Disclaimer: The scope of this essay is broad and does not attempt to untangle all claims forwarded by Rowling or Cleese about transgender identity or experience.

Recently, beloved comic John Cleese bravely posed the question that a lot of people are probably wondering but afraid to ask. He admitted that he doesn’t understand the controversy surrounding J.K. Rowling’s tweets, and he wondered why certain questions or views automatically earn one the label, “transphobic”.

John Cleese in drag
John Cleese in drag

While we might wish that people, especially high-profile ones like Rowling and Cleese, would do their own homework, let’s grant that people lead busy lives and don’t necessarily have time to become quasi-experts on every issue that comes under their radar. And conversation is actually a good place to test and explore ideas. The renowned philosopher Socrates was famous for addressing all of his philosophical inquiries through dialog, and to this day we conduct similar inquests through verbal debate at the highest levels of government. Even a peer-reviewed journal is actually just a part of a larger conversation gradually exchanged between experts.

The importance of conversation is that it offers us a foil, or counterpoint, to our way of thinking so that we can observe gaps in judgement that we may have overlooked, or critical steps in the equation that we lack experience in. Properly realized, a conversation is an excellent way to explore and test the merits of our ideas and benefit from perspectives we are not privy to which may provide an essential piece of the puzzle.

Unfortunately, no matter where you fall on the ideological spectrum, each faction’s most enthusiastic members tend to take offense and shame those who come to them from a place of ignorance, seeking to learn. If you are part of the “in” group, you are just expected to know. And anything less is frequently shunted to the “out” group – with no in-between.

So let’s try to briefly unpack this as charitably as we can.


A Fine Kettle of Fish

Over the years, J.K. Rowling has expressed a number of statements in support of certain feminists who, broadly speaking, reject the movement within the medical and cultural communities to extend the identity of “woman” or “female” to transgender women (people assigned male at birth but who identify as female, often – but not always – undertaking steps to align their external appearance with their internal orientation). In recent years, views within the medical community have shifted toward affirming transgender individual’s internal sense of self rather than attempting to revise it, and as transgender people have continued to gain visibility in the LGBTQ movement, cultural attitudes have started to shift in that direction as well. But some women, like J.K., take umbrage at this development.

Dolores Umbridge
Did someone call?

Rowling and others like her feel that women have been historically maligned and ignored, and anyone who has benefited in any degree from the privileged male experience has no right to a stake in that legacy. Similarly, they adhere to the view that to earn the designation of “woman” one must have all the requisite parts, or in other words, the full experience of womanhood. One must have the experience of growing up perceived as female in a male-driven society, surviving the trials and tribulations of female puberty, and basically navigating life with the unique set of challenges that women traditionally face, such as menstruation, pregnancy, and fighting to be taken seriously, among others. These, they contend, are a quintessential part of what it means to be a woman, and thus no one assigned male at birth may claim them.

Of course one reason the litmus test is problematic is that the “full” experience of womanhood is neither uniform nor universal. Some women can’t menstruate or get pregnant, some experience painful cramps or births while others have little or no pain, secondary sex characteristics like breast development vary as widely as experiences of discrimination, and even the “full-proof” all-access-pass of having the right sex chromosomes has been known to muddy the waters – which, itself, is only one variable in the as-yet unmentioned labyrinth of intersexed conditions, where biological sex is ambiguous.

Rowling’s views on this issue she claims to at least partially have derived from a traumatic experience in which a former husband abused her. Since Rowling’s victimization and consequent struggles are inextricably intertwined, to her thinking, with her sex, it seems to have both crystallized her identification with her gender experience as well as made her more defensive of those who have endured the large and small injustices associated with that role. Which, as has been said, she and others like her do not extend to persons who in any degree have lived or been socialized as male.

I think we can understand where Rowling and other trans-exclusionary feminists are coming from. So why the uproar?


A Tarnished Knight

Well for one thing, Rowling’s “Harry Potter” is one of the most read series in the world, behind only a pair of religious and philosophical books that have a few centuries’ lead. Generations have grown up with her beloved books and have assimilated many of its values, among which principles of empathy, equality, nobility, righteousness, and a commitment to believe in those worthy of trust – no matter appearances – are prominently featured. The vitriol has therefore left some heads spinning as people try to square their image of Rowling as a champion of justice with the bitter and noninclusive stance she has taken on trans issues.

Adding to the confusion, Rowling still claims to be an advocate for transgender individuals, encouraging them to live their lives as they see fit and denouncing intentions to deny trans people their rights. She professes to love them as she mocks them, offers to march with them while marginalizing them. She seems to be saying, in essence, it’s okay to be “other” but it doesn’t make you like me.

Is she wrong?


Sticky Wicket

John Cleese correctly points out that many women in sports take issue with transgender women being admitted to the sphere of female sports, arguing that they retain a physiological advantage not unlike an athlete who uses performance-enhancing steroids. Although many transwomen undergo hormonal and surgical transition which dramatically feminizes the body – diminishing muscle mass and increasing body fat, for example – a large percentage underwent male puberty prior to transitioning, resulting in certain physiological differences, like stature, which are non-reversible. Cleese asks if female athletes who reject transwomens’ right to compete against cisgendered women deserve to be labeled “transphobic”. Broadly put, he questions whether any challenge to the idea that transwomen deserve full inclusion in the womens’ sphere deserves to be dismissed outright as bigotry.

Alanna Smith, Chelsea Mitchell, and Selina Soule
Alanna Smith, Chelsea Mitchell, and Selina Soule oppose trans integration

Without diving too deeply into that debate, let’s concede the point that a challenge is not always tantamount to phobia and bigotry. Female and transfemale athletes have fair reasons for their concerns and the issue is worthy of discussion. We can extend the same charity to Rowling and trans-exclusionary feminists. So then, are opponents to Rowling’s view the ones being unkind?


The Breakdown

A major thrust of the contention seems to flow from the fact that Rowling isn’t attempting, like Cleese, to engage a discussion. She has confidently asserted a number of claims while professing to be roundly educated on the subject. Evidence suggests that she follows the work of a number of trans-exclusionary feminists, but not that she is well-read on transgender issues, contrary to what she opines. This is the disjunction that has put her at odds not only with members of the Potter cast, but much of her extended audience.

The primary crux of her argument apparently hinges on the contention that sex is an unassailable fact which, she alleges, transgender individuals and their advocates attempt to deny. One reason people are perplexed is that, despite purporting to be educated, she refuses to acknowledge the distinction that medical and scientific communities now make between sex and gender. She seems to willfully overlook a detail which underscores a major component of her argument, inexplicably ignoring the fact that no authority or informed advocate has said that sex is fictitious or malleable. Rather, they define sex as one’s physiological state and gender, in simplest terms, as one’s mental disposition – in order to explain how it is possible for these seemingly identical things to conflict. Granted, they now support transgender individuals’ desire to conform the body to the mind, rather than the reverse, since this has been shown to have better mental-health outcomes. But they recognize that, at least for the present, this is not a magic wand that can fundamentally upend one’s physiology.

Of course, this is probably why J.K. and co. do not care about splitting hairs over definitions. The end result is the same: that transwomen are encroaching on women-only territory.

Many women, including feminists, don’t take issue with this and, in many cases, even welcome transwomen into the fold. These women are more liberal with who qualifies as a woman, recognizing that the matter is pretty murky even operating within the framework of biological sex. For these people, it comes down to a philosophy of, “no harm, no foul”. They do not feel infringed upon or threatened by transgender inclusion, and therefore see attitudes like Rowling’s as the greater danger to society since it delegitimizes a highly threatened class of people.

The tragedy here is that a subset of a historically maligned demographic is serving to discredit and inflame abuse against an arguably even more maligned subset. These women want their stories and experience recognized and protected, and in so doing seek to deny recognition and protections for an equally beleaguered minority.

Transgender people are not oblivious to the stigma attached to them or immune to the effects of finding themselves at the bottom of the social hierarchy. They attempt suicide at a significantly higher rate than other minorities and are one of the most vulnerable demographics to sexual assault, all while being many times more likely to be discriminated against in employment and housing, disowned, dehumanized and murdered. When a group is widely viewed as expendable in society, it makes them an ideal target – and this is what well-meaning progressives are pushing back against. They want trans identities to be afforded respect and validation so that the disproportionate percentage of abuses against the roughly 1% percent of the population who identify as trans will be reduced. And they see people like Rowling as ideally situated to champion that cause given her reach and influence – not to mention her overwhelming reputation as an advocate for the underdog.

Transgender women Jenny Boylan, Laverne Cox, and Lynn Conway
Transwomen Jenny Boylan, Laverne Cox, & Lynn Conway

Let’s admit that the situation is messy. Whether or not you believe transwomen belong in the women’s restroom, they belong even less in the men’s. Gender segregated bathrooms and organizations are their own can of worms, with plenty of arguments for and against their existence. Where you fall on this argument ultimately comes down to your own calculation of the pluses and minuses for the people involved. If you believe that cis-women hold exclusive rights to the title and should be protected from gender inclusive language – like the pamphlet that triggered Rowling’s most recent indignation – or other erosions of women-specific spaces, that doesn’t automatically make you a transphobe any more than advocating for trans rights makes you a hipster. In all likelihood you will, like most people, fall somewhere in the middle of the gender-controversy spectrum.

But to find out, we have to be able to talk about it.