JK Rowling and the Proliferation of Mundane Transphobia

Damian Algabre

Summary: A statement against the insidious nature of casually transphobic rhetoric in UK media and the accompanying transphobic action which so often goes unexamined – Editors.

Although JK Rowling has a long track record that implicates her in anti-trans beliefs, thoroughly detailed by many websites, a recent Tweet has made her views more explicit than ever.[1] Rather than simply relisting her “sins” here and contributing to the so-called “cancel culture” that permeates online politics, I instead want to take this opportunity to decry not just transphobia but, more specifically, the insidious nature of trans-exclusionary rhetoric that has become so commonplace when discussing transgender rights online.

The context of Rowling’s tweet is as follows: On December 19th, Rowling tweeted to express solidarity with Maya Forstater, a consultant in 2018 for the London-based think tank Centre for Global Development (CGD), using the hashtag #istandwithmaya. Throughout her time at CGD, Forstater tweeted and retweeted statements which dehumanized transgender individuals and urged political action against them. This created enough tension at her workplace for her coworkers to complain, and Forstater’s contract with CGD was not renewed in 2019. Forstater then sued the company and its director for workplace discrimination under Britain’s Equality Act, although said act explicitly protects people against discrimination on the basis of “gender reassignment.” The ensuing trial set a legal precedent for the Equality Act’s potency, as the judge ruled against Forstater and interpreted the Equality Act to protect hospitable working environments for transgender people.[2]

Since Rowling’s tweet and throughout the controversy that followed, Forstater’s case has been reduced to short statements and article titles that inaccurately describe it. Rowling’s tweet characterizes the case ruling as “forcing women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real,” failing to engage with the fact that Forstater’s tweets went beyond “stating that sex is real” by directly rebuking policies which would grant trans people dignity and legal recognition. In particular, while she was a CGD consultant, Forstater lambasted government proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act to allow trans people to independently define their gender.[3]

The most insulting part of the way this and similar conversations have taken hold on the internet, however, lies in how insidiously lukewarm the transphobic rhetoric is. Rowling’s tweet (“Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you.”) reduces the plight and lived experience of any LGBT person to simply a matter of choice and, more specifically, choices which must be tempered against the well-being of society-as-is. While she brings up the important point that all people should have the agency to determine their own lives, Rowling’s sketch of such freedom remains hollow and abstract. Though tempered, Rowling’s tweet seems to reinforce the classic liberal idea that the only metric by which acceptance of LGBT people should be measured is whether or not they harm anybody. Of course, this is a completely disingenuous way to conceptualize the realization of transgender rights. Rowling essentially suggests that trans people be transgender in private rather than making their lives a public issue via public discourse, scientific research, or public policy. Regardless of Rowling’s statements in support of formal freedoms for LGBT people (all the while callously conflating each letter of the acronym), the public/private divide she insists upon prevents any actual or material means to personal freedoms for trans folks from being explored and secured.

By in this way obliquely framing queerness as danger, Rowling and others can point the finger at any LGBT group they disagree with and find so many contrived reasons to label them a threat to society. After all, it was not too many decades ago that gay men were so openly termed equivalent to pedophiles and predators. Today, the group under fire for their “threatening” stance is transgender folks.

Rowling isn’t the only recent famous case of this type of attack. A small but vocal group of anti-trans demonstrators, many from “gender critical” lesbian groups, disrupted London Pride 2018, painting trans people as rapists and invaders of LGB and women’s spaces. Then in December 2018, another well-loved icon, Father Ted’s Graham Linehan, campaigned on Mumsnet to appeal to concerned mothers about the dangers of “gender ideology” and of Mermaids UK, a nonprofit organization that serves transgender youth. He succeeded in mobilizing the conservative online forum to pressure the UK National Lottery to review their donation of £500,000 to Mermaids. When it comes to the topic of transgender rights, it seems that trans-exclusionary radical feminists and conservatives have found in each other, aside from a propensity for inflexible ideologies, unlikely allies.[4], [5]

Any individual’s rights to life and self-determination are too important to be measured solely by the disingenuous and manipulable logic that Rowling and others employ. Denunciations of transgender people/experiences that lie on appeals to tradition, no matter how veiled, are dangerous, particularly for the same reason that they are so easily accepted: they rehash and continually validate unreasonable stereotypes and fears. If Forstater’s, Rowling’s and Linehan’s actions are taken as examples, anti-trans activists benefit doubly from the wholesome traditionalist tinge to their message. Firstly, they naturalize gender to the point that the concept of gender is robbed of any potential for change, for better or worse. Secondly, the focus paid to their rights to “belief” de-emphasizes the actions that all too often accompany them, actions (such as fighting policy or defunding charities) which materially and significantly attack the dignity and lives of transgender people.

If there is one lesson to learn from the way the debacle between Mumsnet and Mermaids turned out, however, it is that it is possible to denounce these stances and act against them in a positive way. After Linehan’s campaign, YouTuber Harry Brewis reached out to his social network and fundraised £264,000 for Mermaids through a 54-hour Twitch stream of the video game Donkey Kong 64. Throughout the stream, Brewis (himself a bisexual man) platformed multiple LGBT people and allies (including Chelsea Manning and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez) who expressed to those watching the importance of this issue and what trans rights meant to them.[6] This is how to fight mundane transphobia, and it is a great example of what transgender solidarity ought to be — people coming together to support and listen to each other in good faith.

 

References

[1] Romano, Aja. “J.K. Rowling’s Latest Tweet Seems like Transphobic BS. Her Fans Are Heartbroken.” Vox, Vox, 19 Dec. 2019, www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/19/21029852/jk-rowling-terf-transphobia-history-timeline.

[2] Bowcott, Owen. “Judge Rules against Researcher Who Lost Job over Transgender Tweets.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Dec. 2019, www.theguardian.com/society/2019/dec/18/judge-rules-against-charity-worker-who-lost-job-over-transgender-tweets.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Griffin, Louise. “Hbomberguy Hits Back at Graham Linehan after Mermaids Charity Stream.” Metro, Metro, 22 Jan. 2019, metro.co.uk/2019/01/21/hbomberguy-hits-back-at-graham-linehan-after-mermaids-charity-stream-every-time-you-tweet-five-people-donate-8371438/.

[5] Necati, Yas. “’Anti-Trans Protests at Pride Reveal the Long History of Transphobia in the LGBTQ+ Community’.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 15 July 2018, www.independent.co.uk/voices/anti-trans-protests-london-pride-transgender-transphobia-terf-lgbt-feminist-a8448521.html.

[6] Griffin.

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