Harry Potter and the Chamber of Transphobia
How J.K. Rowling went from being a champion of the downtrodden to a recalcitrant bigot
In 1997 J.K. Rowling burst onto the scene with the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The book quickly gained in popularity and spawned several sequels, films, a theme park, a play, and more. As of this writing, Rowling’s works have been translated into 80 languages with “more to come”. The books themselves are a thinly veiled response to fascism and eugenics. Rowling has said she wrote the books as “a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry”. The cast is seemingly diverse, and the main female character, Hermione Granger has intelligence, drive, and self agency. If the diverse nature of the rest of the cast seemed mostly relegated to the background characters, the world of Harry Potter was far more progressive than most its contemporaries.
Rowling’s works are also a cracking read. So wildly successful and influential it can seem an entire generation was inspired by her story of a misunderstood little boy and his improbable rise to fame and success. In 2016, writer Alex Weiss wrote, [Rowling] “is basically my second mother, my BFF, and my greatest role model. She gave me a home away from home, a magical world so vast and wonderful I grew up with it as if I were there myself.” To say she has a devoted fan base is something of an understatement.
Rowling grew up extremely poor and had lived on public assistance. Everything she championed: progressive social values, gay rights, female empowerment, and most importantly support of the most vulnerable in society, seemed like a breath of fresh air to its young audiences.
And yet, during Pride month, in the middle of a global pandemic, deep into the greatest movement for racial justice seen in a generation, Rowling decided to attack one of those vulnerable groups — transgender women — in a series of tweets only to double down the next day when challenged. How exactly did we get here? To answer that, let’s look at the specific tweets in question.
People who menstruate
On June 6, in response to an article on devex.com (the media plaform for the global development community) which used the phrase “people who menstruate”, Rowling tweeted:
This of course ignores the fact that many women do not menstruate or do so irregularly. Women suffering from certain medical conditions, women with dietary deficiencies, women who have had hysterectomies, women who have gone through menopause, as well as perfectly healthy, neurotypical women all may not menstruate. Not to put too fine a point on it, but at 54 years old, it is likely Rowling herself does not menstruate.
When people challenged her, Rowling doubled down with this
This is a bizarre series of tweets for a variety of reasons. First, few in the trans community are claiming sex does not exist. There may be certain elements of sex that are culturally constructed, but the majority of trans people are all too aware of the existence of sex. Rowling’s real claim here is that trans women are not women, which is wrong on its face. The existence of trans identities has been affirmed by (among others), the APA, the AMA, the WHO, and the CDC. All these organizations fully support the existence and rights of transgender people. Second, the existence of trans people in no way “erases” the existence of any woman anywhere. The suffering of one group in no way invalidates the suffering of another. Finally, Rowling uses the red flag, “I know and love trans people, but…” This should be well known to people in all walks of life who’ve heard family or friends say “I’m not racist/homophobic, but…” only to see it followed inevitably by a racist and/or homophobic sentiment.
At this point, Rowling could have listened to criticism and attempted to learn and grow, but she ended with this depressingly familiar comeback
When bigots the world over are called out, they inevitably play the victim card.
A disturbing history
None of this should really come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. Not only does Rowling have a history of transphobic tweets, she’s also been called out for a lack of true diversity and representation in her works. She plays nice by writing in ethnically diverse characters, but paints them so far in the background they have almost no agency. She named a Chinese character Cho Chang, and didn’t even do the basic research to find out Cho and Chang are Korean names. She was even called out for appropriating Navajo culture wholesale for her series on Pottermore.
On the seemingly positive side, she made waves by supporting the casting of a black actress as Hermione in the stage version of her show. And perhaps the biggest splash of all was her 2007 declaration, a few scant weeks before the publication of the final book in the Harry Potter series, that headmaster Albus Dumbledore, a major character in the Harry Potter universe, was gay. These last two moves seemed very positive, but it’s important to note she never made any move to validate Dumbledore’s queerness, by say showing him in a same sex relationship in any book or film, or to write in a major character who was ethnically diverse.
J.K. Rowling in her Chamber of Secrets
Rowling rose from relative poverty to become one of the wealthiest people in the world. Forbes estimated her net wealth at $650 million in 2017 and current estimates put her north of $1 billion. J.K. Rowling is not in danger of erasure from anyone and certainly not from one of the most marginalized groups of people in the world. Instead, she seems to feel so secure in her position that she can take from whichever marginalized group she pleases. Supporting gay rights when she wants, but not really gay inclusion. Sticking multicultural characters in her works in the name of inclusion, but making them 1-dimensional plot devices, or wholesale plundering of native cultures. Rowling now exists in a world as secure as Hogwarts, menaced by imaginary beasts who will be dispatched safely by the end of the novel. Any danger is only in her imagination.