If you grew up in the 1980s, which apart from the cyberpunk bit at the beginning were a vile conflux of blandness and a weirdly conservative sort of greed, then the 90s were meant to be an antidote to all that. We had a Body Shop poster on the living room wall of our student digs saying that the 1990s were the decade of forests and peace, which we roundly mocked while secretly hoping it was going to be true. What the 90s delivered instead was Nuts magazine, George W Bush, Al Qaeda and genocide in Europe and Africa.
There is always delusion about eras. World War Two and the Swinging 1960s used to be beacons of triumph, but have become distorted by nationalism or commerce. So, when a writer from a duff era like the 1990s cuts through to create something that genuinely changes our culture for the better then that writer deserves all the accolades that come her way.
The Harry Potter books paved the way for many things, not least acceptance by the publishing industry that fantasy was a genre worth investing in. With sales like that, how could they refuse? Then there is JK’s sincere depiction of a wide range of cultures and races, with the overarching theme of how bigotry is wrong. This fundamental truth was presented in a way that kids would understand: bigots are not only bullies, they also come from a place of privilege and exclusivity, and they want to preserve that position at your expense.
Some readers feel that the very idea of a boarding school like Hogwarts is unrepresentative, because the boarding and fee-paying public schools of the ‘real world’ have perpetuated inequality, preserved an aristocracy that has no place in the twenty-first century, and created a political class that thrives on division and racism. However, these critics miss the point that Harry Potter comes from an abusive household, and that for him the school is a safer place than home, where he is starved and forced to live in a cupboard.
The Harry Potter books aren’t perfect (no book is) but their author led young readers on a deeply imaginative, big-hearted journey that made many of them feel included in a way other books did not. JK Rowling is also more successful than I will ever be, which I celebrate because the fact that a writer can achieve so much gives recognition to us all.
Personally, I think Harry Potter the Prisoner of Azkaban remains one of the great works of fantasy, not just for sheer nuts-and-bolts storytelling but because it is so moving. The book deals with a series of plot twists that in lesser hands would be interesting but less emotionally charged. The novel explores an adolescent boy trying to deal with abandonment, and JK uses thriller-level tension to charge this theme with character revelation (the true natures of the uncle and – even more mind-blowingly – of Snape) and imagery (the glowing figure in the forest). I’ve mentioned elsewhere about being adopted, which is too big a subject to deal with in a post like this one, although many of my novels explore themes arising from that identity. Few nailed the unique feelings that have been present throughout my life as well as The Prisoner of Azkaban does.
I make these points because much of the recent criticism of JK Rowling’s work is unfair. I also hate the way she is now treated on social media, with people calling her a c*nt and demanding she be raped. This abuse is part of a real problem, because it comes from the gender inequality that made #MeToo necessary, which inevitably intersects with Black Lives Matter because of the horrible societal pressures on black women. I also want to provide perspective, which social media sometimes does brilliantly (the exploration of current events on a well-curated Twitter feed is a mini-masterclass of racial history) and sometimes not. No woman should be abused online for expressing an opinion, even if it is one you don’t agree with.
Hence this article. If you’re not familiar with the situation, here is a summary. In 2004, a law was passed called the Gender Recognition Act, which made it easier for people to transition to their true gender identity, even if that identity did not match the sex they were born with. This law rightly helped a lot of people deal with a difficult process, and was welcomed. However, it was medically-based, and included a great many obstacles that not everyone has the resources to overcome. So, last year the government instigated a consultation process with a view to bringing the act more in line with contemporary thinking and outcomes, particularly those learned from the original act. One proposal was ‘self-certification’, which would mean that a trans person could potentially change their birth certificate to match their true gender more easily than now, after a six-month consultation period rather than a two-year one.
While the Gender Recognition Act has done a lot of good, and proposed reform has helped raise positive awareness of trans issues, it has also created opposition. There are the usual transphobes and bullies, but now they have been joined by a group called the Trans-Exclusionary Reactionary Feminists (TERFs). This group maintains that trans people – especially trans women – are not proper women and seek to erase true femininity; that trans women are men and thus agents of the patriarchy, and that their true goal is to use female toilets and changing rooms to spy on ‘real’ women. There is no evidence to back these accusations up from countries that have already updated their gender recognition laws, and trans people have been using suitable spaces in the UK for years.
Fundamental to the arguments are the differences between sex and gender. Sex is a biological reality, and gender is a more complex reality consisting of psychology, identity and cultural resonances that are often linked to sex, but aren’t always. There are also false equivalences that claim a trans woman isn’t a real woman because she can’t menstruate, which ignores that fact that many cis (eg not trans) women don’t either, for a huge variety of reasons. This description also reduces women to the level of reproduction machines, which is as anti-feminist as you can get. No trans person is saying that sex isn’t real, by the way.
Much of what TERFs say appears to be reasonable. No one except monsters wants women to be hurt, or excluded, or belittled, or humiliated. Every decent person wants women to be safe, and for every girl to fulfil her potential, and every woman to have the same opportunities as those enjoyed by men. But instead of fighting the source of these problems, which is the same kind of baked-in inequality that leads to all the hidden levels of racism we are now confronting, they have chosen to pick on a marginalized group that historically has had even less power. This, and the territorial imperative around ‘safe spaces’ – rather than the need for those spaces in the first place or the damning reality that many of them are charities instead of state institutions – takes the TERF position ironically close to that of the patriarchy.
For clarity, my life has been shaped by feminism as a positive force. Feminism liberates everyone, including men, from thought-systems, institutions and relationships that value the few (men) over the many. Women take the brunt of this inequality, from lower pay for the same work as a male colleague to the increase in domestic violence during the COVID-19 lockdown.
I have not always been up to the task of being a feminist, and perhaps I will never be. These failings are more to do with conditioning in a rigidly gendered, patriarchal society than privilege, although of course as a man privilege certainly comes into it.
I secretly agree that a man can only support feminism rather than be a feminist himself, because he will never go through what a woman goes through, even though my own gender has been in constant flux for as long as I can remember. However, with an abuser in the White House we can no longer afford such subtle distinctions, so for that reason I will always stand up and be counted as a feminist. That is why it’s so weird for me to be commenting on this matter, when my default position is to always support women.
However, that position falls apart when I’m being asked to support some women at the expense of others.
JK Rowling has aligned herself with views exploited by transphobes. I phrase it like that because calling JK a bigot is neither accurate or fair, and I only use the word ‘bigot’ at all because others have done so and I refute that. However, people have challenged her on this issue before, so this more recent antagonism is not a new development. Others have analysed her position better than I can, and I have included links below to some resources that make good arguments without resorting to name-calling or derision.
The problem for me is that people will think it is okay to hold negative views on a complex situation because JK does. She has huge influence, and a huge platform, and it is precisely because people associate her with progressive causes that this situation is so dangerous. We are all influenced as much by those we admire than by ‘facts’.
Even I thought JK – and those she has come to represent – might have a point. This is not just because I admire JK so much; it is also because her position taps into insecurities about safety that we all share, particularly around children. It would be very simple for someone who does not have experience of trans life – because they don’t have any trans friends or family for example, which is the majority of people – to look at the seemingly rational position that TERFs take, think it makes sense and subconsciously begin to hope that trans people just go away.
I hope JK comes around. It will be hard, because many people support her position. I think it will be worth it though. She has been on the right side of history before.
JK has issued a statement on her website, and I include a link to it below. She details her experience of domestic abuse, which makes for horrific reading, and I stand with her wholeheartedly in her dealings with this dreadful experience. However, she conflates this horror with the issue of trans rights as if they are part of the same problem. They are not – it was not a trans person who attacked her, for example.
I also include a response from the transgender support charity Mermaids, which echoes my own in applauding JK for her openness and empathizing with her position as a domestic abuse survivor, but also questions her stance on trans issues. The piece references detailed analysis and outlines why the charity disagrees with JK’s position. I remain aligned with the Mermaids view, and not JK’s, not least because JK advocates support for young people, which Mermaids was established to provide, and yet has been constantly under attack both in the media and by transphobic celebrities such as Graham Linehan. Linehan frequently cites JK as a figurehead.
It gets worse. The Sun newspaper has, on its front page, included an interview with JK’s abuser, an ex-partner, who is unrepentant. This move is horrible, and I condemn it. British tabloids are a stain on our culture and represent far fewer of us than they like to believe, hence declining sales and stunts like that awful front page.
However, the Sun knows what it is doing. Everyone who reads that headline will back JK on the issue of domestic abuse, and her position on trans rights will absorbed into it, so that saying ‘I support JK Rowling’ will easily be conflated with supporting her on everything. Current politics succeed by confusing the issue so no one is quite sure what is going on, even when there is filmed or documentary evidence right before us.
This is not the Age of Nuance. This is the Age of Nonsense.
For evidence of the success of this technique, the Sunday Times on 14 June 2020 reported in vague terms that there will be no update to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, and that ‘safe spaces’ will be protected. Revealingly, these are two different issues that relate to separate pieces of legislation. Trans people have been able to use suitable spaces since the Equalities Act of 2010. Rolling back the Equalities Act will affect everyone’s civil rights, and not only solve nothing but make our country even less safe than it is now.
What these decisions means in practice remains to be seen, although given that public support for the legislative overhaul of the Gender Recognition Act was 70% during the legal consultation, it would suggest that a more vicious, vacuous and bigoted version of the political party that imposed Section 28 in 1988 doesn’t care what we think. Thanks to JK’s position, many good people will unwittingly support this unfair outcome, thinking it represents ‘common sense’, a much-misused term that usually means maintaining the status quo at someone else’s expense.
The Brexit process ignored real problems and endlessly recycled false ones in the interests of a few unrepresentative individuals. In a horribly similar way, this erosion of equality around trans human rights will not solve the true threats facing us: systemic gender, racial and class prejudice, wealth inequality and – in case you’d forgotten the one that could wipe us out – climate change.
As our country continues to tighten around us, please use the liberties we still enjoy to fight this pointless aggression, and everything like it.