Please, Just Be Nice To Us: TERFs, JK Rowling, and Trans Rights in the UK

Part One: Preamble

This is a topic on which I’ve not been particularly vocal, bar the odd Facebook post. This hasn’t been because I don’t have anything to say, or because I don’t think anything is worth saying, but because honestly, I’ve just been tired. The entire discussion around trans rights in recent years has been so hateful, so spiteful, and so vitriolic that I’ve found it much easier to just stay quiet. In true me fashion, however, that fatigue and disillusionment has now come full circle, and I’ve decided I can’t stay silent any longer. In this essay, I’m going to discuss transphobia, TERFs, JK Rowling, and the problems they have caused. I’m going to discuss why they’re bad, what the results of their actions have been, and where we stand on trans rights in the UK now, in October of 2020. It should go without saying, but this piece contains discussion of transphobia, transphobic violence, domestic abuse and sexual assault.

I’m going to focus heavily on JK Rowling herself, for a few reasons. For one, she’s become the most prominent face of TERF rhetoric in the UK. It’s now impossible to discuss the topic without mentioning her, at least in passing. Secondly, I think a lot of people don’t understand what exactly is going on with her. I’ve had discussions with people who are, or at least were, big fans of her work. Very often, they were just completely unaware of what was going on, and especially unaware of the impacts of her actions. In addition, people often seem unaware of how and why still buying her work and actively supporting it helps her argument and gives her more visibility. This is something I cannot let go unaddressed. Finally, JK Rowling presents an opportunity for an interesting case study into TERF ideology. At least for me, I find it easier to discuss these things with reference to a specific case, rather than trying to address them in some abstract sense. Rowling’s descent into transphobia is multifaceted and complicated, but ultimately, most of her arguments are just repackaged standard TERF rhetoric, and so provide us with an easy way to address them in context.

Before we dive headfirst into a discussion of JK Rowling, I think it’s important to discuss the differences between TERFs and transphobes, and develop a clearer understanding of what both of those terms mean, and what they look like. Google defines transphobia as, “dislike of or prejudice against transsexual or transgender people.” This seems pretty accurate. Transphobia exists, and is rife within our society and across the globe. It goes hand in hand with transphobes and anti-trans activists. TERFs, or Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, are just one subset of transphobes. They are, however, the most prominent group. While there are transphobes that oppose trans people on the basis of a flawed understanding of science, or religion, or any number of other grounds, TERFs have a specifically feminist lens through which they attack trans people, and upon which they base their opposition to trans rights. TERF rhetoric focuses on their beliefs that trans women are not ‘real’ women, and that womanhood is determined by socialisation, genitalia, sex chromosomes, and fertility. TERFs tend to ignore the existence of trans men entirely, and when they are considered they’re thought of as butch lesbians who want to escape womanhood, or confused young women who have been indoctrinated. 

As TERFs have become the most prominent group of transphobes, and their arguments are the ones that have been gaining the most traction and making the most political progress, more garden-variety transphobes have latched onto their arguments. Many who could never reasonably be considered ‘radical’ or ‘feminist’ by any stretch of the imagination are working alongside TERFs, and echoing TERF arguments, but are not, themselves, TERFs. It’s easy to lump them together into one group, and use transphobe and TERF interchangeably, but we shouldn’t fall into this linguistic trap. TERFs are a distinct subset of transphobes with a specific basis for their bigotry, and understanding this is integral to combating it.

Part Two: JK Rowling and The Descent Into Transphobia

What follows is a timeline of JK Rowling’s descent into transphobia; a chronological discussion of what she’s done, and where the problems within her actions lie. This timeline actually starts a lot earlier than most might think. To discuss the beginnings of Rowling’s problematic takes on trans people, we must head back to the year 2000, and the publishing of the fourth book in the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. This is the novel in which Rowling introduces the character of Rita Skeeter, a journalist. Rowling describes Rita Skeeter as having a, “heavily jawed face,” “mannish hands,” and, “a surprisingly strong grip.” She’s also noted to have, “very fake nails, very fake hair, and a few very fake teeth.” This description isn’t inherently transphobic, but when it is coupled with Rowling’s later stances on trans people, as well as the fact that Rita Skeeter illegally transforms her body in order to spy on children, we begin to see a picture of an author who is happy to play on trans stereotypes. These stereotypes, while not directly hateful, help instil a view of trans women as men in costume, faking femininity.

In 2015, Rowling published the novel The Silkworm, about the detective Cormoran Strike. Rowling penned this novel under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, although the fact Rowling is the true author has become an open secret. The name Robert Galbraith is possibly a reference to Robert Galbraith Heath, an American psychiatrist who believed in conversion therapy, and claimed to be able to convert a gay man into a straight man by placing electrodes into his brain. This is, obviously, incredibly homophobic, but the question of why Rowling chose to name herself after a notorious homophobe remains. Rowling says that she chose the name by conflating the name of her political hero, Robert F Kennedy, with the her childhood fantasy name of Ella Galbraith. While I do genuinely believe this was the origin of the name, one would expect Rowling to have researched before committing. As such, it doesn’t seem entirely far fetched to suggest that Rowling was aware of the connotations of the name, and chose it anyway. Regardless, the content of 2015’s The Silkworm is even more troubling. In the novel, there is a scene where a trans woman named Pippa stalks, and then attempts to murder, the protagonist. Cormoran Strike survives the attack, and traps Pippa in his office. He demands to see her ID, and when she provides it Strike learns that she is trans. Her visible Adam’s apple is noted. Pippa tries several times to escape, before Strike finally says, “If you go for that door one more time I’m calling the police and I’ll testify and be glad to watch you go down for attempted murder. And it won’t be fun for you Pippa…not pre-op.” The implication here is clear; Pippa will be sent to a man’s prison, and will then be anally raped. Pippa is then described as, “aggressive and unstable.” If I’m being honest, I think if someone threatened me with prison rape I might also become a tad aggressive and unstable. Again, Rowling writes a trans character using bigoted stereotypes, telling the reader that trans women are dangerous and threatening. Not only that, but Rowling clearly believes that threatening a trans woman with prison rape is something that a protagonist ought to do.

In another book in the Cormoran Strike series, 2017’s Career of Evil, main character Strike attends a dinner with a group of people who wish they were amputees. During the dinner, one of the wannabe-amputees states that they are, “not living in the body I’m meant to live in,” as a discussion point, and they refer to themselves as, “trans-abled.” This is a simple trivialisation of what it means to be trans, and the group of ‘trans-abled’ people are treated as a joke. While this is hardly a damning indictment on its own, it does constitute another piece of the tapestry that is Rowling’s opinions on trans people.  In 2018, people first began noticing this tapestry, beginning when she liked a tweet calling trans women ‘men in dresses’. At the time, Rowling’s publicist called the like a, “middle-aged moment,” or an accidental click. This was followed up in 2019, when Rowling followed Magdalen Berns on Twitter. Berns was by this point already a notorious TERF, who had previously described trans women as, “blackface actors,” and, “men who get sexual kicks from being treated like women.” She also said that, “trans women are men,” and that, “there is no such thing as a lesbian with a penis.” While it is not unusual to follow those you disagree with on social media in order to keep abreast of what they’re saying – I personally follow many right-wing figures for this reason – Rowling’s following of Berns prompted a closer look at those she followed. This inspection revealed that Rowling actually followed many TERFs and anti-trans activists. In response to criticism, Rowling’s representatives announced that, “she follows on Twitter a range of people she finds interesting or thought-provoking.”

In December of 2019, Rowling posted a tweet in support of Maya Forstater. Forstater had taken her former employer to an employment tribunal after her contract wasn’t renewed because she’d tweeted, “Smart people I admire…are tying themselves in knots to avoid saying the truth that men cannot change into women (because that might hurt mens feelings)”. The narrative at the time was that Forstater had been fired due to the tweet; this was not the case. Her contract was ending, and her employer chose not to renew it. The employment tribunal ruled in favour of Forstater’s former employer. In June of 2020, Rowling tweeted criticism of the phrase, “people who menstruate,” saying it constituted erasure of the, “reality of women,” and accusing it of, “erasing the concept of sex.” Many members of the Harry Potter case spoke out against her stance, or simply stated their support of trans rights, including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. Several Harry Potter fansites also came out in support of trans rights, including MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron.

Part Three: JK Rowling and The Essay That Broke the Internet

Things truly came to a head on the 10th of June 2020, when Rowling published a 3,600 word essay in response to the criticism she’d received. It would be easy for me to cherry pick segments of her essay to support my argument, but that would be wrong. Instead, I’m going to go through the entire piece, and discuss Rowling’s points and arguments as she makes them.

Rowling begins by saying, “I write this without any desire to add to [the] toxicity.” Judging by the response the essay received, this has clearly not worked. Rowling then talks about the Forstater case, and says that she’d been interested in trans issues for almost two years prior. As a preamble to her support of Forstater, she briefly talks about liking the transphobic tweet back in 2018, saying that she had been screenshotting tweets for research. Rowling defends the like by saying that she, “absent-mindedly liked instead of screenshotting.” In Rowling’s words, that single like was, “deemed evidence of wrongthink.” Rowling follows this up by discussing her following and contacting of Magdalen Berns, calling her, “an immensely brave young feminist and lesbian who was dying of an aggressive brain tumour.” In all fairness, I cannot argue that Berns was not brave – but due to the cancer she was fighting, not because one has to be brave to publicly espouse transphobic ideals.

Rowling’s discussion of the liked tweet and Magdalen Berns serve as a backdrop to the Forstater case; Rowling uses them both to add context before she continues. In her own words, she says, “I mention all this only to explain that I knew perfectly well what was going to happen when I supported Maya. I must have been on my fourth or fifth cancellation by then. I expected the threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate, to be called cunt and bitch, and, of course, for my books to be burned, although one particularly abusive man told me he’d composted them.” I’ve written this out in full because there’s a lot to unpack. To start with, let’s take a look at Rowling’s claim that, “I must have been on my fourth or fifth cancellation.” This is a classic statement you hear coming from people who want you to think they’re being silenced, but actually still have a significant platform. And few have a more significant platform than the author of Harry Potter. JK Rowling has a net worth somewhere between $650m and $1.2b. She has approximately 14.3m followers on Twitter. Comparatively, some of the most prominent trans activists have significantly fewer followers. Shon Faye has 55,000; Contrapoints has 320,000. Even Caitlyn Jenner has only 3.5m. I have just under 150. If we are the people who Rowling alleges are silencing her, why is her platform so much larger than ours? Additionally, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was just honoured at the British Book Awards; a new Cormoran Strike novel was released in September 2020, and it debuted at the top of the bestseller list; a new Harry Potter themed video game was announced on the 16th of September 2020; the third instalment in the critically panned, but commercially successful, Fantastic Beasts movie series has recently resumed filming.

Any implication that Rowling has been cancelled, silenced, or deplatformed in any way by the backlash to her views is, frankly, absurd. Her platform is as big as it ever has been, and with each book, video game, film, toy, or piece of merchandise that is bought bearing the Harry Potter license, her platform grows, and her ability to spread her hateful rhetoric grows alongside it. Regarding the suggestion that Rowling is, “killing trans people with [her] hate,” this is something that we’ll come back to later. I would like to add here that the threats of violence towards Rowling are at best unhelpful, and at worst totally disgusting and immoral. These actions should be condemned, even as we criticise Rowling’s viewpoints and beliefs.

Moving on, Rowling says that she received an, “avalanche,” of letters and emails that were, “positive, grateful and supportive,” in response to her tweets. She says that the letters and emails she received were concerned about, “the dangers to young people, gay people,” and, “the erosion of women’s and girl’s rights.” Rowling then says that the debate is surrounded by a, “climate of fear that serves nobody – least of all trans youth – well.” I find this phrasing from her to be interesting, as there certainly is a climate of fear that harms trans youth – but she’s directly contributing to it. In reference to the attacks she’s received online, Rowling then begins to talk about the terminology of the word TERF, and says, “the vast majority have never been radical feminists.” As I discussed earlier, this is not untrue. The word TERF has a specific meaning, and we shouldn’t dilute it by applying it to all transphobes. Rowling then says, “ironically, radical feminists aren’t even trans-exclusionary – they include trans men in their feminism, because they were born women.” This is wrong, for several reasons. Trans men are men, and thus are not oppressed by virtue of their gender. Feminism should not be advocating on behalf of trans men – or at least, not in this specific manner. On the other hand, while trans men are not oppressed by virtue of their gender, they are oppressed by virtue of being trans. Whatever Rowling might say, the way TERFs apply their feminism does not help trans men. Furthermore, this statement implicitly suggests that don’t include trans women in their feminism. We were, of course, aware of this already, but this stands as further proof. Finally, men – cis and trans – as well as women and non-binary people suffer under a patriarchal society. Feminism that advocates dismantling the related oppressive power structures helps us all. If TERFs do not want their feminism to help cis men and trans women, I can’t help but wonder what their end goal is? Is it not a society that works better for people of all genders? And if that’s not the case, what on earth does their feminism stand for, beyond the continued oppression of trans people?

To return to the topic of people being called TERFs on the internet, Rowling says, “Accusations of TERFery have been sufficient to intimidate many people, institutions and organisations.” As I discussed earlier, the notion that being called a TERF is enough to ‘cancel’ someone, or deplatform someone, or force an institution to change its policies is ridiculous. We’ll come back to the topic of an institution changing its policies later, but for now I’ll remind you that Rowling has a vast fortune, millions of followers on Twitter, and is still producing new work. On the other hand, trans people are regularly mocked and belittled, and the influence of even our most visible, public advocates pales in comparison to Rowling’s. She gives no examples to support her assertions that people, institutions, and organisations have been intimidated, so there is nothing to support her argument, nor anything I can refute more than I have already attempted to. Rowling then says, “Speaking as a biological woman, a lot of people in positions of power really need to grow a pair (which is doubtless literally possible, according to the kind of people who argue that clownfish prove humans aren’t a dimorphic species).” I do not who or what she’s specifically referring to here, with the clownfish comment, but this segment is demonstrable of the kind of flippancy that is peppered throughout the article. Rowling makes a number of jokes and comments that trivialise the arguments made by trans activists, and this suggests to me that she’s not really engaging in good faith, and that her genuine academic interest isn’t, in fact, genuine.

Now, after a good amount of preamble, Rowling moves onto the main thrust of her essay; “Well, I’ve got five reasons for being worried about the new trans activism, and deciding I need to speak up.” As I’ve been doing with the rest of her essay, I’ll be going through her points one by one, and attempting to dissect where they’re incorrect and where they’re bigoted and transphobic. Rowling’s first reason is that she has a charitable trust that aims to alleviate social deprivation in Scotland, with a focus on women and children. I’m personally not entirely sure why having a charitable desire to alleviate the social deprivation of women and children in Scotland requires one to stand in opposition to trans activism, but I digress. Trans women are amongst the most socially deprived women worldwide, so if one truly wants to help socially deprived women, providing support and assistance to trans women would be well within that remit. Rowling then goes on to say that she helps fund research into MS, which is a disease that behaves differently in men and women. Rowling’s argument is that trans people pose a problem for this research because we want to erode the legal definition of sex and replace it with gender. While I can’t deny that a disease that behaves differently in men and women could be a problem if there was no way to know whether or not a person is trans, I do wonder if any research has been done into trans people with MS, specifically. To assert that the biology of a trans woman is the same as that of a cis man is of course wrong, and so there is a very real possibility that MS would behave differently in a trans woman to a cis man. I’d also like to add that the wording of Rowling’s argument here is bizarre; MS doesn’t behave differently according to the legal definition of sex; it behaves differently according to the biological and medical definitions.

Rowling’s second reason for speaking up against trans-activism is that she’s an ex-teacher and the founder of a children’s charity. As such, she has an interest in education and safeguarding, and is concerned about the effect the trans rights movement is having on both. As is common in this piece, she provides no examples for this, and seems to just assume we will take the assertion that the trans rights movement is having an effect on education and safeguarding at face value. In doing so, she’s burying her argument. Rowling asserts that she is opposed to trans-activism because the trans rights movement is having a (presumably adverse) impact on education and safeguarding, but this argument only holds up if the movement truly is having that impact – and Rowling gives no evidence to prove that it is. However, Rowling’s argument has issues even if we do take it at face value. What effects are trans activists having on education? Telling children that trans people exist? Well, this should not be a problem unless we believe that trans people are bad. What effects are trans people having on safeguarding? Presumably adverse ones, according to Rowling, but she seems to conveniently forget that trans people need safeguarding too.

Rowling’s third reason is her shortest and simplest and, as it happens, is one I’ve largely refuted several times already. Rowling says that she’s interested in freedom of speech, and publicly defends it, even for such objectionable individuals as Donald Trump. This is, of course, a totally fair and valid position to hold. The problem lies with the implication that freedom of speech is under attack by trans activists. As I’ve said before, Rowling has not been ‘cancelled’ and she still has a huge platform. She even has a website on which she can post many-thousand word essays about trans people. Clearly her freedom of speech has not been stripped from her. Furthermore, freedom of speech as it’s generally understood applies to governmental bodies; it doesn’t apply on Twitter. Twitter is a private company and can thus restrict any kind of content it pleases, and doing so is not an infringement on anyone’s free speech. No one has a right to a platform on Twitter’s private servers. Finally, freedom of speech does not equate to freedom from consequences. Rowling has the freedom and the platform to spread her viewpoints, but she has no freedom from being disagreed with. Anyone who disagrees with her is perfectly entitled to say so, and them doing so is in no way an attack on her free speech.

Rowling’s fourth reason is the, “huge explosion in young women wishing to transition and also about the increasing numbers who seem to be detransitioning.” At this juncture, Rowling provides no evidence, statistics, or examples. I, however, do have some. A 2018 survey of World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) surgeons found that only approximately 0.3% of patients who underwent transition-related surgery and medical care later requested detransition-related medical and surgical care. Furthermore, according to a UK-specific research analysis, less than 1% of those that transitioned on the NHS between 2016 and 2017 detransitioned or regretted transitioning. So even if Rowling’s assertion that the number of people detransitioning is increasing is correct, that number remains a tiny percentage of those that do transition. To use this number as a reason to restrict the right of trans people to transition is clearly wrong. In addition, the most common reason for detransitioning is that the person could not cope with the family and community support they lost, and the further experiences of transphobia. Others still detransitioned due to being unable to find a job or housing. So we’ve established that the number of people that detransition is miniscule, and the main reason for doing so is transphobia. All these factors considered, I struggle to understand how Rowling thinks her opposition to trans rights activism is helpful.

Expanding on her fourth reason, Rowling actually does provide evidence this time. She states that there has been a 4400% increase in ‘girls’ being referred for transitioning treatment. By means of explaining this increase, Rowling discusses the work of Lisa Littman, an American physician and researcher who proposed a concept called rapid onset gender dysphoria. Littman suggested that gender dysphoria could be a, “social coping mechanism,” for other disorders. Rowling then accuses trans activists of subjecting Littman to, “a tsunami of abuse,” and waging a, “concerted campaign to discredit both her and her work.” The journal that published Littman’s work took it offline to re-review it, which would suggest that trans-activists had successfully managed to deplatform someone. It would suggest that, if not for the fact that the work was subsequently republished. Rowling says that, “Littman had dared challenge one of the central tenets of trans activism.” I posit that what actually happened is that Littman’s academic and scientific work was subpar and was thus subject to professional criticism. The WPATH released a paper saying that the concept of rapid onset gender dysphoria is not recognised by any professional association, and said that it is, “nothing more than an acronym created to describe a proposed clinical phenomenon.” In this same paper, the WPATH affirmed the need for academic freedom and scientific exploration without censorship. This lends no credence to Rowling’s claim that Littman was ‘cancelled’ in any meaningful manner. The Gender Dysphoria Affirmative Working Group (GDA) of professionals involved in trans healthcare wrote an open letter to Psychology Today, calling Littman’s work, “methodologically flawed and unethical,” and saying that it had, “an overt ideological bias.” The GDA further noted that Littman had drawn her subjects from, “websites openly hostile to transgender youth.” Furthermore, Littman had not interviewed the subjects herself, and had no experience working with trans youth. For Rowling to use Littman as some kind of expert is dishonest.

Rowling’s fourth reason continues, and she states that, “the argument of many current trans activists is that if you don’t let a gender dysphoric teenager transition, they will kill themselves.” To dispute this argument, Rowling cites Marcus Evans, a psychiatrist who resigned from Tavistock Gender Identity Clinic. According to Evans, claims that children will kill themselves if not permitted to transition do not align substantially with any robust data or studies. From my research, this is true…to a degree. There are a number of studies that suggest that suicide rates and suicidal tendencies decrease post-transition. There are also a number of studies that suggest transition has no impact on suicide rates. However, most of these studies – on both sides – are flawed and imperfect. Differing methodologies have been combined into the same results, there has been a lack of follow up, participants have dropped out of studies, as well as numerous other issues. This begs the question of why there hasn’t been more research into this area. Is it possibly because powerful, influential people are stymying debate with hateful, dangerous rhetoric? I couldn’t possibly say. Furthermore, is it at all possible that the reason transitioning may not help suicidal tendencies is because transphobia is still rife, and many trans people who have transitioned, or are transitioning, still suffer from it? Additionally, when you Google trans suicide rate statistics, one of the first results is an article by The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing thinktank, declaring that sex reassignment doesn’t work. I note this to demonstrate the kind of voices that are amplified in this debate.

Rowling then moves on to a strange tangent, where she reminisces about her childhood and posits that if she’d been born later, she may have been trans. She says that, “the allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge,” and that she, “could have been persuaded to turn [herself] into the son [her] father had openly said he’d have preferred.” Again, this belies a lack of understanding of what it means to be trans. Despite Rowling’s assertion that she has thoroughly researched the topic, this statement is incredibly oversimplified and lacking in nuance. Rowling follows this up by saying, “I didn’t have a realistic possibility of becoming a man back in the 1980s,” and again she demonstrates a lack of understanding. This clearly shows us that Rowling was not, in fact, trans, and that the apparent lure to escape her womanhood did not exist, because trans men did exist in the 1980s. If Rowling truly had been trans, she would have been able to transition to some degree, as trans men did.

Rowling then accepts that transitioning will be a solution for some gender dysphoric people. To support this, she informs us that she knows one self-described transsexual woman. Rowling tells us that her friend went through a, “long and rigorous process of evaluation, psychotherapy and staged transformation,” that, according to Rowling, no longer exists. This demonstrates she clearly does not understand the transition process. Rowling then says that, “A man who intends to have no surgery and take no hormones may now secure himself a Gender Recognition Certificate and be a woman in the sight of the law. Many people aren’t aware of this.” Rowling neglects to mention that many people aren’t aware of this because she’s playing fast and loose with the truth. In order to acquire a Gender Recognition Certificate, a trans person must have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. In order to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria, one must go through a long process of appointments with gender identity specialists, where they will be subject to therapy and evaluation. Only once the gender specialist is confident will a diagnosis of gender dysphoria be given. This sounds awfully like the kind of process Rowling was previously advocating for. So, while it is technically true that one can get a gender recognition certificate without surgery or hormones, you cannot do so without going through a strenuous process. The suggestion that a man would go through this process, pretending to be a trans woman, purely to gain access to women’s spaces, is laughable to the point of absurdity.

Rowling then equates trans activism and trans activists with incels and Donald Trump. She does this as part of an assertion that we’re living in an incredibly misogynistic time, which is not a sentiment I disagree with. However, to equate trans women wanting to live their lives with the President of the United States of American making jokes about sexual assault is insulting. Moving on with her discussions of how trans women are misogynistic, Rowling talks about, “the sexed body,” and, “the cruelly segregationist idea of women having their own biological realities.” The idea that there exist biological differences between trans and cis women is, of course, not something that trans activists are truly denying. What trans activists do insist upon, however, is that trans women and cis women have common experiences. By that same token, trans men and trans women have common experiences. And, again, trans men and cis men have common experiences. Trans men and cis women have common experiences, too. Rowling’s position here seems to be one based on a desire to sow the seeds of division. This is further evidenced when she writes, “It isn’t enough for women to be trans allies. Women must accept and admit that there is no material difference between trans women and themselves.” Again, no one is denying that there are material differences between trans and cis women. What we’re saying is that we have more in common than that which divides us – whether you want to consider that on a social level or, yes, a biological one. Rowling writes this with a desire to drive a wedge between trans and cis women, by reminding us of our differences, with no reference to our many shared experiences. Rowling says that, “Woman is not a costume. Woman is not an idea in a man’s head. Woman is not a pink brain, a liking for Jimmy Choos or any of the other sexist ideas now somehow touted as progressive.” Yet again, trans people know that. Trans people do not view their identities as ‘costumes’. Nobody decides to go through a years long process of legal and medical challenges that can often bring oppression and hatred just because they want to wear Jimmy Choos.

Rowling next takes issue with inclusive language such as ‘menstruators’ and ‘people with vulvas’. Language like this is largely done out of respect for trans men, and non-binary people who menstruate. Fundamentally, while the specific terms of ‘menstruator’ and ‘person with vulva’ are somewhat clunky and unwieldy, they’re not designed to be oppressive or exclusionary. Rowling’s reasoning for finding them to be so is that, “for those of us who’ve had degrading slurs spat at us by violent men…it’s hostile and alienating.” This sentiment presupposes that trans people don’t know what it’s like to have degrading slurs spat at us, that we don’t know what it’s like to live in a hostile and alienating world. Until I don’t have to worry about being called a tranny or a faggot or a freak, I’m not going to lose too much sleep about someone being called a ‘person with a vulva’. Indeed, until cis women don’t have to worry about walking down the street without being catcalled, or going running after the sun’s gone down, or any of the plethora of genuine problems that impact them, I’m not going to consider this one to be too pressing. Like I’ve said before; both cis women and trans women have bigger problems than this, and focusing so much on language like this does nothing more than drive a wedge between us.

Finally, mercifully, Rowling moves onto her fifth reason for being concerned about trans activism; “I’ve been in the public eye now for over twenty years and have never talked publicly about being a domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor…I’m mentioning these things now not in an attempt to garner sympathy, but out of solidarity with the huge numbers of women who have histories like mine, who’ve been slurred as bigots for having concerns around single-sex spaces.” This is followed by what I believe to be the closest thing to recognition and acceptance of trans women in Rowling’s entire essay. She says that the scars left by violence and sexual assault don’t disappear, and then, “If you could come inside my head and understand what I feel when I read about a trans woman dying at the hands of a violent man, you’d find solidarity and kinship. I have a visceral sense of the terror in which those trans women will have spent their last seconds on earth, because I too have known moments of blind fear when I realised that the only thing keeping me alive was the shaky self-restraint of my attacker…I believe the majority of trans-identifed people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.” This time I don’t have to remind Rowling that we have more in common than that which divides us – she’s nicely set it out for me.

Of course, Rowling is bringing this up to explain to us why she’s concerned about trans people. Inevitably, we have to return to Rowling’s issues with us. “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman…then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside.” The problem with Rowling’s argument here is that, fundamentally, the doors have already been thrown open. The Equality Act 2010 is the legislation that governs trans women’s right to use women’s spaces, not the Gender Recognition Act 2004. The Equality Act 2010 already operates on a basis of self-identification, with one only needing to have indicated their intention to change their gender to gain the protection of the law, and thus be entitled to use the facilities associated with their adopted gender. Since 2010, there has not been  a spate of sexual assaults in women’s bathrooms and changing rooms where the perpetrator has pretended to be trans. The scenario that TERFs worldwide tell us will happen has simply not come to pass.

I’m going to backtrack and do an introduction here. Hello, my name is Iris. I’m a trans woman. I have my own experiences of domestic violence and sexual assault. I’m also a Jew. When I see sexual assault being weaponised against me and my friends, I feel the same revulsion I feel when I see the Holocaust being used as a metric by which to judge other atrocities and genocides.

Rowling moves towards the end of her essay, saying that, “Political parties seeking to appease the loudest voices in this debate are ignoring women’s concerns.” For one, to call trans activists the loudest voices in this debate is disingenuous. As I’ve said multiple times before, our platforms pale in comparison to the platform’s enjoyed by TERFs such as Rowling or Graham Linehan. Media outlets publish hateful rhetoric about us, and allow our rights to be something that is up for debate. This piece will end up over twice as long as Rowling’s, but it’s going to be seen by virtually no one, in the grand scheme of things. We might be passionate, as people tends to be when fighting for their rights, but our voices are far from the loudest. As for the suggestion that we’re being appeased…well, we’ll come back to that.

Rowling’s essay was published in June 2020. Since then, her output has been relatively limited, but that does not mean things have not been happening. On the 19th of June 2020, a piece of equality legislation that would have criminalised discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity was blocked in the United States Senate. Now, the far-right Republican Party holds a majority in the Senate, so this is not particularly surprising. It is worth mentioning only because Republican Senator James Lankford cited Rowling’s essay as part of his reasoning for voting against the bill. In August 2020, Rowling returned her Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award, after the president of the award called her statements regarding trans people, “deeply troubling,” and, “transphobic.” In September 2020, an early review of Troubled Blood, Rowling’s newest Cormoran Strike novel, surfaced, and gave a glimpse into the troubling content of the book. According to the review, the plot of Rowling’s book centres around an investigation into the victim of a male serial killer who dresses up as a woman. The reviewer wrote that Troubled Blood is, “a book whose moral seems to be: never trust a man in a dress.” The idea of a trans woman serial killer, or simply a man pretending to be a woman, is a classic transphobic myth. There have been historical instances where female serial killers have been able to get away with their crimes for considerable lengths of time because the police were convinced that they were looking for a man in a dress, not a cis woman. When the novel was released in September, it sold very well, and hit the top of the bestseller list, as I mentioned earlier.

On the 23rd of September, Rowling posted a selfie of herself wearing a T-shirt that read, “This witch doesn’t burn,” and posted a link to the shop that sold the shirt, adding #supportwomenrunbusinesses. Closer inspection of the shop, Wild Womyn Workshop, revealed that it was full of worryingly transphobic merchandise. This included a number of badges, with slogans such as, “Repeal the Gender Recognition Act,” “Sorry about your dick bro,” “transition = conversion therapy,” “transwomen are men,” “transmen are my sisters,” “transactivism is misogyny,” “don’t call me cis,” and, “queer politics erases women.” There is a possibility that Rowling had just found a shirt she liked, and was unaware of the other content sold by Wild Womyn Workshop, but I’m not willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. As I said when Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked as Shadow Education Secretary for sharing an article including an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, public figures ought to research the things they share, as it will be construed as support. Rowling either didn’t investigate the shop properly, or she did and decided that endorsing this type of content was something she was comfortable with. This triggered another wave of (justified) criticism, which in turn triggered more than 50 public figures and anti-trans activists to publish an open letter in the Sunday Times in support of Rowling on the 28th of September. The letter claimed that Rowling, “has consistently shown herself to be an honourable and compassionate person,” and adds, “We wish JK Rowling well and stand in solidarity with her.” This letter purported to stand against hate crime, but one if it’s signatories is the comedian Graham Linehan, who was banned from Twitter for violating it’s hate speech rules with years of messages and Tweets attacking trans women. The letter was also signed by members of the LGB Alliance, a group that claims to represent lesbian, gay and bisexual people across the UK, but does nothing to support them and instead uses it’s platform to support transphobic cisgender heterosexual people. The letter was also signed by actress Frances Barber, who had previously called trans women, “men with dicks who pretend to be women,” and retweeted messages calling openly gay journalist Owen Jones a, “sucker of Satan’s cock.” Barber was joined by Abigail Shrier, the author of a book called ‘Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters’ which utilised the concept of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, as we debunked earlier. Amazon refused to host advertising for the book because it, “claims to diagnose, treat or question sexual orientation.” (Notably, Amazon did not actually refuse to sell the book.) We Need to Talk About Kevin writer Lionel Shriver also signed the letter. He had previously described trans women as a, “parody of the female.” Other signatories include Pointless host Alexander Armstrong, his former comedy partner Ben Miller, Atonement author Ian McEwan, sitcom star James Dreyfuss, and comedian Griff Rhys Jones. While it is possible that some of these individuals signed the letter out of an honest opposition to the threats of violence and other disgusting attacks made against Rowling, the fact that they’re all openly willing to state that they stand in solidarity with her, either aware or ignorant of her stances on trans issues, makes it clear that none of them are friends of the trans community. This is, of course, compounded by the fact that notorious transphobes such as Graham Linehan and Abigail Shrier also signed the letter, making the assertion that all those who signed it are transphobic even harder to deny. These are celebrities with huge platforms, and they are using those platforms to oppose trans rights. Once more, we see the forces arrayed against us are louder, wealthier and more powerful than we could ever hope to be.

Part Four: Where Are We Now?

Discussion of JK Rowling, and wider TERF ideology, is all well and good, but it’s essential to establish what effect the actions of people like Rowling are having politically, and how they’re impacting the lives of trans people across the UK. This impact is linked directly to a consultation ran between July and October 2018, started by Theresa May’s Government, that sought public opinion on how best to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004. At the time, the Government’s stated reasoning was that since the Gender Recognition Act came into force, only 4,910 people have legally changed their gender. By contrast, the number of respondents who identified as trans in the Government’s LGBT Survey was significantly higher. Trans respondents to the LGBT Survey stated that they wanted legal recognition of their gender, but hadn’t applied because they found the current process to be too bureaucratic, expensive, and intrusive. In response to this development, the Government decided to seek public opinion on how to reform the legal recognition process to make it easier and more accessible to those trans people who wished to use it. At the onset of the consultation, the Government specified a number of things. First, that the consultation was to focus specifically on the Gender Recognition Act 2004, and that no changes were being proposed to the Equality Act 2010. Secondly, the Government reaffirmed that the consultation was not considering whether or not trans people exist, whether they have the right to legally change their gender, or whether it is right for a person of any age to identify with another gender, or with no gender. Trans and non-binary people, the Government said, are members of our society and should be treated with respect. Furthermore, the Government said that trans people already have the right to change their legal gender, and there was no suggestion that this right be revoked; the consultation simply asked how best to make the existing process better for trans and non-binary people across the country.

That was two years ago. It is now late 2020, and things have decidedly not got better for trans people in the UK since 2018. Hate crimes against trans people across Britain rose by 81% between 2016-17 and 2018-19. Indeed, on the 26th of September, during the writing of this piece, a trans woman was assaulted during a night out with her boyfriend in Belfast city centre. Of course, it would be remiss to not mention that hate crimes have surged on all fronts since 2016. The election of Donald Trump, and the vote to leave the European Union have both been cited as influencing factors, so there is every possibility that trans hate crimes have risen alongside other hate crimes due to this. On the other hand, the consultation has made trans people significantly more visible, and provided a political aspect to our rights that had not been considered legitimately a topic of debate for over a decade. The increase in prominence of trans people may also have contributed to the rise in hate crimes.

On the 17th of September 2020, the Women’s Equality Party began their own consultation on self-identification of trans people, with the aim being, “to shift the dial on a discussion that can at times feel intractable and even toxic. We want to show that it is possible to forge a pace for people with different views, and no views, to come together – to listen, learn and ultimately move towards consensus,” according to a spokesperson. Speaking at the consultation, Ruth Serwotka, co-founder of Women’s Place UK, described, “vicious and violent,” social media abuse, and also suggested it was difficult for critical feminist voices to get space in mainstream media. As I’ve discussed previously, this is not the case. To highlight this once more, the article I was reading about this topic doesn’t allow space for a trans voice until two gender critical voices have already been quoted. Immediately after the trans voice, the article quotes another gender critical voice. Furthermore, in March 2020 a petition signed by over 2500 feminist activists was delivered to the Guardian, criticising the paper’s transphobic rhetoric. This was followed by an open letter from 338 Guardian staff members to the editor, expressing disappointment at the transphobic content that had been published and given a platform. The letter said, “We are also disappointed in the Guardian’s repeated decision to publish anti-trans views. We are proud to work at a newspaper which supports human rights and gibes voice to people underrepresented in the media. But the pattern of publishing transphobic content has interfered with our work and cemented our reputation as a publication hostile to trans rights and trans employees.” This was compounded further when, on September 20th 2020, the Guardian published an opinion piece written by Catherine Bennett, an Observer columnist, entitled ‘Making a demon of JK Rowling is a wretched sport, born of misogyny and resentment’. The article describes Twitter as, “habitually irate,” which is not untrue, and actually somewhat amusing, but I digress. The piece says that trans activists are, “people who hate women,” and says that JK Rowling is, “infuriatingly uncancelled,” which stands as further testament to what I’ve said already. Finally, Bennett claims that trans activists hate Rowling because she’s, “powerful and female.” All this to say, once again, that the assertion that it is difficult for gender critical voices to get space in mainstream media is clearly wrong.

Part Five: Where Are We Going?

After the consultation closed in October 2018, nearly two years passed without action. The results of the consultation were not published. In July of 2020, Government leaks from senior Whitehall sources finally gave us our first glimpse into what steps Boris Johnson’s Government was planning to take in response to the consultation. The leaks suggested that any reforms with the intention of making it easier for trans people to change their legal gender were to be dropped. According to the insider sources, new legislation was to be implemented later in the year that would leave the Gender Recognition Act 2004 largely untouched, and would instead reform the Equality Act 2010 as part of a rollback on trans rights. The consultation received over 100,000 responses, with an overwhelming 70% of respondents indicating support for self-identification. According to the leaks, however, Government officials felt that the results had been, “skewed by an avalanche of responses generated by trans rights groups.” There had been plans for an announcement before Parliament took its summer recess on Wednesday 22ndJuly, but this did not happen. Insiders did stress that there would be no rollback on trans rights, in contrast to what the leaks had suggested, and that apparently the cost of acquiring a Gender Recognition Certificate had been considered, as well as plans to streamline some of the process. No specifics were provided. The leaks also suggested that plans to ban conversion therapy had been considered, as part of an attempt to placate the LGBTQ+ community. In April of 2020, Women’s and Equalities Minister Lizz Truss said that the Government would be in a position to respond to the consultation in summer, and outlined three key principles; the protection of single-sex spaces, ensuring that trans adults are able to live their lives as they wish without fear of persecution while maintaining proper checks and balances, and protecting under 18s from making irreversible decisions.

The problem with all of this is that if the Government truly did intend to drop self-identification entirely, the Equality Act 2010 would have to be altered, as the leaks suggested. Any change in discrimination legislation that restricts what trans people can and can’t do would absolutely constitute a rollback of trans rights. As it currently stands, service providers can only refuse a trans person access to a single-sex service on a case-by-case basis, where exclusion is, “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.” If the Government were to change this, and increases the instances in which a trans person can be denied service, this effectively forms a legal basis for transphobia. Furthermore, there are no proposals in the leaks on how this could be policed, which is deeply concerning. As most public places have no gender neutral or unisex facilities, are trans women expected to use the men’s toilets? Will this not put us at even greater risk of harm? If a trans woman wants to use the toilet, are we to have toilet wardens who inspect people’s genitalia on entry? Or if entry is to be restricted based on biological sex, are we to need DNA testing before entering the toilet? Fundamentally, these restrictions are untenable, and have ultimately lead to cis women being harassed in women’s toilets under suspicion of being trans.

I was fully prepared to end my piece here, with a lamentation on the fact that, at the time of writing in September 2020, there had been no further announcements from the Government, and that no response to the consultation had been forthcoming. And then, just as I had finished my first draft…the Government actually did release their response to the consultation. As such, it would be remiss to not discuss that, and evaluate how it compares to the leaks from earlier in the year.

“We want transgender people to be free to live and to prosper in a modern Britain,” the Government’s response begins. “We have looked carefully at the issues raised in the consultation, including potential changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004. It is the Government’s view that the balance struck in the legislation is correct, in that there are proper checks and balances in the system and also support for people who want to choose their legal sex. However, it is also clear that we need to improve the process and experience that transgender people have when applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate – making it kinder and more straightforward.” In order to facilitate this improvement, the Government announced that the entire process of applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate was to be placed online, and the fee will be reduced from £140 to a, “nominal fee.” Women’s and Equalities Minister Liz Truss also announced that three new gender clinics would be opened before the end of 2020, which should see waiting lists cut by around 1600 patients by 2022, and would provide greater patient choice, shorter waiting times, better geographical coverage and easier access. Finally, the Government noted that last year it had provided funding for the UK’s first National LGBT Health Adviser. Additionally, the response reiterated that the Equality Act 2010 clearly protects trans people from discrimination, and there are no amendments included to that Act.

Overall, compared to the leaks from earlier in the year, the Government’s announcement was actually a pleasant surprise. The changes were minor, but positive, and some of the more worrying aspects of the leaked plans have not come to fruition. That being said, this announcement was far from perfect. Shadow Women and Equalities Minister Marsha de Cordova questioned whether the new gender clinics were in fact part of a pilot scheme that had already been announced. It appears that the Government is taking credit for a decision made by NHS England that was nothing to do with the consultation or Government policy on gender recognition or reform. LGBT charity Stonewall said that the reforms, “don’t go anywhere near far enough toward meaningfully reforming the Act to make it easier for all trans people to go about their daily life.” Pink News said, “While the government may have consulted, it’s clear Liz Truss has not listened. Trans and non-binary people deserve better.” A petition criticising the announced changes and demanding more significant reform of the Gender Recognition Act was started on the 24th of September, and garnered 130,000 signatures in under a week. The creator of the petition wrote that, “The response gathered by the government showed strong support for this reform with 70% in favour, but the results seem to have been ignored by policy makers.”

Make no mistake; this milquetoast reform is a direct result of the actions taken by TERFs such as JK Rowling. While the Government’s response was not as disastrous and reactionary as the leaks had suggested, it was far from a major positive step. TERFs and transphobic groups have successfully opposed legislative change that would have improved the lives of trans folks across Britain, all while fermenting a sharp rise in hate crime and propagating a toxic, dehumanising discourse.

I’m going to end by paraphrasing Rowling herself, for she is undoubtedly a better writer than I. All I’m asking – all I want – is for empathy, understanding, and kindness. I ask that this be extended to the hundreds of thousands of trans people across the UK, who are at risk of violence, sexual assault, depression, murder, homelessness, and suicide.

Rowling writes that the sole crime of TERFs is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse; what then does that make the sole crime of trans people?

Believing that we have an inalienable right to exist?

4 thoughts on “Please, Just Be Nice To Us: TERFs, JK Rowling, and Trans Rights in the UK

  1. This is brilliant!
    I have read the Harry Potter books, and to be honest I wouldn’t say that JKR is a better writer than you… She is derivative, uninformed and relies on streotypical tropes… you do not.

    That is beside the point however. I am a woman, I am a feminist and I wholeheartedly support the rights of transwomen and absolutely and loudly advocate for their rights. Feminism is for all women, not only women who act/behave/start out in a way that is acceptable to white middle class women.
    I cannot claim to understand what it is like to be transgender, but honestly I don’t need to know what it is like to know that it is real and to offer my support.

    Do you mind if I reblog this?


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