I really, really, really don’t want to talk about J. K. Rowling because I think enough has been discussed online and I don’t really have anything useful to contribute. But since Harry Potter plays such an important part of my research, I feel like I need to document my thoughts for my future self.
While I officially launched the podcast in January 2020, I’d started doing the behind-the-scenes admin and planning in December 2019. Which is when J. K. Rowling first began tweeting things which were explicitly things that trans-exclusionary radical feminists (more popularly referred to as TERFs) have been saying, especially in the UK. Since I’m not very familiar with the dog-whistling language and discourse that exists in this part of the feminist movement, I went through various Twitter threads, articles, and some of my own personal network to understand what exactly was happening. Admittedly, it was one-sided research because I didn’t lend too much credence to what the transphobes were saying. However, I do believe in learning from the marginalised and vulnerable group rather than the group with multiple kinds of privilege and power. Since my project was exploring multiple facets of intersectionality including gender identity and gender expression, I knew one of my episodes would have to address this in 2020. Keeping this in mind, I approached guests and planned episodes and went on with other aspects of the podcasting process. What seemed to be evident was that J. K. Rowling did not consider trans women worthy of the same rights and respect as accorded to cis women. In the meanwhile, she didn’t respond to any comments or critiques about her statements and all was quiet on that front.
Until June, that is. After a few months of silence, J. K. Rowling picked the worst possible time to make some more comments against a group which is deeply marginalised and at a high risk of death (either through suicide or murder). We were (and still are) in the middle of a global pandemic and that was the week the Black Lives Matter uprising had begun in the US in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer. I don’t follow J. K. Rowling on Twitter so I discover these things through people I do follow reacting to her statements. At that point, I was really depressed and exhausted by everything that was going on in the world – in the US, the UK, in India. I could very barely muster up the energy to follow the conversation but what I did follow enraged and frustrated me in equal measure. Again, admittedly, I was following a one-sided conversation because again, I wasn’t interested in listening to people who were questioning a deeply marginalised group’s right to exist. I couldn’t bring myself to give any sort of legitimacy to opinions which didn’t consider trans people as equally human and worthy of the same rights as they were. Actors in the Harry Potter films came out against her statements and several fan sites and fan podcasts also distanced themselves from her. There was also an incident of utter pettiness with Stephen King where she first praised him for being supportive of one of her tweets and then deleted her tweet and unfollowed him when he came out in support of trans rights.
She didn’t stop there. Once the floodgates burst in June, there doesn’t seem to have been a pause. And after a point, I stopped playing catch up with all the different things she said and began dreading seeing her name trending on Twitter. I know that at some point, I will have to go back and see what she’s said in order to have a more informed opinion. But currently I can’t – both to protect my mental health and also because I genuinely don’t have the time to engage (which, of course, comes with heaps of privilege – I’m a cis woman all of trans folks who isn’t directly impacted by the bigotry). At the same time, I have been listening to fan responses because while we have spoken about J. K. Rowling’s transphobia on a couple of episodes, there is at least one more episode coming up where we are going to be talking about gender and gender identity – so I need fan texts and resources to share with my co-participants.
I had a supervision meeting yesterday and one of my supervisors very gently challenged my rant against Rowling by pointing out that her statement had met with some very hostile and aggressive misogyny online. Rowling wrote an essay which spoke about her own experiences with domestic violence and this provided fodder to a very misogynist group of people – including an interview with her ex-husband. I haven’t read this essay yet because while I’m empathetic to Rowling’s experiences of domestic violence, I am uncomfortable that it’s being used to harm another group of people. Trans women are not men and that is what the discourse seems to imply. I grew up in a household of domestic violence so I have very intimate knowledge and experience with it. Moreover, books in general but Harry Potter in particular was my escape and comfort and hope during my troubled childhood, which is why it plays such a huge role in my life and sense of self. So I need some distance for when my emotions and feelings aren’t as heightened as they are now to be able to read J. K. Rowling’s side of the story – as skeptical of it is I am.
I do believe in giving people the benefit of doubt and also believe terribly misguided or misinformed people can learn new perspectives and change their opinions. And I believe we should provide these inclusive opportunities and normalise changing opinions or addressing gaps in knowledge. At the same time, I believe people with such a huge platform and with such immense privilege have a public responsibility – especially to their fans, many of whom, like me have found so much connection in the Potterverse; trans fans among them.
But I want to take my supervisor’s point to heart too. I do have the tendency to form strong opinions and make these opinions known which can prevent learning from different perspectives (maybe because most people don’t want to bother challenging my impassioned rants?). Both as a researcher and as a fan, I feel like I need to wade into Rowling’s statements – as much as I don’t want to – to more fully understand what she is saying and to better inform my own opinion. It may not actually end up affecting my opinion at all but I need to get better about not just listening to one-sided arguments, to expand my perspectives, and to go to primary sources when they are available. I still really, really, really don’t want to. But I will anyway.