How JK Rowling Betrayed the World
She Created

Gabrielle Bellot on Transphobia and Growing Up with the Harry Potter Universe

Time and time again, I’ve become accustomed to having to defend my womanhood when public figures declare that transgender women are not “real” women. Sometimes, I want to quietly sit back, avoiding the stress of having yet another prolonged argument with people who will call me “sir” at best and a rapist who should be euthanized at worst—for all trans women, the argument goes, are just men who want to sneak into women’s locker rooms to do nefarious things. It’s emotionally and spiritually exhausting to debate your identity; sometimes, you just want to log off social media and take a walk or hug someone you love for support, curling up in your own small safe harbor, where, at least for a bit, no one is accusing you of being a freak, a pervert, an abomination who does not belong in the annals of this Earth.

At other times, I want to shout my barbaric yawp from the rooftops. I want to scream no, fuck off, I won’t let you demean me. This is who I am, this is foundational to my sense of self, and I didn’t choose to be like this, would never pretend to be something that has brought me so much pain and loss. I want to scream that I gave up so much when I came out as trans—my former home country, any hope of a good relationship with my family, old friends, any chance of a simple life—but stuck with it, anyway, because transitioning was essential for me, rather than some silly choice. I had to come out, or I couldn’t keep living because the pain, the dissonant music of living a lie, was too much.

I want to yell in these moments, until I start to cry. I’m gentle, after all; screaming at people does not come easily to me, and I often start to apologize for my own anger just as I’ve started. I do not like to hate, even if I am the object of hate, but sometimes the fire of my anger is too much for even me to hold back, and I just want to shout through the starry night like a blazing comet.

Most often, though, I’m somewhere in-between these extremes: quietly frustrated to learn that my very identity is once again a subject for casual, crass debate, despite the fact that everyone—cis and trans folks alike—has a gender identity; trans people are just forced to be more aware of it, as our sense of gender comes into conflict with how other people refer to us and our bodies. In these moments of quieter disappointment, I wish everyone else could understand this, but know yet another transphobic screed from some famous figure is just around the corner.

The latest in this saga comes from J.K. Rowling, an author I once revered. Earlier this month, she mocked an article that referred to “people who menstruate”—a choice of wording meant to reflect the reality that not all cisgender women menstruate, while some transgender men do. Rather than reflecting on the simple inclusivity of the phrase, Rowling erupted at it, arguing that it amounted to a denial of the reality of biological sex—and implied that to do that is to invalidate the legitimacy of same-sex relationships. “[E]rasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives,” she tweeted. “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.” Trans people, she argued, were not merely erasing women and marriage equality alike; we were also, as an article she posted suggested, “terrorizing” cisgender lesbians by entering women’s spaces, when we should, instead, stop deluding ourselves about being women at all.

It was Rowling’s transgender fans, like me, who had actually been “canceled,” because the author we had looked up to for so long had shown, finally, that she was no fan of us.

It was far from Rowling’s first flirtation with anti-trans rhetoric. Late last year, she attracted international attention for coming to the defense of Maya Forstater, a notorious British transphobe. Forstater, a researcher and “gender-critical” feminist—a term popular in the UK for a brand of feminism that questions and often outright rejects the inclusion of transgender identities—had not had her contract at a large think tank renewed after her employer discovered her virulently anti-trans views. Her coworkers had complained that her transphobia created a hostile environment, particularly because of her refusal to gender trans people by their gender identity rather than by the sex they were assigned at birth. Forstater sued the think tank, but she lost the case when a judge ruled that “the Claimant’s view, in its absolutist nature, is incompatible with human dignity and [the] fundamental rights of others.”

The ruling brought a furious Rowling to Twitter. “Dress however you please,” she wrote. “Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill.”

It felt like a slap in the face. For years, I had loved the Harry Potter series, which, to me, had conjured up a world in which people of all kinds could live together and be accepted; now, I had learnt, people like me were not really meant to be part of that beautiful realm.

I had excused her flirtations with gender-critical feminism before. In 2017 and 2018, she had “liked” posts and tweets that were brazenly transphobic, including a tweet that branded trans women merely “men in dresses.” I liked Rowling’s humane Harry Potter books so much that I was willing to brush these aside as strange, even mistaken anomalies of behavior; surely her finger had just accidentally hit “like.” Her 2019 defense of Forstater finally showed, unequivocally, that she was not in favor of trans people.

To some, Rowling’s tweets may seem anodyne. But if you read between the lines, their tone is patronizing, suggesting that trans people can wear whatever clothes we wish and use whatever language we like, but that in reality, we are living in a kind of silly delusion that people like Rowling merely politely tolerate.

And Forstater’s views went far beyond “stating that sex is real.” Forstater refused to gender trans people correctly, a practice that hurts, at best, when you’re the target, and that, at worst, can lead to violence. In 2018, Forstater had gone further, declaring that

some transgender people have cosmetic surgery. But most retain their birth genitals. Everyone’s equality and safety should be protected, but women and girls lose out on privacy, safety and fairness if males are allowed into changing rooms, dormitories, prisons, sports teams.

This is a mainstream anti-trans view, arguing that people like me are dangerous and unfit to be in certain spaces, even though I would be in far more danger if I went, presenting as female, into a male changing room. I may occasionally be nervous in women’s changing rooms because I am always nervous, but that is where I know I belong, and when I am there, no one gives me a second look, because I “pass” and it is where I look like I should—and do—belong.

To defend Forstater and attack inclusive phrasing is to defend misgendering and segregating trans people by telling us that we don’t deserve to be in certain spaces. Far from being anodyne, Rowling’s tweets are a kind of Trojan horse of transphobic sentiment, quietly showing her support for Forstater’s brand of bigotry. That this is the issue she has chosen to focus on in the wake of international protests against anti-Blackness and police brutality—most protests of which contain many LGBTQ people—is all the more absurdly tone-deaf, suggesting her fanatical obsession with trans people. People who deeply despise one group or another—homophobes, racists, transphobes—so often seem unable to let go of those groups, orbiting them like angry moons, scarcely able to function unless we are there for them to denigrate.

In the wake of her December tweet, some conservatives gleefully declared that liberals had “canceled” Rowling by attacking her. The truth is bleaker, though. It was her transgender fans, like me, who had actually been “canceled,” because the author we had looked up to for so long had shown, finally, that she was no fan of us.

*

One afternoon, after my mother had returned from a trip to London, she put a novel into my hand. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, it read. The cover showed a bewildered, bespectacled boy standing in front of a grand locomotive the red of a pepper sauce, its top puffing a star-strewn cloud of smoke into the air. As the kind of deeply nerdy Caribbean kid who had read a little about alchemy and thus already knew what a philosopher’s stone was, I was intrigued. I liked the puzzled expression on the boy’s face and the adventurous promise of this stelliferous train; both suggested a journey, and I loved reading about those, perhaps because, as an only child who lived on the quiet edge of a mountain, I was lonely, and books that promised escape from the blue castle of my solitude excited me.

When I finally opened it, I found myself hooked. I loved the fact that the book, ultimately, was about finding one’s bearings in an unfamiliar world. I immediately asked my mother for the next book, not realizing that the third was already out. When the fourth book came out, I was in Barbados with my parents on a trip; after wrangling a copy from a wide-eyed bookseller, I read with the feverishness of a zealot deep into the night. In the interim between the publication of the sixth and seventh book, I reread books four, five, and six—The Order of the Phoenix most of all—over and over, often by holding open a book with an elbow while I ate dinner. I devoured the smaller books that complemented the main series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages, and watched the Hogwarts gang in rap parodies on YouTube and in the musicals Puffs and A Very Potter Musical. I couldn’t get enough.

That this is the issue she has chosen to focus on in the wake of international protests against anti-Blackness and police brutality is all the more absurdly tone-deaf, suggesting her fanatical obsession with trans people.

It was a striking literary world, one that spoke to me in quiet ways as a multiracial child. The soft brown of my skin meant that I lived in a kind of liminal ethnic shadowland, whereby I could be seen as one thing in one country and as another elsewhere. (In Dominica, I was “mixed”; in America, which is far more fixated on assigning people into rigid racial categories, I was called Black or Hispanic by strangers.) Because of this, I understood some of the pain that Hermione felt when the “purebloods,” like Draco Malfoy, attacked her for being a “Mudblood,” a pejorative, racist term in the wizarding world for a magical person born from one or more Muggle parents. The books clearly disavowed this kind of supremacist rhetoric, showing that one’s magical pedigree or parentage ultimately said nothing about how powerful or capable someone would be as a witch or wizard. Hermione went so far as to try to reclaim the ugly term in the final book, arguing that she was “Mudblood, and proud of it!”

And the books seemed to offer a special, open-hearted escape as a young trans girl who didn’t, at the time, fully understand what it meant to have the sense of self that I did—the unblinking idea that I felt wrong being called or living as a boy and that I wanted, desperately, to wake up one morning and find that I was a girl—because I felt that, in so magical a world, someone like me would hardly stick out. If I felt claustrophobically trapped in a small island in real life, a world where people could seamlessly alter their appearance or transfigure their bodies seemed to offer a ticket to somewhere that I, too, could belong. It would have meant a great deal to me to see an explicitly trans character in the books, but I also knew that it would be one of the less shocking, more quietly mundane bits of magic in this wizarding world.

In the years after the series’ conclusion, it became easier to feel that the books supported queerness because Rowling kept revealing new, curious things about the Harry Potter world. In 2007, for instance, Rowling declared that Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts’ iconic headmaster, “is gay.” While some fans were understandably upset that this had not been shown explicitly in the novels, the revelation felt like a powerful testament to Rowling’s support for her LGBTQ fans.

This was intensified in 2016, when she claimed that Remus Lupin, a prominent character who suffers from the stigmatized condition of transforming into a wolf during a full moon, was actually a queer symbol. “Lupin’s condition of lycanthropy was a metaphor for those illnesses that carry a stigma, like HIV and AIDS,” she wrote in Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship, and Dangerous Hobbies on Pottermore. Even if the queer symbolism was muted in the actual books, I felt, more and more, that the books had room for someone like me.

Some years after the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out, I came out, as well. I had been living in agony for two decades, knowing both that I was attracted to people of any gender and that I wanted, deeply, for people to see me, acknowledge me, as a girl. But Dominica was a world where evangelical Christian messages about the sinfulness of homosexuality came as casually from radio preachers as they did from our prime minister. I was scared; I didn’t know what would happen to me if I revealed my unholy desires. At my lowest point, then in graduate school in Florida, I almost drank poison, thinking that if I couldn’t live as the queer woman I wished to be, I couldn’t live at all, because the pain was too heavy.

Finally, instead of killing myself, I came out, knowing I would lose the ability to return home. I chose to stay in America and be myself, rather than returning home and living a dissonant, claustrophobic lie. It hurt so, so much to realize what I had lost—but, the ecstatic joy of realizing I could finally try to live my truth was even greater than the pain. Just as Lupin feels liberated when he finds wizards who accept him for what he is, I felt free and seen, for the first time.

*

Rowling’s tweets reveal something upsetting, if unsurprising, about her philosophy: that her empathy, so on display in her series, has limits. The messages she conveyed in Harry Potter about acceptance and the rejection of simple, supremacist, dehumanizing ideologies seem far from the messages Rowling is now presenting on social media, where she casually aligns herself against one of the most vulnerable minority groups in the UK and around the world.

To be sure, Rowling is not her series. I may not subscribe fully to Barthes’ famous—or infamous—dictum that the author is dead, meaning that we should evaluate a work of art without reference to the artist behind it, but I know that her personal views are not necessarily the same as those animating the Harry Potter universe. But when our beloved artists fail us, it’s difficult to see their works as we once did. I fear that some of the series’ magic has faded for me.

But I also know that there is still beautiful, affirming power in the novels. “I am what I am, an’ I’m not ashamed,” Hagrid, one of the series’ most cherished characters, famously says in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “’Never be ashamed,’ my ol’ dad used ter say, ‘there’s some who’ll hold it against you, but they’re not worth botherin’ with.” I choose, in the end, to cling to these sentiments, hoping that Rowling, who authored those words, will one day choose to truly hear them.

Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Paris Review Daily, The Cut, Tin House, The Guardian, Guernica, The Normal School, The Poetry Foundation, Lambda Literary, and many other places. She is working on her first novel.





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