Citation Needed: A Response to J.K. Rowling

Julia Perroni
15 min readJun 20, 2020

“I seek the truth, by which no one was ever harmed. But he is harmed who abides by his own self-deception and ignorance.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.21

Other people have written versions of the response that you’re about to read, but I felt the need to write my own version, because I am, in fact, very angry. I am very angry about a lot of things, not least the fact that I am having to write this response in the middle of an incredibly important historical moment. All across the world, Black Lives Matter rallies are breaking out to protest the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and numerous other Black people by the police, and yet J.K. Rowling, whose track record on race is not exactly pristine, has chosen this moment to make a self-defensive statement underlining her transphobia instead of using her platform for good. It is exhausting and infuriating that she has put us in a position to have to divert resources from the truly important fight for the basic right to life that is going on in order to defend another vulnerable population from her attacks, and yet here we are. Before I go any further, I would like to call for anyone reading this article to donate if you can to any of the many fundraising efforts supporting Black people in the US and elsewhere, especially Black trans people: here are some links.

However, this response is not about Black Lives Matter, police brutality, COVID-19, or any of the other vast problems in the world today. This response is about J.K. Rowling, because she has chosen now to out herself as virulently transphobic, and that cannot be allowed to slide. On June 10th, 2020, Rowling published a personal essay, some 3600 words approximately, on her website under a section called “Answers”. The essay itself, “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues,” can be found here. For posterity, I and several other practical souls have archived her post via Wayback Machine, should she come to her senses and delete it — frankly, I doubt that she will, and even if she does, I’m of the opinion that it should be preserved.

I’m of a lot of opinions about this essay, as it turns out. To some degree, I wish that I wasn’t: I still love Harry Potter, but blah blah Roland Barthes, death of the author, blah. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Rowling is the author of a beloved series of children’s/middle-grade novels that defined my childhood and the childhoods of a generation, yes, and were we living in any other age I would be happy to say “but it was the text that did that, not Rowling” and leave it at that — pure textual approaches have served many commentators on Harry Potter very well, after all. (I think fondly, for example, of the podcasts Witch Please, a feminist literary critical analysis of both films and movies, and Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which meditates thoughtfully on what the text of Harry Potter might mean to us in our lives, despite its difficulties and fumbles.) However, we don’t live in any other age, we live in the age of the internet, and specifically the age of Twitter. The capital-A Author has become a very different animal than the one Roland Barthes knew, because the Author is now also an author, a human being who has immediate and intimate access to their readership, and whose readership has access to them. This creates something of a quandary: how do we separate art from artist when the artist is still right there, and very happy to engage with you on the topic of the art, sometimes even when you’d rather they didn’t?

The short answer is, you don’t. The slightly longer answer is, we must talk about the transphobic elephant in the room. J.K. Rowling may claim not to be personally transphobic but she is certainly guilty of broadcasting transphobic rhetoric to her incredibly large and avid audience, and her dedication to this rhetoric is far different from casual cisnormativity. It is not a stretch to say that Rowling is a transphobe. Even aside from the personal hurt she has inflicted on trans people who look up to her and the potential for her words to spur transphobic violence or virtual abuse, Rowling’s essay has already been used by a senator in the US government to block pro-LGBTQ legislation. She has hurt people, and she is not sorry. If she were so genuinely an ally of the trans people she claims to know and love, she would be making genuine statements of support, rather than trying to defend herself; she would also have a history of allyship and support to point to, which she very clearly does not. I am not of the opinion that we should accept blindly any amount of bigotry in any piece of media with as large an audience as Rowling’s work — her fiction or her blogs or her tweets, for that matter. To quote Tumblr user accio, “We are past the day where we can pretend that disavowing a bigoted author is enough, and that that somehow separates a text from its bigotry.” In that post, they identify the underlying transphobia present in the characterization of Rita Skeeter as well as instances of racism and antisemitism. As pointed out by Tumblr user ratherembarrassing (whose tags were added to that same post by Tumblr user banrions), “#rowling will never say her work contains the things rightful (sic) pointed out here #but she doesn’t get to make that call #we all have eyes and can look for ourselves #and who she is is part of what we must look at”. And now, J.K. Rowling, we are looking.

Rowling’s earlier tweets on the topics of sex and gender do a good enough job of exposing her, of course. Others have done better jobs than I could of rounding these up and summarizing past controversy, including Britni de la Cretaz at refinery29, Emma Specter at Vogue, and back in December, Katelyn Burns at Vox. But her “Answers” essay is particularly telling, and I’d like to address some of what she says in it.

First of all, a disclaimer: I’m cis. I consider myself an ally of the trans community, but I am not trans myself. I’ll come back to this a little later, but suffice to say that I have put significant thought into my own gender identity, I have educated myself on trans issues, and I can say with confidence that I am a cis woman. This means two things for the content of this response. The first is that, though I work to make myself an ally to trans people every day, I feel uncomfortable taking on their pain and outrage as my own for the purposes of this rebuttal. For that reason, I won’t be talking in great detail about the responses of trans people to her essay, other than to acknowledge the suffering she has undeniably caused. I don’t want to appropriate suffering that isn’t mine, no matter how much I sympathize; I have my own outrage, and while much of it comes from her delegitimizing attacks on people I love, I have other specific things to discuss.

Second, I would like it to be known that I agree with Rowling that misogyny is a problem in the modern day and that antifeminism and sexism have taken on a new and vicious form. None of that is helped, either, by the fact that feminism is as much under attack from within as from without nowadays: TERFs and “white feminists” defeat their own purpose by excluding from their activism the most vulnerable female demographics. I sympathize with Rowling on her concerns for women and women’s issues! The problem is that Rowling seems unwilling to acknowledge fully that trans women are women, and that therefore women’s issues are also trans issues, and also that many trans issues (eg. reproductive health and bioessentialism more broadly) are also problems for cis women. Further, Rowling is not remotely justified in villainizing trans people and trans activists in order to advance what she considers to be her cause. She has done incredible harm to trans people and to the trans community, and in doing so done nothing but harm to women and feminism. She has misrepresented both her own purported cause and the causes of trans people and trans activists in a deeply disingenuous way, and I am going to do all I can to make it clear how outrageous that really is.

Here’s the thing about Rowling’s essay: she doesn’t cite her sources. Arguably, it’s because this is a personal essay and a personal defence, but if she’s going to make claims about other people and their motives, she had better damn well back them up. She starts out her essay in defence (again) of Maya Forstater, almost as a proxy for her defence of herself. Rowling states that Forstater “lost her job… for what were deemed ‘transphobic’ tweets.” For the record: Forstater did not lose her job, per se. She was a contracted worker and her contract was not renewed. Further, Rowling states that in the ensuing court case, Forstater “[asked] the judge to rule on whether a philosophical belief that sex is determined by biology is protected by law.” This is not the case. Maya Forstater asked the judge to rule that it was a legally protected right to believe that, regardless entirely of identity, legal status, state of medical transition, or anything else, an AFAB person is a woman and an AMAB person is a man, on account of their “biological sex”. She repeatedly stated a belief that trans women were “males”, misgendered trans and nonbinary people on the basis of their sex, and generally refused to accept in particular that trans women are women. (This among other transphobic beliefs, such as that trans people can usually if not always be identified by sight; that there are only two sexes, including the idea that intersexuality does not complicate the binary and ultimately intersex people fit into one of two categories; that “cis” is an offensive term; and so on. All of this information is available via the judgement documents from her case.)

Ultimately, Judge Tayler did not rule that “a philosophical belief that sex is determined by biology” is not protected by law, he ruled that an absolutist belief that sex is totally immutable and defines a person’s identity, up to and including the way they can be treated, and what spaces they can be excluded from, “is incompatible with human dignity and the fundamental rights of others.” (Before I proceed, I would like everyone to imagine a clapping emoji, directed from myself to Judge Tayler.) Maya Forstater’s case was denied because she refused to accept that under the law and in terms of pure human decency, trans women are women and deserve to be treated as such, and because their right to such treatment is protected under the law, she does not have any corresponding right to deny it, or to claim belief discrimination when there are consequences for her doing so.

Rowling, like Forstater, is of the belief that sex (as determined at birth) is important. She objects to the idea of saying “people who menstruate” rather than “women”, a stance that erases trans men and nonbinary people, and she claims that deconstructing the idea of a strict sexual binary will harm medical research. This argument, a classic TERF talking point, is just one of about twenty transphobic dogwhistles in Rowling’s essay that are so loud that you might as well just call them “whistles”, which were handily collected and well-analyzed by Andrew James Carter on Twitter. Because of his excellent work, and the excellent work of many other people, including trans people, I don’t feel the need to go into this in more detail — instead, I’ll turn to a few other specific things that bothered me about her essay.

The first one is the really personal one. I mentioned earlier that I am cis, and that my cisness was going to come up. Well, here it is: I know for a fact that I’m cis because I’ve spent my formative years around trans people and being educated in trans matters. My friend group in high school was one of those that Rowling quotes Littman about, where the significant majority of us (about 80%) came out as queer around the same time, including several coming out as trans or nonbinary. Partly, this is because we got along because we were like-minded people, open to exploring ourselves and open to new possibilities for ourselves and our identities, and we became aware of those new possibilities because of the improved queer education available to my generation. We were identifying as lesbian or bisexual or trans because we knew about those things in order to identify as them, and because, fortunately for us, we went to a progressive school in a liberal city, and we had friends who supported and validated us, for which I can only be deeply grateful.

I myself mostly settled on a fairly neutral femininity throughout highschool and undergrad. I wasn’t comfortable expressing my gender in any way, really, because I was still settling into myself and had more important things to worry about than my personality or my gender performance. I, like Rowling, felt “sexless” for much of my youth, and ignored that I had a body at all most of the time. I too was made uncomfortable with being a woman by the “sexualised scrutiny and judgement” that I experienced, especially as I struggled with my sexuality and queer identity. As I’ve gotten older, however, and other parts of my identity have settled, I’ve been able to turn more attention to my body and to my gender.

I had my first brush with body dysphoria in a gendered way only a few years ago. I wrestled with my womanhood, and ultimately turned to external philosophy to reconcile myself; as Rowling describes, I found a reflection of “my own sense of otherness, and my ambivalence about being a woman” — but I didn’t find that reflection in feminism. I found it in queer and trans activism and thought. The idea that a person’s identity doesn’t depend on their body was comforting to me; so too was the idea that I was free to change my presentation to reflect my gender in the way I experienced it. Trans activism taught me that I could be a woman in whatever way was most comfortable to me, and as it turns out, that way was a bit butch. Anyone who knows me personally probably knows that over the course of a summer, I transformed my look significantly, and since then I’ve found myself much more comfortable not only in my body, but in my womanhood.

Despite what Rowling seems to fear, for me at least the combination of my discomfort with my gender and my knowledge of the possibility of transition did not make me trans, or even make me think I was trans. Instead, it let me become a woman, maybe a little to the left, in exactly the way that I wanted. I was able to do this because I was familiar and comfortable with the idea of being a woman in a non-conforming way, that there were ways to alter my gender performance that would make it possible for me to stop feeling dysphoric and strange and start feeling like myself. I was not “transed” by trans activists; if anything, I was cised by them.

But that’s more than enough about me. Let’s talk, for a moment, about J.K. Rowling. In her “Answers” essay, she comes clean with some rather personal information, and while I certainly do not begrudge her her right to privacy, I do find her timing in revealing her history with domestic abuse to be, shall we say, problematic. Rowling’s choice to inform the world that she was abused by her ex-husband in this way reveals exactly what she is: a transphobe, in the literal sense. She is, quite literally, afraid of trans people, and afraid that allowing them to exist will endanger her in some way. She has said that she “[does] not want to make natal girls and women feel less safe.” (As an aside: her refusal to use the word “cis” is also a classic TERF dogwhistle.) It is not even implicit in her essay that she believes that “men” will enter women’s spaces if trans women are allowed into women’s spaces, and that these “men” will abuse the battered women sheltering therein — never mind, of course, that trans women are equally if not more vulnerable to cis male violence than cis women are. She is genuinely afraid that trans women hide a violent threat in their bodies, to the point that she is willing to expose a carefully hidden piece of information about her own past in an effort to justify this fear. Rowling was more willing to work with an actual accused abuser than she is to allow battered trans women access to women’s shelters. I refer, of course, to the casting of Johnny Depp as Grindelwald in 2017, which she defended. It is, to me, disgusting that Rowling is willing to bludgeon trans people with her trauma, but is unwilling to wield the strength of her word against a man like Johnny Depp, who would certainly not have been harmed by her insistence on a re-cast, and a fear of whom would actually have been justified.

This, in a way, is what I found the most infuriating about Rowling’s essay: her defensive appeals to reasonability. Nothing about this essay is reasonable; it comes from a place of passion and fear, which is absolutely plain if you actually read it. Under no circumstances am I “getting out a violin” for Rowling — she’s coping with her trauma by bullying trans people on the internet, and I find that reprehensible. But she is writing from a place of emotion, and this is somewhat understandable. Unfortunately, she’s writing from that place of emotion and has dressed it up like it comes from a place of reasoning and research.

I’m a trained classicist; as of writing this response, I’m about three months away from being awarded my Master’s in Classics by King’s College London. This means that I know a lot about Ancient Greek and not much else, which is usually fine; I am content in this bubble. Except sometimes authors I used to admire make the header/banner of the deeply defensive “Answers” section on their websites a photo of the Loeb Classical Library volume of Marcus Aurelius’s collected works, and then I’m forced to have an opinion about it. Now, to be clear, I am not an expert on Marcus Aurelius, and couldn’t overall care less about ancient philosophy. In this case, however, her inclusion of this image (and whether it was her choice personally or not, I don’t know and don’t believe it matters) is representative of an overall problem that I see with her essay. Over and over, Rowling exhibits a sort of false intellectualism in order to make herself seem reasonable and reasoned, like she knows what she’s talking about, has done her reading, and therefore should be taken seriously. I find this disingenuous at best.

I brought up three things that bothered me in particular about Rowling’s essay: her doubling-down in her defence of Maya Forstater, her appeal to fears of “transing” youth, and her fears of ‘men in dresses’ abusing women in “single-sex” spaces. In the first instance, she misrepresents the case, for all that she makes an effort to apply legal language. In the second, she cites Lisa Littman, a scientist who has been heavily criticized and her research aggressively rebutted even by scholars at her own institution, never mind in the wider scientific community — not, of course, that Rowling mentions any of that. Littman was obliged to republish her research some months after its original publication to clarify that she had only surveyed the parents of the gender-dysphoric youth in question, and not the youth themselves, for example. And third, Rowling cites no sources whatsoever to support her fears of men using the guise of trans women to sneak into women’s spaces and abuse them. She’s just saying things. And yet, because Rowling is a formerly-widely-respected author with a massive following, and because she couches this saying of things in quotations from Simone de Beauvoir and caps the article with a photo of an intellectual-looking book with an elite Classical name on it, she buys authority.

Here’s something Rowling probably does not know about Marcus Aurelius: his writings have been heavily appropriated by the alt-right Red Pill community — thank you to Dora Gao for bringing this to my attention. Donna Zuckerberg’s 2018 book Not All Dead White Men, her extensive feminist survey of the appropriation of Greco-Roman antiquity by misogynists on the internet, has an entire chapter on Stoicism, the philosophical school to which Marcus Aurelius belonged. As someone who claims to be a feminist and to be very worried about misogyny in the modern day, Rowling might find the book of interest. Further, if Rowling wants to be taken more seriously by those of us who are working to root out misguided and poorly-sourced misogyny in the internet age, she might have chosen a different author for her header. Or, better, she wouldn’t have appropriated the Ancient Mediterranean in order to give herself the veneer of being well-read and authoritative in exactly the same way the alt-right does.

Donna Zuckerberg’s “Not All Dead White Men” and the Ancient Greek edition (trans. Andrew Wilson) of J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”.

“J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues” is a heinous piece of overly-defensive TERF rhetoric that deserves to be absolutely torn to pieces by as many people as are willing to put themselves through reading it and have the time and emotional energy in these difficult days to do it. I’m pleased to be one of them. When I was young, I wanted to be J.K. Rowling. Now I eagerly look forward to the day when I can publish my own work and cultivate my own audience so that I can pointedly be the opposite of her, as much as is possible. I hope she’s proud of how effectively she’s managed to alienate a massive chunk of her audience — all the best people in it, in my opinion. And I hope she thinks every day for the rest of her life about the harm she’s done, for no reason whatsoever and through nothing but deceptive rhetoric and lies, to a group of deeply vulnerable group of people who should never have had anything but her strongest support. My love and solidarity may pale in comparison to her vitriol, but for whatever it is worth, the trans community has all that I can give, now and forever.

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