Just one day after hundreds of New York Times contributors beseeched the paper in an open letter to examine the editorial bias in its often fearmongering coverage of transgender people, the Times Opinion Desk printed a column “in defense of J.K. Rowling.” It’s by—who else?—Pamela Paul.
The piece argues that the Harry Potter author, who has in recent years publicly advocated against trans-inclusive policies, is not the transphobe her critics make her out to be, and that it “is as dangerous as it is absurd” to call her one.
It is truly impeccable timing—not to mention, a classic entry in the recent Paul oeuvre: a familiar rehashing of hand-wringing gripes and grievances that have been laid out a zillion times before by the coterie of other contemporary writers who share her particular set of preoccupations (trans people, cultural appropriation, “speech” on campus, cancel culture, the excesses of #MeToo). There’s been so much of this already, it’s hard to believe she’s been a columnist for less than a year!
In her latest piece, Paul, the former editor of the New York Times Book Review, warns that campaigns to boycott Rowling’s intellectual property—including a recently released Hogwarts-themed video game—are not only misguided but dangerous, akin to the fatwa that may have inspired last year’s stabbing of Salman Rushdie. Calling J.K. Rowling a transphobe amounts to unfair “demonization,” Paul argues, because the author has allowed that “trans people need and deserve protection,” and has written, “I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them.”
To be clear, Rowling has not made these statements in the context of advocating on behalf of transgender rights and protections. They were perfunctory caveats, sprinkled in a sea of tweets and manifestoes that have consistently questioned the validity of trans identity, endorsed the view that trans women are predatory men in disguise, and promoted the exclusion of trans people from public spaces and services that match their respective genders.
Rowling has used the term “intact males” to describe trans women who have not undergone gender affirmation procedures. She has suggested without evidence that trans women “retain male patterns of criminality,” making them likelier than cisgender women to physically or sexually assault someone in a women’s locker room or shelter. She has stoked fear that “rapid onset gender dysphoria” has seized our youth, implying that trans identity is a fad brought on by left-wing indoctrination. And she has cynically trivialized the struggle of gender dysphoria, musing that, if given the opportunity, she, too, might have transitioned as a teenager for “the allure of escaping womanhood,” but the refuge of books and music had sufficed. (If books and music did the trick, perhaps it wasn’t gender dysphoria, after all!)
In the established pattern of today’s anti-transgender movement, Rowling rarely mentions adult trans men, because to do that would radically destabilize her arguments. (Would cis women who have survived sexual abuse feel safer with trans men—men!—in their changing rooms and rape crisis centers?) The kind of trans person Rowling supports—and the only type of person she is referring to when she says “trans person,” as opposed to “intact male” or a “man who says they identify as a woman”—is one who undergoes “a long and rigorous process of evaluation, psychotherapy and staged transformation,” with plenty of “medical gatekeeping” along the way.
And yet, Paul argues, “nothing Rowling has said qualifies as transphobic.”
The issue, here, is the definition of transphobia, which Paul is whittling and contorting to her own ideological ends. If transphobia does not apply to someone who would exile trans women in need from shelters and crisis centers that could support them; who believes that there are simply too many transgender children these days, and who would consign trans youth to distress and dysphoria rather than offering treatment that will allow them to pursue safer, happier lives; who believes a handful of vocal detransitioners to be more trustworthy than actual transgender people, such that public policy and social structures should be built according to the notion that every trans person is a detransitioner-in-waiting; who considers trans women inherently deceptive, conniving, and dangerous; and who has built her entire public political persona around casting suspicion on transgender people and the argument that their needs are mutually exclusive to those of cis women and girls—to whom, exactly, should it apply?
Paul wants it to apply only to those who would commit anti-trans violence and to the extreme right-wing legislators who are trying to outlaw transgender health care. (Banning trans health care for adults is transphobic; banning it for teens and making it extremely difficult, mentally taxing, and time-consuming to obtain for adults is reasonable—see the distinction?)
But whether transphobia is nakedly hateful or cloaked in concern and caveats, if it is levied in support of efforts to keep transgender people pathologized, mistrusted, and marginalized, it is a loathsome pursuit that does not deserve our sympathetic consideration.
That this column came the day after the open letter that implored the paper to improve its coverage shows how deeply the leaders at the institution want to appear to eschew progressive bias and hear “both sides” on the issue of trans lives, even as its coverage is already bent heavily toward the side of Rowling and Paul. So committed were they to this mission that they didn’t think it right to postpone the column for a single day after the letter, lest they appear cowed to what Paul calls the “gender orthodoxies” of the moment.
Of course, Paul writes for the Opinion section, which is supposedly walled off from the newsroom. Still, her long, passionate invective on the rights of J.K. Rowling to not get called names that J.K. Rowling doesn’t want to be called—timed to a J.K. Rowling podcast being produced by the media company started by Bari Weiss, another former Times opinion columnist—is of a piece with a through-line in the paper’s reported coverage. So much of that reporting focuses on the stresses and terrors of aggrieved members of society who perceive LGBTQ indoctrination around every corner, but especially in schools and the medical community. It is not that the paper refuses to report on the breakneck political assault on trans people fueled by the likes of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and other Republican leaders, but that it ends up promoting the same exact “we’re just concerned about children” framing that those politicians use to dress their agenda in a veneer of respectability.
Paul would like us to think Rowling brave, and a victim, for enduring the doxing and death threats that have come her way in response to her campaign for trans skepticism. Doxing and death threats are obviously wrong. But a person’s crusade does not automatically grow in righteousness in direct proportion to the number of threats she receives. Sometimes, when a group of people use a word with negative connotations to describe a prominent person, prompting others to distance themselves from her work or her views, it’s not bullying, or a witch hunt. It could just be a rational, sensible response.
Correction, Feb. 17, 2023: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article listed Bari Weiss as producer of a J.K. Rowling podcast. She is not a producer of the podcast; her media company is.