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JK Rowling faces controversy over gender terminology tweets

Harry Potter author JK Rowling, 54, is facing a tide of online criticism following her recent tweets which some interpreted as transphobic. The controversy began on Saturday 6th June when Rowling responded to a month-old Devex article on Twitter that referred to the post-Covid challenges faced by women, girls and ‘people who menstruate’.

Quoting a line from the article, Rowling’s sarcastic tweet, to her 14.5 million followers, implied that the author should just have said ‘women’. She wrote: “’People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomed?”.

Backlash immediately ensued as other Twitter users and LGBTQ organisations criticised her comments as being transphobic and hateful because transgender people, non-binary people and people who do not identify as women can also menstruate. Many comments declared Rowling a bigot and a TERF (a trans exclusionary radical feminist) – a label which is now considered a slur by some.

Commenters immediately pointed out that being a woman is not based on menstruating, citing the examples of menopausal women, women who have had hysterectomies and those who don’t menstruate due to hormone problems – all of whom are still women.

Others argued that no one was attempting to erase the concept of sex, but rather that gender is fluid, and that Rowling was attempting to erase the legitimacy of transgender people.

Many LGBTQ+ organisations also condemned Rowling’s comments, including the US LGBTQ organisation Glaad, who tweeted: ‘JK Rowling continues to align herself with an ideology which wilfully distorts facts about gender identity and people who are trans. In 2020, there is no excuse for targeting trans people.’

Rowling subsequently added more tweets to her thread to further clarify her stance. She argued that sex is a real concept that should not be erased as it takes away from her identity as a woman . She added, “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth’.

She told her followers that while she respects and supports trans people’s rights to live authentically, her life has been shaped by being female and she does not believe it’s hateful to say so.

Many immediately criticised Rowling as confusing the concepts of gender and sex.

Rowling further defended herself by explaining that she had done a significant amount of research on this topic. She wrote: ‘I’ve spent much of the last three years reading books, blogs and scientific papers by trans people, medics and gender specialists. I know exactly what the distinction is. Never assume that because someone thinks differently, they have no knowledge.’

Rowling has been criticised as anti-trans by LGBTQ+ groups in the past for defending British researcher Maya Forstater in December 2019 after, Forstater lost her job due to a tweet she posted which said that transgender women cannot change their biological sex. This came after Rowling had liked a tweet that referred to transgender women as ‘men in dresses’, in 2018.

Actresses Sarah Paulson and Jameela Jamil were among the celebrities who criticised Rowling. Doctor and online activist Eugene Gu replied to Rowling’s tweets that ‘sex exists on a bimodal biological spectrum just like gender exist on a bimodal sociological spectrum. While most identify as either male or female, there are intersex and trans individuals whose identities are just as valid and real.’

Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Eddie Redmayne criticised Rowling’s comments, as did Evana Lynch who wrote on Twitter: ‘I think she’s on the wrong side of this debate. But that doesn’t mean she has completely lost her humanity’.

https://twitter.com/Evy_Lynch/status/1270395418560606208/photo/2

The reaction to Rowling’s comments was not entirely negative; her original tweet has been ‘liked’ 74 thousand times at time of writing, and others spoke out in support of her comments and to defend her. Talk show host Jonathon Ross originally defended Rowling, but subsequently changed his mind and tweeted that he was not in a position to decide what is or is not considered transphobic.

Another Twitter user said that Rowling’s position shone a light on the fear within some of the gay community that their rights were under threat of erosion due to the new extreme version of trans activism which insists that biological sex is an illusion.

Irish author John Boyne took to Twitter to defend Rowling’s comments as ‘sensible’ and ‘empathetic’, and that they were not transphobic. He said that ‘Expressing an opinion on any given subject does not make one phobic; it makes one an intelligent adult who prefers conversation to aggression & dialogue to name-calling.’

https://twitter.com/john_boyne/status/1269533121067827202

UCD Gender Studies lecturer, Dr Mary McAuliffe said that her initial reaction to Rowling’s tweets was to query why she had inserted herself into this debate about such a vulnerable group in society. She said that those who are trans exclusionary fall down on the idea that there is a singular definition of what it means to be a woman.

“The trans exclusionary radical feminists see biology as immutable, unchangeable, that there is that binary- that you are either male or female and that’s it. You can’t change from one to the other. They particularly focus in on trans women,” said McAuliffe.

‘For trans women, the arguments they (TERFs) make are couched in terms of fear,” she said. “They refuse to accept that trans women are anything other than male-bodied persons and that they are males trying to come in to women’s spaces and in doing so they eradicate women’s rights and they’re a threat to women’s rights … and lesbians.”

“This idea that giving somebody else rights and understanding their existence and their need to have a liveable and authentic life is a threat to your existence seems to me an argument that was made by those who were homophobic 30 years ago – it’s the same language of threat, of shame, of stigma.”

McAuliffe concluded that UCD had a lot done but more to do in terms of making the university an inclusive space for trans staff and students.

As we progress further into the 21st century, we’re moving further and further away from gender and sex being intrinsically linked both in social and legal spheres. In Ireland, since July 2015 when the Gender Recognition Act was passed, Irish people over the age of 18 (and age 16 and 17 with parental consent) have the legal right to a gender based on self-declaration.

Many experts now argue that anatomy does not determine one’s gender and that defining gender as determined by a person’s genitals is an over simplified and a now outdated concept that is often meaningless.

On 10th June, 4 days after her original tweet, Rowling shared a link on her Twitter to a lengthy blog post on her website addressing the controversy further. She listed 5 reasons why she felt she needed to speak up on this issue. Among these were her strong belief in freedom of speech, her concerns over the explosion in people transitioning to the opposite gender, and her fear that the push to erode the legal definition of sex and replace it with gender was harmful to her two charities.

The fifth reason she gave for speaking out was that, due to her experience of domestic abuse and sexual assault, she did not want any man who self-identifies as a woman to be able to enter private female spaces such as changing rooms.

Amy Doolan – Reporter

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