Life

J.K. Rowling and the Echo Chamber of TERFs

The once-visionary author has lost her way in a demented forest of misinformation and fear—particularly of the autonomy of trans men.

Black-and-white photo of J.K. Rowling.
J.K. Rowling in London in 2018. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

On Wednesday, youth novelist J.K. Rowling released an essay detailing her  beliefs about transgender people and her criticisms of the trans rights movement. These opinions will come as no surprise to anyone aware of Rowling’s tweeted support for Maya Forstater (a British woman who claimed that the right to misgender trans people was so absolute that an employer could not take it into account when deciding whether to renew a yearly contract and ultimately lost her case in court). However, the essay provides an illuminating account of the author’s fears and misconceptions about trans people, as well as a partial and self-serving history of her radicalization in this area. For those who wonder why Rowling would traipse down this path at all rather than stay quiet and count her Harry Potter money, her story provides a window into the creeping progress of hateful, transphobic sentiments that have become mainstream in the U.K. over the past few years.

Much of the essay is taken up with complaints about trans activists calling Rowling names online. One of these names is “TERF,” or trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Rowling, in the first of many inaccurate claims, says that the term was coined by trans activists. (In fact, it was coined by a cisgender radical feminist to be a neutral descriptor). Rowling goes on to claim that “[TERFs] aren’t even trans-exclusionary—they include trans men in their feminism, because they were born women.”

It’s worth pausing to linger on this. Rowling isn’t claiming to be a TERF or to speak for TERFs; but she finds this defense—that trans men are included in TERF feminism by virtue of being misgendered and disbelieved—persuasive enough to be worth passing on to her readers. Where could she have gotten this from? Certainly not from trans men, who by definition aren’t interested in being included by a group of women who refuse to see them as they are. On the contrary, it’s the kind of thing that only a person who has spent a whole lot of time around people who talk about trans people while excluding trans voices from the discussion could find persuasive. These would have to be some sort of trans-excluding people who also consider themselves to be standing up for women’s rights …

OK, fine, I’ll say it: Rowling must be spending her time in a TERF echo chamber for TERFs. That’s the only reason I can imagine for something as absurd as trans men aren’t being excluded because they’re women too to make it into an essay she thinks will help explain herself to the broader public. While Rowling may not wish to be thought of as a TERF, at this point, we are obliged to know her by the company she keeps.

As the essay continues, Rowling briefly, and vaguely, speaks of trans activism having an effect on women and children’s charities by “pushing to erode the legal definition of sex and replace it with gender.” She does not detail what these effects will be, or even explicitly say they will be negative—there’s innuendo and hand-waving, but no substance. Even more briefly, she suggests that her writing this has something to do with freedom of speech. Then, she begins to write about trans men. And boy, does she ever write a lot about trans men.

To say that J. K. Rowling is obsessed with trans men may sound like an overstatement, but consider that she spends more time on fears about women mistakenly transitioning and becoming trans men than any other single topic in her essay. She begins this section on trans men by saying that this is where things begin to get truly personal for her, and later, somewhat plaintively, tells us: “I didn’t have a realistic possibility of becoming a man back in the 1980s.” In total, she devotes more than 1,200 words—about a third of the essay—to these fears she has about trans men.

Rowling believes that women are erroneously transitioning because being a woman is hard. She does not offer any evidence that being a trans man is easier than being a woman, or that people are regretting transiting to men in large numbers, though she does speculate that she might have transitioned if she’d been born 30 years later. She also mentions that the number of trans masculine youth being seen at gender clinics has expanded dramatically (this is true, and there are many reasons why it might be so) and claims a huge percentage of gender dysphoric teens grow out of their dysphoria. This last one is, flatly, false. Although Rowling gives no citations, the closest thing she could be referring to are a handful of dated desistance studies, where the majority of cases seen were young gender-nonconforming boys who matured into gay men (ironically, those studies showed that the minority of female-assigned children seen were far less likely to desist). The diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria have been updated since that time, and clinics have improved and are still improving in their ability to distinguish gender nonconformity from transgender identity.

We know that Rowling’s ideas about trans men are not based in a careful examination of the research, because the research we have, though spotty and admittedly insufficient, tends to lead toward the conclusion that desistance rates are reducing, and female-assigned youth are less likely to desist than male-assigned youth are. So where does this fear that young women are falsely identifying as trans men in large numbers and will one day be filled with regret come from? Simply put: It comes from the sexist beliefs reverberating in the TERF echo chambers that Rowling seems to have immersed herself in.

TERFs believe that trans men are women, that they are victims of trans ideology, and that any day now a cleansing wave of detransitioning trans men will sweep through the population. Rather than giving women the agency or the ability to know their own minds, they explain trans men by relying on a narrative of victimhood that resonates with the victimhood they feel all women experience at the hands of men and trans women. Not only are women not safe in sharing bathrooms with trans women, they can’t even be safe from trans women’s influence over their own minds.

The idea that young female-assigned people are uniquely vulnerable, easily led, and unable to know or speak for themselves is, of course, classically sexist. Rowling has internalized this sexist lens to the point where she even believes that she, herself, might have mistakenly pursued transition if she’d been born a few decades later.

It is unacceptable for us to be painted as victims led astray by trans ideology in this way. Trans men are autonomous individuals who make choices and decisions. Trans men can speak for ourselves, and we’re telling you: We are men. We are not women. We don’t need people who hate and demean us to tell us what’s good for us because they think we’re women and women can’t think for themselves. If Rowling’s picture of trans men was allowed to become the dominant understanding, it would not only remove trans men’s ability to speak for ourselves but erode the rights of women and girls to determine their own destinies—the very rights that Rowling believes she’s fighting for. If women can be trusted to think and make decisions for themselves, then they’re simply not at widespread risk of mistakenly becoming trans men—and anyone who makes such a mistake has done so honestly and of their own accord. To believe otherwise is incompatible not only with trans rights but with feminism, advocacy for women, and women’s rights as well.

“Trying to Change Someone Like Larry Kramer Could Take Your Entire Life”

Bryan Lowder, Christina Cauterucci, and Rumaan Alam discuss the complicated lessons of Larry Kramer’s activism with ACT UP historian Sarah Schulman on Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ podcast.