Background: On December 19, 2019, author J.K. Rowling posted a tweet:
She wrote: “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security.”
The hashtag #IStandWithMaya adds context to Ms. Rowling’s last line. Late in the day prior, a woman in the UK, Maya Forstater, lost a tribunal where she had tried to assert that she has the right to express certain opinions about transgender people (specifically transgender women) on social media without consequence, because they are her personal beliefs and are protected speech. The case was brought before the tribunal because earlier, in March, her contract with a non-profit think tank had been passed over for renewal, largely due to disputes regarding trans-exclusionary/transphobic posts she’d made on her social media.
In his ruling, Judge Tayler found “that the Claimant’s view, in its absolutist nature, is incompatible with human dignity and fundamental rights of others.” He later writes: “I conclude from this, and the totality of the evidence, that the Claimant is absolutist in her view of sex and it is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.”
Then, regarding whether her opinions are protected as free speech: “I do not accept that there is a failure to engage with the importance of the Claimant’s qualified right to freedom of expression, as it is legitimate to exclude a belief that necessarily harms the rights of others through refusal to accept the full effect of a Gender Recognition Certificate or causing harassment to trans women by insisting they are men and trans men by insisting they are women.”
In other words, Ms. Forstater’s speech is not protected, because her speech creates a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment which harms the rights of others by refusing to recognize a legal document which affirms a transgender person’s experienced gender. And Ms. Rowling shortly afterwards takes Ms. Forstater’s side, while missing some key points of the case/decision (Ms. Forstater did not lose her job, but her contract was not renewed; and, the decision to not renew her contract was based upon Ms. Forstater making speech which harms others and is therefore not protected free speech).
Ms. Rowling has held a dubious position within the transgender community for quite a while, making comments which seem to imply a trans-exclusionary leaning and liking posts from others who are more explicit in their trans-antagonistic views. Her publicists have walked back many of her previous actions by making claims of errant taps (to like a post unintentionally) and the like. With this recent post, Ms. Rowling removes any plausible deniability with her position on transgender identity.
I have long been a fan of the products of Ms. Rowling’s work. I immensely enjoy the wizarding world she crafted for Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley and a host of other interesting and often quirky characters. When she revealed several years ago that she had always seen Albus Dumbledore as gay, it seemed that she was giving much-needed positive representation of the LGBTQ+ community. But it seems that her support ends at the third letter.
I couldn’t let this go without responding. Hours after her post, I responded on Twitter with the following (slightly edited for flow and clarity), and now offer this as an open letter to Ms. Rowling:
Dear Ms. Rowling,
I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time. I’ve read each and every Harry Potter book to my daughter at bedtime, one chapter each night. We’ve seen all the movies together, multiple times.
This tweet is so out of character for your body of work!
Your stories give power to the oppressed, the shunned, the misunderstood. There aren’t many people in real life who are more oppressed, shunned, and misunderstood than transgender people.
I myself am transgender. I speak from first-hand experience. Please hear me:
A transgender woman is not a man dressing like a woman. A transgender woman is not a man calling herself a woman. A transgender woman *is* a woman. She is a woman whose body didn’t/doesn’t align with who she really is.
A transgender woman is a woman who is misunderstood and mistreated from the day she is born. She is told that she is a boy, even when she is not. She is punished for trying to be the girl she is, even by the most well-meaning of parents and other people. Is it so difficult to understand that so many transgender women learn at an early age to put on the act of being a boy? It’s self-preservation! It’s an act of survival!
Is it her fault that other people believe the act which they have forced her to perform?
Is it her fault that when she finally speaks her truth, and begins to *live* her truth, that it sometimes comes off as awkward? Is it her fault that it sometimes may appear to be an act all its own, even when what she is finally allowing to be seen is her genuine self?
I implore you to get to know some transgender people — to suspend skepticism and preconceptions you have of what and who transgender people are, until you’ve gotten to know them first-hand.
I implore you to try to see transgender people as who and what we tell you we are.
Listen to the pain in our stories – the unheard or ignored cries for help, the times we were forced to behave in ways which weren’t natural for us and forced us to deny our true natures, the times we had to stand aside and watch others do the things and have the experiences we *knew* we were supposed to be having. Let us tell you about the holes in ourselves which will never be filled — the missed opportunities, the yearning for the rites of passage that others (non-transgender people) take for granted.
Hear how our childhoods were cut short by the harsh lessons of a society thoroughly unprepared for us. And then look through our eyes at a world telling us that we are impossible, that we are wrong, dangerous, or perverted, and that we threaten the fabric of society.
Sit with us and watch as our basic dignity and our very humanity is debated at all levels of government and society – as though we don’t have the right to exist and have to beg for table scraps. “Please, may I use the restroom? I really just need to pee!”
And then hold us while we cry as the people we looked to for hope and kindness turn their backs on us with insensitive or hostile comments and tweets.
Realize that the difference between you and I is that you had the good fortune of having your brain (gender) and your body (sex) be in alignment, and that mine were not. Recognize that we are both women; we just each got here by different paths.
Understand that people seeing and treating me as a boy/man *didn’t make me one* any more than if they had seen and treated you as one.
Your stories told us that appearances don’t tell us who and what people are. Please show us that you believe that message, too.
The Guardian’s article about Ms. Forstater’s case
The BBC’s article about Ms. Forstater’s Case