn’t from a magical family, but she’s accepted at Hogwarts for who she is. The bad guys… Well, they’re the ones who concern themselves with genetic purity. They’re the ones who call people like Hermione ‘mudbloods’. They’re the ones who believe that what you are in life is a function of who you’re born to, what your physical makeup is. And that’s the bad guys: Slytherin, the Death Eaters, Voldemort and Grindelwald. That’s their primary trait, and it’s how we know they’re the bad guys: it doesn’t matter how good you might be at magic – if you’re not pure blood, you’re not a proper witch or wizard and you can’t be accepted. Your physical characteristics determine what you are, and what you can be.
Seeing the problem?
A generation of young LGBTQ people, and countless adults too, all comforted and reassured by the idea of a world in which acceptance was a key quality of the ‘good guys’ now find the author of that world turning on them, and giving them – and more frighteningly, giving to fourteen and a half million Twitter users – a message more consistent with that of the other side: you’re not pure. You don’t fit in here. Your mind, your soul, your heart don’t matter: only your purity. If your physical characteristics don’t fit, then you don’t fit. If you don’t meet the standards, you don’t count. Your “lived experience” doesn’t matter.
And that is why people are hurting.
If you’ve read through what is by far the biggest post I’ve ever put on a blog, then I thank you for giving me your attention for so long. And I hope that, in some way, I’ve managed to clarify why what JK Rowling said has caused pain, and why it’s elicited the responses that it has.