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J.K. Rowling’s fantasy of allyship

J.K. Rowling’s fantasy of allyship

J.K. Rowling’s fantasy of allyship
June 25
12:00 2020

With this year’s pride month coming to a close, the LGBTQ+ community has faced a mixed bag of issues in a largely uphill battle, with trans people, in particular, being at the center of significant action and reform. Notably, a landmark Supreme Court decision ensured that queer people would be protected from employment discrimination, further expanding on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, this came only days after the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era HHS protections for trans people by insisting that care be administered solely on basis of binary birth sex, allowing for practices to refuse gender-affirming care to trans, nonbinary or intersex people.

Despite these monumental structural shifts, the moments that arguably set the tone for discourse on transphobia in the queer community did not happen in Washington, D.C.. They, of course, happened on Twitter. And the utterances that sought to define the experience of others were not spoken by legislators or activists. They, of course, were spoken by celebrities.

In a now-infamous tweet, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling (who had already made her mark in trans discourse on Twitter) mocked the gender-inclusive language on an opinion piece that discussed “people who menstruate” rather than linguistically limiting menstruation to cisgender women. When pressed on the transphobic rhetoric that informed her ire toward inclusion, Rowling offered an explanation that was resonant not because of a sense of relatability, but because of the dangerous patterns of transphobia it echoed:

“I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives.”

Though this sentiment may seem innocuous, it carries in its rhetoric that has easily been carried to destructive ends against trans people throughout history. Particularly, it reflects the thinking of trans-exclusionary radical feminists, colloquially known as TERFs, who often see trans women as men embodying stereotypes to invade women’s spaces. Rowling fits into an unfortunately common category when it comes to falling into TERF ideology, in which she is fully aware of her aversion to trans inclusion in feminist spaces, but is either unable or unwilling to see that as an act of transphobia.

The equation of birth sex to gender identity as an infallible social dogma has always been trans people’s primary obstacle in being socially validated. And while the entire process of gender-affirming medical transition largely exists to more closely align trans identity with the body, the likes of TERFs still see even medically-transitioned trans people as inauthentic. To this end, many queer and trans people try to interpret gender as socially constructed rather than biologically dependent, an idea built largely from the performativity theory of feminist philosopher Judith Butler. Performativity theory suggests that rather than seeing birth sex and gender identity as dogmatically intertwined, gender is rather a collection of acts and gestures that add up to what is essentially a lived performance. Considering that the primary goal of most trans people is to be seen as their gender and be socially assimilated in a way that their gender is assumed, performativity theory offers a much more accepting baseline for trans people who cannot or do not wish to medically transition, as well as people who do not identify within binary gender.

It is precisely the inclusiveness of performativity theory, however, that some feminist idealogues like Rowling take issue with. To them, the idea that gender is learned, internalized and performed rather than static and inherent is tantamount to the complete erasure of cisgender women’s lifelong experiences of misogyny. But though performativity theory might suggest that gender is not static, the idea that it threatens to erase cisgender experience would mean that it threatens to obliterate how most people in the world experience life. And though there is some truth to the assertion that most trans women have not had their lives shaped by girlhood misogyny, it does not erase the fact that relative to cis people, the trans community is more busy fighting the existential threats of targeted murder and disenfranchisement than trying to “erase cis experiences.”

While legislative and executive decisions have given contradictory takes on the future of trans lives in writing, trans people trying to live their truth in today’s world have far more sinister specters looming over them. Trans people continue to be victims of violent hate crime and trans youth continue to see disproportionately high levels of suicidal ideation as a result of endemic transphobia. Even within the queer community at large, transphobia is an insidious force that uses the erasure of trans identity to justify erasing life itself.

Erasure does not begin and end with simple vitriol, though — humor, or the crude attempts at it, can often be the root of bigotry. Though Rowling’s initial thread of tweets mostly aired out the same tired platitudes of erasing cis experiences, she later provided a tome of an update that comprehensively explained her stance. And explain the tome she did, as in one passage where she used her own experience with sexual abuse and assault to empathize with trans abuse, only to say that wanting trans women to be safe is not the same as wanting cis girls to be safe, because of course, what if a man pretending to be trans wants to use the women’s restroom?

Arguments like this have long been made by people who, despite what platitudes of equality they might espouse, simply would rather trans people not exist. When even the cast playing her iconic characters went out of their ways to condemn her damaging rhetoric, there is clearly a problem. And despite what she might want to do for “real” women, Rowling will have to fight hard against herself to prove she is the ally she claims to be.

Featured Illustration: Olivia Varnell

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Vincenzo Favarato

Vincenzo Favarato

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