Do you remember where you were on 22 July 2007?
I do. I was on a tram in The Hague, and I was sobbing.
The last book in JK Rowling’s seven-part Harry Potter series had come out the day before. I had gone to buy it with my father at a bookshop in Scheveningen, where I was on holiday with my family. After that, I took the tram towards the centre of The Hague by myself, intending to sit down at the first suitable outdoor café, finish the book in one sitting and leave my childhood behind me for good.
Obviously, this was going to end in tears. Like so many others, I had been enchanted by Rowling’s tale of the young wizard who takes on Voldemort, the dark sorcerer who killed his parents when he was barely a year old. Six times before, I had taken my seat alongside Harry on the Hogwarts Express, departing from platform 9 ¾ towards a world filled with adventure, magic and Quidditch. And now, at age 17, that journey was about to come to an end.
It wasn’t until I was on the tram that this realisation fully sunk in. Out of curiosity, I had already flipped open the book in my lap. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was dedicated to seven people, I read: to Rowling’s daughter, her husband, her mother, other family members or friends, and finally, to the reader, who’d stuck with Harry until the very end.
That last part was enough to make me blubber so loudly that several other passengers threw me sympathetic glances. Admittedly, it was a tad dramatic, but Rowling’s dedication felt like the ultimate recognition. For a moment, I felt seen by an author who had no idea who I was but whose books had meant so much to me and millions of others.
If only I’d known then what I know now.
Rowling’s criticism of transgender activism
Like so often these days, it all began on Twitter.
Back in 2017, JK Rowling "liked" a tweet that linked to an article sharply criticising the transgender rights movement, which had been gathering steam for some years by then.
The immediate result: confusion, disbelief and an avalanche of criticism and negativity. Many feared this simple "like" signalled that the children’s book author, who had been almost irritatingly "woke" until then, had aligned herself with a movement known for its open hostility towards the transgender community – a movement which calls itself "gender-critical feminism", but is also known as "trans-exclusionary radical feminism (Terf)".
"YOU ARE VOLDEMORT," a fan snarled at her on Twitter. But on Rowling’s end, there was only radio silence.
That is until 2018, when Rowling "liked" a tweet that called trans women "men in dresses". Again, she was bombarded with hate messages and death threats from angry Twitter users. This time, Rowling did respond. A representative released a statement blaming the "like" on what she called a "middle-aged moment" on JKR’s part – she’d held her phone incorrectly and had pressed "like" by mistake.
According to the ‘feminism’ JK professes in her essay, the activism that fights for my identity is a danger to hers
But in 2019, Rowling started tweeting about the subject herself. First, she voiced her support for Maya Forstater – a British tax advisor whose contract wasn’t renewed because of her transphobic posts on social media – and later, she criticised an NGO for using the term "people who menstruate" to refer to, well, people who menstruate.
For many people, Rowling’s own tweets already confirmed their suspicions about her alleged transphobic views. But this year, Rowling finally put an end to all the speculation. In early June, she published a lengthy blog post on her website, in which she not only addresses the hate her Twitter feed has sparked over the past few years, but also expresses her deep concerns about what she calls "the new trans activism". With the publication of her blog, there can no longer be any doubt: according to JKR, the fight for legal, statutory and social recognition of transgender people has dire consequences for cisgender women like her.
Rowling’s essay is paralysing and confusing
In her essay, she explains why: under the influence of the recent trans activism, the importance of biological sex – the physical sex characteristics we are all born with – is rapidly eroding, which harms the position of women as a political class. Because if anyone can suddenly call themselves a woman, the rights and protections of women as a group no longer mean anything anymore – especially if "natal men" are allowed also to use the ladies’ room or women’s shelters simply because they “feel” they are women. This poses a significant threat to vulnerable women, according to Rowling.
In addition, Rowling writes she’s worried about the "huge explosion in young women wishing to transition" because they identify as male. According to her, the fact that "natal women" should feel they are men is not always caused by gender dysphoria, but rather by the oppression of women that feminism should be fighting against. After all, under the pernicious influence of the patriarchy, being a woman is a burden to almost all women at times.
Personally, I am not even on Twitter, and although I had read a few things about JKR’s questionable "likes" here and there, it sounded like a storm in a teacup to me – exactly the kind of internet drama I had always taken particular care to avoid by not being on Twitter.
But when I read Rowling’s blog, it felt as though a cosy blanket was ripped from my naked body. The warm nostalgia of the magical world in her books was suddenly tempered by the bitter cold of political reality. According to the "feminism" JKR allies herself with in her essay, the activism that fights for my identity is a danger to hers.
Since then, my fingers have been itching to write about JKR. But more than two months later, I’m finding it hard to make sense of it all. Call it writer’s block, but Rowling’s essay makes me simultaneously despondent, indignant and fearful.
Despondent because in this "debate", where my existence as a trans person is essentially called into discussion, nothing I could say seems enough to convince gender-critical activists of my humanity.
Indignant because a beloved childhood hero has so blatantly turned herself against me and my community. And, being a talented writer, she has done so in a way that sounds respectful and concerned while actually being prejudiced and intolerant.
And fearful because Rowling’s essay, despite everything, has made me doubt myself. That paralyses and confuses me because even though I can effortlessly identify every transphobic dog whistle in her essay, after reading it, I still found myself thinking: what if JKR is right? What if the fight for my rights curtails hers?
The two constants of my childhood: transition and Harry Potter
I was 10 years old when I read my first Harry Potter book; my mother had bought the first three parts for me to bring on holiday. A bookish kid like me with a vivid imagination would probably appreciate a story about a magical school, she thought. And boy, was she right. In the first week, I devoured all three books and spent the rest of our holiday playing Quidditch in the river next to the campsite, a scoop net clamped between my legs serving as a Firebolt.
To psychologise this in hindsight might be a stretch, but I think I was especially attracted to Rowling’s books because there were so many parallels between Harry’s story and the struggles of transgender people.
Just think: a boy who’s actually a wizard grows up with his awful aunt and uncle, who are both muggles (non-magical people). Deep inside, he knows that he is different, but he’s not sure why – until he finds out he’s a wizard. With that realisation, a new world opens up for him – a world where things are by no means easier, but where he finds that sense of belonging he never felt before.
Harry Potter is a story about transition, about coming home to an identity you don’t know yet but that’s unmistakably yours.
As a 10-year-old, I had known for some time that I was transgender. I had always been different from other boys my age, and from the age of five, I regularly met with a children’s psychologist who specialised in working with children suffering from gender dysphoria.
Harry Potter is a story about transition, about coming home to an identity you don’t know yet but that’s unmistakably yours
At 10, I was officially still going through life as a boy – albeit a bit of a girlish boy, with long hair, flowery trousers and a penchant for playing with Barbie dolls. But in the years that followed, that was about to change. I started transitioning, as it’s called. I chose other pronouns, started using the ladies’ toilets, started dressing more and more femininely, took puberty blockers first and later underwent hormone replacement therapy.
The entire process took years. And during those same years, the rest of the Harry Potter series was published. You could say my teenage years are therefore marked by two great constants: my transition and pining for the release of the next Harry Potter book.
In the end, my Potter mania would last long beyond my teenage years. I grew up, moved to Amsterdam and started a degree in Literary Studies, where I got to read books that were infinitely better than Harry Potter. But even then, I would frequently escape to his magical world. I would be sitting in the university library, sweating over a paper on Madame Bovary, while secretly listening to the Potter audio books read by the incomparable Stephen Fry.
But just as Harry Potter brought me back to the beautiful, safe parts of my childhood, Rowling’s blog now reminds me of the ugliest parts – of the identity crisis that being trans really is, of the self-doubt and insecurity that come with transitioning, of the intolerance of people who don’t understand.
Is Rowling really that transphobic?
The arguments that Rowling puts forward in her blog post have long since been picked apart and refuted in other articles. Just as the political agenda of gender-critical activists mostly relies on straw man arguments, Rowling’s viewpoints are largely supported by misinformation, twisted facts and deliberate lies that can easily be debunked.
If anyone is interested in a meticulous analysis that enumerates the inaccuracies in JKR’s essay step by step and exposes her transphobic dog whistles, I would strongly recommend reading this piece by Katy Montgomerie for Medium or watching this video by trans YouTuber Jamie Raines and his partner Shaaba.
It would be easy to repeat those points here – by brandishing sources that disprove the validity of Rowling’s arguments, concluding that she’s transphobic and a Terf and closing my laptop, satisfied with a job well done – but a piece like that would do no justice to the feeling that crept up on me as I read her essay. Although I know where her arguments diverge from reality, I began to feel more and more understanding for Rowling as I kept reading her blog.
Admitting that feels extremely vulnerable. I know I should be furious, so why don’t I feel furious? I just can’t put my finger on it.
Maybe it’s because of the respectful tone JKR uses to write about transgender people. Where other gender-critical feminists deliberately misgender trans people, downplay aggression against the transgender community or suggest that trans women in particular are nothing more than deceitful sex offenders, Rowling comes across as strikingly empathetic.
She consistently uses "she/her" for the trans women she describes, admits that transitioning is a good solution for some trans people who experience gender dysphoria and clearly empathises with trans people who face aggression or who were killed for who they are.
Rowling’s ‘worries’ are primarily based on a false dilemma
She even writes: "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."
For the record, these are things that other gender-critical activists would never say. Their attacks invariably begin with a total denial of transgender identities and often end in ruthless demonisation. So, can we really say that Rowling, who chooses a more sympathetic strategy in her essay, is just as transphobic as her gender-critical colleagues?
I also want a society where women are safe
Yes, because although Rowling writes that she wants "trans women to be safe", she also says: "at the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe."
According to Rowling and other gender-critical activists, women’s safety is highly dependent on dominant gender norms – norms that prevent people with penises, for example, from entering women’s changing rooms and toilets. Transgender people turn those gender norms on their head – and that’s dangerous, according to gender-critical feminists. If anyone can call themselves a woman and just walk into a women’s changing room, penis and all, then it’s only a question of time before rapists start abusing this to assault women.
But transgender people have been using the facilities that match their gender identity for decades without issues. There have even been studies about whether admitting trans people to the changing rooms and toilets of the gender they identify with leads to an increase in violence against women. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.
Women’s safety and trans rights aren’t a zero-sum game; it’s not that one group loses when the other group wins. Rowling’s "worries" are primarily based on a false dilemma.
But I do understand the cause of her concern.
Women’s safety in our society is precarious. 34% of all Dutch women have been victims of sexual violence. In the UK, where JKR is from, one in four women will experience domestic violence, and one in five will experience sexual assault. In fact, Rowling herself is an example of this: in her essay, she writes openly about the abuse she experienced in a previous relationship.
But still, are we really going to solve this problem by denying trans women access to women’s toilets? Let’s face it: a symbol on a toilet door is hardly going to stop a rapist with malicious intentions. So, if women’s safety depends entirely on the integrity of sex-segregated spaces, then there’s something seriously wrong with how we’re addressing the problem of sexual violence against women.
Just like Rowling, I also want to live in a society where women can feel safe. But an attack on the transgender community won’t solve anything.
My changing room dilemma
That’s not to say that I’ve never had scruples about using female exclusive spaces myself. Those toilets and changing rooms were quite a dilemma when I was at secondary school.
At the time, my gender identity was still in a state of flux. I was already wearing girls’ clothes all the time, for instance, but I was still called "he/him" and used the men’s toilets when I had to go. On my journey from boy to girl, I was somewhere in the middle. And in no time at all, the whole school knew.
So what to do about those sex-segregated spaces? My school didn’t have changing rooms or toilets for someone with a gender identity limboing somewhere between male and female.
The toilet problem was solved quickly. After I had been sent out of the men’s toilets twice on my first day, I decided to use the women’s ones from then on. But the changing rooms took a bit longer, because unlike in a toilet, you take your clothes off in front of others in a changing room, and people who are afraid of being ogled have to get undressed there too.
According to Rowling, I don’t belong in her changing room
For that reason, for the first year and a half, I would change with the boys for PE, afraid there would be girls who’d feel uncomfortable with having a half boy-half girl like me in their changing room. That worked until I started wearing prosthetic breasts and didn’t feel comfortable with the boys myself anymore.
To solve the problem, my PE teacher gave me the key to the disabled toilets, where I could get changed alone. A good compromise, I thought at the time, but also pretty lonely.
It wasn’t until my third year, when my new classmates literally pulled me into the girls’ changing room – “There! From now on you’ll just get changed with us” – that I finally had the guts. I was incredibly grateful to those girls. Apparently, they didn’t find my presence as threatening as I had feared. But at the same time, I still felt like an intruder from time to time. What if there were girls from other classes who secretly felt uncomfortable because I was there but didn’t dare speak out?
At those moments of doubt, I would often think of the enchanted staircase to the Gryffindor girls’ dormitories at Hogwarts, the wizarding school from the Harry Potter books. Female Gryffindors have free access to the boys’ dormitories, but if a boy tries to climb the staircase to the girls’ dormitories, it turns into a slide so he can’t climb up.
An involuntary question would sometimes pop into my head as I walked into the girls’ changing room with my classmates: would I have been let into the girls’ dormitories if I’d been at Hogwarts?
Now I know the answer: according to Rowling, I don’t belong in her changing room. As the well-known gender-critical adage has it: a fox shouldn’t be allowed into the henhouse – not even if he identifies as a chicken.
I’m not Voldemort. Really, I’m not
This is how Rowling’s essay evokes old feelings of insecurity. All throughout my teenage years, I tried to change my identity to fit into a world that is fundamentally not designed with me in mind. And just when I thought we were finally getting somewhere, a movement stands up and claims that I endanger women by simply being who I am and fighting for a dignified existence.
In the meantime, I see a collective online outburst of fury that makes me no less hopeless. Since she liked her first transphobic tweet, Rowling has been receiving death and rape threats on a daily basis. It’s a fury I understand, but it also scares me, because the more feelings run high between transgender activists and gender-critical feminists, the further we become removed from a solution.
The more feelings run high between transgender activists and gender-critical feminists, the further we become removed from a solution
The outrage that JKR has unleashed with her blog post and tweets is not always unproductive, incidentally. Sometimes it gives rise to strong, well-considered resistance, like this article by Laurie Penny for Medium, where she argues why transphobia has no place within feminism, or the piece my colleague OluTimehin Adegbeye wrote for The Correspondent, where she shows that wilful ignorance about the transgender community maintains Rowling’s position of power.
OluTimehin faced a lot of backlash because of her article, for instance because she calls Rowling a "Karen". And to be honest, Rowling is certainly acting like a Karen. From her relatively privileged position as a white, cisgender woman, she is kicking down at a community that is in a much worse position than she is.
But while that kick hits people that least deserve it, I do understand why Rowling is kicking: she has had firsthand experience of how dangerous our patriarchal society can be for women. To deal with that trauma, she has chosen a scapegoat. Her Pavlovian response may be bigoted and unfair, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve sympathy and compassion too.
Let’s be kind to one another
While Rowling’s fear of trans people is hardly rational, I recognise her fear of sexual violence and I join her fight for a safer world for women. But to her, I am the proverbial fox in the henhouse, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the Voldemort in a dress.
I’d like to say to her: I’m not Voldemort. Really, I’m not. And I even believe that you’re not Voldemort. Good and evil are not as binary in real life as they are in your books.
As Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts, and, as I understand, your favourite character, says in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: "In the light of Lord Voldemort’s return, we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided ... We can fight [discord and enmity] only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust."
Let’s start being kind to one another, because only when we join hands will the world become a better place for the both of us.
Translated from the Dutch by Hannah Kousbroek.