J.K Rowling: Is She a TERF?
For several days during the first two weeks of June, as world-wide protests against police brutality captured headlines overtaking COVID-19 as the top news story, the top story on the back pages of social media was about how the great J.K. Rowling has fallen. It seems she has either been victimized or she brought controversy on herself by comments that resulted in her being labeled transphobic and a TERF.
TERF is a current pejorative term meaning “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” Some TERFs are feminists who refuse to agree transsexuals (i.e. male to female trans) are women. They are feminists who won’t stand for blurring the physical criteria for who is female since to do so erodes the important work of feminists trying to achieve equality and power.
Other feminists are open to accepting trans women as allies. And there are feminists who embrace trans women as sisters.
Trans activists insist that male to female transsexuals are women. They have rights to their own identity, and they are among the most vulnerable to abuse, vilification and murder, not to mention being excluded from legal protection. Providing moral and social support for trans women is a matter of justice and human rights.
Rowling attracted attention, as often happens these days, by a couple of short comments she posted on social media that indicated (or seemed to indicate) her support for the feminists’ interpretation of who is most at risk. Then she seemed to make matters worse by appearing to double down on her statements to the effect that biology is the science that matters.
Social media began to swarm. It became a feeding frenzy.
Before long the Harry Potter world emerged as one actor after another made statements on-line that voiced support for transsexuals and transgender women, and also mentioned how J.K. Rowling is a really great person and humanitarian who happens to be wrong about this particular issue.
Then on June 6, 2020 Jo Rowling published a letter on her website which carried the title, “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues.” Her letter outlined why she is worried about “the new trans activism.” It was trans activists who coined the term TERF and then attached it to Rowling, she said. She denied she was defending herself (or that she actually cared very much what people said about her) but the issue behind it is important. She gave five reasons for being worried about what trans activists are trying to do.
1. Trans activism is pushing to erode the legal definition of sex and replace it with gender. This will impact projects to support female survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, and medical research for MS, a disease that behaves very differently in men and women. Changing the legal definition of who is female is going to be dangerous to women.
2. She is very concerned about the effects the trans rights movement is having on both education and safeguarding children.
3. She is interested in freedom of speech.
4. She is concerned about “the huge explosion in young women wishing to transition and also about the increasing numbers who seem to be de-transitioning because they regret taking steps they have….” The UK has experienced a 4400% increase in girls being referred for transitioning treatment.
This gets at the heart of the issue for Rowling.
Trans activists will attack those who dare to “challenge one of the central tenets of trans activism, which is that a person’s gender identity is innate, like sexual orientation. Nobody could ever be persuaded into being trans.” This is where the rubber hits the road for Rowling. Trans identity is not always innate. She says she knows of research that shows a pattern of multiple friends and entire friend groups becoming transgender-identified at the same time. “Social contagion and peer influence” could be factors, she concludes. If such trends are going on, it would be best to recognize them and to warn children about them.
Rowling also doubts that if you don’t let “gender dysphoric” teenagers transition they will kill themselves. She thinks there is insufficient data to prove this is true in the majority of cases. Rowling believes studies that insist 60-90% of gender dysphoric teens will grow out of it. She knows that many (i.e. many of the 10-40%) are happy to have transitioned from female to male. But she knows the generation best who went through a rigorous process “of evaluation, psychotherapy, and staged transformation.” These measures are being removed by trans activists to make way for persons to just say they are any gender they choose. This is Rowling’s greatest concern – lives are being ruined by teens who took irreversible steps they now regret. Those tragedies could be avoided by keeping safeguards in place against making rash decisions.
Then, for the first time, Rowling relates how personal this is for her. She went through a time when she also might have preferred transitioning into a male to escape the abuse and anxiety she was experiencing. That would have been a great mistake.
On the other hand this is a misogynistic time. Women are denigrated and dehumanized as never before. This must be opposed. The opposition that is necessary, Rowling implies, is not by becoming males and entering the male zone, but by banding together to fight.
5. That brings Rowling to her fifth concern. Trans activism is leading to consequences that will prevent women from mounting the opposition needed to oppose the violence and powerlessness women face.
A. Trans activists will not accept as allies any who do not accept the idea that trans (male to female) persons are not identical to all other women. [Radical feminists will not accept trans women as allies, either. The inclusionist / exclusionist divide has a long history.] The most radical activists do not want feminists as allies who see a difference between women born females and trans-women born as males. This impasse weakens political power.
B. Trans activists terrify huge numbers of women with the threat of being targeted (as Rowling was).
C. Trans activism erodes “woman” as a political and biological class. The reality and validity of millions of women (their lived experience and self-understanding) is being attacked.
D. Trans action is giving cover to predators as never before. Rowling quotes a law being enacted in Scotland that allows men access to female bathrooms and locker rooms simply by calling themselves women. This also intimidates women and girls who have been victims of males.
In the final analysis the question is not really whether J.K. Rowling is transphobic because she fears what trans activism might be doing. It matters even less whether or not she is a radical feminist for her views. It might matter to the Harry Potter legacy, and to the plans for continuing the stories she is writing, if her fame and reputation is damaged, but whether she is a victim of a moral storm of the kind the BBC called a “Purity Spiral” is less important than who is right about the outcome of the transgender movement.
Rowling is, as of the moment, the leading spokesperson for feminism. She has a passion for protecting women from abuse by men in a male-dominated society and time, and she has a vision for females achieving equality through unity.
However, it seems to me that her argument is flawed at the point where she insists her identity as a woman and her sexual experiences as a woman are invalidated by including males transformed into females as also women. It is one thing to say this impasse depletes both movements’ political power, and quite a different thing to say that “your experience negates my experience.” Analogously, it is impossible for me to get my mind around the idea that my same-sex marriage to Pramote weakened or invalidated my parents’ marriage or anybody else’s marriage.
I’d like to say, “Golly, get a grip! You aren’t making sense and you aren’t helping when you keep saying, ‘If sex isn't real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.’”
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.