At a glance, the Harry Potter series would appear to be in a healthy place. The lucrative Wizarding World franchise has a third Fantastic Beasts film coming, a TBS game show, an ongoing Broadway play, two theme parks, a potential live-action streaming series, and, most notably to gamers, a highly-anticipated return to the AAA gaming world with Avalanche Software's Hogwarts Legacy.
However, the franchise has, sadly, remained in the ever-present shadow of a larger conversation: creator JK Rowling's public support of anti-transgender rhetoric, as well as her support for the people and groups that spread it, all expressed on social media, her website, and in her activism. This has not been an isolated incident, but a continued stance for Rowling dating all the way back to 2018 and continuing into March 2022--at the time of writing--when she tweeted out misinformation around an upcoming vote in Scotland on gender identification issues, among numerous other tweets targeted at trans people.
While the conversation around trans issues may not directly affect most outside of the trans community, Rowling doubling down on trans issues has forced the topic to the forefront of many people's minds when it comes to the ongoing Harry Potter franchise. It has required many of us to think about whether we can still support the Harry Potter franchise in light of Rowling's discriminatory words and actions. What does supporting Rowling even mean? Furthermore, is supporting the Harry Potter franchise, which has grown beyond books written by a single author, still worthwhile given there are writers, producers, filmmakers, and developers who also contribute to the franchise, and many of them directly oppose Rowling's positions? Some of you may also be questioning if Rowling's words are harmful at all, given the intense politicization and seeming contradictory information being discussed around trans issues.
That's what I want to unpack, as much as I can. The goal of this article is not to provide a complete timeline of everything Rowling has ever said about trans people, but to touch upon some of the most important notes in Rowling's connection to these issues, as well as provide the larger context around transgender rights that Rowling's words sit within--specifically in the United States and the United Kingdom, and to investigate what all this means for those of us still excited for Harry Potter works like Hogwarts Legacy. The objective is not to provide you with an answer about how to feel, but to give you the tools needed to consider the questions yourself. There are no easy answers to be found here, outside of the necessity to support and protect those most vulnerable to harm.
The course of the discourse
Rowling's words have garnered her the support of "gender critical feminists" (GCF)*, who are sometimes known as "trans-exclusionary radical feminists" or TERFs. GCFs are a small but vocal movement defined by their opposition to what they term as "gender ideology," the denial of trans and nonbinary people's identities, opposition to legislation supporting trans people, and arguing that trans women, in particular, are simply men coopting womanhood in order to invade "women-only spaces" such as bathrooms, leading to what they believe is the erosion of cisgender** women's safety and rights. However, GCF's actions are not only misinformed about trans issues, but they also wield misinformation and rhetoric with an explicitly vitriolic and damaging intention, and do so towards the entire trans community, which itself is considered to be one of the most marginalized communities right now.
Given the complexity inherent within discussing gender issues and the misinformation spread about the transgender community, coupled with the current politicized discourse surrounding trans issues and attacks on trans rights within the United States, United Kingdom, and around the world, the discourse surrounding GCF and Rowling has often remained intensely polarized and opaque to the greater public. If Rowling's sentiments on trans people are brought up, people outside of the trans community can find themselves unsure how to explain why her words are harmful--with some arguing that Rowling is only "defending women" or "raising questions" about transgender issues, inadvertently downplaying the very real negative impact they have.
The intricacy within these conversations is often to the benefit of those spreading misinformation, as the complexities can be used to prevent an overt defense of or basic discussions surrounding the marginalized trans community. People instead are forced to sift through the rhetoric, as well as weed out misinformation, before being able to genuinely engage with the issues and feel able to commit to a viewpoint. This may be where most of you currently reading this find yourself in the discussion on transgender issues: unsure of what to believe or how best to approach these topics out of concern over what is correct. Or, potentially, given the politicized discourse surrounding these topics fueled by fear-mongering misinformation, someone may even find themselves actively hostile towards trans rights discussions, believing trans issues to be directly at odds with wider women's rights or even children's safety. Ironically, while Rowling's statements have been controversial in their platforming of much of this misinformation, they also provide a unique starting point to begin cutting through the discourse.
Gender critical feminists
After several months of more indirect hints of anti-trans views, in June 2020 Rowling published an essay that directly reflected prevailing views and arguments of the gender-critical movement, thus garnering her a reputation as an anti-transgender influence. While the essay contained numerous misinformative statements that have been thoroughly debunked, there are a few noteworthy topics.
First and foremost, Rowling pointed toward the concept of "rapid onset gender dysphoria" (ROGD), which postulates that there has been a sudden influx in young girls suddenly identifying as transgender, seeing it as fashionable due to trans influencers on social media or in popular culture. This is a theory given scientific backing from a research study by controversial former Brown University assistant professor Lisa Litman. However, Litman's research methods (such as only surveying parents from online forums already explicitly concerned with rapid onset gender dysphoria) were immediately questioned by fellow researchers upon publication. While ROGD has been credibly debunked in numerous studies after the fact, many prominent GCFs continually cite Litman's work, such as in the 2020 book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters by Abigail Shrier.
Shrier's book, alongside Rowling's essay and other GCFs discourse, use ROGD to inform their next concern: the detransitioner narrative. The argument is that many young girls who experience ROGD will pursue surgical intervention, such as breast reductions, only to later learn they are not transgender and regret making irreversible changes to their body, leading to depression or even suicidal thoughts. While this can happen, it is not common. First, children are rarely if ever given surgeries until they are of the age to consent, typically 18 or older, and often these surgeries require doctor and therapist authorization and one year of consideration before being performed. Most children below the age of consent are typically given access to a therapist or, if they are near puberty, sometimes prescribed safe puberty-blocking drugs with their doctor's oversight that simply delay their puberty long enough for them to consider if surgery is the right path for them. Additionally, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that only 0.4% of trans people detransitioned due to believing transition wasn't right for them, with most never having had surgical intervention; several other studies have found similar results. In fact, most detransitions were due to trans people facing discrimination, not a lack of desire to transition. While work should be done to prevent transition regret, doing so would require better and more knowledgeable gender-affirming care so doctors can better assess the correct path for trans patients. Indeed, this would also help the over 90% of trans people who find their lives improved both mentally and physically after transitioning. Many GCFs disingenuously frame detransitions as the most important issue in trans-related health care, presenting it as active and intentional child abuse, and using it to justify the removal of all access to trans health care.
While GCFs will often publicly state they only believe "some" trans women will target cisgender women, their language implicates all trans women, often only discussing trans women in such contexts. It subtly frames all trans women as sexual predators and nothing else.
While these narratives mainly dealt with adolescent children assigned female at birth, Rowling and GCFs also focused on a different framing of transgender women: those assigned male at birth. In her essay, Rowling argued,"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."The argument made by Rowling and GCFs is that trans women, who they continually frame and misgender as "men appropriating womanhood," will use their status of being seen as women in order to "invade" women's spaces such as restrooms or women's prisons in order to assault and harass cisgender women.
GCFs also argue that trans women attempt to pressure lesbians into having sex with them. A BBC article citing a gender-critical organization presented this as widespread, despite the fact that the study on which it was based was only able to conclude "ultimately, it has been difficult to determine the true scale of the problem…" Despite that, the article framed the topic entirely around trans women's potential to sexually assault cisgender lesbians. The article itself led to widespread outcry against the BBC, including a protest led by trans activists.
While GCFs will often publicly state they only believe "some" trans women will target cisgender women, their language implicates all trans women, often only discussing trans women in such contexts. It subtly frames all trans women as sexual predators and nothing else.
The power of rhetoric
While there are many more arguments used by GCFs, these narratives highlighted and spread by Rowling herself underscore the two biggest themes in all discourse surrounding trans people from these groups: that transgender childen, specifically "young girls," are victims of child abuse and trans women are simply male sexual predators. On top of that, they also often ignore nonbinary identities, simply referring to nonbinary people based on their assigned birth genders. While these narratives have the effect of infantilizing and ignoring the agency of transgender men in their own health care, the ramifications for transgender women are often directly dangerous.
GCFs often spread misinformation about trans women not because they're actively aware it's misinformation, but because they genuinely believe it to be true. Many GCFs, who are often women, will cite a traumatic history with misogyny or even sexual assault. Rowling herself includes a story in her essay about having faced abuse by an ex-husband. You'd be hard-pressed to find any woman, trans or otherwise, who has not felt the worry of harassment or assault in our world today. Many GCFs are parents worried about their transgender children and fall into these spaces seeking support and affirmation that their child isn't really transgender. Then, by connecting their histories of trauma or parental worries with seeing trans women as sexual predators and child abusers, it creates an emotionally powerful desire to lash out against trans women, who they see as directly causing harm.
This is reinforced further by the tendency of gender-critical groups to form deeply insular communities and echo chambers in online spaces and in groups like the LGB Alliance. Reporter Caelon Conrad infiltrated these communities to study how they often create cult-like spaces, often continually ramping up their rhetoric against trans women to vitriolic levels, and continually focusing on trans people as their largest concern. Rowling herself showcases this exact radicalization pipeline, with her tweets continually becoming more and more focused upon transgender issues to the exclusion of much else.
Eventually, this hyperbolic echo chamber leads to real-world ramifications. Individually, GCFs will frequently harass and attack trans women online and in real life. For example, one trans woman at an anti-trans LGB Alliance conference was harassed, called a "mentally ill pervert," and physically surrounded just for being in that space. GCF Maya Forstater was accused of, among other things, harassing and misgendering trans people in her workplace Slack, leading to her not being rehired and a subsequent appeals case that became a rallying call for GCFs including Rowling herself. Further, many prominent GCFs have worked to doxx trans people and our allies, many of whom were platformed by Rowling herself.
However, the problem escalated to a political stage. The LGB Alliance successfully campaigned for the removal of LGBTQ workplace group Stonewall from the BBC, hurting not only trans protections but protections for gay, lesbian, and bisexual folks as well. GCF groups helped to fund a UK court case, Tavistock v Bell, that led to the denial of access to puberty blockers and gender-affirming care for trans kids. Rowling and other GCFs have continually campaigned against gender-affirming laws in both the US and the UK if they also protect trans people, such as the Women's Liberation Front (WoLF) sending a brief to the US Supreme Court arguing against workplace protections for trans women, that if removed would also erode workplace protections for all women. Further, several guidelines attempted to be enacted in the US and the UK would require gender certificates, which are often hard to acquire, for trans people to use a public restroom. That would make many trans people feel unwelcome in public spaces, as well as cause many cisgender but more masculine or butch-presenting women to also face the same ire as their transgender counterparts, despite not being the target of the ire.
This rhetoric caused by the echo chamber can become so heightened that it can lead to literal death threats, or worse. In 2018, Australian GCF Shelia Jeffrey described trans women to UK parliament as "parasites," language that frames trans people as subhuman. One of the UK's most prominent gender-critical voices, Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull (who goes by the alias Posie Parker), called for men with guns to enter women's bathrooms to protect cisgender women from trans people. One gender-critical feminist who was platformed by the BBC, Lily Cade, even went on to call for the lynching of all trans women. The stakes for GCFs have been made so high that they will lash out at anything that appears to support trans people, regardless of the collateral damage that may hurt broader women and LGBTQ rights as well.
Unfortunately, this hyperbolic heightening of gender-critical rhetoric and attacks is intentionally stoked and weaponized by broader right-wing movements to justify attacks not only against trans people, but other marginalized groups as well. For example, the Heritage Foundation, which has campaigned against abortion rights for women in the United States, platformed several gender-critical feminists in 2019. Fox News has also done the same. Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch himself championed gender-critical feminists in the UK and US. Similarly, the Heritage Foundation and US-based evangelical-right legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom, which has a long record of opposing women's and LGBT rights, had strong ties to the Bell v Tavistock case in the UK. JK Rowling in March 2022 tweeted support for Caroline Farrow, the director of CitzenGo, which campaigns not only against trans rights, but gay marriage and abortion rights as well. Anti-transgender bills have cropped up around the US that use rhetoric similar to those originating in gender-critical spaces, such as the recently proposed Texas and Idaho laws that labeled parents seeking trans-affirming care for their children as "child abusers" and even threaten felony charges, despite seeking informed medical care for one's child being the direct opposite of child abuse. Even more dangerously, Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene recently called for violence against trans people, citing gender-critical rhetoric as justification. The alt-right terrorist group The Proud Boys have fought alongside GCFs at rallies against trans people, leading to the stabbing of several people.
The reason gender-critical rhetoric has proved so effective by right-wing groups is that it frames the discussions as trans women versus women, utilizing the language of these movements to promote division to bolster their arguments. This is a long-standing tactic of weaponizing internal divisions inside feminist movements to support continued marginalization. White suffragettes in the 1800s of the United States were often supported by white supremacists seeking to perpetuate slavery, framing white women's right to vote as endangered by black women's enfranchisement. Many white suffragettes would even deny that black women were even really women--rhetoric all too familiar to many trans women today. Further, this link between racism and gender-critical rhetoric still exists, exemplified by gender-critical feminists holding "I <3 JK Rowling'' banners clashing with Black Lives Matter protesters during the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020. Some gender-critical groups also wield anti-Semitic rhetoric and conspiracy theories as well, further tying them to white nationalist movements.
By framing trans people as a danger to women's rights, right-wing movements create a moral panic that asks you to "think of the children" or worry about dangerous "child groomers," echoing prevailing homophobic narratives of the 1980s and '90s, that justifies political and physical violence.
All this is done in hopes of bolstering right-wing movements. In an article in The Guardian, famed philosopher Judith Butler pointed to numerous fascist and totalitarian movements around the world, such as in Poland and Germany, citing gender-critical arguments to support their politics. If you want to learn more about this form of radicalization and co-opting of gender-critical rhetoric by the right-wing, I did a long-form analysis of it on my YouTube channel.
The false frame
This framing of trans women versus women is a false one. While GCFs may believe that trans women are just men who cannot understand womanhood, the opposite is true. The conversation surrounding what it means to be a woman and trans women's access to it is a complex one that I encourage you to further investigate with videos like these, the most overt way GCFs deny trans women's womanhood is to argue that trans women can never face the same levels of misogyny that cisgender women face.
Yet, this is categorically false. While one's womanhood shouldn't be defined solely through the oppression one faces, trans women often face similar assaults to our safety. Trans women are four times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime and often face discrimination in health care and housing. Numerous studies have found that one in three trans people are victims of sexual assault and up to 50% have faced domestic abuse. Even more concerningly, transgender women of color continue to be one of the most at-risk groups for being victims of violence or murder.
These issues are not unrelated to the same systems that cisgender women like Rowling face, but are instead directly related. The whole intent of gender-critical rhetoric is to frame the issue as trans people versus women, positioning misogyny as the singular concern that women face, without recognizing the intersection of how trans women face both transphobia and misogyny, and that the latter presents itself differently from how a cis white woman would experience the same thing. This isn't to say that the misogyny that Rowling and other GCFs like her have faced isn't legitimate or shouldn't be fought against, but it's important to recognize that trans people, like myself, have also been sexually assaulted, face higher degrees of assault in general, and also have added transphobic harassment and attacks on our rights and physical bodies for being trans. The framing shouldn't be "trans women versus women," but how all women--trans and cis--should come together to push back against the same marginalization that affects us all.
Another issue inherent with this framing was also highlighted by the BBC. When criticized by the trans community for its aforementioned article as well as accusations that the study did not meet the BBC's own guidelines about using surveys as sources for claims in coverage, as it is self-selected, the BBC compared the situation to flat-Earthers, arguing that "...it might be appropriate to interview a flat earther. And if a lot of people believed in flat Earth we'd need to address it more."The issue here is that flat Earth is a clear bunk conspiracy theory, so to place it alongside actual scientific evidence frames both as equally legitimate. It's this very approach that contributed to the growing popularity of the flat Earth movement--if everyone knows the sky is blue but a few argue it's red, you don't give both sides a platform or argue that the sky is purple to appease everyone. The same goes for GCFs. By consistently platforming GCFs in opposition to trans people, it frames them as having equally valid views of trans issues, despite the proven harm and misinformation GCFs push.
Sadly, however, while many cisgender women and LGBTQ people stand in allyship with trans people, GCFs like Rowling find themselves further radicalized into their beliefs, utilizing their platforms for continued hatred and bigotry towards the transgender community. While their vitriol often stems from an understandable but unfortunate intersection of trauma, fear, and misinformation, the way it has been weaponized and wielded by not only themselves, but by larger totalitarian movements, sadly makes their harm inexcusable. GCFs may be a direct threat to trans people, but their actions damage us all.
Returning to Hogwarts
I'm sure most of you are wondering why all this dry information about trans people is appearing on a gaming website of all places. Certainly, while transgender issues are topical around the world, it's a subject, along with many others in our anxiety-filled world, that many people try to escape from, with games being a primary outlet to do so. Yet, while many of our peers can ignore it without personal consequence, for many transgender people, it's a conversation we can't avoid.
I'm a nerd first and foremost, and gaming is one of my biggest passions. Yet, as a trans person, I've been forced to learn everything you see in this article. The above isn't the product of research that I did specifically for this article; it was research I had done over the course of the past few years for my own safety. The constant stream of misinformation and targeted attacks on the trans community force me, and many in the trans community, to constantly be ready to research, understand and push back against narratives used against us. Honestly, I wish I never had to learn a single part of any of this, that my time and energy could remain focused solely on being a giant nerd. That so much must be said just to deconstruct the narratives surrounding trans people is continually exhausting and demanding.
It cannot be ignored that JK Rowling has placed herself at the head of this active hate and discriminatory movement, to the point that her name has become synonymous with anti-trans hate. Gender-critical groups have paid for "I <3 JK Rowling" ads to be displayed in Canada, used to dog-whistle support for anti-trans movements and to make trans people feel uncomfortable in public spaces nearby. One of the people who put the signs up was unsurprisingly arrested for being antagonistic to trans people and attempting to punch someone. I have seen numerous comments on my work for GameSpot and elsewhere be targeted by transphobes with statements of "I stand with JK Rowling'' alongside active misgendering, transphobic language, and hate directed at me and trans people in general--all used to give plausible deniability that they were "just standing up for an author" or "defending the rights of women," apparently ignoring the irony that they were actively attacking a writer and a woman in the process. This occurs to many public-facing trans women. Rowling, along with many other celebrities who face backlash, has wielded cancel culture narratives to dismiss trans people and our allies (who have legitimate criticisms and grievances against their rhetoric) as merely being misogynistic harassers. While Rowling has received said harassment, and that is categorically wrong, it should not be used as an excuse to dismiss all criticisms of Rowling's statements. Two wrongs, especially when one of them has vastly larger implications for a whole community, don't make a right. It also ignores how trans people themselves are more likely to be victims of harassment both online and off, often with less emotional, physical, and financial support than Rowling has to push back against it.
All of this finally brings us back to the Harry Potter franchise and Hogwarts Legacy. Rowling is not directly involved in the game, and although WB Interactive's president failed to condemn Rowling's words, the developers inside the company have worked to let you create a transgender character in the game. However, it's still difficult for any trans person to look at any element of the Harry Potter franchise and not see the harm that continues to be perpetuated by the woman who created it. I used to adore listening to Harry Potter audiobooks as comfort, but now I can't turn them on without being reminded of a woman who has actively argued against the reality of my existence and championed harm towards my community.
There is nothing at all wrong with having a desire to play Hogwarts Legacy; it looks to be a passion project finally delivering the wizarding RPG many, including myself, would have been clamoring for just a few short years ago. There are some who argue that Harry Potter can be decoupled from Rowling. There even seems to be a push within the franchise to lock Rowling out of her own legacy, exemplified by her lack of appearance in the recent HBO Max reunion special. Some even point to authors like horror icon HP Lovecraft, whose work has entered literary canon and gone on to inspire hundreds of works despite Lovecraft's undeniable history of overt racism (and dear heavens, don't look up the name of his cat).
Yet, the difference between Lovecraft and Rowling is that supporting Harry Potter can't currently be separated from supporting Rowling herself, despite some people's desire to uncouple the two. Rowling still sits at the head of the franchise, benefiting not only financially from every sale, but through its popularity. The more relevant Harry Potter remains, the more platform Rowling is given to perpetuate anti-transgender language. Further, while the books have finished, Rowling still works on Harry Potter, penning the scripts for the continuing Fantastic Beast franchise. Harry Potter is not only intrinsically linked with but supports the platform of a woman that used to inspire love who now uses her words to inspire hate. On top of that, Rowling herself has used the continued popularity of the franchise as evidence that people support her views, despite this not being the case.
As a result, I can't in good conscience support this game, no matter how well I wish the developers in their own personal endeavors. By buying the game, I'm not just supporting them, I'm supporting Harry Potter, which supports Rowling herself.
I wrote out this entire dissection of Rowling's words for two reasons. One, I wanted to take this opportunity provided by a game like Hogwarts Legacy to cut through the endless waves of misinformation against trans people and educate about the truth behind the damage Rowling, and more importantly, the larger gender-critical movement and right-wing groups, have caused. Secondly, I did it because I wanted to give you a chance to come to your own conclusions.
You're not a bad person if you want to play Hogwarts Legacy. Many trans people themselves are planning to buy the game despite their justified anger towards Rowling. Yet, the important thing is not to condemn the game or renounce your love of Harry Potter; it's to wrestle with the complexity of it and decide for yourself. Trans people don't get to ignore the pain the franchise has become intrinsically linked to, and those who wish to care for them shouldn't get to do so, either. Many will ignore this article and others like it in order to turn a blind eye to the harm done or seek absolution for their choice in buying the game. Some will even (and already have) proudly proclaim their forth-coming purchase in order to express their disdain for having to think about trans people at all. You don't get to defend Rowling or Harry Potter and not understand what that actually means to a trans person, or the ramification it has for all of us, not just trans people.
So supporting Hogwarts Legacy, a game about fighting magical fantasy bigots, isn't wrong, but ignoring its legacy within actual bigotry would be.
If you would like to help support transgender causes, please consider donating to the National Center for Transgender Equality or the Transgender Law Center. Further, if you wish to support transgender & nonbinary creators as well as continue to educate yourself on trans issues, below is a list of excellent creators working to help trans people (and who are also giant nerds, too).
- Sophie From Mars - https://www.youtube.com/c/SophiefromMars
- Laura Kate Dale - https://www.youtube.com/c/LauraKBuzz
- Jessie Gender (thats me!) - https://www.youtube.com/lostrekkie
- Kat Blaque - https://www.youtube.com/c/KatBlaque
- Jim Sterling - https://www.youtube.com/user/JimSterling
- Jammidodger - https://www.youtube.com/c/Jammidodger94
- Mia Mulder - https://www.youtube.com/c/MiaMulder
- Khadija Mbowe - https://www.youtube.com/c/KhadijaMbowe
- Aranock - https://www.youtube.com/c/Aranock
- Katy Montgomerie - https://twitter.com/KatyMontgomerie
* While some will prefer the use of the word "TERF" to describe the ideology herein discussed, this article will mainly use the term "gender critical feminists". This is not done as a concession to "gender critical feminists", who often consider the descriptive term of TERF to be a slur, but instead done in order to ensure that if gender critical feminists wish to use that name to describe themselves, that it be correctly associated with the entirety of their views, rather then be obfuscated behind the "controversial and divisive" term such as TERF.
** 'Cisgender' means a person whose gender identity aligns with their gender assigned at birth, ie non-transgender.
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