by Guest Blogger Maeve Mulholland
When J. K. Rowling wrote her infamous and succinctly named essay, “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues” (which is sometimes referred to as her TERF Wars essay), I defended her. That is an unusual position for a trans woman to take, but I thought I understood where Rowling was coming from. Her opinions were hot garbage, but it seemed clear to me that she was responding from a place of fear that was rooted in past trauma. I did not think she should be vilified and dragged through the mud for being open about her fears and concerns. I told everyone to be lenient with her. Let her express herself, ignore it, and move on. There are positive, knowledgeable trans voices out there advocating for change. What threat could this children’s author pose to the international movement for transgender rights?
I expected that she would have her say, people would take her political and philosophical positions about as seriously as we take Scott Adams, and we would all move on with our lives. Two years later, I find myself staring down middle age with a brand new set of boobs, a recycle basket of empty estradiol bottles, and with a New York Times article in front of me titled “HeY eVerYbody! J.k. rowLiNg Is SuPer rEAsonaBLE akshully!” Apparently we have not all moved on with our lives. Somehow we’re still paying attention to J.K. Rowling, and her TERF Wars essay is now serving as the playbook for an entire political movement. I am still picking bits of egg from my hair and from behind my ears.
While it seems perfectly clear to me why everyone is so angry with Rowling, the general public seems to have trouble understanding where all the hate towards Rowling is coming from. Even the editors of the New York Times can’t seem to tell their heads from their ass (sorry—arse for all you Rowling fans) when it comes to trans issues, so let me step in like a magical trans fairy godmother and help ya’ll make some sense of why us trans folks have our panties (and boxers for you trans men out there) in a bunch. Non-binary folks, pick your preferred metaphor.
Why is so much hate directed at J. K. Rowling? Why is she labeled a transphobe?
That’s too big of a morsel for me to chew, and whether or not she is truly transphobic matters less to me than the consequences of the positions she is using her platform to advocate for. Rowling is successfully popularizing a so-called gender critical perspective that is making my life and the lives of trans people all over the globe worse. In the recent opinion piece by Pamela Paul in the NYT, much text is spent bemoaning the treatment of Rowling, but Paul completely neglects to mention the consequences of what Rowling has spent the last few years loudly advocating for. I am going to expand on some of those consequences here so that those that are sympathetic towards Rowling know exactly what they are siding with.
Paul highlights one of Rowling’s positions that has drawn accusations of transphobia: [Rowling] has asserted the right to spaces for biological women only, such as domestic abuse shelters and sex-segregated prisons.
Despite the rhetoric of the right and of those who side with Rowling, Rowling is not arguing against a widespread social movement here. She is arguing for the preservation of the status quo. Trans women are not enthusiastically accepted into women’s spaces. Even in places where it is technically policy to include them, trans women will often avoid women’s spaces out of fear of harassment and abuse. Organizations often don’t even know that it is policy to accommodate trans women.
In most places in the USA and in Britain, I would have a hard time gaining access to a women’s shelter if I were suffering homelessness or if I were the victim of domestic violence. I am 5’2 and weigh slightly more than a sack of potatoes. I am not an imposing, scary person. But when it comes to gender, I look trans. If a women’s shelter does accept trans women, even if I wanted to try and “pass as a woman,” I would not be able to. I would be recognized as trans and forced to find somewhere else to go. Since shelters are almost universally segregated by gender, my only other option would be to apply to a men’s shelter.
However, I would rather live on the streets than risk a men’s shelter. Attempting to pass as a man at this point would never work. I would immediately be identifiable as both transgender and an easy target. Many trans people in desperate need of assistance have to weigh that risk, which is why the homelessness rates are so much higher for trans people than the general population. They are not accepted into the shelter associated with their gender identity, and it is not safe for them in the alternative.
It is not just shelters that are segregated. Many social services and facilities for the vulnerable are divided along binary gender lines. From prisons to shelters, a trans person is never certain whether they will be accepted in the first place, and then if they are accepted (or involuntary incarcerated), it is unclear whether any effort will be made to keep them safe. Vulnerable trans people often resort to desperate measures like sex work when the normal social safety net rejects them or proves to be too dangerous.
Gender segregation causes problems for trans people in lower stakes circumstances as well. I am employed and comfortable with little concern for needing the social safety net at the moment, but I am still vexed on a day to day basis by the division of basic public facilities by gender. While writing this, I am sitting in a coffee shop, desperately needing to pee. I have no idea in which bathroom I am least likely to be yelled at or assaulted. What if someone starts a scene? The owner might ask me not to come back to my neighborhood coffee shop, or I might be too embarrassed to come back after being shouted out of a restroom by someone like Rowling or Paul.
I haven’t been to the gym we belong to in a year, because I thought there was only a men and women’s locker room. I stopped going to the men’s locker room when my breasts got too noticeable, and I don’t feel like I would be welcome in the women’s locker room. I recently discovered that the gym has a gender neutral changing room—a single room in the basement. Trans rights… yay.
Excluding trans women from women’s spaces is so much deeper than Rowling would have you think. Her position is not that of a scolding school marm, driving naughty boys out of the girl’s restroom. Rowling is advocating that we turn some of the most vulnerable people in society away from essential services and more generally to alienate them from a wide variety of public spaces. For most trans women, once they are excluded women’s shelter, there is no safe and viable alternative. In telling us, “Don’t go there!” she is really telling us that we are not allowed anywhere.
Hold on! Wait! Rowling says she cares about trans people! She writes that we “need and deserve protection.” To that I ask, how? With what? Who is going to protect us when are you telling people that we belong nowhere? A trans man related to me a story to explain why he avoids DC now. When passing through Chinatown, he walked past a group of sex workers on the sidewalk and was almost dragged away by a stranger in full view of the police. The stranger walked up to him, grabbed him by the arm, said “Let’s go,” dragging him into an ally. He escaped and fled to his car. The police watched and ignored his attempted abduction, presumably because the police assumed he was “just another tr***y prostitute.”
The police don’t protect us. The prisons don’t protect us. Shelters don’t want us, and, if they take us, they won’t guarantee our safety. We can’t use bathrooms or locker rooms without worrying about being yelled at or assaulted.
The problem is that we rarely fit into your norms, and even though many of us are trying to keep our heads down, to fit in, and to blend in, we can’t. We can’t because even when we are trying our hardest to fit in, people like Rowling single us out and demand that we be kept apart.
Keep trans women out of women’s spaces, Rowling says. The unspoken follow up is, and if that means you have nowhere else to go, then that’s your fault for being trans.
The other pernicious nonsense that Rowling is pushing that deserves to be addressed is that there is a social contagion spreading among the youth, and that they are being hurried through treatment at gender identity clinics, resulting in permanent and irreversible changes to their bodies. She asserts that between 60% and 80% of the children who exhibit gender variance grow out of it by the time they are adults. Consequently, the progressive push to provide gender affirming care to minors is a misguided project doomed to ruin the lives of countless children by altering their bodies in ways that they will regret later.
The picture she is painting of how transness works at a young age is a fictional one, cobbled together by terrible researchers that could not care less about trans people. Her numbers for the rate of people outgrowing variant gender expression is probably based on Michael Bailey’s older work. After reading through a good amount of his The Man Who Would Be Queen, I would recommend dismissing most of his research on trans people out of hand. He himself highlights the difficulty he has had in in studying groups he is not a part of in a blog post describing his research into bisexual men. What he concludes from studying bisexual men is that bisexual men don’t exist. After consultation with a bisexual man, he redesigned his experiment and then determined, thank goodness, that bisexual men do in fact exist. Perhaps the rate for people outgrowing gender variance is similarly suspect?
My personal experience can illustrate the problem with a survey finding that people usually grow out of transgender identities. If you had asked me 5 years ago whether I had outgrown my inclination towards gender variance, I would have answered “yes”. It wasn’t until a few years later that I would have an emotional breakdown and realize that my mental health problems over the last several decades were largely due to repressed gender dysphoria. This is a common pattern for trans people. They repress their identities during childhood because it seems to be the only way to survive in a world deeply hostile towards gender variance, and it is not until later in life that they realize that repression is not a viable long term solution. Researchers did not observe children outgrowing being trans. They witnessed us adapting to survive oppression.
Since Rowling does not believe that children are capable of understanding their gender, the corollary of of the increase in trans masculine children applying for treatment over the last decade is that they must be the victim of a social contagion. Rowling wrings her hands about these poor girls being misled by transgender ideology and turning to gender transition to escape from a misogynistic culture. These could not possibly be trans children—they have succumbed to rapid onset gender dysphoria (ROGD), a theoretical diagnosis proposed in a 2018 article in the open access journal PLOS One. The article observes that many children seeking gender affirming care had not previously exhibited any signs of being trans. Their gender dysphoria seemed to have occurred suddenly and coincidentally with others in their peer group. ROGD is taken very seriously thanks to people like Rowling, and it is used as justification for much legislation banning healthcare for trans kids.
Since that article’s publication, numerous criticisms have been leveled at it, studies have refuted their finding, and the journal made the authors replace the original article with a revision that points out serious self-selection bias and highlights the fact that the researchers spoke to exactly 0 (pronounced ZERO) of the children being studied. The study only interviewed parents expressing concern because their child requested gender affirming care, but the parents did not believe that the child is trans. The parent’s disbelief was taken as evidence that the child’s sense of gender only recently changed—a sign of the sudden onset of gender dysphoria with no previous history of it.
This assumption of the researchers that the parents are reliable reporters of the child’s history of experiencing gender dysphoria tells me that the researchers must have never listened to a trans person. My parents would have fit neatly into that study, supporting their theory of ROGD. When I came out in my 30’s, my parents said that they had no indication from my childhood that I was trans. I was a completely typical boy: most of my friends were girls, I played with My Little Ponies, repeatedly asked why I wasn’t allowed Barbies, wanted my ears pierced, and badgered them until they allowed me to grow my hair long. Somewhere there is a picture of me dressed up in my mother’s wedding dress. I don’t remember the experience well, but I’m willing to bet a lot of money that it was not my mom’s idea to dress me up like a bride. I did not tell them this (I was scared to), but I prayed every night to be turned into a girl. I desperately wanted to ask questions about the few trans women I saw on television, but, once again, I was afraid of the consequences. My family, like most others, made it clear to their children that they are boys or girls and that deviation from expected gender norms will be treated with disapproval at best and punishment at worst. That parents do not know that their child is experiencing gender dysphoria should surprise no one.
Rowling has, admirably, not let facts get in the way of accusing us of hysteria for insisting that children be given the care they’re asking for—for believing them when they come to us asking for help and telling us that they are suffering. Her position is that we need to stop providing gender affirming care to children. Ironically, despite her painting herself as a victim fighting against a powerful medical establishment that is performing hysterectomies on twelve-year-olds on demand, Rowling has already won on this point. Trans children are not receiving care in her country. The NHS gender services in 2018-2019 received 2,406 referrals for minors and only 230 (9.6%) of them were ten or under. With a wait time for treatment around 3 years, that means that 90% of the trans children seeking care had zero chance of starting puberty blockers before the onset of puberty. Often, after years of waiting and being admitted into the gender clinic, they are still not provided hormones or puberty blockers. In the year 2019-2020, only 22 children in the NHS system started using blockers before the age of thirteen (Faye, 2021, p. 102). The chance of a child obtaining puberty blockers through the NHS is vanishingly small. Score another one for Voldemort. Incidentally, the NHS is also not providing gender affirming care for adults, with adult wait lists for initial consultations nearing a decade in some areas.
So, even though trans people are not getting the treatment we need, Rowling is pushing this narrative that medical gender transitions are being rushed, and gullible girls are being suckered into back alley gender clinics to receive puberty blockers and testosterone. Her public advocacy supports a movement that is reacting against a fiction while masking the actual problems that we are facing.
Ultimately the perspective she is pushing regarding trans health care is that the number one priority is to protect people who are not trans from making a mistake, because the consequences for denying trans people transition care are inconsequential. Children are coming forward as trans at a much earlier age, because they are seeing representations of trans experience in the media. In those stories, they see their own faces reflected back at them. No matter, Rowling tells us, we can afford to ignore those children. What would be truly bad would be if a confused girl was put through a testosterone-based puberty. How could she cope? Her life would be ruined!
If you can sympathize with the girl going through the wrong puberty, having her body changed in ways that she finds profoundly alienating and distressing, then you can sympathize with a trans person. That is how all of us trans people experience puberty. Rowling has thrown the full weight of her public platform behind preventing a single person from regretting receiving hormone treatments, but she regards the same suffering we experience from not receiving hormones with contempt. To those that feel, like Rowling does, that the risks to trans youth is minimal if they are not provided with medical care, I assure you that you are wrong. A trans child going through the wrong puberty is in a life threatening situation. Some people can handle it going through the wrong puberty and some cannot. I barely managed. I thought about suicide a lot when I was a teenager. I made it into adulthood by disconnecting from my body and by using strategic depersonalization to cope. I felt alienated in my own skin, and I thought of my reflection as “that person in the mirror.” Living in that state—one of disconnection and self loathing—breeds intense feelings of anger and depression and makes all of life’s other challenges much harder to deal with. It should surprise no one that trans people who are forced to live in that state for too long eventually succumb to ultimate despair.
I understand why Rowling is convincing. What she says seems to make sense if you do not understand what life is like as a trans person and the extent to which we are inadvertently and intentionally excluded from society. Her concerns are compelling if you do not realize that they are rooted in fear, fiction, and bogus research from decades ago. Her proposals sound inoffensive because she does not spell out that they would leave vulnerable trans people with no recourse and make public life inaccessible.
I do not want Rowling canceled. In principle, I would prefer not to boycott her IP. I myself do not like Harry Potter, but I want people who enjoy it to be able to enjoy it without having to have a discussion about politics. We can get to that place by just ignoring Rowling. Please just stop listening to her? Listen to us if you want to hear about transgender issues. I promise you that we understand them far better than she does. For the moment though, she complicit in supporting governments all over the world in oppressing us and denying us fundamental rights. Whatever her intentions and however nicely she says it, she is advocating for our exclusion and erasure from society, and people are listening to her and taking her seriously.
Thanks to Mike for inviting me to write this guest blog piece. It was probably too long, and I need to get going. I have a Soros funded safe space meeting I’m supposed to be at in a few minutes. We’re going to “trans” a bunch of kids. After that, the local Planned Parenthood is holding a drive where the first 100 people to sign up for a sex-change operation get a Nintendo Switch, and I don’t want to miss my place in line, so I need to trans ‘em really quick-like.
Maeve Mulholland is a data scientist who loves nature, board games, and science fiction. She has an unfortunate tendency to commit vulnerable moments to written record. Some of those she posts to her blog, and you can read those at https://amindasleep.blogspot.com/ but you probably shouldn’t, because there’s some embarrassing stuff on there.