Equating feminism to a vagina: J.K. Rowling’s problematic ideas on trans rights

J.K. Rowling on overlayed on the transgender flag

If you exist anywhere on a social media platform, you may have seen recently that J. K. Rowling has stirred up controversy through a series of tweets deemed to be transphobic. Twitter’s trans activist community have berated Rowling for being a ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’ (TERF), condemning the tweets for equating biological sex with gender identity. 

Following this, Rowling released a blog post on her website, explaining and in no way apologising for her position. This post is where the meat of any argument for or against cancelling Rowling will have to be found, rather than in a handful of unintelligent and frankly uninformed tweets

Rowling’s first of five points is that she gives money to many women-oriented charities. The one that catches my eye is the mention of funding a multiple sclerosis (MS) research charity, where she specifically mentions that the condition “behaves very differently in men and women”. 

This is true, women are three times more likely to get MS than men. Yet the medical and scientific community are aware of the effects that sex and gender expression can have on a patient’s health. It is widely acknowledged in the scientific community that sex is a matter of a wide spectrum of biological features that present in various combinations to produce a sexual identity, such as hormone levels and chromosomes.

This, coupled with the acknowledgement that gender expression does have tangible effects on an individual’s health, so that masculine-presenting people can have similar ailments regardless of biological sex, leads Rowling’s concerns to be needless. Might it be bold of me to assume that those studying MS and its prevalence in those assigned female at birth (AFAB) are looking into the more nuanced biological factors of their patients body? 

The links that have been made between those with certain sex characteriscs and MS is not and should not be a reason to consider the recognition of transgender women as women a threat to the “legal definition of sex”. It perplexes me that Rowling would find this a concern at all.

Following this, she claims to support free speech, “even unto Donald Trump”. Amongst everything, this is not the hill to die on, Joanne. Comments like this are inflammatory for absolutely no reason, given the absolute atrocities Trump has enacted recently in regard to trans rights (which also took place around the fourth anniversary of the Pulse shooting in Miami).

Now Rowling is actively refusing that her ideas make her a TERF, but her fourth argument is a renowned favourite in those who swim the murky waters of TERF circles. Detransitioning.

What is detransitioning? It is when those who have transitioned from their assigned gender at birth, often going as far as to get gender-affirming surgery, but later reverse this decision and no longer feel that they are of the gender that they transitioned to. 

TERFs love the existence of these individuals as it emphasises the risks of allowing people to transition in the first place. The fact that people might have regrets about transitioning (although often to do with botched surgeries, lack of support networks and general transphobia) is fantastic ammunition for TERFs to deny young people the right to explore their identities at all.

Rowling writes that “if I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition.” Her dissatisfaction with the expectations of womanhood and all that came with it, when compared to the accounts of young trans men today, seems all too familiar to her. Some studies show that 80% of children under 12 who are referred for gender dysphoria desisted transitioning after puberty, justifying the concern around unnecessary transitioning. Rowling claims that these studies are on “teens”, a small but relevant oversight.

The fact that many children find themselves non-conforming to gender roles at a young age indicates all we need to know about these issues. Sex and gender are on a spectrum; many aspects of your biology and socialisation will have an effect. Young children feeling as though their natural personality and identity does not fit with the binary of ‘blue boy’ and ‘pink girl’ that are often implicitly shoved into their subconscious, is illustrative of Rowling’s issues. 

As we age, the socialisation of our expected gender can become more cemented, with increasing pressure from the puberty fairy as bodies develop in their different ways. There is also the possibility of, with age, understanding your self-expression more to know that perhaps you are not a trans boy but simply a teenage girl who never liked the pretty pink things that she was expected to like as a child.

The misogyny that Rowling cites as something which alienated her from herself as a woman is understandable. As a young tomboy, I was often referred to as a boy for my deeper voice and lack of enthusiasm for pink things, alienated from the rigid box of conventional femininity. It is these attitudes that need changing, allowing young people to explore their identity freely without pressure to be one way or another. If it is true that there has been a huge increase in young AFAB people identifying as trans but either detransitioning or desisting treatment, this reflects on how we as a society treat young women. This should not prevent trans people from getting the help and support they need.

Finally, Rowling gives us some deep insight into her fear of men: being a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Trauma is a tricky thing, not so easily recovered from, and it is understandable how this part of her life has had effects on the views expressed in her essay.

“When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside.”

J.K. Rowling

The flaw here is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Gender Recognition Act requires of trans people in the UK. Even I, someone with no legal training whatsoever, can understand that Rowling’s claims are naive. By attaining a gender recognition certificate, a person has to prove that they have been living as their gender for at least two years prior to applying, and “intends to continue to live in the acquired gender until death”. Not only this but two doctors, one specialising in gender dysphoria, must diagnose the applicant as such. It is a long and arduous process, but a necessary one for trans people to have the same rights as those who were designated their true gender at birth. 

Here is the crux of Rowling’s issue: passing. The claim is that, by allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their true gender, cis people will be threatened by the presence of someone deemed as ‘the other’. Yet show Rowling a crowd of 100 people and have her guess what each of them is packing in their underwear. Another flaw of equating gender to sex is revealed here, as if a vagina is required to exist as a ‘woman’ in women’s spaces, you’re going to have to support invasive underwear searches on entry. Imagine the queues. 

As the Guardian notes, “anxiety around single sex-spaces relates to women’s understandable lack of faith in how seriously violence against them is dealt with.” Should this then not be the issue to focus on? While Rowling has every right to be anxious about violent men, their relation to single-sex spaces is minimal. The issue to speak out on here is that women are still vulnerable, that rights still need to be won, that society’s attitudes have to change

To J. K. Rowling, a woman who has created something which has changed lives for many people of my generation and beyond, I empathize with how you feel. I too have experienced sexual trauma at the hands of men, I too have been deeply unhappy in my supposed femininity. I have felt like I didn’t belong, like I had been hard done by through my existence in the world as a woman, like I was a “sexless” entity which did not fit into the human shape of what I was expected to be. 

Through exactly none of this, through coming to terms with this sense of disparity between being not woman enough and certainly nowhere near man enough, I never felt the need to rally behind my vagina as an intimate part of my identity with which to exclude others. I never felt the need to belittle and dehumanise others for my lack of acceptance of myself.

But now, Joanne, I’m speaking to you here, vagina to vagina.

Instead of excluding trans people from this category you call ‘women’, you should be rallying against the patriarchal gender roles that hurt us both. Fight against the binary that society shoves down our throats from day one. Help create space to allow young people to explore their identity without the pressure of conforming, to being trans or cis. Julia Serano rightly points out that “the notion that “women are oppressed because of their sex, not their gender” is downright ludicrous.” It is the gender roles which society forces on all of us which makes being a woman, trans or otherwise, so exceptionally shitty. 

If you truly believe that “the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable” then can you not relate this to your own vulnerability as a woman? Women, all women, are vulnerable because of our subordination in society. You said it yourself: “we’re living through the most misogynistic period [you have] experienced.” Is there no merit to you in holding strong together, as women, in a fight for our rights to equality, justice and freedom from fear of male violence? If you feel so strongly about not having men in your spaces for your own safety, how does that make trans women, who would be excluded from your space and thrust into this danger, feel?

Instead of fighting to exclude trans women from your little ‘females club’, you should be fighting to stop the oppression of women, point blank. Stand alongside all women, of all sexes, origins, and ethnicities. No matter how far along they are on their journey to understand their individual womanhood, they will have faced discrimination just like you have. Our solidarity lies in our womanhood, in all the complex and different varieties it comes in.