"Biological sex is real": Is J.K. Rowling anti-trans?

16 minutes to read
Article
Eva de Jonge
11/10/2021

JK Rowling has been under fire since June 2020 after posting Tweets that were deemed anti-trans. JK Rowling is mainly known for her Harry Potter books, in which she created a whole wizarding world. A world that is full of magic, wonderful journeys and a fair amount of fighting bad guys. The Harry Potter world has always been a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community, and the author has added to this feeling by being LGBTQ+ friendly.

Her opinion on transpeople has caused some chaos by many people, and she got many responses telling her that she is excluding trans people and that she is transphobic. The reactions she got were not only from the Harry Potter fans but also from a couple of stars of the franchise. Why did people respond so badly to her Tweets? Furthermore, why did some of the Harry Potter stars feel obliged to reply on this matter?

J.K. Rowlings' anti-trans Tweets

Even though the acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community has gotten better over the years, trans people are still coping with anti-trans hate speech and setbacks. Some people are transphobic or are trans exclusionists; they deny that trans women are women, they exclude them from women's spaces, and they do not support transgender rights. It is essential to understand that there is a vast difference between biological sex and gender identity. Biological sex is the sex that someone is physically born as, female or male or, in some cases, intersex. It is something that the doctor assigns someone as at birth.

Gender identity is something completely different. The gender identity of someone is the gender that they know they are. The biological sex and gender identity of most people align with one another. However, in some cases, someone knows that he is male, but his biological sex is female (or vice versa), and thus, they do not align. This is what makes them transgender.

The concept of othering in the LGBTQ+ community is nothing new. For decades, transgender people have been seen as outsiders (Becker, 1961). They have created 'us' vs them ideas, in which the traditional man-woman gender roles and heterosexuality were constructed as normal behaviour typical of 'us'. LGBTQ+ were described as abnormals, as 'them'. The concept of othering, labelling someone as an outsider because they have a different view, can come in many forms such as sexual othering. This is mainly outed as negative meanings and undertones to all the LGBTQ+ terms. Gay and lesbian are terms that are accepted more and more by society, but transgender is still something that is looked down upon. People who are excluding trans people are also creating 'us' vs 'them' mentalities, in which transgender people are classified as 'them' and seen as deviant.

Trans exclusionists claim that biological sex exists but often do not acknowledge that gender identity is a real thing too. Moreover, by not following up that gender identity is real too, they claim that a transgender woman is a man because her biological sex is male. By doing this, they are labelling trans people as an outsider, or as deviant. (Becker, 1961) They are seen as someone who has broken some unwritten law. Trans people do not deny the fact that there is biological sex, they do not believe that it is possible to change chromosomal sex. However, they also believe that there is gender identity. And that is precisely why JK Rowling has been under fire.

 

Figure 1: The tweet by J.K. Rowling that caused an uproar

In a Tweet (posted on June 7th, 2020), she claims that biological sex is indeed real. She says that "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.". She has gotten many responses to that, saying that the Tweet was transphobic, and it is not weird that people would say so. She clearly states that biological sex is a real thing but does not follow up with the fact that gender identity is too. Responding to the transphobic accusations, she does not say anything on gender identity but instead, she wrote an essay on why biological sex is a real thing. By doing so, she is doing the same thing as trans exclusionists. It is not the first time that the author has been accused of transphobia.

 

Figure 2: J.K. Rowling's opinion on a article she shared on Twitter

 

By sharing an article on creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate, J.K. Rowling is trying to be patronising by pretending to have forgotten the word for women, downplaying that not all women menstruate or not everyone who menstruates is a woman. The article used the word people who menstruate on purpose, to include transmen and non-binary people. She tries to bond the terms women and menstruation together, which is hurtful and exclusionary towards trans people or non-binary people and towards a lot of cis-women (non-transgender women) as well. Some cis-women who are older do not menstruate anymore, or some needed a hysterectomy because they were sick. They do not menstruate, and by bonding women and menstruation so strongly, J.K. Rowling is actually excluding them.

#IStandWithMaya

To help understand why Rowling's Tweets and her essay are transphobic, this article will make use of a discourse analysis to help interpret her meaning. By collecting numerous Tweets and reading her essay thoroughly, it is possible to point out any recurring themes within these texts. Using discourse analysis instead of other more 'objective' methods will focus not only on what is said but also on how it is said, which can give more insight into how people understand things (Cameron, 2001).

She starts her essay with the Maya Forstater case. Back in 2019, she tweeted her support for Forstater. She states that Maya "lost her job for what were deemed 'transphobic' tweets" (Rowling, 2020). From Rowling her Tweet, it is clear to see that she disapproves of the fact that Forstater is fired because she stated that sex is real and uses the hashtag "#IStandWithMaya" (see Figure 3). With this, she is highlighting biological sex (Goodwin, 2013). By doing so, she downplays the real reason why Forstater got fired. The Tweets that Forstater posted can indeed be seen as transphobic and trans-exclusionary. Not only that but stating that Maya was fired because she said sex is real is a dishonest summary for what she said in her discrimination complaint. “I believe that it is impossible to change sex or to lose your sex. Girls grow up to be women. Boys grow up to be men. No change of clothes or hairstyle, no plastic surgery, no accident or illness, no course of hormones, no force of will or social conditioning, no declaration can turn a female person into a male, or a male person into a female.” (HM Courts & Tribunals Service, 2020).

Figure 3: J.K. Rowling her support tweet for Maya Forstater

The Tweet in figure 3 could be seen as trans supportive at first glance, but with conducting a little more research it becomes clear that this Tweet is actually quite transphobic too. Not only does she give a dishonest summary when stating that Forstater was fired because she said sex was real. Rowling also says to "To dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like." and with that she is downplaying and belittling what it is actually like to be trans, reducing it to a change of name and clothing.

In her Tweets, Forstater claims that trans women are not women or that expanding the legal definition of 'women', including both males and females, makes it a meaningless concept and will undermine women's rights and protections for vulnerable women and girls. Rowling later mentioned Forstater again in relation to American physician and researcher Lisa Littman. Claiming that Littman her career took a similar hit that Forstater had also suffered. However, Littman's research is widely rejected by the scientific community due to misinformation and flaws in her research. One of the most significant flaws was that while researching trans people, she never asked the trans community for input.

 

Figure 4: Maya Forstater her response on the question of whether she is claiming that trans women are not women

Rowling also addresses the hate she has gotten because she was following Magdalen Berns on Twitter. She says that Berns was "an immensely brave young feminist and lesbian who was dying of an aggressive brain tumour" (Rowling, 2020). Rowling describes her views as inoffensive and gentle. "Berns was a great believer in the importance of biological sex ...", she, again, focusses on the biological sex part and completely ignores that Berns was not afraid to voice her opinions about trans people publicly (Rowling, 2020). 

Figure 5: Magdalen Berns responding to a trans woman, claiming that nobody will ever truly accept her as a woman

Berns posted several replies to the same person back in 2018. Claiming that she is not a woman or that she will never truly be accepted as a woman. She has also tweeted that women are lying to her and that she does not pass as a woman, and that no trans woman does either. She has called trans people perverts and misgendered them. Her Tweets make clear that she fundamentally believed that trans women were men and reacted verbally aggressive against transwomen. It is normal for her to not only think this but also to share this on a social media platform.

She is saying that by granting women's rights to transwomen, women are less safe because of them

J.K. Rowling is not only coding the world in biological sex, which can be seen by her continually referring back to biological sex, but also that trans rights are conflicting with women's rights. (Goodwin, 2013) She says that "When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he's a woman - and, as I've said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones - then you open the door to any and all man who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth". With this, she is saying that by granting women's rights to transwomen, women are less safe because of them. However, the argument that gender change on legal documents creates opportunities for predators to enter bathrooms does not make sense, as gender policing in public bathrooms does not involve legal documents.  

She, later on, tells that when she was assaulted, she was "at a time and in a space where she was vulnerable, and a man capitalised on an opportunity" and claims that her government is playing fast and loose with the safety of women and girls. This downplays the fact that trans women are also women, and therefore also need women rights.

It is clear to see that Rowling's recurring pattern is to fall back on the fact that biological sex is real, without backing it up with gender identity is too. She feels that she has to defend herself for following and backing people up on Twitter. In her essay, she defends herself and two Twitter users, who are most definitely transphobic. This states that she ignores the real issue of transphobia and only highlights the fact that biological sex is real, downplaying and belittling what it is to be trans and that girls and women should not lose their protection. No trans person thinks that changing chromosomal sex is possible. So when saying someone is a trans man or woman, they are actually talking about psychological and social identity. The sentence Sex is Real is often used by transphobes but does not actually contradict anything that most trans people believe. But what transphobes actually means with those words is that only chromosomal sex matters

Transwomen deserve and need protection as women

With these Tweets and this essay, Rowling is actually legitimising the behaviour of anti-trans people. They are now using her essay as something to fall back on. Anti-trans people have some sort of group identity, and they use each other to justify their opinions and behaviour, and J.K. Rowling is only amplifying this. This sort of group identification has the potential to form alliances (Blommaert & Verschueren, 1998) but also has the power to exclude certain people. The excluded people are, in this case, trans people, the outsiders.  

Celebrity and YouTuber responses 

J.K. Rowling has gotten many responses to her anti-trans Tweets and her essay, including some people who have worked closely with her, like Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe. Radcliffe wrote a short essay on the Trevor Project website stating that transgender women are women, and any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people. He says that he hopes that the comments will not taint the meaning the stories have for people too much.

Eddie Redmayne, the star of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, is also speaking out against the Tweets, stating that he wants to make it absolutely clear where he stands and that he disagrees with her comments. He says that "Trans women are women, trans men are men and non-binary identities are valid. I would never want to speak on behalf of the community but I do know that my dear transgender friends and colleagues are tired of this constant questioning of their identities, which all too often results in violence and abuse. They simply want to live their lives peacefully, and it’s time to let them do so” (Lang, 2020).

Figure 6: Emma Watson on Twitter June 10th

Emma Watson also voiced her opinion on Twitter. Even though she did not mention J.K. Rowling by name, it is clear that the Tweet is a response to the anti-trans Tweets. 

The fans of the Harry Potter world were not afraid to show their opinions. Some of them said that they walked away from the franchise; others claimed that they were separating the author from the world she created. Renae McBrian, a young adult author who also volunteers for the fansite MuggleNet, states that J.K. Rowling created Harry Potter. The fans, however, created the fandom, the magic and the community in that fandom, and that is sacred. The fansite MuggleNet and the Leaky Cauldron decided to distance themselves from the author. They say that they will not provide any links to Rowling's website or use photos of her.  

Figure 7: YouTubers Jamie and Shaaba explaining why J.K. Rowlings essay is anti-trans

The trans community let their opinions know as well. YouTuber Jamie Raines made an hour-long video responding to the essay and whether it is anti-trans. Along with his fiance Shaaba, he explains in length that the essay is indeed anti-trans claiming that she is telling half-truths and excluding trans people. Jamie had earlier already responded to the Tweets as well, explaining again why they can be hurtful to the trans community. The American YouTuber Natalie Wynn, known for her videos exploring gender, ethics, philosophy, politics and social criticism on her channel ContraPoints. In her 90 minute video, she makes clear that she does not want a drama video or that the intention of the video is to cancel Harry Potter and drag her through the mud. Instead, she uses J.K. Rowling it a case study in bigotry while still calling her out for her misconceptions and untruths.

The BBC and its position within the debate

In 2017, the first Russell prize was awarded. It is an award given to the best-written piece of that year. And in 2020, J.K. Rowling was not only nominated for it, she even ended in third place. However, this is not the first time that the British Broadcasting Cooperation, which claims to be impartial, came into the spotlight regarding the LGBTQ+ movement or Trans people. Earlier in 2020, the BBC decided it needed to balance its reports about trans issues, meaning that the BBC would call in transphobic groups to give counter-arguments and make a balanced argument. This is not only extremely inappropriate but can also be really hurtful. It is not as if they would call in racist groups to give a counter-argument on an anti-racist report.

In December 2020, J.K Rowling was awarded third place for the best-written piece of 2020. It was not for the other essays she wrote, no it was explicitly the essay she wrote for speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues. The Russell award has three criteria, a so-called trinity of virtues for winners and nominees. First is plain language, second pertinent erudition, and third is the moral force. In the moral force criteria, it is also stated that it is "especially through an instinctive and visceral revulsion at injustice" (Rajan, 2017). The question is why Rowling's essay was nominated, looking at those three criteria. Her essay is full of half-truths, with no citations to strengthen her arguments. It also lacks knowledge in many areas and hurt the trans community. If anything, she only managed to check off one of the three criteria. Ending in third place is not only unjustified, but it also makes transphobic people feel justified for their opinions.

Rowling's transphobic writings

In conclusion, both the Tweets and the essay are indeed anti-trans and can be incredibly hurtful to the trans community. She claims that biological sex is real but does not back that up with gender identity being real too. She suggests that trans rights are conflicting with women rights and that she worries for the safety of vulnerable women and girls, downplaying that trans women need both trans and women rights. The recurring pattern in her texts is that she ignores the actual problem and that she keeps circling back to the biological sex issue. With her text, she is not only hurting the trans community but is at the same time legitimising the transphobic behaviour from anti-trans people, which was only enhanced after she became third in an award contest. The responses she has gotten are not positive at all, and parts of the fandom are separating her from the Harry Potter books, saying that they created the fandom community themselves.

 

References

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Cameron, D. (2001). Working with Spoken Discourse (1st edition). SAGE Publications.

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HM Courts & Tribunals Service. (2020, January 9). Maya Forstater v CGD Europe and others: 2200909/2019. GOV.UK. 

J. (2020, 9 June). Daniel Radcliffe Responds to J.K. Rowling’s Tweets on Gender Identity. The Trevor Project. 

Jacobs, J. (2020, 12 June). J.K. Rowling’s Fans Imagine Harry Potter World Without Her. The New York Times. 

JK Rowling’s Anti-Trans Tweets | Trans Guy Reacts. (2020, 7 June). [Video]. YouTube. 

JK Rowling’s Award for Transphobia. (2020, 23 December). [Video]. YouTube. 

John Nicolson MP questions Ofcom Chief Executive on BBC balance. (2020, 15 December). [Video]. YouTube. 

Lang, B. (2020). Eddie Redmayne Criticizes J.K. Rowling’s Anti-Trans Tweets (EXCLUSIVE).

Pocock, E. (2020, 24 June). Harry Potter Stars And Fan Community Reject J.K. Rowling’s Statement On ‘Trans Activism’ And Gender Identity. Forbes. 

Rajan, A. (2017, 22 December). Introducing… The Russell Prize 2017. BBC News. 

Rajan, A. (2020, 21 December). The winners: The 2020 Russell Prize for best writing. BBC News.

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Rowling, J.K. (2020). J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues.

Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues. (2020, 27 August). J.K. Rowling.