How did Rowling’s widely debunked essay come to be described as ‘thoughtful’?
About 10 days ago I started looking at JK Rowling’s essay on ‘sex and gender issues’. I hadn’t intended to at first; partly because I knew I wouldn’t agree with her and partly because I am lucky to have the privilege of choosing to avoid her opinions, since they’re mostly not about me. Plus, I’d read some excellent dissections of her essay on Twitter already; great threads from trans activists and scholars and their allies, taking apart her arguments and the inaccuracies and misrepresentations they relied upon: Nim Ralph (see this thread, for instance), Kat Blaque, Dr Ruth Pearce (thread here), Brynn Tannehill, and Andrew Carter (this thread). It was already in the bin.
But then I started to see more people sharing her essay, describing it as “thoughtful” and “eloquent”. Without wanting to get into a debate about the quality of her novels, it’s easy to see how a published author might put together an eloquent essay, even on a topic on which they have no authority. How, though, could Rowling’s essay be considered thoughtful when it could be so readily debunked? How did she pull that off?
The chief answer is that there are still lots of transphobes lurking, waiting for ‘credible’ orators to attach themselves to; there weren’t many people whom I saw share the essay online that really surprised me. It did surprise me, though, that the essay was proving to be persuasive enough – “thoughtful” enough – to lure them out into the open. So I started to look at Rowling’s rhetoric and how she constructed this debate. How does she set her own arguments up as having appeal, and how does she characterise (and mitigate, dismiss, diminish) opposing arguments? How does she present herself as relevant or authoritative? (Note: these things may not always be intentional; nothing here is about claiming to know what Rowling was thinking, only to point out how the essay might be received.)
What I’m sharing here is not yet a draft of a substantial analysis but is something a little more (at least in places) than a set of notes. Working through Rowling’s essay paragraph by paragraph, I’ve tried to think about the ‘jobs’ that each part of her writing does so that at the end of it someone who doesn’t already disagree with her might be persuaded that they’ve read something thoughtful. I haven’t engaged with the substance of her transphobia, because as I said, others have, and have done it well, and I don’t want to take up space in that discussion. Read the threads I mentioned above. Follow and engage with the trans scholars and activists who are taking this stuff apart day after day, forced again and again to assert their right to exist. This is merely a rhetorical analysis that I offer as supplementary material. I’m thankful to those who took the time to read what I’d put together before I posted it, especially Max Thornton. I still consider this the start of the analysis, not the end. Please feel free to comment, correct, insert as you see fit using the box below or via Twitter.
Since I work through the essay paragraph by paragraph, this is a long read. Here’s a rough TL;DR summary: Rowling refers throughout to this as her ‘speaking out’ – she constructs herself as both a victim of trans activism and also as a brave protagonist, stepping up and saying what needs to be said. By centring herself, the ‘problem’ she is addressing can keep shifting, making it less important that her arguments cohere. At various points, the ‘problem’ seems to be: online bullying of feminists; lesbians not being allowed to say they don’t like penises; the safety of young people (cis girls; autistic girls); freedom of speech; forced transition; transitioning being too easy; self-ID; single-sex spaces; male violence; and trans activism. Rowling refers to those on her side of the argument in the most expansive terms, while more or less explicitly fracturing the trans community (‘good’ and ‘bad’ trans people). The world as Rowling describes it in this essay is an oppressive authoritarian dystopia in which people are either brainwashed into being trans inclusive or too terrified not to pretend to be. Which is perhaps at the heart of its appeal to transphobes, since it makes ‘speaking out’ clever and/or brave.
Content note: this post includes all sections of Rowling’s essay. These are in italics (desktop) and marked by a blue left hand margin (desktop and mobile).
J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues
It probably doesn’t take a discourse analyst to spot that referring to transphobic comments as ‘speaking out on sex and gender issues’ is a rhetorical move: it casts her previous comments as brave (‘speaking out’ is associated with whistleblowing, overcoming a more powerful discourse, perhaps at personal risk) and as a response to the words and actions of others, rather than having any internal ideological motivation. To refer to ‘sex and gender issues’ makes it sound more highbrow and complicated than it is, and also reframes questions of trans identity, on which Rowling has no authority to speak, as something that a self-proclaimed feminist can and should be talking about. All of this works to present her essay as something that she didn’t really want to do but has had to because people keep misunderstanding/misrepresenting her.
This isn’t an easy piece to write, for reasons that will shortly become clear, but I know it’s time to explain myself on an issue surrounded by toxicity. I write this without any desire to add to that toxicity.
Rowling reinforces the idea of herself as a victim of misunderstanding who is now being forced to do something difficult and unpleasant. ‘I know it’s time to explain myself’ has a hint of self-awareness, but by describing a debate about trans lives fuelled by comments like hers as being ‘surrounded by toxicity’, she is sidestepping her responsibility for that. It just is a toxic issue. She can’t promise that her essay won’t add to that toxicity, but she wants you to know that that’s not what she wants.
For people who don’t know: last December I tweeted my support for Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who’d lost her job for what were deemed ‘transphobic’ tweets. She took her case to an employment tribunal, asking the judge to rule on whether a philosophical belief that sex is determined by biology is protected in law. Judge Tayler ruled that it wasn’t.
‘For people who don’t know’ is a nice rhetorical move; it establishes Rowling as a reliable narrator as well as protagonist, and sets up a particular moment as the origin for accusations of transphobia. As others have already pointed out, Forstater did not lose her job, she was a contractor who was not rehired; Rowling’s account of the case and the ruling are also inaccurate. I want to focus on the way she puts this account together, though: clearly, ‘what were deemed ‘transphobic’ tweets’ is designed to undermine the notion that the tweets were transphobic (inverted commas like this almost always pose a question as to the veracity of what’s being said), and the passive/agentless construction allows not just for ambiguity but also for the implication that this was the result of some sort of faceless authoritarianism. Rowling describes Forstater as ‘asking the judge’ – what a reasonable thing to do! – but Judge Taylor (note, not the law, not the sitting judiciary, but this one person, who could more easily be questioned) said no.
My interest in trans issues pre-dated Maya’s case by almost two years, during which I followed the debate around the concept of gender identity closely. I’ve met trans people, and read sundry books, blogs and articles by trans people, gender specialists, intersex people, psychologists, safeguarding experts, social workers and doctors, and followed the discourse online and in traditional media. On one level, my interest in this issue has been professional, because I’m writing a crime series, set in the present day, and my fictional female detective is of an age to be interested in, and affected by, these issues herself, but on another, it’s intensely personal, as I’m about to explain.
Rowling can’t be a transphobe because she has a long-standing interest in “trans issues”. Again she constructs herself as being concerned with the concept of gender identity first and foremost, and she says she didn’t participate in the debate, but followed it closely. This allows her both to mitigate her stake – I wasn’t bothered enough actually to participate, so you can’t call me a raging transphobe now – as well as to bolster the authority of her voice – she has spent a long time paying attention.
I can’t think of a reason for mentioning that she’s ‘met trans people’ beyond an equivalence to the ‘some of my best friends are black’ argument when someone claims they’re not racist. Using this long, multi-clause sentence where she also mentions reading books etc. permits the implication that these meetings with trans people have been in some way part of the work of being informed. Her argument thus might be understood not only to be informed by conversations with trans people, but perhaps also to have their support.
Rowling doesn’t refer to external sources in her essay, but assures us she’s read too many books to mention, too many trans people to cite individually. The list of what we might gloss as ‘interested professionals’ is, I suggest, designed to lend credence to Rowling’s claim that she takes a professional (i.e. dispassionate, careful, not one-eyed or badly motivated) interest. Her suggestion that the protagonist of her book should naturally be interested in and affected by trans issues on account of being an older or middle-aged woman doesn’t bear scrutiny at all well; the only support for that thesis is the author’s own argument that she is affected by trans inclusivity, and we’ll see, that’s built on sand, too.
All the time I’ve been researching and learning, accusations and threats from trans activists have been bubbling in my Twitter timeline. This was initially triggered by a ‘like’. When I started taking an interest in gender identity and transgender matters, I began screenshotting comments that interested me, as a way of reminding myself what I might want to research later. On one occasion, I absent-mindedly ‘liked’ instead of screenshotting. That single ‘like’ was deemed evidence of wrongthink, and a persistent low level of harassment began.
Now Rowling summarises all of this activity as not just researching, with its connotations of rigour and objectivity, but also learning, which casts her as someone who is open to new ideas, and who has approached the topic of gender identity in such a way. At this point, ‘trans people’ becomes ‘trans activists’ – these are not the same people described differently, it seems. These are a separate bunch of people whose motivations are clear yet suspicious, because they are ‘activists’. These people want change, they agitate, they threaten and accuse. ‘Bubbling’ suggests something simmering, on the brink of boiling, waiting only for the tiniest nudge.
I don’t think it’s an accident that Rowling uses the term ‘triggered’, which is not just associated with weaponry but is also widely used in right-wing discourse about “snowflake” “millennials” who are easily excited to fury by things that calm and rational people don’t worry about – in this case, ‘a ‘like’’. A trifling matter, in this construction. She again refers to her interest, her research methods. ‘On one occasion’ is a neat contrast to all the time she says she’s spent researching and thinking about this topic, reinforced immediately by ‘that single ‘like’’. Then we have another nice contrast between her absent-mindedness and the reaction: ‘deemed evidence of wrongthink’. Once again the agentless deeming is suggestive of a reactionary authoritarian dystopia, and this time we even have a bit of Orwellian wordplay (‘wrongthink’) to go with it. In this sentence, saying ‘evidence’ rather than ‘a sign’, or ‘to suggest’ implies that the reaction was over the top.
Edit (27/06/2020): I keep coming back to ‘wrongthink’, and I think it’s significant that this would signify a victimless crime, whereas Rowling’s trans exclusionary writings do have an impact on others.
Others have already talked about how Rowling focuses on her own experience of online harassment rather than, say, the experience of trans people, so I won’t try to re-do their work here.
Months later, I compounded my accidental ‘like’ crime by following Magdalen Burns on Twitter. Magdalen was an immensely brave young feminist and lesbian who was dying of an aggressive brain tumour. I followed her because I wanted to contact her directly, which I succeeded in doing. However, as Magdalen was a great believer in the importance of biological sex, and didn’t believe lesbians should be called bigots for not dating trans women with penises, dots were joined in the heads of twitter trans activists, and the level of social media abuse increased.
‘Months later’ – Rowling went months between incidents! How can she be transphobic when she can go months without upsetting anyone! Again she describes herself as having been falsely if metaphorically convicted of a crime, and again she minimises another incident – following an account that posted venomously transphobic tweets – while emphasising ‘the good’ in Burns. We are asked to witness the very worst from pro-trans tweets but Rowling doesn’t even acknowledge the worst of Burns’s Twitter account, which includes comparing trans women to blackface, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In this description Rowling is taking sides with a feminist and lesbian (how can that be bad?) who was dying in a horrible way. This sort of mention is usually designed to prevent anyone from arguing, because in doing so, one becomes the sort of person who would accuse a dying person – a dying young person, a dying young woman – of something terrible.
Rowling also works to minimise her involvement with Burns: she followed her simply to make contact (Twitter works that way), and the fact that she made contact is somehow evidence that that’s the only reason for following her. Rowling also manages Burns’s views as being Burns’s own, though in such a way as to make them admirable: being ‘a great believer in’ is a construction often used to talk about investment in traditional (solid, reliable) or common-sense good (a great believer in: good manners, God, etc.). Edit (3/7/2020): Onni Gust (University of Nottingham) points out that Rowling refers to ‘biological sex’ as if there is consensus on what that means.
And now we’re back to this mysterious agentless construction – ‘dots were joined’. Although Rowling mentions ‘twitter trans activists’ (see how that’s become an even more narrowly defined group now? They’re not just activists, they’re keyboard warriors), the fact that the dots are joined ‘in their heads’ suggests that this wasn’t/isn’t a thoughtful or conscious process; it might even suggest brainwashing. Or, as Onni Gust points out, some kind of conspiracy.
I mention all this only to explain that I knew perfectly well what was going to happen when I supported Maya. I must have been on my fourth or fifth cancellation by then. I expected the threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate, to be called cunt and bitch and, of course, for my books to be burned, although one particularly abusive man told me he’d composted them.
But Rowling doesn’t want you to feel sorry for her, or think she had anything to gain from telling that story – it’s a piece of information, something neutral, to help the reader to see that Rowling has these ‘twitter trans activists’ sussed. ‘I must have been on my fourth or fifth cancellation by then’ is an interesting way of saying she had been called out multiple times before. It shifts the blame for these previous episodes to those reacting rather than her own actions, and also undermines those reactions (to be cancelled multiple times suggests that those cancellations were not successful but in fact attempts). ‘Cancel culture’ is a term more frequently operationalised by the right wing, to suggest that pushback against exclusionary and hurtful comments/behaviour from famous figures is thoughtless and reactionary. The list of things that were said is meant to shock the reader in its violence at the same time as it doesn’t surprise Rowling at all, because she has had to become used to it, and what a horrible thing to get used to.
What I didn’t expect in the aftermath of my cancellation was the avalanche of emails and letters that came showering down upon me, the overwhelming majority of which were positive, grateful and supportive. They came from a cross-section of kind, empathetic and intelligent people, some of them working in fields dealing with gender dysphoria and trans people, who’re all deeply concerned about the way a socio-political concept is influencing politics, medical practice and safeguarding. They’re worried about the dangers to young people, gay people and about the erosion of women’s and girl’s rights. Above all, they’re worried about a climate of fear that serves nobody – least of all trans youth – well.
Not expecting the support she received helps to boost that sense that Rowling is ‘speaking out’ against a dominant discourse (for which people are ‘grateful’), but the support was nonetheless immense – an ‘avalanche’ ‘that came showering down upon me’. We could pick holes in that – an avalanche doesn’t so much shower down upon you as flatten you in a second, but nonetheless what’s being invoked here is a silent majority. Unlike the ‘twitter trans activists’, whose character and motives are only to be inferred from the way that they’re named, Rowling’s supporters are ‘a cross-section’ (reassuring; they’re not just the people you’d expect) of ‘kind, empathetic and intelligent people’ (not only are they not fringe lunatics, but they’re also not motivated by malice or lack of intellect, which is important when you’re trying to support a philosophy that undermines the identity and lived experience of a marginalised group).
‘Some of them’ is vague. What does ‘some of’ an ‘avalanche’ look like? A handful, or several dozen? It’s more than one, anyway (again, reassuring), and their interest is like Rowling’s: professional, borne of expertise and experience, and coming from a place of concern. There is no mention of trans lives, identities, or rights, only ‘a socio-political concept’, which poses a threat to young people – won’t somebody think of the children? – as well as groups whose rights we can readily recognise as being hard won and thereby susceptible to challenge: gay people and women and girls. It’s strange that Rowling should problematise the potential influence of a ‘socio-political concept’, when that category would also include things such as environmentalism, anti-racism, feminism and so on?
Again, others have discussed the faux concern with ‘trans youth’, so I won’t retrace their steps, but in terms of the categories that Rowling is juggling here, it seems that ‘twitter trans activists’ and ‘trans youth’ are intended to be mutually exclusive, with the latter being in danger from the former.
I’d stepped back from Twitter for many months both before and after tweeting support for Maya, because I knew it was doing nothing good for my mental health. I only returned because I wanted to share a free children’s book during the pandemic. Immediately, activists who clearly believe themselves to be good, kind and progressive people swarmed back into my timeline, assuming a right to police my speech, accuse me of hatred, call me misogynistic slurs and, above all – as every woman involved in this debate will know – TERF.
More work here to construct Rowling as the victim: though she took the decision to stop using Twitter, we are invited to see that this was not a choice but something that she was forced to do to protect herself, not just for a short period but for ‘many months’. And even when returning, it wasn’t because she wanted to, but because she had something to share (she’s a good person) for free (such a good person) for children (so, so good) during a pandemic (I mean, honestly, who is this good?). ‘Immediately’ stresses the idea that she wasn’t given a moment to do her charitable work before ‘activists’ – not people – ‘swarmed’ – are they insects? Bugs? Things to be swatted away or sprayed with chemicals? – into her timeline. She stayed away from Twitter for ‘many months’, yet ‘activists’ were waiting for her the second she reappeared, such is their commitment to abusing Rowling.
Saying that the people who criticised her ‘clearly believe themselves to be good, kind and progressive people’ is a neat rhetorical move when describing behaviour that appears to undermine that; not only do you problematise their behaviour, but you also trouble the notion that they might have reliable, trustworthy opinions.
And now we reach ‘TERF’ territory.
Rowling starts by saying that ‘every woman involved in this debate will know’ the term TERF. This construction helps to remove her now from the isolation she has faced in the story so far, a lone voice standing up to the swarming trans inclusive masses, and place her in the category of ‘women involved in this debate’, all of whom seem to agree with her (which is very far from being the case).
Yet then she explains what TERF means:
If you didn’t already know – and why should you? – ‘TERF’ is an acronym coined by trans activists, which stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. In practice, a huge and diverse cross-section of women are currently being called TERFs and the vast majority have never been radical feminists. Examples of so-called TERFs range from the mother of a gay child who was afraid their child wanted to transition to escape homophobic bullying, to a hitherto totally unfeminist older lady who’s vowed never to visit Marks & Spencer again because they’re allowing any man who says they identify as a woman into the women’s changing rooms. Ironically, radical feminists aren’t even trans-exclusionary – they include trans men in their feminism, because they were born women.
Why should you know what TERF means? What? So Rowling and ‘every woman involved in this debate’ knows what it means. Presumably the people using it know what it means. So who does that leave; who is Rowling writing for? She started by suggesting that she was explaining herself, suggesting an audience familiar with events, but now she is hailing an audience who has so far missed the entire thing. This trivialises the concerns of trans activists as a kind of niche interest, and makes Rowling’s ability to come across as a reliable, authoritative narrator of the story, who is dispassionate at the right times but cares when it matters, even more critical.
Rowling spells out the acronym and then says ‘in practice’, rendering the acronym some kind of fairy tale notion, an empty signifier – something ‘they’ came up with, that’s nonsense in plain English. Again the people on Rowling’s side of the argument are great in number (‘huge’) as well as ‘diverse’; they’re mothers and old ladies, not the sort of people you’d associate with radical and unfriendly standpoints. Rowling expends more energy disrupting the notion that these people are ‘radical feminists’ than she does fighting the suggestion that they’re ‘trans exclusionary’. We all take the path of least resistance, I suppose.
But accusations of TERFery have been sufficient to intimidate many people, institutions and organisations I once admired, who’re cowering before the tactics of the playground. ‘They’ll call us transphobic!’ ‘They’ll say I hate trans people!’ What next, they’ll say you’ve got fleas? Speaking as a biological woman, a lot of people in positions of power really need to grow a pair (which is doubtless literally possible, according to the kind of people who argue that clownfish prove humans aren’t a dimorphic species).
Having tried to dismantle ‘TERF’ as a meaningful term, Rowling now has to do the work of rebuilding it, so that she can outline the apparent consequences not of being a TERF, but of being accused of being a TERF (again agentless!). The accusations have had consequences for many yet unidentified people and groups – and not just any groups, either, but groups that Rowling once admired. They must have been good if that was the case, but even they have been bullied (‘tactics of the playground’ also does a job of infantalising trans activism) into keeping quiet.
Rowling has presented herself at various points as a rational party to this debate, interested enough but not too interested, but she starts to lose her cool here. This helps to construct the apparent silence of these unknown people and organisations as so ludicrous and troubling that Rowling simply cannot stand it any longer. She’s not speaking out now because she accidentally copied and pasted a line from an article about a transphobe into a tweet and started talking about ‘trans issues’ again, but because enough is enough.
The fleas line is deliberately ridiculous, but it also suggests that Rowling thinks accusations of transphobia are analogous, i.e. that it is an accusation that silly people make about a thing that people clearly don’t have.
‘Speaking as a biological woman’ is an interesting way to describe yourself if you want your claims not to be transphobic to be taken seriously, because it’s hard not to read it as meaning a) biological women are ‘real’ women and b) biological women have greater authority to speak on this. And then we’re back to ridicule and the ridiculous, and Rowling being willing to use a line that equates being born male with strength and power and decisiveness (‘need to grow a pair’) just so that she, a feminist, can make a joke about clownfish.
So why am I doing this? Why speak up? Why not quietly do my research and keep my head down?
Again, the ‘speaking up’ formulation, in which Rowling casts herself as a hero who could be quietly screenshotting TERF tweets and jotting down ‘interesting’, but who has decided to stick her neck out for the cause. It’s no longer all that clear what the cause is – it started off as women and girls, and gay people (did it?) but seems now to be openly trans exclusive.
Well, I’ve got five reasons for being worried about the new trans activism, and deciding I need to speak up.
Ah, no, it’s not about all trans people. Just the activists (by definition, the ones who are working to change things for the better for a group), and it’s not even really about them, but their activism, which is new, though there’s no talk of how. Calling it ‘new’ helps to suggest that there’s good and bad trans activism, as well as being evocative of things having gone too far. It’s got traditional right-wing appeal, this. Rowling doesn’t just have reasons, mind you, she has five of them. We generally accept a list of three as being rhetorically persuasive, but here’s five.
Firstly, I have a charitable trust that focuses on alleviating social deprivation in Scotland, with a particular emphasis on women and children. Among other things, my trust supports projects for female prisoners and for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. I also fund medical research into MS, a disease that behaves very differently in men and women. It’s been clear to me for a while that the new trans activism is having (or is likely to have, if all its demands are met) a significant impact on many of the causes I support, because it’s pushing to erode the legal definition of sex and replace it with gender.
It’s not clear here how, if gender replaced sex in legal definitions, these charitable activities would be threatened, unless Rowling is saying that she doesn’t want to fund organisations that helps women including trans women. This is not a great place from which to fight accusations of being trans exclusive. Rowling writes as though trans people want to make things more difficult and confusing, yet the specificity afforded by terminology such as ‘people who menstruate’ or ‘people with a uterus’ would be helpful if hormonal factors play a part in illness and disease. It also seems extremely unlikely that those with MS would somehow get treatment that would be of no benefit to them by dint of their gender identity. How else could we interpret the supposed ‘impact’ of such a change? This is ambiguous, though apparently ‘clear’ to Rowling. In contrast to her charitable giving, trans activism comes with a list of demands, like a ransom note.
The second reason is that I’m an ex-teacher and the founder of a children’s charity, which gives me an interest in both education and safeguarding. Like many others, I have deep concerns about the effect the trans rights movement is having on both.
There’s nothing original here: Rowling sets out her (professional) stake in this as an ex-teacher, as well as being someone who cares enough to set up a charity. Again there are ‘many others’ who are not named but who shared her concerns, which are ‘deep’ (suggesting not just a level of investment on their part, but also the scale of the problem). When marking student essays, I will pick out lines that assert that many people think/argue something and ask them to cite at least one, as evidence; Rowling has created space in which she can minimise such an expectation by talking of a climate of fear in which lots of people think something but cannot speak out, and are relying on Rowling to tell the story for them.
The third is that, as a much-banned author, I’m interested in freedom of speech and have publicly defended it, even unto Donald Trump.
It seems very likely that Rowling understands that freedom of speech is not freedom from the consequences of or reaction to ones utterances, but she’s so passionate about it that she’ll even defend one of the only people almost universally considered to be dangerously free with his speech. If she can do that, you can lay off her, okay? Also, ‘much-banned author’ is evocative of the censorship of writers such as Toni Morrison or Nadine Gordimer, not people whose books about magic upset American religious fundamentalists.
The fourth is where things start to get truly personal. I’m concerned about the huge explosion in young women wishing to transition and also about the increasing numbers who seem to be detransitioning (returning to their original sex), because they regret taking steps that have, in some cases, altered their bodies irrevocably, and taken away their fertility. Some say they decided to transition after realising they were same-sex attracted, and that transitioning was partly driven by homophobia, either in society or in their families.
It’s actually another seven paragraphs before Rowling gets ‘truly personal’, but pointing that out at this stage encourages the reader to approach all of this through the prism of Rowling discussing, or being about to discuss, something of a private nature. Once again this brings with it a sense that she has been pushed to share something that she otherwise would not, and that what she says carries with it the gravity/gravitas of engaging with something profound (as well as, perhaps, titillating readers with the attraction of finding out something personal about a celebrity writer? Is that too cynical?)
In any case, we carry on, and again Rowling is ‘concerned’ (which does something different to being ‘scared by’ or ‘frightened of’ because being ‘concerned’ is rational, understandable, and altruistic; the negative consequences focus on others – ‘young women’ – and not Rowling herself). While the author applies mitigation to the ‘increasing numbers’ of detransitioners by using ‘seem to be’, she writes with certainty about the (not ‘a’, which permits a hypothetical, but ‘the’) ‘huge explosion in young women wishing to transition’. Outside of a specific genre of scientific reporting, explosions are not normally anything but large; Rowling nonetheless emphasises its size in addition to the metaphor, without touching any actual numbers. Constructing transition as a ‘wish’ is also familiar in cissexist rhetoric, making it something that exists only in the mind of the person transitioning, like a dream or a fairytale, when they will always ‘really be’ the sex assigned at birth.
‘Detransitioning’, even if a reader hasn’t come across the idea before, is not a complicated thing to grasp, but Rowling’s explanation in parentheses is another device that works to position her as an authority on the subject, speaking to readers who are new (She does this again later, when referring to ‘incels’). Remember, she is interested professionally, and has done her research. Even as we get ‘truly personal’, this needs to be kept in mind.
I’m grateful to Max Thornton at Drew University who read my analysis and, among other things, pointed out that Rowling’s reference to ‘same-sex attraction’ borrows from the language used by conservative Christians who deny the existence of gay orientation or identity, and view ‘same-sex attraction’ as a sinful urge that must be resisted. This language implicitly aligns trans people with conservative Christians (when in reality TERFs are literally making alliances with conservative Christian groups) at the same time as it aligns Rowling with gay people.
This is another paragraph in which ‘some’ is doing a lot of lifting, but we don’t know of what weights. Some women are detransitioning, some of that some have permanently altered their bodies, and some explain the decision by referring to homophobia. Once again I will let others explain the madness of suggesting that young people would think of transitioning simply to escape homophobia, and focus on its status as a rhetorical move: Rowling invites us to feel sorry for young people who face horrific homophobia at home or outside of it, as well as presenting herself as also being the sort of person who is concerned about this. How can she be criticised for being worried about young gay people who don’t have the support of their families?
Most people probably aren’t aware – I certainly wasn’t, until I started researching this issue properly – that ten years ago, the majority of people wanting to transition to the opposite sex were male. That ratio has now reversed. The UK has experienced a 4400% increase in girls being referred for transitioning treatment. Autistic girls are hugely overrepresented in their numbers.
Another reminder that Rowling has done her research, and properly, but also an allusion to the idea that trans people are working in secret, in the shadows, away from things that attract ‘most people’’s attention. This also helps to bolster the idea that something has changed (think back to ‘the new trans activism’). Finally we get a number, but this one only emphasises the scale of change, rather than giving us a sense of how many girls are being referred; if we’re dealing with very small numbers, a change of 4000% over 10 years isn’t as dramatic as it might seem at first scan. And what does ‘transitioning treatment’ mean? Does this include anyone being referred to a specialist because they’re experiencing gender dysphoria? Does it mean girls who are asking questions about transition?
We can look at agency here, again, too, because it’s quite revealing. When ‘the majority of people’ in question were ‘male’ (note: not boys), they were ‘wanting to transition’. That is, they were active in the process (and, it seems, the skew in that direction didn’t matter). Now that the majority are afab, ‘girls’ are passively ‘being referred’ rather than actively seeking help. The difference between talking about ‘girls being referred’ and an alternative such as ‘young women seeking support and resources around gender identity’ is that ‘concern’ for the latter would seem intrusive and unnecessary.
‘Autistic girls are hugely overrepresent in their numbers’. This is the only time in the essay that Rowling refers to autism; the point is supposed to stand for itself. It only does that, though, if you go along with the presupposition that being referred is something that’s being done to young women that they are unable to resist, and that ‘autistic girls’ are even less able to resist. Once again we see the spectre of brainwashing, with ‘autistic girls’ serving as helpful dupes in Rowling’s argument.
The same phenomenon has been seen in the US. In 2018, American physician and researcher Lisa Littman set out to explore it. In an interview, she said: ‘Parents online were describing a very unusual pattern of transgender-identification where multiple friends and even entire friend groups became transgender-identified at the same time. I would have been remiss had I not considered social contagion and peer influences as potential factors.’
Rowling hasn’t cited sufficient evidence to support her claims about what’s happened in the UK, but she moves on as if she has: this is a recognised phenomenon, and it’s happened elsewhere, too. Rhetorically, it’s appealing to be able to say that you can offer more than one instance of a thing.
She introduces Littman by referring to her qualifications (professional interest) and describing her study as an exploration (suggesting she didn’t set out with any hypotheses, but was curious and wanted to get to ‘the truth’). The quote from Littman helps to underscore this by suggesting that she simply had to consider social contagion, as well as introducing parents as a motivating factor. Presumably these are the sort of parents who only want the best for their children, not the same set of parents who were so homophobic that their children sought transition.
Littman mentioned Tumblr, Reddit, Instagram and YouTube as contributing factors to Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, where she believes that in the realm of transgender identification ‘youth have created particularly insular echo chambers.’
It would be too easy to pick apart an assertion that Littman’s claims are more than a belief, so a list of social media platforms invites us to think that Littman investigated these spaces. If readers are the older women that Rowling suggests at the start of the post have some kind of special interest in invalidating trans identities, this list might also include sites considered to be almost entirely occupied by young people, which makes the claim more convincing. (As someone who is closing in on 40 and still has accounts on three of those four sites, I’m not convinced. But I’m also interested in the labour that ‘particularly’ is doing, and in such close proximity to ‘youth’; it suggests that something has happened because of a lack of supervision? I’d describe Mumsnet as a particularly insular echo chamber…)
Her paper caused a furore. She was accused of bias and of spreading misinformation about transgender people, subjected to a tsunami of abuse and a concerted campaign to discredit both her and her work. The journal took the paper offline and re-reviewed it before republishing it. However, her career took a similar hit to that suffered by Maya Forstater. Lisa Littman had dared challenge one of the central tenets of trans activism, which is that a person’s gender identity is innate, like sexual orientation. Nobody, the activists insisted, could ever be persuaded into being trans.
The metonymy here – ‘her paper’ instead of ‘her work’ or something similar – perhaps offers Littman’s ideas some kind of legitimacy; she didn’t just write a blog post or something that any of us could do, she wrote a paper for an academic journal. And this ‘caused a furore’. I need to check, but ‘furore’ is a term most often used by people to describe an overreaction – at best it might be used semi-seriously, but with a knowing nod to the hysteria of some.
Again we have someone who spoke up, based on research, being accused, abused and discredited by a nameless agent. Again a water metaphor (‘tsunami’) to describe the reaction. ‘Concerted campaign’ is a tautology – what is a campaign if it is not concerted? – but it emphasises effort, suggesting that people went to great lengths, and that they organised together rather than individually. The implication seems to be that this is somehow unfair.
Look at the construction of people’s actions here: Littman ‘dared challenge’, but ‘the activists insisted’. Which of those things seems rational and well-motivated (to the point of incurring personal risk), and which seems to lack an evidential basis or sound reason? The reference to ‘tenets’ works in concert here, bringing to mind religious zeal, or at least articles of faith, rather than the cold hard facts of science. We could also read Littman’s actions as tentative – to ‘challenge’ could be understood to question, rather than to deny – but trans activists ‘insist’, and their insistences take on extreme case formulations (ECFs): nobody, could ever.
Rowling refers to sexuality as being innate while scoffing at the notion that gender identity might be. It’s a very over-simplified take on the whole thing, and one that isn’t coherent – this is rhetorically managed by referring to sexual orientation and gender identity. It also keeps up the apparent alliance between an anti-trans position and being gay-friendly; as with many anti-trans arguments, gay people are used as a shield from criticism.
The argument of many current trans activists is that if you don’t let a gender dysphoric teenager transition, they will kill themselves. In an article explaining why he resigned from the Tavistock (an NHS gender clinic in England) psychiatrist Marcus Evans stated that claims that children will kill themselves if not permitted to transition do not ‘align substantially with any robust data or studies in this area. Nor do they align with the cases I have encountered over decades as a psychotherapist.’
We continue to see reference to ‘current’ activism, naturalising the argument that things were previously different (and unproblematic/unproblematised). Whereas Rowling sets out what Littman did and quotes her to legitimise it, here the writer simplistically paraphrases an argument (calling it ‘the argument’). Contracting ‘do not’ to ‘don’t’ further helps it to sound like an unreasonable demand made by a foot-stamping infant (“if you don’t let me have it, I’ll scream and scream until I’m sick!”). Note that ‘young women’ became ‘girls’ and now we’re at ‘children’, even though it is immediately preceded by a reference to teenagers.
I am not the right person to talk about gender dysphoria and trans experience, but I will say that I think choosing to say ‘gender dysphoric teenager’ rather than ‘trans teenager’ is worthy of note. It is far harder for a speaker to maintain an argument against ‘letting’ (there’s a whole other tangent there) a trans teenager transition than it is a ‘gender dysphoric’ teenager – but I also think this entails seeing gender dysphoria as somehow a minor thing, like having a cold. So it’s important that what comes next is the ‘truly personal’ bit that Rowling promised earlier.
The writings of young trans men reveal a group of notably sensitive and clever people. The more of their accounts of gender dysphoria I’ve read, with their insightful descriptions of anxiety, dissociation, eating disorders, self-harm and self-hatred, the more I’ve wondered whether, if I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition. The allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge. I struggled with severe OCD as a teenager. If I’d found community and sympathy online that I couldn’t find in my immediate environment, I believe I could have been persuaded to turn myself into the son my father had openly said he’d have preferred.
Up until now, Rowling has only assigned characteristics to cis actors in her story, but at this point trans men are ‘notably sensitive and clever’. Presumably they are not the ‘trans activists’ from before, because now they’re people that Rowling sees kinship with, through their ‘insightful’ writing. Once again sympathy is extended premised on similar experience, which invites readers to sympathise with the writer as much as with the young trans men being discussed. Rowling’s story neatly supports the assertions made before it – those supportive echo chambers, the unsupportive family, the mental health element – and though she again uses ‘believe’ rather than offering certainty (there is scant space for insisting now, after all), this is rhetorically very powerful. How do you argue with someone’s belief when it is presented in this way? Her own father told her he didn’t want her!
When I read about the theory of gender identity, I remember how mentally sexless I felt in youth. I remember Colette’s description of herself as a ‘mental hermaphrodite’ and Simone de Beauvoir’s words: ‘It is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations posed upon her by her sex. The real question is not why she should reject them: the problem is rather to understand why she accepts them.’
Following hot on the heels of the personal comes citation, and it matters of whom: Colette, the bisexual French author who wore men’s clothes but always identified as a woman (which has a whiff of ‘you see, she felt like that but didn’t need to transition’), and Simone de Beavuoir, one of the most famous feminist writers of the 20th century. There’s a question in this paragraph: if these women identify and write eloquently about the things that ‘gender dysphoric teenagers’ are grappling with, why should anyone need to identify as trans, let alone transition?
As I didn’t have a realistic possibility of becoming a man back in the 1980s, it had to be books and music that got me through both my mental health issues and the sexualised scrutiny and judgement that sets so many girls to war against their bodies in their teens. Fortunately for me, I found my own sense of otherness, and my ambivalence about being a woman, reflected in the work of female writers and musicians who reassured me that, in spite of everything a sexist world tries to throw at the female-bodied, it’s fine not to feel pink, frilly and compliant inside your own head; it’s OK to feel confused, dark, both sexual and non-sexual, unsure of what or who you are.
Did trans people not exist in the 1980s? Trans people and trans issues are much more visible now, and much more a part of public discourse, but transness isn’t ‘new’ or a 21st century fad. The idea that people can be persuaded to transition, on which Rowling’s entire essay rests, is implicitly predicated on the notion that young people are identifying as trans simply because it is now possible in a way that it was not previously. This is not a million miles away from a slippery slope argument: society has made being trans too easy, and now people who wouldn’t otherwise, are identifying that way. If we imagine for a moment that the notion that being trans is now easy holds any water (for clarity, I don’t believe it does, but let’s imagine), then the ‘answer’ is to make it more difficult again. And to assuage any fears that might give rise to for the effect on trans young people, we now have a story about how Rowling managed her own ‘mental sexlessness’. Rowling doesn’t assert that the thoughts she ascribes to her teen self are those shared by trans teens, but she doesn’t not say that, either. The comfort she found in feminist writings might thus be taken as being the right salve for others, too.
I want to be very clear here: I know transition will be a solution for some gender dysphoric people, although I’m also aware through extensive research that studies have consistently shown that between 60-90% of gender dysphoric teens will grow out of their dysphoria. Again and again I’ve been told to ‘just meet some trans people.’ I have: in addition to a few younger people, who were all adorable, I happen to know a self-described transsexual woman who’s older than I am and wonderful. Although she’s open about her past as a gay man, I’ve always found it hard to think of her as anything other than a woman, and I believe (and certainly hope) she’s completely happy to have transitioned. Being older, though, she went through a long and rigorous process of evaluation, psychotherapy and staged transformation. The current explosion of trans activism is urging a removal of almost all the robust systems through which candidates for sex reassignment were once required to pass. A man who intends to have no surgery and take no hormones may now secure himself a Gender Recognition Certificate and be a woman in the sight of the law. Many people aren’t aware of this.
Rhetorical devices that explicitly tell the reader what it is that you want to be seen as doing are marvellous, aren’t they? Because they still function at the connotative level, even as they tell you they don’t. ‘I want to be very clear here’ says, let there be no ambiguity about what I’m saying, but it also professes to be making some kind of concession: ‘I know that might be read as meaning X, but actually…’ What follows, though, is not clear or concessionary.
‘I know transition will be a solution for some gender dysphoric people’ – I think we should note the terms of the debate now. We started with transphobia and ‘trans issues’, but now we have transition (presumably medical) as a solution for a problem rather than any notion of identity.
We can also talk again about ‘some’ and how it diminishes those to whom it refers, compared to the emphasis on ‘extensive’ research that ‘consistently’ supports what Rowling is saying. Even if Rowling provided citations, however, she is reporting findings relating to gender dysphoria; please correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that not all trans people experience gender dysphoria, or seek help for it. And evidently, those who experience gender dysphoria as teens do not all identify as trans. The two things need to be bound together for these studies to do the work that Rowling wants them to do, but that doesn’t reflect how things are. Gender non-conformity in children can prompt adults to diagnose dysphoria in children who express no desire to transition (which is, ironically, what the trans activist community is accused of doing). Some people aren’t able or don’t want to ‘medically transition’ (which is used to refer to a number of different things).
What’s being presented is readily debunked, so as the paragraph continues, it’s hardly surprising that the argument keeps wriggling around. Rowling’s trans friend (how can she be transphobic when she has a trans friend whom she can hardly imagine any differently) had to go through a lot to transition later in life, but now ‘trans activism’, which is still ‘exploding’, wants to make it easier – ‘remove robust systems’. (What kind of anarchist wants systems that aren’t robust?) Which systems though? It sounds as if it’s suddenly going to become easier to access medical, physical transition, but actually what will be easier is getting a gender recognition certificate. By the logic of Rowling’s earlier concern about girls being rendered infertile by surgical intervention, this would be a good thing, right? But it’s definitely a bad thing, so let’s forget afab trans people and bring in ‘a man’. After 2000 words, the issue is now: people can self-identify. Not only that, but ‘the law’ will recognise that identification.
Referring to a lack of awareness about this helps to suggest that it’s a reasonable (perhaps a natural?) reaction to be angry, upset and fearful about this – it’s only because ‘many people’ don’t know, that there isn’t more pushback.
We’re living through the most misogynistic period I’ve experienced. Back in the 80s, I imagined that my future daughters, should I have any, would have it far better than I ever did, but between the backlash against feminism and a porn-saturated online culture, I believe things have got significantly worse for girls. Never have I seen women denigrated and dehumanised to the extent they are now. From the leader of the free world’s long history of sexual assault accusations and his proud boast of ‘grabbing them by the pussy’, to the incel (‘involuntarily celibate’) movement that rages against women who won’t give them sex, to the trans activists who declare that TERFs need punching and re-educating, men across the political spectrum seem to agree: women are asking for trouble. Everywhere, women are being told to shut up and sit down, or else.
‘We’re living through’ sets up Rowling’s claim as a statement of fact, before actually premising the claim on Rowling’s experience (again, how do you argue with that?) Saying ‘back in’ another decade emphasises (perhaps even overstates) the length of time that has passed since, dramatically underscoring the apparent shift backwards. There are more ECFs here, too: ‘never have I’, ‘across the political spectrum’, ‘everywhere’. Donald Trump’s legitimacy as US president is under constant debate, but rather than using his name, here Rowling cites his office in the most expansive terms possible: the leader of the free world. Look at the other referential terms: men is synonymous with incels and trans activists, while women and girls are synonymous with TERFS. In this construction, it seems that trans activists are to TERFS as incels are to women. That is, aggressors and agitators, a threat, and not the side that reasonable people want to be on.
I’ve read all the arguments about femaleness not residing in the sexed body, and the assertions that biological women don’t have common experiences, and I find them, too, deeply misogynistic and regressive. It’s also clear that one of the objectives of denying the importance of sex is to erode what some seem to see as the cruelly segregationist idea of women having their own biological realities or – just as threatening – unifying realities that make them a cohesive political class. The hundreds of emails I’ve received in the last few days prove this erosion concerns many others just as much. It isn’t enough for women to be trans allies. Women must accept and admit that there is no material difference between trans women and themselves.
Has anyone ever done so much homework as Rowling claims to have done about this topic? Here we have another reminder, yet it ushers in a number of fallacious arguments:
- That despite all the reading, Rowling still believes that her womanhood is bound to her biology (appeal to authority)
- That to suggest otherwise is ‘misogynistic and regressive’ (appeal to motive)
- That recognising sex as a social construct will undermine women’s collectivity, and therefore rights (appeal to consequences)
- That lots of women are worried by the idea that they might not be bound together by uniform experiences of their bodies so therefore the notion of womanhood is threatened by trans acceptance (appeal to popular belief)
- That trans activists (we have to assume; again we have no named agent) deny any material difference between trans women and women assigned female at birth and expect ‘women’ to submit to this (straw man fallacy)
We could label various of Rowling’s arguments according to the character of their fallaciousness, but I think it was particularly worthwhile doing it here, when the section is moving into its summation.
But, as many women have said before me, ‘woman’ is not a costume. ‘Woman’ is not an idea in a man’s head. ‘Woman’ is not a pink brain, a liking for Jimmy Choos or any of the other sexist ideas now somehow touted as progressive. Moreover, the ‘inclusive’ language that calls female people ‘menstruators’ and ‘people with vulvas’ strikes many women as dehumanising and demeaning. I understand why trans activists consider this language to be appropriate and kind, but for those of us who’ve had degrading slurs spat at us by violent men, it’s not neutral, it’s hostile and alienating.
‘As many women have said before me’ is another appeal to popular belief, which is the sort of argument that relies on the idea that if many or most people believe something, then the likelihood of it being true is high. Its use here is also evocative of feminist history, perhaps hoping to lend the weight of that history to the argument being presented. Rowling lists things that ‘woman’ is not as if these are the things that trans people assert as defining womanhood. This list seems designed to bring to mind the stereotypical image of a drag queen rather than a trans woman, though Rowling no doubt knows the difference. Following up with reference to inclusive language feels similarly disingenuous, since terms such as ‘menstruators’ only ever seem to reach public consciousness in the form of a backlash against the suggestion.
The final sentence is very neatly put together: while Rowling presents herself as having access to the motivations of trans activists – and even understanding them – she positions trans people as being unable to understand her argument. Not only does she delegitimise her opponents as interlocutors on the topic, but she uses her earlier premise about embodied experience to do so. She assumes that trans people who argue for inclusive language have not been humiliated or degraded ‘by violent men’. Although she doesn’t say so explicitly, this is one of the parts of the essay where Rowling is clearly addressing trans women rather than all trans people, and in spite of the fact that the language she cites refers to trans man and other afab trans people. This is common in transphobic rhetoric.
Which brings me to the fifth reason I’m deeply concerned about the consequences of the current trans activism.
‘Which brings me to’ asserts a logical link between what Rowling has just said, her previous arguments, and what she’s about to say; its presence also helps to construct this as a piece of writing with a well-structured, coherent argument (as well as one that progresses to a climactic ‘killer’ point). And again Rowling reminds the reader that her problem isn’t with trans people per se. She returns to the idea of a ‘new’ kind of trans activism, and for the first time talks explicitly about its ‘consequences’. I think perhaps constructing things in this way implies that those of an opposing view have failed to consider the consequences of their actions (which perhaps in turn implies that if they had/did, they would or should change their minds).
I’ve been in the public eye now for over twenty years and have never talked publicly about being a domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor. This isn’t because I’m ashamed those things happened to me, but because they’re traumatic to revisit and remember. I also feel protective of my daughter from my first marriage. I didn’t want to claim sole ownership of a story that belongs to her, too. However, a short while ago, I asked her how she’d feel if I were publicly honest about that part of my life, and she encouraged me to go ahead.
I know that historical sexual assault continues to traumatise, so a cold, functional analysis feels awkward, uncomfortable and unkind now that Rowling is talking about the violence that she has experienced. Further, her daughter is now involved, too. To criticise Rowling for bringing this experience to her discussion is now also to criticise an unknown young woman who encouraged her mother to speak about the topic.
I’m mentioning these things now not in an attempt to garner sympathy, but out of solidarity with the huge numbers of women who have histories like mine, who’ve been slurred as bigots for having concerns around single-sex spaces.
Saying that you don’t want sympathy can of course have the opposite effect – it highlights, if it wasn’t already obvious, that the speaker is talking about something that would or should usually attract sympathy, at the same time as it might cast that person in a positive light (for being the sort of person who doesn’t look for sympathy even if they deserve it). Rowling constructs this as an act of solidarity, once again attending to her good character in spite of the things being said about her and her allyship.
This is the first time that Rowling has mentioned ‘single-sex spaces’, but framing the issue in these terms is rhetorically useful now that Rowling’s side of the argument is focused on physical violence. (Though of course, as we’ll see, this argument relies on believing that trans women are not women, and/or that men will identify as women in order to gain access to vulnerable women.)
I managed to escape my first violent marriage with some difficulty, but I’m now married to a truly good and principled man, safe and secure in ways I never in a million years expected to be. However, the scars left by violence and sexual assault don’t disappear, no matter how loved you are, and no matter how much money you’ve made. My perennial jumpiness is a family joke – and even I know it’s funny – but I pray my daughters never have the same reasons I do for hating sudden loud noises, or finding people behind me when I haven’t heard them approaching.
In this paragraph Rowling emphasises the difficulty – physically (‘escape’) and mentally – of a life after (sexual) violence. This implicitly constructs a fundamental clash between the ongoing lived experience of cis women who’ve been abused and assaulted by cis men, and trans inclusivity, and perhaps helps again to discourage criticism of Rowling’s position by making it an inherent part of her survival. Mention of her daughters combines the rhetorical functions of ‘think of the children’ and ‘speaking as a mother’, without having to do either explicitly.
If you could come inside my head and understand what I feel when I read about a trans woman dying at the hands of a violent man, you’d find solidarity and kinship. I have a visceral sense of the terror in which those trans women will have spent their last seconds on earth, because I too have known moments of blind fear when I realised that the only thing keeping me alive was the shaky self-restraint of my attacker.
Rowling locates the truth of her feelings about trans women inside her head, making it inaccessible: you might think Rowling thinks awful things about trans women because of the things that she’s written and the people she has supported, but if you could only see! (So now, are you going to call her a liar?) It is odd, though, to site one’s ‘kinship’ with someone at the precise moment in which they are murdered and no earlier. Does Rowling mean to suggest that there is nothing to unite her and a trans woman until that moment?
I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.
Rowling is generally quite liberal with quantities in this essay – ‘avalanche’, ‘tsunami’, ‘explosion’ – but here a simple unqualified ‘majority’ of ‘trans-identified people’ do not pose a threat. In this paragraph she briefly and briskly affirms facts that might otherwise be used to oppose her. Again, as well as working towards constructing solidarity, this also positions her as someone in possession of all the facts – her argument against trans inclusivity is not from ignorance, but from weighing up everyone’s concerns. Rowling also rescues the women ‘slurred as bigots’ earlier, since they share her apparent empathy.
So I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.
Asserting that you have just set out a (the!) ‘simple truth’ does not make it so. Rowling relies on circular reasoning here – the notion that trans inclusivity makes women and girls less safe is a claim, as is the idea that men will use structures of trans inclusivity to abuse single-sex spaces, but Rowling sets them up as premises for her position.
Note Rowling’s refusal to use ‘cis’ as the counterpart to trans; in spite of her lengthy engagement with trans texts and experts, she opts for the clunky ‘natal’. This reinforces an ideological commitment to biological sex binarism, and just in time to support Rowling’s suggestion that ‘any and all men’ will be able to pose as women if there is no requirement for trans women to undergo some form of medical transition as part of their legal transition.
As with much of what Rowling says in this essay, others have pointed out how ludicrous a proposition this is. This makes it all the more interesting, in terms of language use, that she should be able to describe it as ‘the simple truth’. I think there’s some work being done by ‘when you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms…’. Rowling has already in this essay tried to undermine the notion that people assigned male at birth can identify as women, and here that identification is rendered as ‘believes or feels’, making it sound wishy-washy and unreliable; to ‘throw open the doors’ is doubly reckless. Again trans inclusivity is constructed as a kind of carelessness, a lack of thought for the consequences.
On Saturday morning, I read that the Scottish government is proceeding with its controversial gender recognition plans, which will in effect mean that all a man needs to ‘become a woman’ is to say he’s one. To use a very contemporary word, I was ‘triggered’. Ground down by the relentless attacks from trans activists on social media, when I was only there to give children feedback about pictures they’d drawn for my book under lockdown, I spent much of Saturday in a very dark place inside my head, as memories of a serious sexual assault I suffered in my twenties recurred on a loop. That assault happened at a time and in a space where I was vulnerable, and a man capitalised on an opportunity. I couldn’t shut out those memories and I was finding it hard to contain my anger and disappointment about the way I believe my government is playing fast and loose with womens and girls’ safety.
This paragraph has several jobs: it attempts to offer some concreteness to Rowling’s concerns by referencing recent news (line 1); it attempts to situate Rowling’s emotional response in a framework that might be shared by her opponents (line 2); it reiterates Rowling’s status as the victim of online abuse when all she wants to do is engage with children’s drawings, and reminds us there’s a pandemic going on, to boot (line 3); it supports Rowling’s claim that trans inclusivity – even moves towards it – re-traumatises victims of sexual violence (line 4); it offers an account of an assault that appears to support the claim that men look for opportunities to exploit vulnerable women (line 5); and it reiterates that her essay is a response that she has been forced to write. The implied recklessness of trans inclusivity is now explicit: ‘playing fast and loose with…’.
Late on Saturday evening, scrolling through children’s pictures before I went to bed, I forgot the first rule of Twitter – never, ever expect a nuanced conversation – and reacted to what I felt was degrading language about women. I spoke up about the importance of sex and have been paying the price ever since. I was transphobic, I was a cunt, a bitch, a TERF, I deserved cancelling, punching and death. You are Voldemort said one person, clearly feeling this was the only language I’d understand.
Since she wants to criticise Twitter and its users for lacking nuance, Rowling has to attend to her own decision to use it, and to use it to discuss a subject that she has already had arguments about. Thus we see this described happening ‘late on Saturday evening’ – it’s the weekend, it’s late in the evening, perhaps she’s had a glass of wine, she’s just trying to relax and look at the pictures that the children have drawn for her. She didn’t come here looking for trouble, but she saw something sexist and had to say something. Once again ‘the importance of sex’ is taken as given, with only her decision to speak up about it at issue.
In describing the responses she received, Rowling uses a couple of lists of three: ‘a cunt, a bitch, a TERF’ and ‘cancelling, punching and death’. These lists attempt to convey a sense of relentlessness but perhaps also of repetitiousness? If there is a hint of Rowling suggesting that her critics lack imagination/originality, this is reinforced by the reference to Voldemort; Rowling inverts the insult.
It would be so much easier to tweet the approved hashtags – because of course trans rights are human rights and of course trans lives matter – scoop up the woke cookies and bask in a virtue-signalling afterglow. There’s joy, relief and safety in conformity. As Simone de Beauvoir also wrote, “… without a doubt it is more comfortable to endure blind bondage than to work for one’s liberation; the dead, too, are better suited to the earth than the living.”
Again Rowling constructs herself as the hero at the centre of this story; rather than taking the easy life (which she implies is what others are doing), she is choosing not to ‘conform’. As at the start of the essay, Rowling presents a world in which trans inclusivity is by diktat (‘approved hashtags’) and its affirmation is performative and merely self-rewarding (including by avoiding censure). ‘Woke’ has been appropriated from AAVE by the right to undermine various progressive positions; while it will only further alienate progressive readers, its use here is a nod and a wink to the nostalgic conservatism of the older cis women Rowling appears to see as her readers on this matter (per the start of the essay).
Rowling entirely decontextualises the quote from de Beauvoir in order to suggest that those who support trans inclusivity are too lazy to do otherwise, preferring ‘blind bondage’. This is intensely ironic when you consider that at this point of The Second Sex, de Beauvoir is talking about the bind that women find themselves in when they are expected to be both an autonomous subject as well as being a desirable, feminine object. De Beauvoir is exploring the ways in which women might realise their full existence as human beings rather than being bound by the category of ‘woman’.
Huge numbers of women are justifiably terrified by the trans activists; I know this because so many have got in touch with me to tell their stories. They’re afraid of doxxing, of losing their jobs or their livelihoods, and of violence.
More work on presenting the author as heroic. Her opponents are ‘terrifying’, and not only do they present an online threat, but also physical violence. In this way, the essay categorises ‘trans activists’ alongside ‘violent men’.
But endlessly unpleasant as its constant targeting of me has been, I refuse to bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it. I stand alongside the brave women and men, gay, straight and trans, who’re standing up for freedom of speech and thought, and for the rights and safety of some of the most vulnerable in our society: young gay kids, fragile teenagers, and women who’re reliant on and wish to retain their single sex spaces. Polls show those women are in the vast majority, and exclude only those privileged or lucky enough never to have come up against male violence or sexual assault, and who’ve never troubled to educate themselves on how prevalent it is.
In this version of events, criticisms come not in response to Rowling’s position (which would seem reasonable/predictable), but as an attack (‘targeting’) from a harmful ‘movement’. There are all sorts of metaphors mixed in here – ‘targeting’, ‘bow down’, ‘erode’ – that continue to construct the world as a place where it is women who oppose trans inclusivity who are under pressure to conform and not the other way around. ‘Erode’ is a powerful one – it suggests something insidious and invisible to the naked eye, something that ‘we’ have to be on the lookout for, so as the ensure the preservation of the natural world. Its use here has the human social construct of ‘woman’ as the natural world. I would suggest that the use of ‘predators’ immediately after this metaphor is also significant – readers may be encouraged to think about ‘predators’ in terms of the natural phenomenon of carnivorous animals preying on smaller or more vulnerable animals. Thinking in those terms rather than in terms of its typical metaphorical application to humans makes it something that will always be (thus supporting an argument premised on the inevitability of abuse).
Once again Rowling appeals to the cross-sectional nature of the people she ‘stands for’ and claims they represent a ‘vast majority’ (not just a majority) and constructs trans inclusivity in the narrow terms of not ‘wishing to retain single-sex spaces’ (which, unlike something like ‘welcoming trans women into women’s spaces’, relies on the belief that trans women are not women). Despite Rowling’s emphatic phrasing, she doesn’t cite the polls to which she refers, and in fact we know that 70% of respondents to the government’s consultation on GRA reforms supported making things easier for trans people to affirm their gender identity. [Edit 3/7/2020; thank you to Onni Gust for pointing out that the British Social Attitudes survey also found that 72% of women were very or quite comfortable with trans women using women’s toilets.] So Rowling’s rhetoric here is crucial – by suggesting that only a ‘privileged’ and lazy/uneducated minority disagree with her, the efforts of a resistant reading focus on the repudiation of privilege and lack of information rather than on the substance of Rowling’s position.
The one thing that gives me hope is that the women who can protest and organise, are doing so, and they have some truly decent men and trans people alongside them. Political parties seeking to appease the loudest voices in this debate are ignoring women’s concerns at their peril. In the UK, women are reaching out to each other across party lines, concerned about the erosion of their hard-won rights and widespread intimidation. None of the gender critical women I’ve talked to hates trans people; on the contrary. Many of them became interested in this issue in the first place out of concern for trans youth, and they’re hugely sympathetic towards trans adults who simply want to live their lives, but who’re facing a backlash for a brand of activism they don’t endorse. The supreme irony is that the attempt to silence women with the word ‘TERF’ may have pushed more young women towards radical feminism than the movement’s seen in decades.
Having claimed to be with a ‘huge majority’, Rowling attends to the lack of evidence for this by narrowing the focus to those women who are able to be visible (remember, in this climate of oppression, many people are able only to send an email to Rowling rather than to speak publicly). While women are apparently putting their other politics aside to bond as women scared of trans activists/ism, Rowling fractures the trans community into ‘trans adults who simply want to live their lives’ and activists. This paragraph has something of an invitation to it, and concludes with Rowling suggesting that trans activism ‘may have’ radicalised young feminists in great numbers. It’s ironic that as part of her claim to irony, Rowling describes ‘TERF’ as an ‘attempt to silence women’… in a lengthy essay that she, as a world-famous author, can publish on her webpage and push into the news agenda within hours.
The last thing I want to say is this. I haven’t written this essay in the hope that anybody will get out a violin for me, not even a teeny-weeny one. I’m extraordinarily fortunate; I’m a survivor, certainly not a victim. I’ve only mentioned my past because, like every other human being on this planet, I have a complex backstory, which shapes my fears, my interests and my opinions. I never forget that inner complexity when I’m creating a fictional character and I certainly never forget it when it comes to trans people.
Rowling anticipates a lack of sympathy, but that’s fine because she doesn’t want your sympathy. She has to attend to her fortune, in every sense of the word, in order to try to see off the simple retort that she is an extraordinarily rich white straight cis woman writing an essay to try to explain things she’s said about one of society’s most marginalised groups; she suggests that while she can be relied upon to see everyone’s complexity, her opponents will fail to see that in her. This compounds the thrust of the essay, which seems to be that letting trans people be is too simplistic.
All I’m asking – all I want – is for similar empathy, similar understanding, to be extended to the many millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.
‘All I’m asking’ sets up Rowling’s final line as a precis of her essay, but that is not what we’re given. While earlier trans activism had ‘demands’, Rowling is making a request, and not even a big one (‘all I’m asking’). Again we have TERFism constructed as a crime, and another rewriting of what it is that they’re doing: they just want their concerns to be heard without negative comeback!
There is nothing new here – indeed, much of what the essay does conforms to van Dijk’s notion of the ideological square, in which the positives about ‘Us’ and the negatives about ‘Them’ are emphasised while the speaker works to de-emphasise the negatives about ‘Us’ and the positives about ‘Them’. My analysis isn’t about assigning intentionality, only to highlight how the arguments appear to operate. Rowling’s argument frequently boils down to asserting that trans women are not women; more than anything the essay works to make accusations of transphobia more difficult by attending to the author’s character and, principally, motivations (as well as those of her supporters and her accusers), rather than refuting those accusations. This is perhaps at the heart its so-called thoughtfulness; further, it offers balm to those who feel wounded by being called transphobic, when their trans exclusionary views leave them without another get-out.
This analysis is dispassionate insofar as it can be, but I stand with trans people.