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A Reminder to Rowling: "It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be."*

By Chintan Girish Modi


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Why is British author J K Rowling in the news again? Does she have a new book coming up in the famous Harry Potter series? Who has she offended now? Why is everyone talking about her during Pride Month, which is observed every June to commemorate the Stonewall Riots in 1969, a significant historical moment for LGBTQIA+ communities. If you have recently surfaced from a social media break, let us catch you up on the story so far.


On 7 June 2020, Rowling tweeted a web link to an article titled ‘Creating a more equal post-COVID19 world for people who menstruate’ written by Marni Sommer, Virginia Kamowa and Therese Mahon. Rowling prefaced the link with her own commentary on it: “People who menstruate. I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” Rowling was trying to be funny at the expense of trans people who experience life-threatening violence on an everyday basis in her own country and other countries. 


"I am what I am, an’ I’m not ashamed. ‘Never be ashamed,’ my ol’ dad used ter say, ‘there’s some who’ll hold it against you, but they’re not worth botherin’ with." – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire


This derogatory remark caused a furore online. Instead of engaging seriously with the gendered impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on “an estimated 1.8 billion girls, women and gender non-binary persons (who) menstruate,” Rowling chose to laugh at the advocacy material put forth by experts from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, the Global Menstrual Collective and WaterAid who wrote the article. She invalidated the lived experiences of trans people, and this has brought an avalanche of criticism her way. 


Shals Mahajan, co-author of the book No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy (2015), says, “As someone who has always found themselves more in books than anywhere else, and as a writer, I understand the power of words and their impact. Rowling’s latest pronouncements are extremely violent towards transpersons. The thing that worries me most is her attack on the right to self-identification, which I believe is at the core of the struggle of all human rights and even more so for our rights as trans folx.” 


"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." – Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone


Mahajan identifies as genderqueer, and they have been part of queer-feminist organising for over two decades now. They have written children’s books such as Timmi in Tangles (2013), Timmi and Rizu (2017), A Big Day for the Little Wheels (2017), The Mighty (Little) Hunter (2020). While this fiction is “not explicitly queer or easily classifiable as LGBTQIA+,” the world that Mahajan’s characters inhabit is informed by their own sensibility; therefore, it subtly questions the norms laid down by society.


“No one, not law, not science, not religion, not any other person, has a right to say what my identity is, who I am and ask me for any sort of proof for it – whether it be J K Rowling, or it be the Indian state which has passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, that has appointed a committee to verify the gender of a transperson,” says Mahajan, who has read all the books in the Harry Potter series.


"It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be." – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire


Trans rights activists, allies from LGBTQIA+ communities and outside, as well as fans all over the world, are disappointed in Rowling for using her influential voice to target one of the most marginalized populations in the world. She refuses to learn from the pushback and resources she has received. It is a fact, not an opinion, that numerous cisgender women -- who were assigned female at birth and identify as women -- may not menstruate for multiple reasons including polycystic ovary syndrome, hormonal issues, menopause, and hysterectomy. Several non-binary persons, trans men, and intersex persons do menstruate. 


Instead of apologizing for the harm she caused, Rowling went on to create further damage with an essay titled ‘JK Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues’, which was published on her website jkrowling.com on 10 June 2020. She wrote, “I’ve wondered whether, if I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition. The allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge. I struggled with severe OCD as a teenager. If I’d found community and sympathy online that I couldn’t find in my immediate environment, I believe I could have been persuaded to turn myself into the son my father had openly said he’d have preferred.”


Rowling's experiences with misogyny and OCD are valid but they need not be used as excuses to justify her lack of sensitivity towards gender dysphoria.** Her recent remarks feed into the transnegativity*** that already exists in our society, and embolden people who demand that trans folx provide proof of their being trans by subjecting themselves to the medical-pharmaceutical industrial complex that favours biological determinism and compulsory gender affirmation surgery. “No trans person’s dysphoria is similar to another’s. It is not as if all trans persons, even if it was available, want gender affirmation surgery. It is possible to be trans and not feel it necessary to be on hormones or go under a knife,” says Vikramaditya Sahai in an essay titled ‘The Sexual is Political: Consent and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019’.


What relevance does any of this have for people in India? Rowling’s words carry weight not only among her British readers but for a massive international fan following across continents. The Harry Potter series of fantasy novels, which was originally written in English, has been translated into over 75 languages including Tamil, Bengali, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Nepali, Telugu, Urdu and Tibetan. Though adults do read them, these books primarily cater to older children and teenagers.


Himanjali Sankar, author of the novel Talking of Muskaan (2014), says, “It is disappointing that Rowling’s stance reflects a refusal to understand something as basic as the fact that gender is not binary and well, transgender people are real! For young adults who are vulnerable and grappling with their own gender and sexuality, this could mean a step back into the closet as for many what Rowling speaks will be gospel.” Sankar’s book revolves around a lesbian girl who is bullied for her sexual orientation by peers at school, and this pushes her to attempt suicide.


Rowling’s remarks have been distressing for Sankar, who is a huge fan. Apart from the Harry Potter series, she is in love with Cormoran Strike and Casual Vacancy written by the same author. Sankar says, “The essay (on Rowling’s website) seemed to argue that as a woman who has fought and won she now needs to safeguard that space from trans people who wish to belong in the same space too – a bafflingly narrow minded premise which seems to insist that the world she has defined can’t be expanded further to include trans people.”


Sankar does not have a presence on Twitter, so she has only second hand exposure to the flak directed at Rowling. Some of her critics have been outright nasty, responding with abuse. Is this justified? Will it help change Rowling’s attitude? Is the hate drowning out constructive feedback? Sankar says, “While any personal abuse or violent sexual threats can’t be condoned they need to be separated from the anger and anguish of fans and activists alike who have every right to feel that her comments are taking us backwards instead of forwards in the conversation around justice and gender equality.”


Payal Dhar, author of Slightly Burnt (2014), a novel about learning to be a better ally to one’s queer friends, also felt appalled while reading Rowling’s essay. She says, “Rowling uses her history of sexual abuse to attempt to justify her opinion. This is a form of gaslighting, dropping a piece of information that brings the focus to her own trauma, eliciting sympathy for it, thereby derailing the conversation about a marginalised group she is targeting. And like others have pointed out, how is it relevant? She was abused by a cis man, what has it got to with trans rights?”


By pitting women’s rights and trans rights against each other, Rowling is losing out on the opportunity to articulate a more inclusive, robust and intersectional critique of patriarchy. She has the kind of reach that few authors can even dream of. Despite repeated appeals from trans individuals and organizations, she is unwilling to recognize how she can use her position in the world more responsibly. 


Dhar says, “I'd like to tell Rowling to read more and educate herself on the rights and struggles of trans folx; and also about how to be an ally. Also, equally important, to find resources that examine her own privilege, and understand why as a straight, cis, white woman, her behaviour has been reprehensible. I would also like to remind her that she is not entitled to decide what people may or may not call themselves.” 


Rowling’s work is here to stay even if her narrow understanding of sex and gender has no place in a world that is safe, inclusive and affirming for LGBTQIA+ people. How do we reconcile with the reality that we cannot simply cancel people we do not see eye to eye with? Is it possible to enjoy a book if one is deeply disturbed by the author’s personal views? What are the alternatives that exist for people who love the Harry Potter books but also care deeply about trans rights? Is it fruitful to have a discussion with people who believe that trans rights are a matter of debate? If there is no acknowledgement of harm, how can the work of repair begin?


Ashutosh Pathak, author of Friends Under the Summer Sun (2019), a book built around a heartwarming conversation between a little girl and her trans neighbour, says, “Rowling is paying the price for being famous and impulsive. Gender identity is a nuanced and delicate conversation, and Twitter is certainly not a place for that...A post-COVID world has to be made of kindness and equality. As a storyteller for children, that is all that matters for me – to kindle that flame in children. As Rowling has done too, for us. And the child in me says, it’s okay, there’s room for her too.”


Endnotes: 


*The title is a quote from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
**  According to the American Psychiatric Association, "Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person's physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify. People with gender dysphoria may be very uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned, sometimes described as being uncomfortable with their body (particularly developments during puberty) or being uncomfortable with the expected roles of their assigned gender. People with gender dysphoria may often experience significant distress and/or problems functioning associated with this conflict between the way they feel and think of themselves (referred to as experienced or expressed gender) and their physical or assigned gender." (Source Link)
*** In an interview with this author, Dr. Ketki Ranade, Assistant Professor and Chairperson at the Centre for Health and Mental Health at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, said, "I want to suggest using the word ‘homonegativity’ in place of ‘homophobia’. The idea of phobia as a form of mental illness conjures up a sense of severe distress. Homonegativity is not a mental affliction. It is social in nature. It involves bigoted beliefs about and attitudes towards minority groups. People hold them because they are benefiting from power structure, and are happy to keep others out. Homonegativity is based on hate. We should not attribute sympathy by using the word ‘phobia’." Similarly, the word 'transnegativity' can be used in place of 'transphobia'. (Source Link