Episode 4: TERF Wars
…and episode 4 begins.
The stage is set with these repeated soundbites of violent trans people harassing so-called feminists, saying, “Fuck you, you ugly piece of shit! You look like you got your teeth knocked out, you fucking fascist! Nobody knows who you are and nobody cares and you will die alone!”
Just before this, at the start of episode 4, guest Helen Lewis had explained to Megan how the term “TERF,” trans-exclusionary radical feminist, is an extremely offensive term to “handle with tongs.”
It stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. And it kind of doesn’t mean any of those things anymore. I’m often called TERF, even though I’ve written in print that I think trans women are women. It doesn’t matter, though. It just means this is a bad woman. You don’t need to know any more about her. I mean, TERF is basically witch.Helen Lewis, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 4: TERF Wars
“TERF is basically witch.” But the title, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, in which they discuss people’s use of TERF to describe Rowling, is to be understood as ambiguous.
Women’s rights and wrongs
(Trigger warning: domestic violence.) Similarly to the beginning of episode 3, they switch gears after a loaded opening to a still heavy but seemingly different topic: domestic violence. Lewis explains to Megan how Rowling grew up during a time of progress in the UK feminist movement, in which the first women’s refuge opened in Britain by a woman named Erin Pizzey (whose switch from feminism to violently misogynist men’s-rights-activism Lewis more or less justifies; she doesn’t say “feminism has become too woke,” but she may as well have). Lewis highlights the Reclaim the Night campaign, for women to be able to safely walk outside at night, which is now ironically intersectional and trans-affirming.
Naively, I wasn’t sure at first where this conversation was going until Rowling’s voice appeared.
It’s very much a feature of the culture in which I grew up that women, by virtue of their biology, are subjected to specific harms, specific pressures, and require certain protections, and that is inextricably linked with our biology. And we cannot fight for our rights without naming and accurately describing what makes us different from men. […] My feminism must remain grounded in the sex class and the oppressions my sex class suffer. That’s the basis for our oppression. That’s my understanding of why certain things have happened to me.J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 4: TERF Wars
Ah, okay. Women with vulvas require protections that women without vulvas somehow do not need. To begin steering the conversation in the direction where it is undoubtedly headed, we also get the first claim that TERF is a slur. (It’s not.)
Feminists were hugely disparaged across the mainstream. They were ugly. They didn’t shave their armpits. They were aggressive. They were butch. And I suppose I see real parallels with, now, with the slur that is TERF. All the same tropes about a woman not behaving the way a woman is supposed to behave. You know that. All of the clichés.J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 4: TERF Wars
It’s the same picture
After the ad read (for NetSuite, Athletic Greens, and Stamps.com, if you were wondering), Megan steps back and recounts the rocky progress of LGBT rights over the past decades, including rights for gay couples to marry and adopt, as well as Obama’s “protections for trans healthcare and military service” and Trump’s subsequent overturning of those protections. Megan then adds “Figures like Viktor Orbán in Hungary who are stoking attacks on the very legitimacy of LGBT identities altogether. But that was not the fight that J.K. Rowling would eventually step into.”
Was it not?
I think the hardest thing for outsiders to understand is that there are two different arguments going on. One is the traditional conservative right argument, which is anti-LGBT. So someone like Viktor Orbán in Hungary doesn’t think people should be allowed to transition, and he wants to take away that right from them, which is part of a broader idea that LGBT identities are decadent and postmodern and are going to sap the vital life force out of the country. That is one criticism of modern LGBT politics. The other one is a criticism from the left in which it says sometimes male people and female people have different interests. No matter how the male people identify. And we need to work out those conflicts in policy and law.Helen Lewis, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 4: TERF Wars
Megan vs. the Overton window
Megan and her guests don’t understand that people like Viktor Orbán, or, notably, the Westboro Baptist Church, shift the Overton window of what type of ideas are socially acceptable by giving people something to point to and say, “You think what I’m saying is homophobic? I’ll show you homophobic.”
I was a terrible, terrible evangelist. My family’s ideology and/or tactics were anathema to functionally 100% of humans. I annoyed people, made them angry—enraged, even, that I was allowed to say such things—and hurt many feelings. But I persuaded no one of our beliefs.— Megan Phelps-Roper (@meganphelps) February 7, 2022
As Caelan Conrad pointed out in their video after reading this tweet:
She is so certain, so assured, that her open bigotry didn’t inspire more, that if she had persuaded anyone, she definitely would know about it. This is naivete to the point of willful ignorance. She can’t possibly believe that she actually persuaded zero people to do something a little more extreme. Because her abuse didn’t exist in a vacuum. When you move the anti-gay Overton window to the right, it gives the people lobbying to restrict queer rights, something they can point to, to say, “This bill I wrote isn’t homophobic, I’ll show you homophobic—real homophobia.” It makes everything less than the worst seem less bad. “Yeah, I don’t support gay marriage, but I’m not, like, out on the street saying they’re going to burn in hell. I’m not a homophobe.”Caelan Conrad, The ALLEGED Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling (What The Megan Phelps Podcast Won’t Tell You)
In a tweet after the release of the final episode, Megan would echo what Lewis said here:
So a person may not be responding to feminists themselves, but to, for instance, speeches like the one at CPAC. This is why I so appreciated what JKR said at the end of our talk—about speaking to people as individuals, rather than representatives of “the mob” on the other side.— Megan Phelps-Roper (@meganphelps) April 1, 2023
It’s very interesting to me that she acknowledges, um, speeches like the one at CPAC, and condemns the conflation of her and her guests’ positions (of women’s safety) with Knowles’s (of trans eradication). But as Caelan said, her and Rowling’s ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. When a podcast like this tries to frame Rowling’s harmful anti-trans rhetoric as centrist (somewhere between the evangelicals and trans people who both burned her books) or even leftist, as Helen Lewis implies in the quote above, now there’s room for rent on the right for more extreme and explicit calls for violence like those from Knowles.
Ties to the far right
Even without that less direct effect of this podcast on anti-trans rhetoric, people like Rowling and Kathleen Stock, who we will meet later, have mutual friends with far-right hate groups like Alliance Defending Freedom and The Heritage Foundation who influenced the total ban on homosexuality in Uganda by Yoweri Museveni, who could be seen as a modern-day Viktor Orbán. (Maya Forstater recently gave a speech at an ADF UK event; Julie Bindel is friends with Heritage Foundation speaker Jennifer Lahl; Bev Jackson, co-founder of the LGB Alliance together with Angela Wild, has claimed that working with the Heritage Foundation is the only solution to the trans “medical scandal.” Details here.)
As YouTuber John Duncan points out, especially with respect to how this newer anti-trans movement is virtually identical to past moral panics about keeping cis white women safe from Muslim men, Black men, and Jewish men, maybe it’s not two movements, but one.
Not to mention the evidence we have of how Rowling has both directly and indirectly influenced anti-trans policies in the US, as well as platformed and defended Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull/Posie Parker, who also has far-right ties and whose rallies have attracted positive attention from Nazis.
Lewis goes on: “That is very different from saying someone’s a pervert or a degenerate. It says you are perfectly free to live your life. This is a perfectly valid identity to adopt. However, there might be times when it comes into conflict with other identities.” To which Megan replies, “Take, for example, women’s sports,” before launching into newscast soundbites about Lia Thomas breaking women’s swimming records. So the conclusion is that trans people can live their lives, as long as that doesn’t include competing in athletic events, seeking refuge from domestic violence, or as Megan pivots to next, going to the bathroom.
This begins a long conversation about the passing of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill in Scotland (or self ID law) which now allows trans people to get their correct (Megan says “preferred”) gender printed on their government ID without a gender dysphoria diagnosis or medical intervention. What no one mentions is that the UK’s National Health Service’s protocol for gender-affirming care is deeply flawed, requiring a gender dysphoria diagnosis and a trial period living as one’s true gender before agreeing to get the gender-affirming hormones or surgeries that folks like Rowling and Lewis believe should be required before people can apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate. Even then, there are years-long wait lists to receive this care, if your doctor even agrees that you need it. In British trans woman Shon Faye’s case, her clinician would not move forward with her care until she legally changed her name.
The series gets less subtle as it progresses, as we can see when Megan first claims that this Self ID law would allow “predatory males” into women’s spaces. But of course, it’s Rowling who first drops the charade altogether.
So I was already aware that the activism was arguing for this kind of self-identification. Therefore, an entirely male-bodied male can, by self-declaration, “become,” in inverted commas [quotes], a woman. Conceptually, as it were, he’s now conceptually a woman. […] I can already hear the screams of outrage. “You are saying that trans people are all predators?” Of course I am not, any more that I’m saying—I’m a happily married straight woman. I know perfectly well all men aren’t predators. I know that I have good men in my life who are among my favorite people. But I am also aware that 98 to 99% of sexual offenses are caused by those born with penises. The problem is male violence. […] To open the doors to any male who says, “I’m a woman and I have the right to be here,” it will constitute a risk to women and girls. Now, that actually has very little to do with trans people and a lot to do with what we know of the risks from men to women. But this is the flashpoint. The activists who would argue against me, I’ve seen them say, “but these are now women.” And I say, well, here is where what a woman is becomes hugely important.J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 4: TERF Wars
Check “male-bodied male,” “trans ‘people’ are men,” and “what is a woman?” off your J.K. Rowling bingo card.
Strawmanning and steelmanning
Ever the strawwoman, Rowling asserts that “it’s been claimed that nobody has ever abused dressing as the opposite sex, and no trans woman has ever presented a physical threat to a woman in an intimate space.” We’re not told who claimed that, because it’s highly unlikely that anyone ever did. Trans people are human. Humans are messed up. But Megan and Lewis spend a lot of time talking about Karen White and not a word about the rampant abuse in women’s prisons from correctional officers, guards, and wardens.
In 2018, a trans prisoner named Karen White was convicted of sexually assaulting two female inmates while held on remand for other offences in HMP New Hall, a women’s prison in Wakefield. White had previously raped two other women while living as male, and had admitted to sexual desire for children. Passing sentence, Judge Christopher Batty said: ‘You are a predator and highly manipulative and, in my view, you are a danger. You represent a significant risk of serious harm to children, to women and to the general public.’ That a sadistic and manipulative predator like White was given unfettered access to assault inmates when her history was known was a grave failing on the part of the authorities, who were responsible for keeping her victims safe.Shon Faye, The Transgender Issue, p. 184
What White did was abominable, and at the same time we have no reason to think she’s not really trans, as a news soundbite in the podcast implies when it says she “used her transgender persona.” She never should have had any access to female inmates after having raped two women in the past. But the fact that Megan, Lewis, and Rowling only care about White’s two assaults and not about the cis men’s innumerable crimes, tells us that they’re not concerned about women’s safety. If they wanted to reduce the most harm for women, they would actually be in favor of abolishing prisons altogether, or at least not allowing men to staff them. But they focus on the one trans woman who is guilty of assaulting fellow inmates, because they can use this story to subject other trans women to the even worse abuse of serving time in men’s prisons.
Speaking of strawmanning, however, Megan is aware of the dangers of assuming your opponent’s position. So she asks Helen Lewis, “Can you articulate where those on the opposing side of this debate are coming from? Like, what is the steelman good faith way to understand the argument that says if your gender identity is female, then medical transition or not, you should be housed in a women’s prison?” She does not ask a trans person or even a trans ally, or someone who works in an organization fighting for trans equality. Lewis’s answer starts off not that bad, acknowledging that “trans women are particularly at risk of sexual violence in male prisons, and that is a fact” and that male prisons are “violent, tense,” and “really horrible.” But she ends by condemning the ACLU for arguing that trans women convicted of violent offenses should be housed in women’s prisons.
Megan and Lewis essentially rinse and repeat the prison conversation about public bathrooms, complete with “extensively documented cases” of “males who pose as trans women” attacking little girls in bathrooms, but neglecting to mention that one doesn’t need a government ID to enter a restroom or that assault is already illegal.
To make sure every topic has been checked off the anti-trans talking point list, they then switch to condemning gender-affirming care for children, bringing in trans-healthcare-gatekeeping trans psychologist Dr. Erica Anderson, who left the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) in 2021 because WPATH criticized the model which views gender dysphoria as a disease. She tells pretty much the same lies about rushed care that Jamie Reed did in her article, propagating myths about transition regret and detransition.
A little later in the episode, we somehow manage to find ourselves back again at the “feminist meetings” in which trans activists call the women gathered inside TERFs.
And then we come to the famous two word slogan, the stop phrase. “No debate. No debate. No debate.” We hear it all the time. That alarms me. Really alarms me. I can’t think of a purer instance of authoritarianism than no debate. In fact, that is the attitude of the fundamentalist. “You may not challenge my ideas. That makes you evil. I am righteous. I don’t have to explain my righteousness. And I am entitled, therefore, to bully you, to harass you, to silence you, to take away your livelihood all the way up to attacking you.”J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 4: TERF Wars
This woman could not be more wrong about authoritarianism. Throughout the history of the United States, there have been a lot of topics that people thought were perfectly appropriate subjects for debate, like whether or not to abolish slavery or whether women should have the right to vote. Whether trans people deserve human rights (which is what she’s arguing against) is not up for debate. There is plenty that’s fair game to debate about. It is only someone with a severe lack of creativity who cannot find anything to debate about other than human rights.
Megan is soon joined by Michelle Goldberg, whose views on trans issues are slightly better than those of her peers here but still not good. They detail some threats towards TERFs from trans people online, and Goldberg’s analysis is really all over the place.
I don’t think those people are representative of the trans rights movement. But nevertheless, there’s a lot of feminists who feel like aggrieved people kind of constantly saying, “If you don’t recognize me as a woman, I’m going to rape you.” They just they feel like there is this very vicious online dialog in which a really brute sort of misogyny is dressed up in progressive clothes. And so, you know, to add insult to injury, you’re not even supposed to complain about it within feminist spaces.Michelle Goldberg, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 4: TERF Wars
I actually agree that “those people” don’t represent all trans people, but it is also certainly not trans people who are “misogyny dressed up in progressive clothes.” Perhaps if they actually listened to trans people beyond their most angry, anonymous tweets, they might be able to better understand them. They don’t even need to go offline to do that: there are several trans video essayists on YouTube who work extremely hard on well-researched videos about trans rights, lives, and healthcare, but they’re not mentioned.
Looking in the wrong places
Perhaps if Megan had looked there, she would see more coherent arguments and fewer “accusations that [‘feminists’] are violent transphobes [which feel] less like a sincere criticism and more like an attempt to smear them so that no one will listen to them.” Especially considering the amount of violent and sexual abuse and harassment that trans people endure on these same sites daily, I’d argue that it’s not a problem with trans people, it’s a problem with all people when given the anonymity of social media. Surprisingly, Megan does acknowledge that trans people receive the abuse too, but she says it’s “often coming from the right and the alt-right” rather than the daily threats that they receive from Rowling’s own fans.
Goldberg knows that trans people are fighting for their lives, and she doesn’t care.
I think that they can, they will enjoy the same sort of assumed protection as other groups whose rights we’ve decided are not up for public conversation. I think the problem is that we don’t actually have a consensus about what gender means or what makes someone a boy or girl or woman or man. And so you still have to talk these things out and have these conversations.Michelle Goldberg, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 4: TERF Wars
Except we really don’t. It’s more a topic to research than to squabble about. Gender is a cultural construct. We know this. There are books and articles and experts that can tell us exactly what it is and how it was created. And even then, we don’t need to “have a consensus about what gender means” to give trans people the “basic rights” that these two women know they deserve just for being human. (To be sure, we don’t really have a consensus about what race or sexuality “mean,” but there are still some, albeit not enough, legal protections for Black and gay people, which Goldberg would likely agree with.)
We end episode 4 with a teaser for episode 5 which talks about Rowling’s transphobic tweets.
There were people close to me who were begging me not to do it, I think out of concern of what that would mean, they’d watched what had happened to other public figures, and there was certainly a feeling of, “This is not a wise thing to do. Don’t do it.”J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 4: TERF Wars