I’m obsessed with Harry Potter. Literally. I sleep in Harry Potter pajamas. I have a full set of Harry Potter Gryffindor robes, complete with replica wand. I have a Harry Potter lap desk in which I keep my Harry Potter quill to write cards with a real ink well, just like Harry Potter. My partner and I host a Harry Potter-inspired Potions Party each Halloween with potion cabinets that open with a magic wand and potion books full of potion recipes. I have been to both HP Wizarding Worlds, in Orlando and twice in Hollywood. Every single year since 2013, I visit the Harry Potter Studios outside of London. I have hosted Harry Potter film location tours in London for a Harry Potter running club, and I have visited over 80% of the Harry Potter filming locations in Great Britain.
Needless to say, I’m a fan.
Harry Potter filled my days with magic during a difficult, dark time, and those books inspired my own Rowan of the Wood fantasy series, written with my ex-husband.
J.K. Rowling changed my life, as she has many lives around the world.
So you might imagine my heartbreak when I read she was a “TERF,” anti-trans, and transphobic. I saw some of her tweets that certainly supported that assessment, and perhaps it’s really true. However, after reading her explanation essay today, I considered that the limitation of 280-character tweets might have caused some initial confusion.
I consider myself a truly empathetic person, so I’ll do my best to respond to Ms. Rowling’s essay with empathy and compassion, giving her the benefit of the doubt on some points, hoping beyond hope that it’s a breakdown in communication and a gap in education/understanding—coming from a place of fear and ignorance—rather than the prejudice her words appear to convey. I’d like to extend that courtesy to her here—not only for what she’s given me, but also for what she has given the world.
Please, Jo, read this essay and reconsider your rhetoric—one middle-aged woman author to another.
Cisgender White Privilege
Allow me to begin by stating and owning my privilege. I am a 50-year-old cisgender white woman with a Master’s in Literature and a job in the IT industry. I’ve written and published 11 books, working on my 12th. Although far from rich, I’m highly privileged, and I know it. I try to check that privilege often and recognize my own ignorance on so very many issues.
I am also a survivor of (more than one) sexual assault, first in the US Navy when I was 19—which occurred amidst more instances of sexual misconduct and harassment than I can count, dating back to when I was about 11 years old. Sexual violence across its spectrum is indeed an epidemic for people across the gender spectrum, but especially for women (cis and trans). I totally get being afraid of predators invading safe spaces.
I try very hard to be a good ally, and I truly know I am still learning. Mostly, I let transgender people speak for themselves rather than attempting to cissplain, this essay being the exception in hopes of reaching the woman to whom I owe so much gratitude (as well as to selfishly recover my hero if possible). It would behoove you, Jo, to also accept and acknowledge your own cisgender, white, extremely rich privilege. I think it would go a long way to getting people to hear your heart over your words.
First, I’d like to start with language.
Problematic and/or Offensive Language
Like most cisgender people of our age, you probably remember when the word for any “man in a dress” was transvestite, if the person liked dressing up as women or doing drag shows, or transsexual, if the person wanted to or was going to have a “sex change operation.” Those are all problematic words and phrases now.
I grew up in a very small Texas town about an hour north of Houston. It wasn’t a place where homosexuality (or even women) were respected. At 17, I saw Erasure in 1987, and I was shocked at Andy Bell’s outfits and flamboyancy, but not in the way you’d expect, as a girl from East Texas. I was in awe of his courage to dress like that in front of a packed audience. My best friend came out to me in tears that same year, and I reassured him it was perfectly natural. Accepted and loved him just the same, even more for his courage to tell me. Andy Bell helped prepare me. I remember going to drag shows in the early 90s with my best friend in Houston, and I loved it. I loved the performers because they weren’t like most men with their (what we now call) toxic masculinity. They were unapologetically themselves, and I adored them for it.
It was through Rocky Horror Picture Show that I learned the term “transsexual.” I didn’t know what it meant. I frankly though it was invented for the movie in all of my 18-yr-old wisdom.
Sadly, we were all very, very ignorant. I have learned just in the past 5-10 years that those words aren’t used anymore. I was also corrected by a dear friend of mine, who happens to be a transgender woman, that the term is “transgender” and not “transgendered,” with a D.
Again back to my privilege of being cisgender, I didn’t have to think about gender identity, much like I have the privilege of not thinking about racism as a white woman—because those things don’t affect my daily life the way they do for transgender people and people of color. In fact, I’ll take that a step further, I didn’t even know gender identity was a thing until about a decade ago. I bet you didn’t either, Jo.
Like I said: ignorant.
Since then, I learn what I can by listening to those who are living it and reading about their experiences, and keeping my mouth mostly shut while I do so.
This brings me to the language used by J.K. Rowling. In her tweets as well as her essay, she uses words and phrases like “biological woman” and “sex” and even “transsexual.”
Please, Jo, don’t use these old words.
In my limited understanding, it’s highly offensive for transpeople to hear about someone as a “biological” woman or man. Please instead use the term cisgender woman or cisgender man. Also please don’t refer to cisgender women as menstruators or any other words that will signify a biological/bodily difference between cisgender women and transgender women, except for the word cisgender. This word is not offensive. If you don’t intend to offend, which I really, really hope you don’t, please don’t use these offensive words.
In regard to transgender women not having the full experience of growing up as a woman, that is like so many of us being constantly afraid of rape or attack or having your drink spiked, dealing with the pain and inconvenience of menstruation, facing a misogynistic world, knowing how to walk with your keys between your fingers, etc…. you’re right, they don’t have that experience; but they do have their own experiences with prejudice and fear around their sexuality and gender identity. They have the discomfort (and maybe even horror?) of feeling like they are in the wrong body and constantly pretending. They have faced their own fears just like we have.
Please take note that Sex and Gender are two different things. Please don’t use them interchangeably, Jo.
As a writer, you know the importance of words and language.
SEX regards what’s assigned at birth based on chromosomes and visible genitalia. While gender is on a spectrum based on a person’s psychological sense of identity. AFAIK, no one is trying to erase the female sex, or even the female gender for that matter. If you were assigned female as your sex at birth and identify as a woman, then you are cisgender. If you were assigned male as your sex at birth and identify as a woman, then you are transgender. Then there are nonbinary and gender fluid people, as well as others I’m still too uninformed to understand on the gender spectrum.
In regard to “transsexual,” as you mention in your essay, please don’t use that word at all. The same goes for “transvestite,” unless that individual specifically defines themselves by one of those words, which in re-reading your essay, I see that your transsexual friend describes herself with that word.
This is the entire point of asking someone their pronouns, so they can tell us who they are! Who are we to tell them they aren’t? They certainly know themselves better than we know them, since they live in their skin. We don’t, so it’s best for us to believe them when they tell us who they are.
I’m sure you’ve already read it, but please allow me to point to Daniel Radcliffe’s highly intelligent and articulate essay. He and Emma never cease to amaze and impress me, a sentiment I suspect we share.
Invading Safe Spaces
I get the fear here. I really do. You describe your hypervigilance and exaggerated startle response in your essay, and I recognize that as a survivor with Complex PTSD myself. I am so sorry those horrible men assaulted you. I’m so sorry you still have to live with that. You are not alone.
I am afraid of people, but I’m mostly afraid of men. Cisgender men.
I will not be alone with a man no matter who he is, other than my safe partner, because men don’t wear the word “rapist” or “predator” across their foreheads. I know from experience that men can do whatever they want behind closed doors and no one will believe me. In fact, I will be the one questioned, blamed, shamed, and dismissed while their lives will continue without even being questioned, let alone held accountable for their crimes.
I have absolutely no problem being alone in a room with a transgender woman because a transgender woman is a woman.
The truth about predators is that they will always go wherever they can offend. Period. They do infiltrate safe spaces, and that might be a women’s restroom, but it’s also men’s restrooms, churches, scout troops, feminist groups, spiritual groups, yoga classes, and activist groups, just to name a few. They will pose as your feminist boyfriend or ally. They will be your college professor. They will be oh-so-very spiritual. They will infiltrate all sorts of trusted, safe positions because your trust is what they want.
They will do whatever they need to do in order to commit their crimes. A man might don a dress and pretend to be trans in order to offend, just like they don police uniforms or priest habits or scout uniforms. Keeping transgender women out of women’s restrooms won’t change that. It’s one of many, many, many, many, many places a predator might go, but I’m not willing to keep an entire group of people out of a place they might feel safe because a predator might decide that’s their best tactic. If that was the case, we wouldn’t be part of any club, church, social group, or anyplace people gather.
Predators go where they can offend, and we cannot predict where that will be.
Let’s not punish transgender women for that horrific fact, because they are as often victims of sexual violence as cis women. Think how much more danger they would be in by being forced into the men’s restroom. Even in the women’s restroom, they are in more danger than cisgender women.
Transgender women are women, so welcome them into women’s safe spaces.
Especially since over 85% of sexual violence is perpetrated by someone we know, not a stranger in a bush or a bathroom. While of course stranger rape and assaults happen, the biggest risk is from (cisgender) men we know and trust.
In short, it’s such a small, small, small chance of a cisgender male predator disguising himself as a transgender woman to perpetrate sexual violence in a woman’s bathroom, that it’s unreasonable to eject a complete, already-marginalized group of people due to this small chance. Frankly, predators will more likely seek to offend in a place where they are trusted, not questioned.
Young People Questioning Their Identity
I must truly admit my ignorance here. Jo, you cite studies and state that teenagers are transitioning in formative years only to realize they’re really cisgender after it’s too late. I find this hard to believe, and I hear this is a big fear in the UK specifically. Perhaps it’s different in the UK, but in the USA, no teenager can get a body-altering surgery before 18, as far as I know. Not a nose job. Not breast implants, and not gender confirmation surgery (a term I learned just today while writing this). It’s no longer known as gender reassignment surgery, because our language changes and becomes more sophisticated as our understanding as a culture changes. The same thing is happening with language around sexual violence. It might seem hard to keep up with the language changes, especially in our cisgender privilege of not having to deal with it every single day, so if we make a mistake and use the wrong words, we apologize, admit our mistake, own our privilege, and make amends.
Jo, you cite some young girls leaning towards transitioning to boys out of fear of facing this misogynistic world as a woman. While I can understand that—and agree that it’s even scarier now with social media, internet videos/pictures, incels, the saturation of porn, and predators everywhere, on and offline—a cis woman’s life is a trip to Disneyland (or Harry Potter’s Wizarding World) compared to that of a transgender person in terms of the danger and violence and hatred of the world.
A dear friend of mine, who moved back to Europe after Brexit, has a lovely daughter. Her daughter and I bonded over Harry Potter, and we all visited a filming location in Yorkshire together before they moved. She quizzed me on Harry Potter trivia on the drive, and I held my own! They’ve both stayed in touch on Facebook and Instagram, and I love watching her daughter grow into a young woman. No longer the girl I new of 10. She’s now 14 and she’s been exploring who she is. Currently, she’s very chic goth, and I’m quite jealous of her clothes!
One of the things she considered while discovering herself, was that she might be transgender or gender fluid. Her mother was mortified, feeling that the current cultural discussion around transgender people were putting ideas in her head. Jo, I’ll tell you the same thing I told my friend:
She’s discovering who she is. She’s trying on different things to see what fits her. Isn’t it wonderful that she has this as an option to consider, to see if this is who she is. If it is who she is, then the world is in the best place in history for her to be a transgender man. If she finds it’s not who she is, she’s not going to choose it to be trendy. It doesn’t work like that. I can’t imagine anyone choosing a transgender life, with all the hatred and prejudice this world has for transgender people, not to mention the invasive surgery to make their body feel like it’s theirs. For someone to face that and go through all of that, it’s because it is who they really are. It’s because anything else would be a lie.
Thankfully my friend listened to me. Her daughter discovered in her exploration of her sexuality and gender identity, that it wasn’t who she was. She is cisgender, and now she’s a cisgender goth. 🙂
Coming to a Close
Since this is getting very, very long, I’m going to stop here for now.
I’ll leave you with this, Jo. I read your essay, and I saw kindness and compassion in it. I saw a woman who wants to be a friend to people of all orientations and gender identities. To adults and to children. I also saw confusion/ignorance, “old” language, problematic semantics, and a survivor of sexual violence still experiencing PTSD who is justifiably afraid—all mixed up with a huge amount of privilege, which we both have.
Maybe I saw those things because I wanted to see them, because of what you’ve meant to me. Because of what Harry Potter still means to me. Maybe you really believe exactly what you say, and if that’s the case, I will be heartbroken, but I will accept that reality.
But maybe, just maybe, your semantics are based in ignorance and fear, clouding a kind, compassionate heart. If that’s the case, please correct your language, admit your ignorance, face your fears, and place them in their rightful place—at the feet of cisgender men.
May we all find peace.