TERF Wars: Harry Potter and the Curious Case of the Writer’s Transphobia

Joanna Psaros

22 May 2021

Getty Images. (Photo by Alex Wong/Newsmakers)

The origin story of JK Rowling– creator of the unmatched young adult series Harry Potter– is legendary to the point that it almost belongs in one of her fantastical novels. An unemployed single mother, so poor that she wrote in the local café because unlike home, it was heated, to multi-millionaire, Rowling epitomised the unlikely success story of struggling artists everywhere. The underdog who bestowed upon readers worldwide the tale of a magical world of good versus evil masterfully weaved into a classic coming-of-age story, the reluctant celebrity, the millionaire philanthropist; Rowling was more than just a popular author. She was an icon, and just as inspiring to young fans as the titular Harry Potter himself. So why the hell did she decide to tarnish her reputation with public transphobia? 

The mysterious case of JK Rowling’s transphobia came to light on, where else, Twitter. In December of 2019, twelve years after the release of the final novel in the Harry Potter series, Rowling unexpectedly tweeted her support for a woman fired from her researcher position as a result of statements that denied transgender people’s ability to change their biological sex. It should be noted that the expression of such views is psychologically damaging to much of the transgender community, for whom being identified with and reminded of their incorrect birth gender can trigger trauma.   

Perhaps even more provocatively, in mid 2020 Rowling would go on to posit that ‘people who menstruate’ (i.e. not those whose gender identity prevents them from doing so) should be defined as women. Or, in her own facetious words, ‘Wumben? Wimpund Woomud?”Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

Rowling, somewhat unconvincingly, rejects the label of transphobe. In July of 2020, the author defended her controversial views, stating ‘I know and love trans people’. ‘But erasing the concept of sex,’ she continued, ‘removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives.’

What exactly does Rowling mean by the erasure of sex? And what does this have to do with the transgender community? As Rowling explains, the concept of womanhood informs her life, and her relationship with her daughter. And in her mind, womanhood is not defined by gender but exclusively by biological sex. But why? 

(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

In short, this is where the label of TERF comes into play. TERFs, or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, have an (arguably deserved) reputation for using feminist principles to justify unfounded fears of transgender women. A major justification for this ideology is the apparent fear of men using the cloak of gender identity to gain access to female spaces to prey on women; a kind of rape-panic. This fear is proven to be unfounded as there are have been very few cases of transgender individuals attacking women. In fact, the transgender community is far more likely to be the victim as opposed to perpetrator of violent crime. And as many critics have pointed out, men appear to have no problem finding opportunities to assault women without the hassle of adopting a new gender identity. 

Safe to say, there’s no shortage of public figures who have tarnished their reputation with sexist, racist, and homophobic outbursts. Michel Richards, the actor who played Seinfeld’s kooky Kramer, proved to be not so funny when he went on a racist rant in an infamous stand-up show. In 2007 Isiah Washington was fired from Grey’s Anatomy for homophobic hate speech, and his career has never really recovered. And the grandaddy of all bigots Mel Gibson hardly requires an explanation. 

But JK Rowling is different. She is a hero to both children and the adults who grew up with her books, and the fervour of Harry Potter fandom rivals that of any fictional series. For many therefore, Rowling’s transphobia is not just shocking. It’s a betrayal.  

It is also unexpected. The Harry Potter universe is more thought out than in most young adult fantasies, and a key theme is the evil of discrimination. Death Eaters, the stories’ antagonists, are obsessed with the purity of wizards’ blood, and in later books (admittedly, sometimes clunky) allegories of Nazi Germany are invoked. In addition, Rowling delighted her LGBQI fanbase with the announcement that beloved character Dumbledore was gay- though she did not go so far as to overtly include homosexual references in the novels or films. 

All of this raises the age-old question- is it possible to separate the art from the artist? For Harry Potter fans, it’s complicated. Many have resolved this problem by effectively co-opting the Harry Potter canon and speaking out against Rowling’s views- including the film franchise’s lead actors Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson. Radcliffe in particular formerly spoke extremely highly of Rowling, proving that in the face of prejudice loyalty will only stretch so far. 

Despite aggressive backlash, JK Rowling shows no signs of backing down. In fact, her latest novel features a transgender character who is reportedly described in less than flattering terms. This is in spite of transgender fans’ repeated protests; it’s clear ignorance is not a defence Rowling can hide behind. Perhaps her fans can follow the advice of Harry Potter’s confidante, the gentle giant Hagrid who proclaims ‘Never be ashamed…. There’s some who will hold it against you, but they’re not worth bothering with.’   

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