JK Rowling and the TERF Wars

Yes, I DID notice no one asked me.

Actually, I’m lying in my subtitle. One of my friends specifically asked me. I was trying to stay out of this because it’s just so stupid. But she specifically asked me because white women are being Karens right now, I’m white and a woman, and I live in London and have dealt with British women of various creeds and colours. I’ve even befriended some of them.

I’ve also lost friends in the TERF Wars.

I want to make a joke here about being all hardened and stuff but what actually happened is I’m rather pro-transgender individuals and I had this friend who REALLY wanted me to not be pro-transgender individuals and she asked me to block her because I’m not that kinda girl (no pun intended) and when I didn’t she blocked me. I would assume that means our friendship is over. (If you’re confused, so was I so …)

Anyways, for my friend who asked and because I noticed that my British friends were talking about it I found the stupid essay and read it. Never say never, but I have no intention to delve any further into this disaster than that. I am aware that Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe both made statements on this and I take Watson’s statement more seriously given her history of advocacy, but they’re both basically in agreement and I mean no shade on Radcliffe; he’s just not as prolific in this regard as Watson. But everything else surrounding this whole deal is so tinged by people’s various opinions that it’s really not worth getting into.

Naturally, I’m here to add to the cacophony.

So, ultimately, I think Rowling is really trying to do right. I’m not defending her because regardless of her intentions she’s done a lot of damage and the worst actions are often predicated by such good intentions. She and my ex-friend seem to think of “TERF” as a slur every bit as bad as the c-word and n-word. Which … I’m sorry, but no. At the opening of this piece I used “Karen,” as a sort of pejorative term and I’m confident in doing that for reasons I explained here. I feel largely the same about the term “TERF.” If you don’t want to be called a “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist,” then don’t be a “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist.”

But what struck me about Rowling’s essay or blog post or whatever it is she seems to be misplacing her fear and anger. In the essay she talks briefly about having been an abuse survivor. And I get that. Intimately. I get that. I also get why she would feel a deep seated need to protect women from harm particularly as she’s essentially come from nothing to become just short of a billionaire. Given her life history I totally get why she might have a bit of a complex. And THAT is fine. She has the same history that most women have and like most women she’s a bit jumpy in certain situations. We ALL get that. It’s a pretty clearly common experience even though it’s pretty clear it shouldn’t be.

The issue and where I deeply disagree with her is she seems to associate trans women with rapists and abusers. Now, I would encourage you to read her in her own words because I am simplifying here. But she seems to be particularly annoyed and concerned by trans women being able to be legally considered women without going through any form of gender reassignment therapy. Now, she talks about it as an opportunity for predators to get into women’s safe spaces. But this is the part where I really wonder at her logic. Women don’t really have safe spaces to begin with and a piece of paper or ID stating someone’s a given gender is not going to be the thing that enables or stops a predator. I don’t have to flash my passport before going into a public restroom and frankly laws where you do have to go into a bathroom based on your original biological sex as opposed to gender are far more dangerous for trans men and women than they are for non-trans women (not sure what the term would be).

Going into all of this including when my ex-friend decided that me not hating trans-people was a deal breaker my take has generally been that the trans population is so incredibly small and asking for so little that we can totally afford not to be jerks towards them. I honestly do not care if a trans woman is in the bathroom with me. She’s not coming in the stall with me so it’s not a problem. But more than that the entire reason transgender individuals need so many rights to be made explicit is because they are pushed to the edges of society simply for being transgender. If you can’t keep a job because you’re male but identify as a woman then you are more and more likely to end up doing something like sex work or selling controlled substances. In various instances those incomes are illegal which could land you in jail where your transgender identity could put you in immediate physical danger.

And this brings me to another point Rowling got into in her essay. She was rather insistent that too much transitioning was happening too early … it was weird. In part she does have a point that both American and British society kinda hates all things feminine and so a lot of girls and women have difficulty identifying themselves as female because to be feminine is to be bad or less or evil. And I will even admit that there was a brief period in my life where I was fielding so many rape and death threats that I considered transitioning. I ultimately decided against it because I’m heterosexual and it was super expensive, but even if I could have walked into a clinic and had it taken care of in an outpatient procedure for zero dollars and fifteen cents I don’t think I would have gone through with it. I’m not a man. My gender is not entirely feminine hence the rape and death threats, but I am a woman and want to remain a woman. The threats were not really something I could control and they would have only increased if I had transitioned.

Rowling implied that it is too easy for people to transition and that a lot of women who have transitioned are trying to de-transition.

Honestly, I said I’m not delving into this so I’m not going to fact-check her but this isn’t like getting roofied at a party. I’ve gone to talks given by transgender individuals and based on what they said … no … this isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s not even entirely possible. Given how intense it is, I do think if you want to physically transition you should go through counselling first so you know exactly what it’s going to entail, how long it will take, and ultimately if this is really right for you. Some of the transgender individuals I know do not want to physically transition and don’t even identify as either woman or man. So there are going to be trans women with male genitalia and trans men with female genitalia. This is none of your business; you are not the pants police.

Rowling also implied that the vitriol on twitter is indicative of the standard behaviour of all trans activists. That part I nearly laughed aloud at. I don’t really think she believes that. I certainly hope she doesn’t. Twitter is known for being a bit vitriolic. I’m on it now but I am routinely called various variations on vulva for my pretty reasonable statements. I may have already mentioned it but at one point I was called the c-word for using my appropriate title. So, sure, that isn’t nice, but it is pretty hilarious that someone was so threatened by a woman having an advanced degree that he needed to call me a c**t.

I understand that Rowling probably was dealing with far more hate and nastiness than I’ve ever experienced, but that’s why famous people often hire someone to handle their handle. If I ever become as famous as Rowling that’s what I will do. But all that aside, Twitter is currently a slightly more elevated 4-chan. I mean, Donald Trump is on that thing. (No, we cannot have a single moment where he doesn’t pervade much like a particularly pungent fart, I don’t know why you thought we could.) But yeah, I stayed off Twitter for as long as I did because I knew it was … just awful. I only joined because half my friends are basically what makes up Black Twitter and Black Twitter is the actual bomb. Seriously, if you’re ever depressed, slice of chocolate cake, glass of wine, little Johann Strauss, Black Twitter and you’ve got your evening sorted.

I don’t want to chalk this up to age because I’m really not sure that’s the issue here, but it does seem like she’s associating the vitriol of Twitter and other social media platforms with the entirety of activism. Her essay is not devoid of good points and I do actually genuinely understand a lot of her concerns. In some cases I think she’s overstating them and making some damaging generalisations, but as much as I disagree with her conclusions I understand how she got there.

But, okay so I think we can all agree that regardless of your reasoning or intentions, being exclusionary towards transgender individuals is not acceptable. So the question is what to do regarding JK Rowling. Ultimately, it’s up to you how you wish to engage with her and her works. Rowling sort of dismissively stated that she’s on her third or fourth “cancellation,” by now so clearly she has been for many people, “cancelled.” I really don’t have the bandwidth to get into cancel culture at the moment, but if Rowling has crossed a line for you and you just cannot with her that is fine. You do have a duty to your mental health and if completely ridding yourself of her influence — malign or benign — is going to be good for you then that’s totally fine.

Where I think things might get a little silly is where people are burning or (apparently) composting her books. For one, you have to have bought her books in the first place in order to burn them so you’re not really doing great work there. But secondly, her work is now very much out there in some cases associated with her and in some cases not. This gets into “death of the author” and to avoid explaining a literary concept I don’t entirely understand I’m just going to link Lindsey Ellis’ “video essay,” on the subject.

JK Rowling, like every author before her and every author after her is a fallible human being. Contrary to some of the comments from very angry and threatened men I’ve blocked, me holding a controversial opinion even if my opinion turns out to be utterly wrong does not 1. make me an entirely evil entity/soulless temptress and 2. negate every action I’ve taken and research I’ve accomplished and writing I’ve done. Being as anti-transgender as she seems to be is a bit problematic and some people may not be able to resolve that. That’s fine. That is the individual decision of the individual reader. But liking her fiction despite her being a flawed person is not inherently a bad thing.

This is where authors differ from politicians. Again, your mileage may vary on this. A politician being racist or sexist is a huge problem because that person will be a leader and/or legislator. Their bigotry puts people in actual danger. Rowling does have a huge platform and the potential for a lot of influence, but she also does not have the final say in matters of law. If this is a deal breaker for you then she’s basically outlined how you can fight her. And if you’re up for it you can simultaneously fight for transgender rights in Scotland AND enjoy her books.

Yeah, regardless of her intentions what she is doing and saying is harmful. You however determine how you interact with her and her literature. Maybe though, don’t elect her to office.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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