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The Danger of J.K. Rowling and TERFs to the Transgender Community: A Reflection by Ryan Cassata

One of the most talked about issues in the transgender community is whether or not to support J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. 

On June 10th, 2020, during Pride Month, Rowling published a long letter on her website, “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues” to defend her continued political and social stance on the transgender community. A stance I see as fueled by hatred, ignorance, and fear.  

I label it transphobic and refuse to support her work.  

As a transgender person who grew up reading and watching the Harry Potter series and has faced a considerable amount of violence and oppression, the Rowling story makes me feel disappointed and terrified.  

In her letter, Rowling tries to persuade the world that her thinking about the trans community and her actions are justified and necessary. The primary audience for her letter is other cis-women and her core message is that she cares so much about them that she must act in a way that is transphobic to protect them. She appears to claim that supporting trans activism and allowing children to transition is a direct attack on cis women. Her letter and this reasoning have been used by Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) and other transphobic people to defend their transphobic stances. 

I have pulled out a few key statements from Rowling’s letter that signify to me the level of transphobia and ignorance.  

“It’s been clear to me for a while that the new trans activism is having (or is likely to have, if all its demands are met) a significant impact on many of the causes I support, because it’s pushing to erode the legal definition of sex and replace it with gender.” 

Here Rowling states that she believes that allowing trans rights will threaten women’s rights. As a trans person and trans activist, I don’t agree with this viewpoint at all. In my opinion, the trans rights movement and women’s rights movement go hand in hand supporting each other. At the root of both movements is the desire to demolish sexism and toxic masculinity, among other things.  

“The second reason is that I’m an ex-teacher and the founder of a children’s charity, which gives me an interest in both education and safeguarding. Like many others, I have deep concerns about the effect the trans rights movement is having on both.” 

Here she is saying that trans rights will somehow negatively affect education and children. I see this as a false claim as well and this statement denies the existence of transgender children.  

Rowling then goes into a more personal account, saying:  

“The writings of young trans men reveal a group of notably sensitive and clever people. The more of their accounts of gender dysphoria I’ve read, with their insightful descriptions of anxiety, dissociation, eating disorders, self-harm and self-hatred, the more 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.” 

She states that if she was born in a more socially acceptable time she may have transitioned from female to male because it offered a way to escape womanhood. As a trans person, I never considered the thought of transitioning to escape womanhood. I have only had the desire to be more comfortable and authentic as me.  

She also says that she could be easily persuaded to transition and believes that others are being persuaded now. I would like to argue that no trans person could be persuaded into being trans, no one chooses the harder road, the more dangerous road, that has fewer rights. One could even argue that Rowling is actually a closet case who’s jealous towards out trans men and has shame around being trans or inner transphobia. 

She also says that being able to choose to be male would have appeased her father — as if her father wouldn’t be transphobic despite being so sexist in his desire for a son over a daughter. Her reasoning is contradictory and doesn’t make sense.   

In her letter she says that she believes that sexism is the reason women transition to being men. If this were true, and sexism is the reason for transitioning, why would males transition to women? To have a harder time in life? To be the victims of violence? Again, her logic doesn’t make sense. Sexism is not the reason why people transition from one gender to another. 

“But endlessly unpleasant as its constant targeting of me has been, I refuse to bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it.” 

In this statement Rowling doubles down on her belief that trans rights take away from women’s rights. This is not true at all. Trans rights include women’s rights because there are many women who are transgender. Rowling goes on to describe the “danger” of allowing trans women in the bathroom with cis women despite no documented cases of trans women being violent in public bathrooms. However, a trans woman was responsible for saving the lives of many people at Club Q in Colorado Springs, stomping “on the Colorado Club Q Shooter with her high heels,” as noted in Insider. 

I have lived over half of my life as an out trans person. I am also a traveling transgender activist and have been at the forefront of the movement since I was 13 years old. I have appeared on talk shows, led protests and marches, and educated the masses in dozens of institutions. As someone who has lived the trans experience out loud for so long, I am particularly hurt by Rowling’s lack of knowledge and empathy around this issue. I’m hurt that she feels she has to publicly condemn and denounce trans people. I’m even more worried because the suicide rate is already so high in our community. The NIH’s National Library of Medicine reports that 82% of trans individuals have considered killing themselves and 40% have attempted suicide, with suicidality highest among transgender youth. 

I also worry about the effect Rowling’s rhetoric has on other ignorant people. Are they more likely to harm the transgender community because she’s justifying transphobia? The rate of violence directed at our community is already incredibly high. According to Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide, 36 trans people were killed in the United States in 2022. Since 2008, 375 trans people have been murdered in the United States. Outside the U.S. the rates are often even worse. In Brazil, which has been the deadliest country for trans people for over a decade one transgender person is killed every 3 days.  

Hate speech literally takes lives. 

The reality is that transphobia is still normalized. I think people would understand why the transgender community is so upset by Rowling and mentions of the Harry Potter books if she was speaking out against another oppressed minority, but more protected group like racial minorities or Jewish people. Rowling is to trans people who Kanye West is to Jewish people. But while West lost his sponsorships after comments degrading Jewish people Rowling continues to get book and movie deals. I envision a world where transphobia is not okay and is enough to get someone removed from their public platform. 

This reflection is an adaptation of a case study Cassata created for the course, Who Cares and was presented during Pacific School of Religion’s 2023 Academic Excellence Day.  

Ryan Cassata is an award-winning singer-songwriter, actor, performer, published writer, LGBTQ+ activist, motivational speaker, and PSR alumnx. Beginning his work as an activist at age 13 after joining “The Safe Schools Team,” Ryan is most proud of being a trans advocate and public speaker in and around his hometown on Long Island, New York. Ryan is deeply passionate about sharing his story and teaching students about the dangers of bullying. Ryan’s mission is to provide valuable informative information to communities to inspire greater inclusivity. Ryan is the first-ever recipient of the Harvey Milk Memorial Award, has been recognized by United States Congress, and has enjoyed many televised appearances on notable news channels such as CNN, The Larry King Live Show, and The Tyra Banks Show. Ryan is a recent graduate of the Master of Arts in Social Transformation program at PSR and recipient of the 2023 Marcella Althaus-Reid Award for queering theology.  

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