A Reasonable Person’s Guide to the J.K. Rowling Essay

[Content warning: The section on Magdalen Berns includes extremely transphobic quotes.]

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For those blissfully unaware, J.K. Rowling recently published an essay in defense of her position on trans people. I have until today ignored it, because our time as sentient beings experiencing the wondrous accident known as consciousness is fleeting and debating what the author of Harry Potter thinks about my gender identity is about as fulfilling a use of that time as eating sand.

I changed my mind. In fact, I’m writing a Medium article about it. Why?

I changed my mind because the essay is…quite reasonable, actually. If I didn’t have personal experience with trans issues, I would be inclined to agree with Rowling’s concerns. People shouldn’t be shamed for having genital preferences? Sure! Sex differentiated from gender is important in a medical context? Of course! These trans activists that she describes sound like monsters! However, her essay paints a misleading and often totally inaccurate representation of trans issues that is only apparent when you dig into the details.

That kind of an argument is dangerous, particularly when promoted by someone with as significant a following as J.K. Rowling. Reading the essay, I could see the countless points in which many reasonable and well-intentioned people likely found themselves nodding along. Not because they are transphobic, but because they don’t have access to the full story.

And so I find myself here, writing an article that began as a Facebook comment, hoping to provide some of that story. You are not a bigot for empathizing with Rowling’s points. You should empathize with them! They make sense at face value. But when we we take the mask off of her arguments, will we find steel or straw?

Let’s find out.

Maya Forstater and the Transphobic Tweets

The first topic that Rowling addresses is that of Maya Forstater:

For people who don’t know: last December I tweeted my support for Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who’d lost her job for what were deemed ‘transphobic’ tweets. She took her case to an employment tribunal, asking the judge to rule on whether a philosophical belief that sex is determined by biology is protected in law. Judge Tayler ruled that it wasn’t.

In the case in question, Forstater’s tweets described a prominent non-binary CEO as a “part-time cross-dresser”, called on supporters to refuse to participate in panels in which she was included, and insisted that she was “a white man who likes to dress in women’s clothes”. Forstater’s employer decided not to renew their contract with her in response, prompting the lawsuit.

The core argument in the lawsuit is that Forstater’s tweets represent a protected belief under the Equality Act of 2010. Her beliefs met four of the five criteria for that definition, failing on the last:

(v) It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, and compatible with human dignity and the fundamental rights of others.

Judge Taylor’s ruling describes why:

If a person has transitioned from male to female and has a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), that person is legally a woman. That is not something [Ms Forstater] is entitled to ignore. [Ms Forstater’s] position is that even if a trans woman has a GRC, she cannot honestly describe herself as a woman. That belief is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.

Even paying due regard to the qualified right to freedom of expression, people cannot expect to be protected if their core belief involves violating others’ dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment for them.

Forstater and Rowling focus on the sentence, “That belief is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.” It’s a great way to drum up outrage at oppressive censorship. What they fail to acknowledge is that Forstater was arguing for the legal right to ignore someone’s legal gender in favor of whatever she felt like calling them. Establishing that as a protected belief would create a contradiction. As Guardian writer Gaby Hinsliff sums up in her excellent article on the ruling, “Those seeking the protection of the law can’t ignore the protection it affords others.”

Magdalen Berns and the Comparison to Blackface

Finishing with Maya Forstater, Rowling then turns to a new pioneering figure in feminist history.

Months later, I compounded my accidental ‘like’ crime by following Magdalen Berns on Twitter. Magdalen was an immensely brave young feminist and lesbian who was dying of an aggressive brain tumour. I followed her because I wanted to contact her directly, which I succeeded in doing. However, as Magdalen was a great believer in the importance of biological sex, and didn’t believe lesbians should be called bigots for not dating trans women with penises, dots were joined in the heads of twitter trans activists, and the level of social media abuse increased.

First off, let’s condemn the misogynistic and hateful abuse that Rowling has received in response to her actions. Categorically. Twitter brings out the worst in human nature, and she has almost certainly received a flood of indefensible comments. With that finished, let’s take a look at the “brave young feminist” whose only crime, according to Rowling, was believing that lesbians shouldn’t be shamed for having genital preferences.

Magdalen Berns was a Scottish radical feminist who rose to prominence through a series of Youtube videos attacking transgender Youtubers and arguing that being transgender is a fetish. Her most popular upload tells a non-binary Youtuber, “Stop trying to compare your fucking fetish to womanhood. It’s really fucking insulting.” Another tells a trans woman, “No women have penises, Riley. No women.”

In yet another exchange, Berns doubles down on her comparison of trans women to white people wearing blackface, calling the other person a “pathetic, sick fuck” and describing a transgender person’s gender identity as “dirty fucking perversions”.

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The quotes above aren’t cherry-picked to make her seem worse than she was. This kind of no-nonsense tone was her personal brand, drawing her support from both TERFs and the National Review and prompting one blogger to describe her as “one of the most hateful and aggressive anti-trans radical feminists on Twitter.”

This was the person Rowling chose to promote. This was the person Rowling went out of her way to contact directly. You can reread Rowling’s description of Berns and come to your own conclusions.

J.K. Rowling and the Five Reasonable Concerns

Now is when we get to the meat of Rowling’s argument. She has five concerns about modern trans activism that she wants us to understand.

Concern #1: Trans activism is attempting to erase the distinction between sex and gender.

What in the name of…look, this isn’t happening. Yes, the internet has a lot of loud voices saying a lot of things, but I have yet to find any organized activism lobbying for erasing sex from patient medical history. Rowling argues that modern trans activism is “pushing to erode the legal definition of sex and replace it with gender”. That simply is not happening.

This kind of alarmism is incredibly common in anti-trans circles, however, fueled by a steady drip of fringe social media posts and misinformation that makes it seem like the Trans Agenda is eroding the foundations of Western society. It’s coming for your free speech. Your children. Your sex. Soon, the doomsayers warn, all of society will merge into a single amorphous gender that will consume everything that it touches.

I’ll dispel some of that misinformation below. Not all, because you aren’t interested in reading War and Peace, but some.

Concern #2: Trans activism is harming children.

Hey, remember when “think of the children” was the rallying cry against gay rights? Those heady days of the ’90s, when roller blading was considered cool and the gay rights movement was going to make all of the kids turn into a bunch of homos? Some things never change.

Rowling doesn’t bring up any new points here other than to state her concern. Noted? Thanks? However, she does mention later on in the essay that 60–90% of trans teens grow out of their dysphoria. Being a data geek by profession, that’s when my hackles go up.

To start, none of the research behind those figures says anything about trans teens. The research in question, which is well over two decades old, follows children as young as three. The 60–90% figure cited represents the percentage of these children whose gender identity eventually grew to match their sex.

Still reasonable to address, right? It seems to be…until you look at why these statistics are highly suspect. Many of the children in the study didn’t qualify for a diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder (as it was called at the time). This was back in 1994, and the subjects of the research were children whose parents sought help because their kids were displaying gender aberrant behavior. In the words of Diane Ehrensaft, director of mental health at UCSF’s Child and Adolescent Gender Clinic, “The methodology of those studies is very flawed, because they didn’t study gender identity. Those desistors were, a good majority of them, simply proto-gay boys whose parents were upset because they were boys wearing dresses. They were brought to the clinics because they weren’t fitting gender norms.”

Some kids who socially transition will grow out of their gender dysphoria. That’s okay. In that case, they can simply go back to their old pronouns with the reassurance that their parents love and support them. When gender dysphoria continues into adolescence, however, is when it’s probably going to stick around. The American Psychological Association’s extensive guidelines for treatment of transgender patients agrees:

Research has suggested that children who identify more intensely with a gender different than sex assigned at birth are more likely to persist in this gender identification into adolescence, and that when gender dysphoria persists through childhood and intensifies into adolescence, the likelihood of long-term TGNC identification increases.

No need to fear. The kids are alright, and child psychologists aren’t rushing around prescribing hormones to five year-olds. What exactly is Rowling worried about?

Concern #3: Trans activism erodes freedom of speech.

This comes up a lot when pronouns enter the discussion. It started with the uproar that psychology professor Jordan Peterson incited in 2016 as he rocketed to Youtube stardom with his insistence that Canadian Bill C-16, which added gender identity and expression as protected grounds to the Canadian Human Rights Act, would result in people being thrown in jail for using the wrong pronoun.

Note that Peterson is not a legal expert. This gem of a man, who insists that Frozen is feminist propaganda and that women who wear makeup to work are hypocrites if they don’t want to be sexually harassed, brought up a warning that he had received from the University of Toronto, reminding him that free speech in his role as a professor had to be made in accordance with human rights legislation, and that his refusal to use personal pronouns upon request could constitute discrimination.

The concern is rational at first glance. It stems from a misunderstanding about the legal definition of hate speech, but it is a misunderstanding that anti-trans activists like Peterson have stuck with and doubled down on despite a flood of responses from actual legal experts. Four years later, the free speech argument is a favorite straw man of anti-trans activists in response to any move by legislators to protect us from harm.

What do the aforementioned legal experts have to say on the matter? The Canadian Bar Association called out free speech concerns directly in their position paper supporting Bill C-16:

Recently, the debate has turned to whether the amendments will force individuals to embrace concepts, even use pronouns, which they find objectionable. This is a misunderstanding of human rights and hate crimes legislation…For hate crimes, Bill C-16 adds “gender identity or expression” to the identifiable groups protected from those who advocate genocide, publicly incite hatred likely to lead to a breach of the peace or wilfully promote hatred against them.

…For those compelled to speak and act in truth, however unpopular, truth is included in those defences. Nothing in the section compels the use or avoidance of particular words in public as long as they are not used in their most “extreme manifestations” with the intention of promoting the “level of abhorrence, delegitimization and rejection” that produces feelings of hatred against identifiable groups.

Take any concern trolling about freedom of speech with regards to trans rights and you will find similar misinterpretations spun up to create panic. Inflammatory headlines abound (despite them being wildly misleading), all leveraging the fact that few people are going to do their own independent research. No one is going to jail.

Again, lawyers and law professors have come out in droves to explain the issue. The internet is filled with articles. If Rowling hasn’t read these, where is she getting her information?

Concern #4: Trans activism is making gender dysphoria a social trend.

To support this, Rowling first points to the recent surge of trans men choosing to transition. Not that she calls them as such. To her, they are “young women”. She claims that she fears for the “increasing numbers who seem to be detransitioning (returning to their original sex), because they regret taking steps that have, in some cases, altered their bodies irrevocably, and taken away their fertility.”

What data is this based on? A summary of some of the research done on post-transition regret places it between 0.6% and 3.8%. The study that found a 3.8% regret rate was published in 1998, however, measuring regret rate for trans people who transitioned between 1978 and 1992. The most common reason cited for regret? Lack of familial or community support. In an age when transitioning meant becoming a social pariah, 96.2% of trans people did not regret their choice. Take a moment to think about that.

Rowling then goes on to cite a 2018 study by Lisa Littman that argues that gender dysphoria can be seen acting as a social contagion in modern youth. She uses the term “rapid-onset gender dysphoria”, or ROGD, to describe the idea. The study in question is such transparently bad science that Rowling’s defense of it indicates that she receives her news on gender issues only from the most biased of possible sources.

The methodologies that Littman used have been intensely critiqued, but here are some key takeaways:

  • ROGD is not a clinically accepted phenomenon, and there is no peer-reviewed evidence that it exists.

The reason that the study was subsequently pulled was that it was propaganda, pure and simple. Unsupportive parents recruited from anti-trans websites responded by saying that their kids never showed them any early signs that they were trans? Shocking!

Rowling describes the situation differently.

Her paper caused a furore. She was accused of bias and of spreading misinformation about transgender people, subjected to a tsunami of abuse and a concerted campaign to discredit both her and her work. The journal took the paper offline and re-reviewed it before republishing it. However, her career took a similar hit to that suffered by Maya Forstater. Lisa Littman had dared challenge one of the central tenets of trans activism, which is that a person’s gender identity is innate, like sexual orientation. Nobody, the activists insisted, could ever be persuaded into being trans.

This is one of many points in which the likelihood that Rowling is engaging in good faith becomes vanishingly small. In the beginning of her essay, she writes:

My interest in trans issues pre-dated Maya’s case by almost two years, during which I followed the debate around the concept of gender identity closely. I’ve met trans people, and read sundry books, blogs and articles by trans people, gender specialists, intersex people, psychologists, safeguarding experts, social workers and doctors, and followed the discourse online and in traditional media.

She has followed the subject closely for years, tracked Lisa Littman’s career, and is still somehow ignorant to the widely cited issues that prompted the re-review of Littman’s study? Really?

Coincidentally, Rowling’s description of these and other events in the essay follow a narrative structure that is identical to how events are covered in TERF spaces:

  1. Someone opposing trans rights falls victim to their own mistakes or awful behavior.

I’ve read that same narrative time and again, because it is a known fact that every trans person will occasionally take an evening to run a bath, pour a glass of wine, and read content from online communities dedicated to people who hate us. We will then spend 12–48 hours exhausted and depressed before returning to our lives. Why we do this is a mystery of nature.

These are the narrative structures of those who seek to victimize others by creating a fiction of their own victimization. If you take any of their nearly endless martyrdom stories and dig into the details, you’ll almost always find crucial context being omitted. If trans activists had a fraction of the power that TERF rhetoric insists that we have, we wouldn’t be consistently denied the simplest of legal protections. We wouldn’t struggle to get basic access to healthcare. We wouldn’t be banned from the United States military.

Big Trans is the worst lobby ever.

Concern #5: Trans activism is fighting for rights that make women less safe.

Everyone gets to have their feelings and experiences and traumas. Those should be given the space that they deserve, and no one should minimize the pain that Rowling has experienced that has led her to where she is today. Being a survivor of abuse myself, I know how deeply the scars of that pain run. I’m genuinely sorry to hear what she went through and I hope that she and her daughter are healing.

If the topic is bathrooms and the goal is harm reduction, though, then shouldn’t we actually look at what the evidence says regarding the impact of allowing trans people to use the right bathrooms? Instead of justifying her opposition to trans bathroom rights by claiming that “I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe”, she could seek a variety of perspectives and try to find out whether it would make natal girls and women less safe, and how we could make them more safe.

Research on the topic does exist. In 2018, the first study to investigate the impact of bathroom legislation protecting trans people found that “the passage of such laws is not related to the number or frequency of criminal incidents in these spaces. Additionally, the study finds that reports of privacy and safety violations in public restrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms are exceedingly rare. This study provides evidence that fears of increased safety and privacy violations as a result of nondiscrimination laws are not empirically grounded.” The argument is similar to the conservative uproar about voting fraud: yes, it is terrible, but it effectively never happens.

Let’s compare that with a comprehensive 2015 survey spanning 27,715 transgender respondents from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and U.S. military bases overseas.

  • Nearly half (46%) of respondents were verbally harassed in the past year because of being transgender.

This is the real, documented harm that the trans community, particularly trans people of color, live with every day. Every trans person I know was terrified the first time we used the bathroom that matched our gender. Many of us are still uncomfortable, scrupulously avoiding eye contact and rushing through our business in the hopes that we don’t wind up on the news. Despite acknowledging some of that harm, Rowling still insists that letting us go to the bathroom in peace would put cisgender women and girls at risk. Why?

Everyone gets to have their own opinion. As they say, it’s a free country. However, Rowling claims sympathy for the trans community while simultaneously spouting dangerous nonsense designed to radicalize people against us. If she wants to work together, the first thing that she can do is start owning the impact of her rhetoric and do real research into these issues. Unbiased research.

Then, maybe she can take a piece of advice from her own Dumbledore, who once said, “It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”

You can grow as well, Rowling. Please do.

It makes me incredibly happy to see so many people using this article as a reference in the discussion on trans rights. It is my firm belief that the best thing that an ally can do in the fight for equality is to inform themselves and help inform others. Bad faith arguments die when you dig into the details.

If you’re interested in more articles exploring the basis of different positions on contentious topics (particularly around trans rights), feel free to follow me here or on Twitter at @BrieHanrahan.

Yes, I finally have a Twitter account. I blame you all.

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