Is J.K. Rowling’s latest book transphobic?

By Megan Hill

J.K. Rowling recently released the fifth book in the ‘Strike’ series, Troubled blood under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith. A fitting name for a novel with an indeed troubling message.

The Telegraph first summarised the overriding moral of the book as “never trust a man in a dress.” Pair this sentiment with raging accusations of transphobia and I’m sure you can understand how this gets problematic.

Rowling has been accused of transphobia for years but her benighted behaviour has recently pronounced itself loud and clear. For anyone who has managed to sidestep the huge hole Rowling has been busy digging for herself over the past couple of months; let me recap.

Those tweets

Back in June the author took to Twitter to mock an article discussing how we may better support “people who menstruate” post-COVID-19. Rowling belittled the phrase, chortling “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

Resisting the use of non-gendered language invalidates the very identity of transgender and non-binary individuals, for whom the gendering of bodily functions can be the most damaging to their identity. For Rowling to use her platform to promote this trans exclusionary rhetoric was entirely irresponsible. Her actions heartbreakingly reiterated to the trans community that their existence is still dismissed and even ignored by many.

Despite the backlash and calls for Rowling to educate herself on the topic, the rampage continued. In a series of Tweets Rowling continued to argue her case, reasoning that “If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.” Her statement sparked a polemic debate online with people from all walks of life weighing in with their stance on the matter.

The idea that this is even a matter for debate does not sit well with me. Individuals should express their identity in a way that feels authentic to themselves and not be forced to rationalise this choice with others. J.K. has exploited her platform to authorise people’s critique on a matter that is entirely inconsequential to them.

Since then Rowling’s Twitter page has remained a war zone, the most recent battle fought over the comparisons J.K. Rowling made between hormone therapy and gay conversion therapy. And the icing on top of this terribly unappetising cake, the release of Rowling’s newest book.

Rowling’s latest Strike book

The timeline of events here is rather perfectly set. It does beg the question: was Rowling’s public debacle in fact  a mastermind publicity stunt? Ignoring the sensitivities of the trans community in a selfish act of self-promotion, knowing that the public outrage she was inciting would accumulate in the perfect promotional storm?    

The novel itself follows in the same vein as its predecessors in the series, detailing the musings of Detective Cormoran Strike as he tracks another sinister killer. The killer in question? A murderous cis man who dresses as a woman to lure in his victims. Rowling’s character is not identified as transgender but the subtext is hardly subtle. Her character serves to reiterate the belief that trans women are not real women but rather they are stealing a woman’s identity in order to facilitate their aggressive, harmful intentions, a historic myth that is known to offend the Trans community that Rowling has already forged an arduous relationship with.

Rowling’s work was pounced on by critics, their critique skimming over the lack of creative flare displayed in order to focus on the far more pressing issue of this book’s role in fuelling a dangerous prejudice against the trans community. The Harry Potter fan base became very vocal about the matter, in many cases their anger giving way to sadness as they expressed their disappointment that a woman who once gifted them with a story of belonging could now validate a stereotype designed to exclude and marginalise.

Is this just a common detective fiction trope?

One such argument circulated in Rowling’s defence is the fact that this trope has been done hundreds of times before. This I cannot argue with. J.K.’s character development is not only tone deaf, it is also entirely unoriginal. Pop culture boasts a well-stocked archive of media enforcing the ‘crazy man in a dress’ trope and Rowling has just added her work to the list.

What I cannot understand is the logical reasoning in how exactly this excuses the behaviour. The recurrence of this dangerous myth in our media does not legitimise it. Instead, it must only encourage us to fight harder to diminish its existence.

Yes, Rowling is taking the heat for a long-established stereotype that she is not responsible for creating. Nevertheless, she is responsible for regenerating and redistributing it. The very suggestion of the ‘Bathroom Bill’ in the US was fuelled by this misleading, dangerous rhetoric. The bill would enforce that one may only use the toilet corresponding with the sex you were assigned at birth. Supporters of the legislation argued that they were acting in the interest of public safety, protecting women and children from the predatory behaviour. The predatory behaviour they are predicting is a reflection of what they have consumed in misinformed mainstream media, not a conclusion drawn from legitimate data and real-life cases.

In fact, the realty is a rather grim reversal of this belief. Studies show that 12% of transgender people have endured verbal abuse whilst using public restroom facilities and a further 2% have been the tragic victims of physical and sexual assault. So rampant is this discrimination that 60% of transgender Americans avoid even using public toilets out of fear of the torment.

‘Cancel culture’ is toxic and counterproductive but calling out Rowling’s incessant disturbance of the trans community is a necessary preventative measure to stop the spread of harmful, deceptive stories that plague our media. J.K. Rowling is just one of many public figures who needs to accept responsibility for the dire implications that their actions could impose on the trans community. Her book may be fictitious but the lived reality of trans people is not.

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