Sam writes about JK Rowling’s opposition to trans rights and the ‘use’ of trans experience
I’d just started my first year of uni in 2001 when I became aware of the Harry Potter phenomenon. I had not had a happy childhood and was desperate to enter adulthood. At the time I understood this to involve drinking copious amounts of cask wine smuggled into the Court Hotel, struggling to comprehend excerpts of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, and having noisy sex with my housemates in dilapidated weatherboard houses in Northbridge. Due to this, a book about a boy wizard held little appeal at the time, and my frankly pretentious resolve not to read the series grew at roughly the same pace as the global literary juggernaut.
But the Hogwarts universe proved impossible to avoid. After moving to Melbourne in 2001 to escape the conservatism of Perth, I got a job at a discount bookshop near the Queen Victoria Market. It also delivered a discount on my legal minimum wages, but without family to support I was desperate for a job and I naively hoped that it would be my first of many glamourous roles in the publishing industry. That soon wore off when I found that my weekends were taken up with me selling endless copies of the dreaded Potter series to tourists, broken up by the occasional sale of The Da Vinci Code, which I felt equally snooty towards.
After years of being a Potter-refusenik, I broke my own rule on a supposedly romantic trip to the Grampians with my lover, who seemed permanently annoyed at me for one reason or another. She suggested that we watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the only DVD on the shelf of our cheap motel. My cultured opposition gave way to my desire to not cause further offence and we sat down to watch the movie from opposite sides of the couch while sharing a joint. As the artful cinematography rolled over the palatial Hogwarts college, I was unwillingly taken back to memories of my own humbler high school, full of homophobic teachers, taunting bullies, negligent guidance counsellors, and psychotically unwell friends.
The pot, paired with wind banging on the motel windows, the terrifying scenes of dementors sucking the joy out of everyone and the ongoing mystery of what exactly I had done to piss off my girlfriend, sent me into a tailspin of paranoia, and I soon tiptoed off to bed, where I was beset by grotesque nightmares of demons and all the horrors of high school.
My next experience of Rowling’s work was in 2015 after I’d just turned 30. My birthday came with something of an epiphany; that I hadn’t willingly run away from my family at all, but that I’d had to walk away after a lifetime of put-downs and neglectful treatment because I was queer and gender non-conforming. I marvelled at how my mind could hide the bleedingly obvious from itself. I immediately resolved never to return to Perth, and to focus on supporting the people in my life that were able to support me back, wherever I might find them.
But, family dynamics are a dark and powerful force. Later that year my brother’s unhappy marriage to his childhood sweetheart finally came to an end after he stopped making any effort to hide the affair he was having with a younger woman from the next town over. My Mum, far from rebuking my brother for his emotionally dishonest behaviour, leapt to his defence and suggested to me that I might make my brother feel better by taking him and his children on a nice beach holiday. Why I was required at this moment was not clear to me, since he hadn’t said more than a few words to me since we were teenagers. Did my older brother actually want to build some sort of meaningful relationship with me after all these years? It turned out the answer was no. He just wanted me to pay for his kids to go on holiday. Nursing my resentment at being allocated the dual role of benefactor and babysitter for older brother’s progeny, I first did what I knew best; and began to drink my feelings. We were in Margaret River after all.
But, as the days went on, I decided to stop moping and to focus on developing a relationship with my ten-year-old niece and nephew, who I’d always found a delight to be around. Sitting at the campsite I listened to their cheerful banter about the Harry Potter series and saw for the first time the appeal of being able to lose yourself in another world where true friendships blossom and magic really happens. They were aghast when I admitted I hadn’t actually read the books and had no idea what they were on about. I promised them I’d read them when I got back to Melbourne, so that we could have a more stimulating back and forth next time I saw them. I went as far as taking a series of online tests on the plane home to find out which Harry Potter house I would belong to (Gryffindor) and the Harry Potter character I was most like (Dolores Umbridge), but didn’t manage to crack onto the actual books.
So, when JK Rowling’s comment about her opposition to trans rights first came out on Twitter, I must admit that it wasn’t initially personal for me. My first response was that I was relieved to finally have a bullet-proof excuse for having not read Harry Potter. For a person who has lived a life marked by discrimination and fear of exclusion, JK Rowling’s views are sadly not new or surprising. As far as I could tell, her arguments were the same as those that Janice Raymond espoused in The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male from the 1970s, which arguably did more to justify anti-transgender sentiment than any book previously written. Their viewpoint is basically that transgender women are in fact men in drag who want to either symbolically annihilate women, or else to cause women literal harm by sexually assaulting them in public toilets.
These views cause real life harm, both at an individual level, and by providing the political ammunition conservatives need to work to curtail our collective rights. In the last three years we’ve sat through the assault on the Safe Schools program; been described, by the Prime Minister as ‘Gender Whisperers’ who need to be kept well away from children; and been trotted out as the ‘boy in a dress’ bogeyman during the marriage equality debate.
When I saw legions of trans and gender diverse Harry Potter fans writing heart wrenching essays about how betrayed they felt, having found a haven from their troubles in that magical world, I did feel more than a pang of regret on their behalf. It seemed bizarre to me that someone who had made billions of dollars on stories of secret, hidden teenage truths, magic potions and transmogrification would have such a bee in her bonnet about the small minority of people who identified as transgender.
And JK Rowling’s hatred came closer to home last week when I was outside my local bookshop, wandering the streets to kill time during something like the eighth month of Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown. I noticed that Troubled Blood, the new instalment of Rowling’s detective series, was pride of place in the front window. I immediately felt a pang of anger and frustration. Peering closer into the shopwindow, I noticed a red love-heart stuck to the front of the book that said ‘recommended by Kerry’.
I felt bitterly disappointed that my local bookshop would tout Rowling’s new book with apparent disregard of the offence that her negative views on trans rights law reform have caused to the trans and gender diverse community. I wondered if they were aware of the controversy that this new book has caused in featuring a male serial killer who dresses in women’s clothing in order to lure women to their deaths.
It’s tiring spending your life feeling outraged though, so instead of calling the shop or taking a photo and posting it online, I tried to just let it go and go back to playing the What would I buy off of this shelf if this shop was actually open? game.
But my unease at seeing that red love-heart stuck to the work of a person, who has preached hate about people like me, ate at me. When I got home, I went online to see whether this controversy was actually widely known about, or whether it was just my tiny section of the internet that was taking about the issue ad nauseum. I soon decided that my bookshop would have definitely known about the furore, which depressed me. I felt some relief when I saw that Roxanne Gay, Margaret Atwood and Stephen King signed an open letter expressing support for trans and gender diverse people in response to Rowling’s comments. I must’ve read just about every Stephen King novel in high school, and I felt somewhat heartened to know that my first favourite writer was on my side.
The lives of trans and gender non-conforming people are both as interesting and as boring as everyone else’s, so why shouldn’t they serve as inspiration for great fiction? I live in hope of a time when I’ll see even more of my trans and gender diverse friends and colleagues publish their representations of our lives. But I’ve also noted with interest the new crop of books featuring trans and gender diverse characters that cisgender authors like Craig Silvey have written, and I have no doubt that we will see many more in the next few years. I personally have no issue with cisgender authors writing trans characters, as long as they do a good job and don’t resort to tired, offensive stereotypes, or use us to push agendas like JK Rowling has, or by dwelling endlessly on cliched depictions of our supposed trauma.
Life keeps rolling on. Seemingly overnight my niece and nephew have transformed into precocious teenagers and are no longer interested in the Harry Potter universe. I’m giddy with relief that I no longer have a single reason to engage with the franchise. I also won’t be reading Troubled Blood, or Silvey’s Honeybee either. I’ll hold out for the release of my trans writer friends’ books, as I just think they’ll be more interesting. Hopefully, they’ll also make it into the front window of my local bookshop with a big recommendation from Kerry.
Sam is a writer, radio maker and community lawyer living in Melbourne’s west. Sam is a Wheeler Centre Next Chapter recipient, and their essays have been published online in Overland and Archer Magazine. You can download Sam’s new podcast Transdemic: Trans and Gender Diverse Experiences of the Pandemic wherever you get your podcasts.