J.K. Rowling Has Turned Transphobia Into a Celebrity Cause
And it only reveals the power she has to control the narrative
One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, I woke up to an endless barrage of Twitter notifications. One of my tweets, “Women’s history belongs to trans women,” had already received over 400 responses. My tweet was part of a longer thread, where I had also typed the four-letter acronym for transphobic pseudo-feminists: trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs for short. I had forgotten that TERFs tend to word-search Twitter so that they can dogpile trans and nonbinary people, like me, who use that term. No wonder they spotted me.
The responses I got were, well… not so feminist. “Stupid cunt,” said one man. “Go fuck yourself, bro,” another exhorted. I was called a “rapist,” a “retard,” a “racist misogynist sad prick” (that last insult came attached to four different hashtags, most notably #WaronWomen). It wasn’t my first such social media swarm, nor will it be my last, and I am far from unique: This is the baseline level of harassment anyone experiences for being visibly trans online.
Thus, we come to J.K. Rowling, whose celebrity defenders have recently been portraying her as the victim of “hate speech” and online harassment. Rowling self-declared as a transphobe this summer, with a rambling blog post in which she argued that trans feminine people “make natal girls and women less safe” by using the correct locker rooms and bathrooms for their gender. There’s no argument to be made about separating art from artist; Rowling’s TERFdom clearly informs her fiction. Her most recent crime novel, Troubled Blood, doubles down by featuring a plot about a male killer who gains his female victims’ trust by cross-dressing, calling upon some of the most ancient and hateful stereotypes of trans women. The book has been met with some scathing critiques: “This book is transphobic,” wrote Constance Grady at Vox. “But it’s also just not very good.” In response to criticism, Rowling’s celebrity allies have come forward to portray her as (please, try not to be shocked) an example of fragile, imperiled cis womanhood whose safety is threatened by trans women, specifically the ones who say mean things about her online.
A letter published in the Sunday Times claimed that Rowling had been subjected to “an onslaught of abuse that highlights an insidious, authoritarian and misogynistic trend in social media;” it was signed by 57 writers, including Tom Stoppard and Ian McEwan, making this the most embarrassing thing McEwan’s put his name to since his novel about a crime-fighting fetus. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts star, Eddie Redmayne, claimed to support his “trans friends and colleagues” while also decrying criticism of Rowling as “vitriol” and “absolutely disgusting.” Horror icon and longtime Rowling fan Stephen King, who issued a disclaimer about believing that trans women are women early in this debate, still made a point to praise Rowling’s new book: “J. K. Rowling is a wonderful storyteller and a gifted stylist,” he tweeted. “I’m loving this one.”
To be clear: These celebrities can say they support trans people or have trans friends all they like. It doesn’t excuse their actions. Rowling herself claimed in her initial blog post that she’s not transphobic because “I happen to know a self-described transsexual woman who’s older than I am and wonderful,” though the wonderfulness of the trans woman she happens to know has not stopped her from stereotyping transfeminine people at large as scary woman-hating predators, or from joining forces with the TERFs, who explicitly seek to deny them rights. When a powerful person openly uses her platform to argue against the rights and humanity of trans people, defending her from criticism or promoting her work is, inevitably, defending and promoting her transphobia; a bigot is not a “wonderful storyteller,” she’s a bigot who is especially dangerous because she’s charmed you.
There is no trans person or book critic or mean tweet on Earth that could silence J.K. Rowling.
I have no doubt that Rowling is subjected to verbal abuse online. Yet even the most anonymous, unexceptional trans person on social media receives a volume of “hate speech” that would stagger the average person, and they do not have the option of calling in A-list celebrities to do damage control. A 2019 study by anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label and its partner Brandwatch found that, depending on the platform, transphobic harassment can comprise up to 78% of all internet posts about trans issues. Calling the reaction to Rowling “misogyny” obfuscates that her statements are mainly aimed at hurting women, specifically trans women. It allows her to play the (relatively unfeminist) part of the damsel in distress, requiring chivalrous defense from her celebrity enablers, even as the very fact that she has celebrity enablers reveals her power. There is something particularly cruel about Rowling using the weapons of celebrity — visibility, friends in high places, the simple fact that people who love an artist’s work often feel affection for them and will defend them right or wrong — to shut down trans people, whose marginalization is aggravated precisely by the fact that we’re seldom allowed to control the narrative around our existence.
There is no trans person who can speak back to J.K. Rowling at the same volume that she can speak over us. There is no trans J.K. Rowling, period: Aiden Thomas, the first trans author to crack the New York Times bestseller list with a story about a trans character, did so three weeks ago. There are no children’s movie franchises created by trans people, nor does any such franchise center on a trans hero. The list of well-known transgender directors consists of two names — Lana and Lilly Wachowski of The Matrix — and if we broaden our search to TV showrunners, we get Transparent showrunner Joey Soloway, and Janet Mock of Pose. Trans actors and actresses are marginalized by an industry that still predominantly casts cis people (like, uh, Eddie Redmayne) to play trans roles. Trans journalists are working in greater numbers, but they are still a vanishingly small minority, and they often work freelance or low-level positions; one recent article interviewed eight trans journalists and found that none of them had ever had a transgender editor. For many trans people, the only media they can create is social media, and now they’re told that even that is violent and harmful to cis women.
If voicing an opinion comes with a risk of physical or emotional harm, most people will keep that opinion to themselves, and so, bigots of various stripes routinely weaponize dogpiling and threats to bully their targets offline. Rowling is vulnerable to online harassment to the extent that she is vulnerable to being silenced, and there is no trans person or book critic or mean tweet on Earth that could silence J.K. Rowling, a woman who has two successful book series, multiple film franchises, 14.2 million Twitter followers, five theme parks, and a castle, and whose most recent book, despite its bad reviews, still debuted at #1 in the U.K.
Rowling is not a businessman; she’s a business, man, and that business is so profitable that even Redmayne, who has previously criticized Rowling’s statements, will evidently toe the transphobic line to protect his employer. This summer, several authors at Rowling’s literary agency requested that the agency “reaffirm their commitment to transgender rights and equality;” the agency let those authors quit rather than comply. Very few other authors could deal with bad reviews by getting Stephen King to give a personal endorsement. Frankly, at Rowling’s level of success, it is inconceivable that she doesn’t have a social media manager updating her accounts and fielding her mentions; if Rowling is actually reading any of the mean stuff people send her, she’s doing so by choice.
Rowling exercises a more potent form of silencing than any Twitter bully could dream of; she can control who tells the story. She can portray her critics as a violent, woman-hating horde — the very same stereotypes she’s being criticized for deploying in her work — simply because even her most reasonable critics can be drowned out by her own loud cries of pain and inconvenience. She can mislead the public about who trans people are and what they want, simply because no individual trans person is powerful enough or loud enough to set the record straight. It’s the privilege that cisgender celebrities have, in a system that only makes celebrities out of cis people, and it is the first step toward creating the world TERFs want: The one where trans people can be harassed, bullied, mocked, and killed without being able to raise a fuss.