Harry Potter author JK Rowling and trans women in single-sex spaces: What’s the furore?

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | Byhindustantimes.com | Edited by: Alfea Jamal
Aug 29, 2020 03:28 PM IST

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling released a 3,600 word essay on Wednesday linking her experience of sexual assault with her concern over transgender access to women only spaces. All you need to know.

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has been receiving a lot of flak lately for making ‘transphobic’ comment, but what is the furore all about? The Ickabog author released a 3,600 word essay on Wednesday linking her experience of sexual assault with her concern over transgender access to women only spaces. Rowling, 54, published the essay online after being criticised on social media for making “transphobic” posts, which some said questioned trans people’s identity and excluded them from public spaces.

FILE PHOTO: Author J.K. Rowling poses for a portrait while publicizing her adult fiction book "The Casual Vacancy" at Lincoln Center in New York October 16, 2012.(REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: Author J.K. Rowling poses for a portrait while publicizing her adult fiction book "The Casual Vacancy" at Lincoln Center in New York October 16, 2012.(REUTERS)

Several actors including Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry in the Harry Potter movies, Emma Watson, who played Hermione in Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts star Eddie Redmayne, who plays Newt Scamander, are among the actors who have spoken out against Rowling for her anti-trans tweets that have sparked a massive controversy among her fans and followers.

Watson tweeted, “Trans people are who they say they are and deserve to live their lives without being constantly questioned or told they aren’t who they say they are.”

Radcliffe, in an essay on the Trevor Project, a non-profit dedicated to crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ people, wrote, “Transgender women are women. Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations who have far more expertise on this subject matter than either Jo or I.”

In a statement to Variety, Redmayne said, “Respect for transgender people remains a cultural imperative, and over the years I have been trying to constantly educate myself. This is an ongoing process.”


Rowling, a domestic violence survivor, said she was worried that “the new trans activism” was eroding women and girls’ rights to single-sex spaces by “offering cover to predators”.

“I believe my government is playing fast and loose with womens and girls’ safety,” she wrote.

“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.”


Rowling is unhappy that Scotland plans to relax the law so that trans people can change their birth certificates without having to provide a medical diagnosis.

Trans people will still have to live in their acquired gender for six months before a gender recognition certificate is granted.

She said the reform will “in effect mean that all a man needs to ‘become a woman’ is to say he’s one”.

Scotland’s proposed reforms would align it with countries like Ireland, Portugal, Norway and Argentina that allow trans people to change their legal gender without any mental health diagnosis.


“Trans people have used the single-sex spaces, including toilets, that align with their lived sex for decades,” Cara English of Gendered Intelligence, a UK-based trans rights organisation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Male violence against women has nothing to do with us.”

Supporters of trans rights emphasise that trans women are women. Britain’s 2010 Equality Act protects trans people from discrimination in accessing single-sex spaces.

The law does provide for exclusions in exceptional circumstances, such as if a group counselling female victims of sexual assault judged that other clients would not attend the session if a trans woman was there.

A 2019 parliamentary inquiry found no evidence of this provision ever being used.


In the United States, women’s rights groups said in 2016 that 200 municipalities that allowed trans people to use rape crisis facilities and domestic violence shelters saw no rise in sexual violence or public safety issues as a result.

“Transgender people already experience unconscionably high rates of sexual assault - and forcing them out of facilities consistent with the gender they live every day makes them vulnerable to assault,” they said.


LGBT+ helplines - Switchboard in Britain and The Trevor Project in the United States - said they have experienced a surge in calls from trans people in the past when governments have proposed to roll back trans rights.

Trans teens experience much higher rates of mental health problems and sexual violence than non-trans teens, with one in three having attempted suicide in the past year, a 2019 study by The Trevor Project found.

Alphonso David, head of the U.S. LGBT+ rights group Human Rights Campaign, said Rowling’s comments could encourage discrimination and hate crimes.

“J.K. Rowling is trafficking in harmful lies at a time when the trans community is facing unspeakable violence,” he said in a statement, adding that 26 trans and gender non-conforming people were murdered in 2019 in the United States.


Some trans people say hostility towards them is so intense that they experience “trans bladder” where they have go a whole day without using a toilet, Ruth Pearce, a sociology researcher at the University of Leeds, said on Twitter.

Lesbians also said they had been abused in public toilets because they were mistaken for men.

“Speaking as a butch lesbian with a girlfriend who is very tall, the bathroom panic doesn’t make me feel safe,” one U.S. Twitter user under the handle @LouisatheLast wrote.

“It makes me feel like we could have the cops called on us for trying to use the restroom any time we’re in public.”


Despite recognising the vulnerability of trans people, Rowling did not suggest any alternatives for when they need to use a toilet, changing room or rape crisis shelter.

“Trans people – as indeed all LGBT people – continue to need appropriate access to crisis centres, being on the receiving of the same and higher levels of sexual violence and abuse as our peers,” English of Gendered Intelligence said.

“It would be another misdirected and regressive step to try to remove critical care from trans people to prevent non-trans men from inappropriate access.”

Here’s what had happened:

Author J.K. Rowling has defended her right to speak about trans issues without fear of abuse in an intensely personal essay published on her website in which she revealed painful details from her past.

The Harry Potter creator has long been criticised by trans activists who have accused her of transphobia over her comments on social media, including a Twitter post on Saturday in which she criticised the use of the phrase “people who menstruate” in an article referring to girls, women and gender non-binary persons.

“I know it’s time to explain myself on an issue surrounded by toxicity,” Rowling wrote in a 3,600 word essay, published on Wednesday, detailing her research and beliefs on trans issues.

Rowling, 54, said she believed most trans people posed zero threat to others, were vulnerable and deserved protection. But she gave examples of where she thought demands by trans activists were dangerous to women.

“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.”

LGBTQ group GLAAD accused Rowling of spreading misinformation and sowing divisiveness.

“Her misinformed and dangerous missive about transgender people flies in the face of medical and psychological experts and devalues trans people’s accounts of their own lives,” it said in statement to Vice, retweeted on its own account.

In the essay, Rowling said she was a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault and that the trauma of those experiences informed some of her feelings about women’s rights. She also said she has wondered whether she might have sought to transition to being a man had she been born 30 years later.

She said she had received abuse for her views including being told she was “literally killing people with your hate.” She said she refused to “bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class.”

Rowling said she understood why trans activists consider the use of phrases like “people who menstruate” as a way of including trans women but said it was demeaning to many women.

“For those of us who’ve had degrading slurs spat at us by violent men, it’s not neutral, it’s hostile and alienating.”

Rowling has drawn criticism from the LGBT community and actors including Eddie Redmayne and Daniel Radcliffe, who feature in the Harry Potter films, for her views.

But she won support from some in the trans community, including Israeli pop singer Dana International.

“Sometimes the community goes to unnecessary wars with people who are totally with us,” the Israeli artist said on Instagram.

(With inputs from Reuters)

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