A couple of weeks ago, I listened to The Gayly Prophet episode 61 “The Toll of TERFs and Trolls” which featured the co-hosts’ struggles with running a queer, intersectional Harry Potter podcast in light of Rowling’s transphobic statements over the last year. Lark, one of the co-hosts, is a trans man; whereas Jessie, the other co-host is a queer black person – both located in the US. When I was first listened to their conversation, I felt the same sense of emotional and psychological distress they spoke about – though I’m keenly aware I have a fair amount of privilege in this instance as a cisgender heterosexual woman. Quite understandably, they are much angrier and much more hurt than I am at J. K. Rowling. Despite our differences, we do share some of the same conflicting and complex feelings so I thought I’d write some of them down.
Harry Potter has always been an escape and comfort for when the world is on fire. This has been my experience right since childhood and should have definitely been my experience in 2020 of all years. However, as Jessie points out, this is now ruined by Rowling’s transphobia to the extent that even recommending the books to potential new fans feels fraught since it’s no longer a source of untainted joy. Lark and Jessie have somewhat dealt with their complicated feelings by launching a campaign against Rowling’s transphobia and pushing to create a safe space for trans and other queer fans on their podcast. In my own case, on the podcast, there are some episodes where we don’t really mention Rowling’s transphobia much or at all even while talking about other aspects of Harry Potter and I always feel guilty about, “What if that’s the only episode someone listens to and either thinks I’m supporting her uncritically or isn’t even aware of her problematic statements at all?” We do have episodes where we explicitly engage with Rowling’s transphobia and the discomfort of loving Harry Potter, but the feelings don’t quite disappear.
Lark created A Guide To Cancelling JKR which lists resources and ideas for what queer fans and allies can do, specifically those who still love the world but not it’s creator’s bigotry. Both Lark and Jessie had to split the work of moderating their comments section – specifically when their Facebook post went viral and attracted trolls and targeted attacks. The monitoring and moderating took an emotional toll on both hosts and utterly exhausted them – especially as it came in the midst of a pandemic, the Black Lives Matter uprising in the US, and an upcoming election. Though not nearly to this degree, but this is something I’ve felt acutely as well – compounded by the ever-speedy descent of India into fascism – that how can Rowling think this is the time to share her opinion about an already vulnerable group of people? Especially in June, when Rowling’s statements were ongoing – after a period of deliberate silence on the issue – I know how exhausting it was keeping up with everything. Lark and Jessie had it so much worse because they were doing this in addition to their work on the podcast and the work they do to pay rent and bills. I’ve been lucky that the podcast is my full-time job at the moment (though that is not without its problems vis-à-vis its impact on my mental health).
For Lark, The Gayly Prophet and the associated memes is a form of activism because he can’t participate in many other parts of activism. He speaks about how he’s currently on autopilot because it’s all too much for him but feels a sense of obligation to keep working for the community they work + the result of capitalism because of the feeling that they will lose the community and momentum they’ve built up. Add to this the fact that the world is broken and a break might not really help. The work makes him feel better. This is absolutely something I relate to where the podcast has become such a huge part of my coping mechanism of dealing with the world and not being emotionally ready to let go of it. This is also entwined with the fact that Harry Potter is so important to so many people’s development and sense of self, as Lark points out. It feels impossible to let go of it – I’m certainly unable to. Lark further describes how simply not talking about Harry Potter won’t make it go away – won’t prevent other people from reading it; people who may be unaware of the transphobic context now and may engage with it uncritically. Fans and allies can use Harry Potter to critique not just problematic elements in the text but also in the real-world – though, again, this isn’t without its problems. Maybe it will be better to stop talking about it altogether. As Rita pointed out in our episode, talking about Harry Potter – even critically – provides Rowling with so much cultural and social capital which can be translated to financial capital. However, both hosts find joy in the podcast process – having a fun conversation with each other – and sometimes other people – about a specific thing. Podcasting acts as a form of friendship and relationship-building; something I’ve definitely found to be true podcasting over the last year. Talking to friends, acquaintances and strangers about different aspects of Harry Potter and other media texts has been such a source of joy and inspiration – and has honestly kept me from completely falling apart in so many instances.
As they further point out, since Harry Potter has such a huge cultural impact on so many people of our generation (and others), it has become a shared language which we can use as a framework to talk about real-world oppressions and injustices. It’s something quite a few fan podcasts – including my own – do. For example, using The Prisoner of Azkaban to talk about the failures of the healthcare system in the US or the broken criminal justice system in the country. Parallels from Harry Potter make these real-world issues more accessible and become a way to talk about issues they may not have previously considered. It’s why I wanted to include fan podcasts in my research and it’s definitely been true in my own podcast. They’ve also been able to draw on their own experiences with mental health issues like depression to identify it in Harry Potter characters. Listening to these parallels has honestly helped me so much in being able to identify and address my own depression over the last year.
To deal with all the complicated feelings associated with Harry Potter, they launched a new quarantine podcast this year called EsGaype from Reality which is a re-read podcast of Carry On by Rainbow Rowell which is explicitly queer and which actively engages with diverse cultures and issues of marginalisation and justice. Based on this episode’s recommendation, I finally listened to the audiobook, and could see where they derived their sense of joy in this book from. It also allows them to not talk about J. K. Rowling and just enjoy the book without any baggage (though with the knowledge that Rainbow Rowell has also been critiqued for previous books). In the course of my podcast episodes, I’ve also been so happy to be able to sometimes focus on media I love and gain uncritical joy from like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Anne With An E – though, again, with the same knowledge that no media text or creator is perfect. Though, as Lark points out, very few other texts share the kind of outsized popularity and common knowledge which Harry Potter does so it’s difficult to use another text with the assumption that the other person knows its themes and characters.
They talk about the frustrations of only being listened to because they’re queer and not because they’re good podcasters or whenever they get a surge of listeners whenever Rowling said more problematic things rather than because they’re successful because they have fun, interesting conversations. At the same time, they’re really aware, proud and grateful about the fact that their podcast has created a safe space for many trans and queer fans – including in at least one instance where a fan wrote to them saying they started transitioning in large part due to the supportive community they found in and through The Gayly Prophet. Podcasting is an accessible medium – definitely more than academia and even physical spaces and communities – to create a space of queer joy, comfort, and support.
Creating art at any time is difficult – but when it’s in 2020, it’s so much more draining – emotionally, physically, mentally. It’s something Lark and Jessie have felt, and it’s something I’ve felt. But art can be an important form of protest and activism – to shift ideas and change conversations and expand imaginations. To create a space for anger and joy. Because both anger and joy are necessary to imagine and build a world more equal and more just than the one we currently inhabit.