On the Foolishness of J.K. Rowling’s Transphobia

The author is treading dangerous ideological ground.

With greater trans visibility in recent years, the backlash against it only grew stronger. This was epitomized in last night’s transphobic tirade courtesy of J.K. Rowling, confirming what had been until now expressed with relative restraint–the British author has fully bought into trans-exclusionary ideology, gaining its proponents one of their biggest cultural assets to date.

In the first of a series of tweets, Rowling alluded to same-sex attraction being a misnomer if gender were diverse, ignoring that the nomenclature was already a compromise to appease the binarity of then-skeptical political establishments when the fight for marriage equality was still ongoing. When she was accused of being a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), her response was to equivocate it to misogynist language, sidestepping the fact that TERFs are themselves engaged in a form of misogyny by reducing womanhood to menstruation and childbearing.

Owing to Britain’s cultural makeup — between the residue of Christian hegemony and the semantic rigidity of its push for gay rights — trans rights discourse was ripe to be overtaken by malicious actors who either through sheer ignorance or outright vitriol concluded that the maintenance of their status hinged upon undermining trans people’s.

But beyond Britain itself, transphobia seems to have taken on a new life amongst public figures who wish to identify themselves along the lines of fringe thought. If this trend was mostly relegated to the halls of forbidden academia, it seeped its way into the broader culture with relative ease–a notable example of this is comedian Ricky Gervais, who through skits and social media posts, kept rehashing the same tired jokes about being able to identify as inanimate objects taken straight out of the pages of 4chan. While comedians could claim plausible deniability with their swipes at the marginalized being satire — albeit poor forms of it — authors of J.K. Rowling’s caliber should act more responsibly with their platforms as anything they will say will be taken in complete earnest.

The ensuing backlash against Rowling is partly the fault of a common perception of Hollywood being a liberal establishment, even when evidence to the contrary is plentiful. Harry Potter was thought to be emanating from Rowling’s own disdain of discrimination, but subsequent analysis reveals just how much of it may have been informed by her own racial and class biases–it is then not a surprise that her transphobia consists of meaningless platitudes about the rigidity of sex, as predeterministic assessments of one’s social caste seems par for the course in her own writing.

At this point, it is clear that Rowling is gauging transphobic presence within her own fandom to see how much she could get away with without renouncing her bigoted beliefs. If she’s able to gather public support, it might be enough to tide her over even if Warner Brothers decides to cut ties and no longer move ahead with subsequent entries in the Wizarding World cinematic franchise.

Most trans activists would agree that despite the amplification of trans perspectives in media, many of their livelihoods remain practically unchanged due to pre-existing biases. Trans women of color — and especially black trans women — have been a prime target for abuse since all-too-often, the privilege of being trans while melanin-deficient has its own perks to cope, and of those whose livelihoods manage to remain relatively unscathed, wealth is an important asset.

If anything, Rowling’s transphobic screed isn’t justice delivered as she seems to think–it is reinforcing current inequalities and making the lives of those who possess neither white privilege nor wealth significantly worse off. If her argument may seem reconcilable at first, it doesn’t hold up to historical scrutiny–trans people have been formidable allies in the fight against misogyny for so long, and it is through their exposure to own forms of transmisogyny that we’ve come to extend the courtesy of misogynistic treatment not only to those born with ovaries and a uterus, but also those may appear so upon first sight but aren’t.

While J.K. Rowling might lament the implications of self-ID, the truth is she did it herself to curb sexist attitudes in the publishing industry. She has first-hand experience with how it feels to be perceived as something you’re not, and one would think that this would translate into a better understanding of the precarity of gender presentation, but alas, that’s not the case.

Will this be the end of the road for J.K. Rowling? It’s hard to tell. Some have been able to recover from much worse–as Al Franken, Matt Lauer and Louis C.K. so masterfully illustrated. But if Rowling continues to rake it in, then this wouldn’t be a departure from the entertainment industry’s natural proceedings–much like how the right-wing coalesced around Roseanne Barr when she lost her gig due to racially-offensive comments, Rowling will be yet another figure for them to court on their side. It’s the culture war yet again, but with a much greater prize to be won at the end.