Open for Debate

Is JK Rowling transphobic?

Is JK Rowling transphobic? According to many transgender activists and their supporters, including Harry Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and Eddie Redmayne she is. The LGBTQ+ organisation GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) has said that the author “continues to align herself with an ideology which wilfully distorts facts about gender identity and people who are trans. In 2020, there is no excuse for targeting trans people.”

Rowling herself thinks these accusations are absurd. In one tweet she said, “The idea that women like me, who’ve been empathetic to trans people for decades, feeling kinship because they’re vulnerable in the same way as women—i.e., to male violence—‘hate’ trans people because they think sex is real and has lived consequences—is a nonsense.”

For someone like myself – a white, cisgender, heterosexual man – the rancour and bile generated by this debate is puzzling. My experience organising a public debate with someone closely identified with one side of this dispute only added to my bafflement. It left me convinced that our current inability to discuss our disagreements about trans issues in a respectful non-adversarial way is a problem not only in academe and philosophy, but for society as a whole.

When I started organising the Royal Institute of Philosophy debate on the topic of “What’s the point of diversity?”, the trans debate was only on the periphery of my vision. In inviting speakers, I was not looking to pick people for their views but their ability to debate them openly.

I invited one woman because I knew she was the target of a lot of abuse on social media and in real life for her views on trans issues. I also knew that many good and decent philosophers I knew had voiced their support for her. However, I was soon to discover that she was a hate figure for more than just a handful of extremists.

In short, the philosopher was a gender critical feminist, meaning that she questions the emphasis placed on gender as social construct and believes that biological sex is a significant factor in distinguishing male and female. Such feminists are labelled by their critics as “TERFs” – trans-exclusionary radical feminists. This is because their views on sex mean that a trans woman is  not a woman in the same way that a cisgender woman is.

This position is considered transphobic by those who insist that “Transgender women are women” and “transgender men are men”, full stop. As one trans woman put it to me, she saw those who denied this as “people who want to deny my right to exist”.

Recognising how controversial a figure my invited speaker was, I tried to find someone else to add to the panel who took a different view. This was not to set up a fight or to turn it into a debate about trans people: the other two speakers had nothing at all to say about this. It was simply to ensure some balance. But none of the people I invited would share a stage with the “TERF”, except one who couldn’t make the date.

I despaired. My intention for the debate was to jettison the traditional for/against format to show how philosophy could model a better way to discuss our deep differences. As I said to one who refused to speak, “If two philosophers cannot discuss these matters, then how can we ever expect anyone else to? If this debate can’t happen then how is any rational discourse possible? We might as well all go home and throw metaphorical Molotov cocktails at each other.”

I could not and still cannot see why it is transphobic to believe that gender and sex is not quite as simple as the “Transgender women are women” implies. I accept I could be wrong about this. I am open to persuasion. People like myself,  JK Rowling and the trolled gender critical feminist could be tragically mistaken and our views could be deeply damaging for trans people. But if that is true it needs to be shown why it is true. It is not self-evident that it is.

Let me give just a few examples of why someone might reject the “Transgender women are women” doctrine without being in any way clearly, deliberately or consciously anti trans people.

First, one of the invited speakers who refused told me that since they would be speaking for gender diversity, it must be that the “TERF” was speaking against it. But it seems to me that to insist that the category of, say “man” must include both cisgender and trans men without distinction is to argue for less not more gender diversity. I could be wrong, but if so I am mistaken, not transphobic.

Also, if biology is irrelevant to gender, why do so many trans people have surgery to change their anatomies? Again, there may be a good answer to this question, but it is at worst naive, not transphobic, to ask it.

“TERFs” are often criticised for trying to keep people with penises out of certain all-women spaces such as rape shelters, which critics complain characterises trans people as threats. But as a cisgender man, I do not think that my exclusion from these spaces implies that all men are sexual threats, or that I am personally under any suspicion. Nor would I think the rule should not apply if I were gay and so uninterested in sex with women. So how is it transphobic to argue that some all-women spaces should exclude trans women with penises, even if that argument can be shown to be misguided?

What these examples all show, I stress, is not that the gender critical position is correct, but that it is not self-evidently wrong and certainly not inherently prejudiced or hateful. It could be the the gender critical position is inherently harmful to trans people. It could be that despite all the reasonable-sounding doubts, in all law and practice gender self-identification should be the end of the matter. But it is so far from being clear that this is the case that the argument still has to be won. And how can it be won if people who disagree are dismissed as phobic?

In an attempt to seek some clarity, I ended up talking to pretty much every woman philosopher I met, asking them to explain what I was missing. Almost all were on the side of the so-called “TERFs” but were too afraid to say so publicly.

We have to do better than this. This should be a calm, reasoned debate about the very specific question of whether sex has any important role to play in determining gender. At the moment, the debate can’t be had because one side believes there is no debate, there are only supporters of trans rights and transphobes. As a result, discussion is shut down.

My appeal to defenders of the “trans women are women” argument is stop dismissing those of us who are not yet persuaded as transphobic. Instead, engage with us, show us the errors of our ways, while being prepared to question the absolute rightness of your own.

Alec Perkins from Hoboken, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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