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Who do we really silence? JK Rowling and Cancel Culture

Writing by Harriet Steele, Illustration by Emily Donnelly

Over the last couple of months JK Rowling has made her anti-trans position very clear on social media. She started with a series of tweets at the beginning of June where she argued against the term ‘people who menstruate’: ‘…I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?’ She then went on to criticise the concept that biological sex is not real, tweeting that ‘If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.’ Since posting these views on Twitter, she has been consistently called out on her transphobia by the transgender community and its allies. The LGBT+ rights organisation GLAAD responded to her message, arguing that it ‘willfully distorts facts about gender identity and people who are trans. In 2020, there is no excuse for targeting trans people.’ Amidst this atmosphere of vocal opposition, Rowling and over 150 others have signed a petition against their definition of cancel culture. Rowling argues that her ability to speak freely and express her opinion is being shut down; however, in reality, the furor surrounding her words is less about silencing people and more about holding them accountable. 

It’s hard to believe that Rowling is really up there as one of the biggest victims of cancel culture. As a highly successful author and a celebrity with a considerable social media following, she is not the one being silenced. She believes that her career and livelihood are at stake because of her recent comments and tweets. Yet one person's career does not hold more value than the lives and safety of the trans community. 

Rowling seemingly does not understand, or willfully refuses to acknowledge, that the lived experience and reality of others does not invalidate her own identity. A transgender woman coming out and living her own life does not have any impact on Rowling’s own gender or experience as a woman - or, indeed, on the continued relevance of feminism as a movement. By arguing that ‘erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives,’ she is herself attempting to remove the ability for transgender people, and specifically transgender women, to meaningfully discuss their own lives. She perpetuates the deeply damaging rhetoric that the acceptance of trans women could lead to negative repercussions for cis women. It’s clear that she misses the deep irony of her own argument and the consequences that it has on the transgender community. One example is the violence aimed at transgender women; in this year alone at least 25 transgender people, of which trans women of colour represent the vast majority, have been murdered in the US. 

Rowling’s narrative supports such violent consequences. This is why she received such anger at her tweets, as the transgender community and its allies rightly pushed back. Rowling is not being cancelled - she is being held responsible. In Rowling’s essay on ‘Sex and Gender Issues’ many of what she states as ‘facts’ - such as that ‘when you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman…then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside’ - are not grounded in any sort of evidence. In fact, when you look at the 18 states in America who have passed transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination laws, ‘there’s been no increase in public safety incidents in restrooms in any of these cities or states’ (National Center for Transgender Equality). Rowling’s continued attempts at justifying her position have far greater consequences on the transgender community than creating more trans-inclusive spaces has on her - and she should be held accountable for that. Rowling is a highly influential and wealthy woman who despite having been ‘cancelled,’ still maintains over fourteen million twitter followers and the best-selling book series of all time. Whereas the transgender community is facing a battle for both their own safety and for recognition in society and politics.

The UK Government has already missed their original deadline for announcing their plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act – originally it should have been announced by recess in June 2020. I would argue that the damage caused by transphobic rhetoric outweighs the negative aspects of ‘cancel culture’ targeted at Rowling. As Stonewall’s Chief executive Nancy Kelley says, ‘trans people are being asked to wait for equality that is long overdue,’ as ‘waiting times for gender identity healthcare services…[and transphobic] hate crimes’ increase, alongside the continued debate, online and in the media, over the legitimacy of trans people’s identities. It becomes increasingly clear that it is not JK Rowling and TERFs like her who are being most violently silenced or ‘cancelled,’ but rather the trans community who must continuously fight for their right to be recognized, and even to life.

Whilst Rowling rails against the criticism and her supporters fear that her freedom of speech is being squashed, she seems unable to recognise the right of others to call her out for her stance. Her tweets and comments are not merely a matter of opinion; they are thoughts she is expressing publicly about the validity of a community who is already under attack. For example, in a tweet in July she likened transgender hormone therapy to conversion therapy for young people: ‘many, myself included, believe we are watching a new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people, who are being set on a lifelong path of medicalisation.’ The implication that being trans is a mental illness is incredibly damaging to the trans community, especially trans teens, as it is often used as a barrier to treatment and a further stigmatizing factor. By supporting views such as this, Rowling is using her platform in a deeply irresponsible way and arguing against something she has no right to disqualify.

Furthermore, in Harper’s Magazine’s ‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate’ – which Rowling, amongst over 150 other activists and authors, has signed – it is argued that the ‘stifling atmosphere’ of ‘cancel culture’ ‘will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate...invariably hurts those who lack power’ (Harper’s Magazine 2020). However, in the case of Rowling, and many others who agree with her, it is not the ‘cancel culture’ of the twenty-first century which ‘hurts those who lack power,’ but rather the attempts at invalidating the lived experience of the trans community and other marginalized groups. It is true that social change cannot come about in an echo chamber, but there are still things which are not open to debate and are not a matter of ‘personal opinion’ – such as the right for everyone to live their lives authentically and safely. 

Rowling argues that we are living in one of the most misogynistic time periods in history whilst refusing to acknowledge that not everyone who is a woman has the exact same experience as her. It is not misogyny that fuels trans activism and a push for positive change - it is intersectional feminism; the understanding that in order to stand up against those who are in power we must do so together. I struggle to understand how Rowling can view herself as a true feminist whilst being outwardly transphobic. The culture that is emerging is not about bullying or silencing people, as Rowling claims, but about creating a place where people are held accountable for their words and can be educated. If anyone can give me even one ‘good’, non-damaging and fearfully reactionary reason for Rowling’s objection to the phrase ‘people who menstruate’ then I am all ears. If not? Progressive society and intersectional feminists will politely treat your ignorance in the way that it deserves: ‘If you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all.’ Rowling is not being cancelled, she is being stood up to. 

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