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What If J. K. Rowling Is Right?
The definition of 'woman' returns to center stage this month as a new podcast frames the Harry Potter author as the victim of a modern day witch trial. Here’s why we should care.
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Here we are in Women’s History Month 2023.
And once again, thanks to a new podcast about J.K. Rowling, which frames the author as the victim of a modern day witch trial, people are asking that perplexing question: “What is a woman?”
On today’s Jazprose Diaries, I’m going to talk about my own experience with that question as I try to understand the complicated landscape that pits biological women against transgender activists.
Of necessity, I’ll get into the following questions: 1) whether children who experience gender dysphoria are responding to social pressure; 2) how likely are they to commit suicide; 3) the response of Republican-led state legislatures; 4) the generational divide over trans rights, and 5) what happened with the famous actor Rupert Everett who grew up believing he was a really girl in a boy’s body.
My purpose is not to stir controversy or exploit at-risk populations. My goal is to sift through competing narratives and contradictory reports that make the definition of woman such a fraught subject in today’s increasingly complex world.
If you’ve been wondering about these same issues, I hope you’ll find something useful in what follows. But if any of this content bothers you, now would be a good time to stop reading. And of course, if I’ve missed something important, I sincerely hope you’ll make me aware of it.
So on today’s Jazprose Diaries, what if J. K. Rowling is right?
J. K. Rowling puts her foot in it
If you knew nothing of her personal story, you might think the sublimely successful author of the Harry Potter novels should have kept her mouth shut about transgender issues.
With an estimated fortune approaching a billion dollars, J. K. Rowling could have kicked back in her Scotland castle and enjoyed a peaceful life free of conflict and controversy. But she didn’t. She swam into the shark-infested waters of transgender rights, turning herself into the target she knew she would become.
To many on the outside, she was a fool. To those who found her comments about transgender women offensive, she merely revealed the bigotry that had been present all along. But to some, her statements seem more like a deeply felt defense of biological women.
The controversy began with Twitter
First Rowling accidentally “liked” a transphobic tweet instead of screen-shooting it for use in the crime-fiction series she’d been working on at the time.
But in 2019, she jumped in with both feet when Maya Forstater lost her job at a think tank for describing transgender women as men on social media. Rowling’s tweet in support of Forstater was the equivalent of putting her own neck on the chopping block.
That’s all it took for the machinery of cancellation to move like a buzz-saw toward the author whose magical Harry Potter books celebrating love, courage, and belief in oneself made her beloved by millions.
To compound the anger generated by her tweets, Rowling also published a lengthy essay on her website explaining her views.
Now she is the subject of a podcast called The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, which tells a sympathetic story of how the author became a lightning rod for two radically divergent groups. Far-right Christians who believe the Harry Potter books were satanic. And left-wing transgender-rights activists who think Rowling is a bigot, using her platform to inflict harm on the trans community.
Gender Identity vs. Biological Sex
Last year, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson refused to take the bait during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings when conservative members of the Senate Judiciary Committee asked her to define a woman.
Ted Cruz derided her as the first Supreme Court nominee in history who could not say what a woman is. But he failed to mention that she was also the first nominee ever to be asked the question in the first place.
Modern medicine has given rise to identity options that did not exist when Chief Justice John Marshall established the concept of judicial review back in 1803.
As Justice Jackson rightly observed, these new options have raised questions that are making their way through the courts. It would have been wrong for her to offer an opinion beforehand about something that might one day land at the Supreme Court.
The One Night Stand
I first became interested in all this while working as a cub reporter at the ABC television station in Atlanta. One evening after work, my cameraman and I went to a party hosted by someone we’d met at a news conference. During the evening, he drank a lot of booze and eventually went home with an attractive redhead with whom he’d been dancing most of the night.
The next day, he was silent as we got in the news car and headed to our first assignment.
“She was a guy,” he eventually told me. “Pre-op. Still had his junk.”
“What did you do?”
“What do you think I did? I got the hell out of there.”
He remained upset with himself throughout the day. It bothered him that he couldn’t tell the difference between a preop transwoman and someone born with ovaries and a uterus. Someone he might have been able to impregnate, even though that was the last thing he wanted to do.
Do these internal organs and the ability to menstruate make you a woman? Or is there something else that defines you as such?
Many years later, I was forced to think about all this again
when I landed a day job conducting interviews for an ethics-and-compliance hotline. Sometimes I spoke with non-binary employees who felt discriminated against while at work. A few times, I spoke with biological women who were incensed that unshaven masculine-looking people in dresses were using restrooms that were supposed to be for women.
Around the same time, a male coworker at my company flipped his lid over President Obama’s transgender bathroom policy for public schools.
“I don’t want some child molester dressed as a woman entering the girls’ bathroom while my daughter is in there,” he said.
J.K. Rowling worries about the same thing.
In her essay, she points out that England’s Gender Recognition Act allows any man who identifies as a woman to use gender-specific changing rooms and bathrooms — even if he hasn’t had surgery or hormones. We don’t have that law in the United States, and in 2017 President Trump rescinded the Obama-era bathroom policy.
Recently, I came across a study from UCLA, which debunked the safety-of-bathrooms issue. Apparently, this fear is not supported by data. In fact, according to the American Medical Association, transgender youth are the ones likely to be harassed and assaulted when forced to use bathrooms that do not conform with their chosen gender identity.
Citing research from 2013, the AMA said nearly 70% of transgender-survey respondents reported verbal harassment and 9% reported a physical assault in gender-segregated bathrooms.
J. K. Rowling maintains that the difference between gender and sex is real.
She does not believe that gender identity is innate in the same way that sexual orientation is innate. She’s concerned that social pressure might influence kids to believe they should change gender. And she doesn’t think youngsters suffering from gender dysphoria will kill themselves if denied gender-affirming therapies.
Her work argued that exposure to Tumblr, Reddit, Instagram, and YouTube created a suggestive echo chamber in which children sometimes wound up believing they should not be in the bodies they were born with.
Unfortunately, Littman’s study was not based on a random sample. Three-fourths of the parents she interviewed came from overtly anti-trans online communities. The report was pulled and revised before being reissued, and Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria has been widely dismissed.
Rupert Everett—the boy who thought he was a girl
Using his own experience as a cautionary tale, British actor Rupert Everett says he wanted to be a girl while growing up. Between the ages of six and fourteen, he only wore girls clothing. But when he turned 15, he had an epiphany. He wasn’t a girl, he was simply gay.
“Thank God the world of now wasn't around then because I'd be on hormones and I'd be a woman,” Everett told the Sunday Times Magazine. “After I was 15, I never wanted to be a woman again.”
Personal anecdotes like this seem to buttress arguments against providing puberty blockers to children too soon. Maybe they’ll grow out of it. But what if they don’t? And who gets to decide? Even that question is difficult to answer because of a divide between pediatricians, especially when it comes to suicidal leanings among youngsters denied gender affirming health care.
The suicide question
In her lengthy transgender essay, Rowling fell in with the view taken by the American College of Pediatricians, which claims there is no evidence to support a correlation between gender dysphoria and suicide-risk in children.
However, despite its official sounding name, the American College of Pediatricians has been classified as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It is completely different from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which fully supports health care for transgender children and teens.
What I hate
is that this entire topic—which should be a nuanced discussion among parents, health care professionals, and the community—has become a cultural flashpoint. The politicization of what should be a medical issue means that a compassionate and interested public must deal with competing reports that contradict each other and leave us wondering where truth is.
A more reasonable and balanced approach can be found in a 2020 study from the National Institutes of Health, which looked at risk factors impacting the 56 percent of transgender youth who have attempted suicide —and the 86% who have had suicidal thoughts. The purpose of the NIH study is to provide guidance for practitioners, parents, and caregivers of transgender youth. Not pick sides in a debate.
Kayleigh Scott & Brianna Ghey
While I was writing this piece, 25-year-old Kayleigh Scott, the flight attendant featured in United Airlines’s Trans Day of Visibility back in 2020, died by apparent suicide on March 23 after posting her intentions on Instagram. According to a state-by-state study released last year, about half of trans and non-binary people in the U.S. considered suicide between 2021 and 2022.
Scott’s final Instagram post made an apparent reference to Brianna Ghey, a 16-year-old transgender British teenager, who was murdered in February during a possible hate crime. Two 15-year-olds, a boy and a girl, are in custody for the crime.
Clearly, the trans population is an at-risk community on several fronts. It’s easy to see why transgender activists get jumpy when high profile celebrities like J. K. Rowling make any comments about them at all.
None of this has stopped politicians from pushing anti-trans legislation.
According to the PBS NewsHour, “more than two dozen bills seeking to restrict transgender health-care access have been introduced across 11 states — Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia — for the legislative sessions beginning in early 2023.”
In a recent interview on Amanpour and Company, trans journalist Imara Jones stated that this escalated targeting of the trans community—which comprises only 1.5% of the American population—is the result of a years-long coordinated strategy by several ideological Christian groups to destroy anything that does not conform with the Bible.
Although some trans activists hope the acceptance of successful trans women like Laverne Cox, Michaela Rodriguez, Janet Mock, and General Hospital’s Cassandra James will lead to greater acceptance in the community-at-large, Imara Jones says there’s no guarantee that will happen.
J. K. Rowling’s defense
As far as I can tell, Rowling’s primary reason for entering the fray was to stand up for biological women. She’s really concerned about violence against people like herself. And that really comes across in the crime novels she’s been writing under the pen name Robert Galbraith since she became the center of the transgender controversy.
So far, I’ve read four of those novels. Most of them deal with horrible crimes against women.* (See note in comments section below)
The author is trying to make a point.
Violence against women is real. And it has lasting effects. Even Rowling’s gutsy, fictional female detective Robin Ellacott has panic attacks when men get too close or surprise her from behind. Having experienced abuse and assault herself, Rowling is understandably very sensitive to these issues.
Her crime books provide a harrowing view of what women are up against all the time. So far, her portrayal of trans characters is very sympathetic. Although nowhere near the level of her Harry Potter series, her crime fiction has a substantial and loyal following with more than 66 thousand positive reviews on Amazon for Book 5 alone. There’s a 10-week waiting list at my public library. And the HBO series is listed as an Editor’s Pick on Prime Video.
If Rowling is concerned that trans women have eroded hard-won women’s rights, her outspokenness does not appear to be malicious. Even one of the trans women interviewed for the Witch Trials podcast admits that J. K. Rowling is not “directly” bigoted against trans. Rather, she’s “indirectly” bigoted because of the questions she raises.
The times they are a-changing. And people everywhere are looking for simple answers to complex questions for which there are no easy answers. Unfortunately, merely asking the questions can lead to controversy, ridicule, and cancellation, as J. K Rowling eventually found out.
Miley Cyrus defines ‘woman’
In her Las Vegas appearance right after the pandemic, Miley Cyrus sang The Guess Who’s “American Woman” while trans woman Kylie Sonique Love performed a striptease. During the performance, Kylie Sonique removed her male-specific business attire and danced around the stage in a sexy bathing suit that objectified her newly acquired female body parts.
“This is the new American woman,” Miley shouted.
But as long as Kylie Sonique Love has a prostate, J.K. Rowling might find it difficult to agree, though by her own words she fully supports the entertainer's right to be herself.
The difference between 30-year-old Miley Cyrus and 57-year-old J. K. Rowling reflects a generational divide on the entire trans issue. Ironically, it’s the younger generation who read all the Harry Potter books and saw all the movies who disagree with the author that helped form their attitudes and beliefs.
But public attitudes are shifting.
In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that 44% of Americans believed gender identity does not depend on the sex assigned at birth, with millennials more likely than older generations to feel that way. At that time, 64% of Democrats said your gender can be different from your birth sex—and 80% of Republicans said no it cannot.
By 2022, new results from Pew found that six-in-ten U.S. adults now believe gender is determined by the sex assigned at birth. But the party gap and the generational gap remain wide.
What that means in the United States, at least, is that more and more people seem to agree that J. K. Rowling is right about gender identity and sex after all.
But should popular attitudes determine public policy on such a sensitive medical issue?
That doesn’t sound like a wise approach to me, especially now that the 2024 Presidential campaign is underway.
No doubt, politicians and anti-tolerant religious zealots will soon begin to bombard us with TV ads full of false claims, half-truths, and the usual scare tactics.
It’s unfortunate and extremely sad that they now have the ability to use J. K. Rowling’s comments in support of laws that limit transgender health care for those who need it. Because that’s not where Rowling seems to be coming from at all.
The real issue is not, What is a woman or What is a man? The real issue is our common humanity. The only question that matters is how can we best take care of each other? Why should that be so difficult?
©2023 Andrew ‘Jazprose’ Hill
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