When we are most certain is the point at which we should most question ourselves, remarks JK Rowling sensibly in a new podcast series, The Witch Trials of JK Rowling. For a moment, she seems to be experiencing a revelation about her own role in the events of the past few years. But no: she is referring only to those who challenge her. After four years of criticism, online fury, abuse, threats of violence, and even book burnings, her faith in her own position is undimmed. “I believe absolutely that there is something dangerous about this movement, and it must be challenged.”
The “movement” to which she is referring is one in support of equal rights for trans people. In 2019 and again in 2020, Rowling launched herself confidently into this fractious, emotive debate with a series of tweets that precipitated the onslaught she sees as a witch-hunt.
In the podcast series – thoughtfully hosted by Megan Phelps-Roper, a recovering member of the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church and granddaughter of its former leader, the late Fred Phelps – Rowling attempts to explain why she chose to make this battle over the rights of an oppressed minority her life’s work. She is candid about her experience of being in an abusive relationship and the toll that speaking out has taken. She describes how frightening it was to have her address published online. She makes a convincing case that backlashes against individual women online are meant as a warning to all women.
As the controversy around Kellie Harrington’s tweets on immigration demonstrated again this week, social media is not the place for road-testing half-baked arguments about sensitive and controversial topics
But what distinguishes her from other victims of online witch-hunts is that Rowling waded into this intentionally. She is no Justine Sacco, the woman featured in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, who lost everything in the space of a long-haul flight after tweeting a misguided satirical comment on white people’s attitudes to HIV. Rowling made a calculated decision to enter the fray, even calling her management team to warn them in advance of that first tweet. Which raises the question of whether you can really be the victim of a witch-hunt when you chose to orchestrate it; when you keep going back for more.
Listening to her explain her position offers an insight into the way that the online world has eroded our ability to tease out complex issues, to explore nuance and to disagree. Given the space to elucidate her position, Rowling insists she supports trans people, knows and loves trans people and wants them to be safe. She believes transitioning may be right for some people, but worries that “others may have got caught up in something that will harm you.” She says she is concerned about the increase in people identifying as trans and the possibility of girls like the one she was, who are “mentally sexless”, deciding to transition if that is not the right thing for them.
Arguably, these are all conversations worth having, though it is a mystery why Rowling ever thought it wise to have them on Twitter. As the controversy around Kellie Harrington and her tweets on immigration demonstrated again this week, social media is not the place for road-testing half-baked arguments about sensitive and controversial topics, or even fine-tuning well-developed ones.
But when she speaks about gender self-ID, the writer – whose currency is words, remember – invokes the language of threats and predators. In a 2020 essay, she said the Scottish government’s gender-recognition plans sent her to “a very dark place inside my head, as memories of a serious sexual assault I suffered ... recurred on a loop”. In the podcast, she talks about how the “movement” demands that “if a man feels himself to be a woman, the door of every women’s bathroom, changing room, rape centre” should be open to him. “And I say no.” This conflation of trans people with sexual predators is deeply problematic, for reasons that shouldn’t need stating.
Rowling’s lengthy defence of her position is a reminder that both sides of the arguments that play out online can be guilty of intemperate language. Both are convinced they are right, kind and logical. But one side gets to put their phone down and walk away from it. The other has to live it. And that’s the nub of this whole thing. It isn’t a fair fight. On one side are people like Rowling, talking with authority, but often in largely academic terms, about things like the importance of biological sex. On the other are a tiny and vulnerable minority whose right to go about their lives with dignity is at stake.
As Shon Faye points out in The Transgender Issue, most people do not know many trans people. The views of people such as Rowling – a writer who was seen as a friend to a generation of lost and lonely children – carry great weight.
Likewise, while Enoch Burke and his family are taking up court time indulging in performative outrage over what they called “transgenderism” (as though it is merely a newfangled theory as opposed to real people who have always existed), somewhere not too far away a child and their family are trying to figure out complex and deeply private matters among themselves. What Burke and Rowling have in common is their insistence on co-opting victimhood, and a wilful blindness to the impact of their words.
The overriding sense I get from the seven-plus hours of Rowling’s views – along with those of some trans people – is that she is fighting the wrong battle. Her argument is that biological sex is central to the ways women have been discriminated against. By that reckoning, surely what she should be fighting against are gender-based violence, domestic abuse, poverty, inequality and the systems and structures that have historically suppressed women. None of these is the fault of trans people; in many cases, trans people are more vulnerable to them than any other member of society.