Episode 5: The Tweets
We know how it starts, when Rowling “jumped into the public conversation around sex and gender;” she “weighed in” on the issue. And as trans people lose their human rights and their lives every day, Rowling ponders, “Time will tell whether I’ve got this wrong.”
Dress however you please.— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 19, 2019
Call yourself whatever you like.
Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you.
Live your best life in peace and security.
But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill
The Maya Forstater case that Rowling’s tweet refers to, as well as analyses on Rowling’s history of transphobia as a whole, have been shared on CNN, on Glamour, on Snopes, on Vox, on Medium by Katy Montgomerie and Phaylen Fairchild, on Twitter, and on YouTube by ContraPoints, Jessie Gender, and Caelan Conrad, to name a few.
To sum up, Maya Forstater’s contract with the think tank she worked for was not renewed following several transphobic tweets and private messages in the workplace in opposition to the Gender Recognition Act (allowing people to self-identify on government IDs).
I should be careful and not unnecessarily antagonistic. But if people find the basic biological truths that “women are adult human females” or “transwomen are male” offensive, then they will be offended.
Of course in social situations I would treat any transwomen as an honourary female, and use whatever pronouns etc…I wouldn’t try to hurt anyone’s feelings but I don’t think people should be compelled to play along with literal delusions like “transwomen are women”Maya Forstater as quoted in Case ruling in Forstater v Center for Global Development Europe
Forstater also did the public the courtesy of compiling all of the tweets from the ruling into one thread in the name of being taken out of context, although they either show that the full tweets were worse, or they unintentionally confirm that the ruling fully quoted what she actually said. And while she did say that trans women were deluded—which Megan actually reads out—she never once said that sex was real.
Enter Kathleen Stock
Kathleen Stock‘s very first words on Witch Trials are “The judgment said that basically her speech in this case could not be protected because it was not worthy of respect in a democratic society.” If these gender critical women are so passionate about context, perhaps we can look at why the judgment said this. After describing an ongoing situation in which Forstater repeatedly refused to use they/them pronouns to describe a colleague because “I recognize a man when I see one” (which is not “us[ing] whatever pronouns etc”), the judgment concluded,
I conclude from this, and the totality of the evidence, that the Claimant is absolutist in her view of sex and it is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.Case ruling in Forstater v Center for Global Development Europe
When Stock had seen the Forstater decision, she had gone to her blog “in a fury really, and typed out a quite a short piece called This is Not a Drill.” For everyone who wondered what #ThisIsNotADrill meant, it’s this. The post disparages the British LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall for spreading “propaganda that ‘transwomen are women’.” As she tells Megan, she ends the post by calling upon British philosophers to make public statements that “people should be legally permitted to believe that biological sex is immutable and cannot be changed, without fear of losing their jobs.”
Stock has a particular stake in the fight of TERFs losing their jobs since, as she and Megan discuss, a group of queer and trans students at University of Sussex successfully campaigned for Stock’s removal from the faculty.
Kathleen Stock is not going to be coming back to University of Sussex as a professor. Good fucking riddance. This is a monumental victory for trans and non-binary students, who have protested the ways that this university has enabled transphobia, abuse and discrimination. The full weight of a colonial institution, the national media circuit and government ministers, were no match for the unity and solidarity of the queer and trans communities at Sussex University. […]
Fuck the national press media who happily collaborated with the university and Stock to turn this into a debate about ‘free speech’ and ‘academic freedoms’. […] For those reaching out to this account, we will not speak to the press because we will never debate, discuss or organize on the terms of the people who have enabled discrimination and transphobia. This has been a campaign to get Stock out of Sussex, for the sake of the safety and protection of trans and non-binary students. And it fucking worked. Direct action gets the goods, and trans and non-binary students are safer and happier for it.Anti-TERF Sussex
Everyone, including Stock, deserves to have their basic needs met, which in a capitalist world usually means being employed. But Stock is not owed a job teaching at a university where the students have come forward and made it known that she makes their campus unsafe.
You cannot argue me out of this
Rowling, too, had a heyday with the “worthy of respect” line, twisting it further in her justification for tweeting:
I felt that the tribunal was wrong. I think there is, in my view, considerable evidence for the fact that a woman is the producer of the large gametes, and I found it outrageous that this employment tribunal had decided no, that belief wasn’t worthy of respect. […] You cannot argue me out of this.J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 5: The Tweets
An aside: I really do not have the words to describe how uncomfortable the audio design of this entire podcast was. All I can do is share with you the very worst bits, in which Megan reads out the tweets replying to Rowling in an unsettling monotone voice.
I will give Megan credit for also sharing more substantial tweets from disappointed long-time Harry Potter fans, like the admins at MuggleNet and the Potterless podcast.
We technically aren’t supposed to be tweeting, but we want every single Potter fan out there to know that the MuggleNet community stands with you. We see you. We hear you. We support you. pic.twitter.com/5ys5tn5Z04— MuggleNet: #1 Wizarding World Resource Since 1999 (@MuggleNet) December 19, 2019
I am baffled that the woman who created such a loving, welcoming, and accepting community can be openly transphobic. I don’t understand how you can write 7 books about acceptance but then not accept everyone. It’s truly disappointing.— Potterless (@PotterlessPod) December 19, 2019
I do wonder, however, why people like these, or even Daniel Radcliffe or Emma Watson, weren’t featured on Witch Trials as well, since Megan claims that it is so balanced and talks to people from “all sides” when so far, we’ve almost exclusively talked to people who are known to be TERFs in the discussion about trans people. Did Megan reach out to them, and they knew it wasn’t actually good faith, or—more likely—was the plan only ever to primarily serve as a platform for Rowling?
Even after Megan reads these two tweets and others like them, Rowling describes the overall reaction to her statement as “fury and incomprehension.” Meanwhile, she is the one who cannot comprehend that this many people in her audience actually support trans rights:
What’s interesting is the fans that found themselves in positions of power online, did they feel they needed to take this position because they themselves had followers? Possibly. I don’t know. I mean, I do know that there is huge pressure on people to take certain positions at the moment, and I know that there is a huge amount of fear around it. Some of them, I don’t doubt, sincerely felt it. They just couldn’t understand why. “Why aren’t you simply repeating ‘Trans women are women’? Why aren’t you doing that? That is the kind and good and righteous thing to do. I don’t understand.” And I’m constantly told I don’t understand my own looks. I’m constantly told that I have betrayed my own books. My position is that I am absolutely upholding the positions that I took in Potter. My position is that this activist movement, in the form that it’s currently taking, echoes the very thing that I was warning against in Harry Potter.J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 5: The Tweets
I actually never read Harry Potter, in a tenacious attempt to be different from all the other kids my age, so I couldn’t tell you what does or does not contradict its message. I do know that Rowling’s current stance flies in the face of her message to Harvard in 2008, that affirming trans people is the opposite of authoritarianism, and that if Harry Potter was about acceptance, then no, she’s not holding that position.
Since I didn’t grow up reading Harry Potter, I also don’t have this rosy view of Rowling as a progressive and loving icon that her former fans do. Many Potter fans still have faith in Rowling, though, like Jackson Bird, whose essay Megan mentions:
The book series, which I started reading shortly after its debut in the United States when I was 9 years old, was an escape from my lonely childhood of gender confusion. I used to dream about characters from the books showing up on my doorstep to whisk me away to the wizarding world, as they do for Harry in the first book. As I grew up and the series continued, I learned about the importance of critical thinking and standing up for your beliefs — as when Harry has to fight back against a government-sanctioned disinformation campaign denying the return of the evil wizard Lord Voldemort.
J.K. Rowling’s latest opinions, as much as they might sting, can’t take that magic away from me. I can only hope she takes this opportunity to practice some of the same values she taught us and listens to trans fans of her books. Let us tell you about our lives, how we got here, and even how the world you created saved many of us. We’re ready to have a conversation if you are. Send us an owl.Jackson Bird, ‘Harry Potter’ Helped Me Come Out as Trans, But J.K. Rowling Disappointed Me
This takes us to Rowling’s next TERFy tweet in summer of 2020, which Megan describes as—and you might want to get ready for this one…
A chaotic political moment
The fact that Megan calls this highlighted violence of police brutality and the fight for Black lives “the chaotic political moment that was the summer of 2020” has been overlooked in the vast reactions to this podcast because of the sheer quantity of abhorrent takes to choose from—the most notable of which is coming up at the end of episode 5. But I’ve had an image of George Floyd’s murder together with the words “Chaotic Political Moment” floating around in my head since I first heard them uttered a month ago. Chaotic political moment. The lengths this woman will go to appear to not take side in anything is astonishing. I just can’t with her.
She expands this uncomfortable and detached description of the reckonings in 2020:
This unrest was also present online where social media was full of outrage and anger and uncertainty about COVID-19 and its origins, about racism in the U.S. and what should be done to remedy it. About the gap between the haves and the have nots, and about whether the current systems could remedy these problems or whether those systems needed to be dismantled entirely. There was a reckoning about the past, about historical figures and their statues, but also about prominent people in the present.Megan Phelps-Roper, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 5: The Tweets
People in period poverty
It was apparently a reckoning about people like Rowling, who they again imply is a victim of cancel culture. Feeling “really angry” about the “incredibly febrile, oppressive atmosphere that we are all currently living in,” Rowling tweeted her disdain about an article by three global menstrual health experts on “creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate.”
‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate https://t.co/cVpZxG7gaA
I find this tweet to be especially infuriating, not least because if she had actually read the article, it mentions “women” 10 times. But what’s worse, the article is focused on how to fight period poverty so that women and others who menstruate worldwide have access to things like clean running water and menstrual supplies. I’m sure that of the 500 million-plus people worldwide who live in period poverty, only a fraction of them even know or use terms like “people who menstruate,” but whether we call them that is probably not very high on their list of priorities. Women are fighting for their lives, and J.K. Rowling has to focus on semantics. Who do you think are the real feminists here: nitpickers like Rowling, or global health heroes like Marni Sommer, Virginia Kamowa, and Therese Mahon?
Regardless, Rowling was admittedly furious, and this tweet was her snapping point. She was “angry” and “flippant,” and “seeing this article, she just reacted” with “no courtesy call to [her] management” as there had been for her Forstater tweet.
We are treated to more of the negative responses from her:
Including this gem.
Notably, as blogger Evan Uruhart pointed out,
In the discussion of a mocking tweet of Rowling’s, one in which Rowling made fun of the idea of including trans men in discussions of menstruation, Rowling is given time to explain how she was responding to the oppressive atmosphere of the COVID-19 stay-home orders. She says she was “angry and flippant” and not thinking ahead or planning her words.
The possibility that trans people might also exist in oppressive atmospheres, that they too might feel angry, or become flippant, is never raised. […]
Instead, there are quotes of tweets, purportedly from trans women representing the broader transgender rights movement, that reference a desire to sexually assault Rowling. They are graphic, disturbing, and wrong. But the podcast never once reads out the violent, threatening, or degrading tweets targeting trans people, from Rowling’s side. It never suggests that Rowling’s activist friends engage in this behavior routinely, or asks Rowling to account for that.Evan Urquhart, Eden, and the Humanity J. K. Rowling Wants You to Ignore
I would (not) march with you
It must have gotten to her, because she then posted this thread—not to apologize, but to “clarify”:
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.— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
The idea that women like me, who’ve been empathetic to trans people for decades, feeling kinship because they’re vulnerable in the same way as women – ie, to male violence – ‘hate’ trans people because they think sex is real and has lived consequences – is a nonsense.— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
As a cis white woman, I’m really not the victim of any of Rowling’s transphobia here, but I do find it so appalling that she uses “the lived reality of [cis] women” and our “ability to discuss our lives” as her justification for being a bigot. She does not speak for me. And gatekeeping womanhood as she does just makes her a shitty feminist.
And her vow to march with trans people “if [they] were being discriminated against on the basis of being trans” especially stings considering that her TERF brunch, celebrating the launch of Forstater’s campaign to require local government candidates to answer “no” to the question “can a woman have a penis?” before she would vote for them, was on the same day as a massive LGBTQ+ rally protesting Boris Johnson’s ban on conversion therapy just 20 minutes down the road.
Rowling also claims in the podcast, might I add, that she was “arguing against people who are literally saying sex is a construct. It’s not real,” which literally no one said. In fact, there are dozens of tweets telling Rowling that sex is real, reminding her that no one ever said it wasn’t real, and that it is not the same as gender.
But we don’t hear any of those tweets. Instead we get another soundscape of Megan mechanically reading tweets calling Rowling a “rectangle head.”
This tweet was Rowling’s next attempt at “engaging with her critics.”
‘Feminazi’, ‘TERF’, ‘bitch’, ‘witch’.— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
Times change. Woman-hate is eternal. https://t.co/R6YlRFEvgG
Seeing through the eyes of a TERF
I think it’s pretty clear by now who Rowling thinks the witch is. But a less obvious takeaway from this tweet and other instances of Rowling and her friends’ general persecution complex is that these trans-exclusionary radical feminists think it is appropriate to speak in these extremes because their entire worldview is constructed in an entirely different way from those of us who affirm trans identities. She sees the word TERF as simple “woman-hate,” because she plainly and unequivocally believes that only cis women are women.
Michelle Goldberg had called trans rights “a really brute sort of misogyny dressed up in progressive clothes,” because to them, it truly is just a new way to hate women. We know they don’t believe trans women are women, but when you actually follow that logic, it takes you to this idea that trans people and allies hate all “real” women. But they clearly haven’t noticed that most cis women—just like them—do believe trans women are women, are not TERFs, and don’t suffer from this brand of “misogyny.” It’s not a woman problem, Joanne. It’s a bigot problem. And TERF is not a slur, just as calling someone homophobic or racist is not a slur. Would she not agree that she’s trans exclusionary? Would she not agree that she’s a radical feminist? They want us to simply replace the word “TERF” with “woman,” but clearly not all women are TERFs. We can’t call out bigotry if we don’t even have the language to do it.
We finally make it to June 10th, when Rowling posted her essay on “sex and gender.”
You have to keep going back to what you actually wrote. And you know, you almost expect there to be some terrible inflammatory language there or some terrible threat to somebody that somehow you didn’t notice that you’d written. But then you remind yourself, no, I just wrote this sort of relatively centrist, moderate in the middle, compassionate thing.Kathleen Stock, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 5: The Tweets
(Trigger warning: transphobia and sexual assault.) What Stock said about her own essay applies to Rowling’s as well. Megan and Rowling read excerpts from Rowling’s essay in which she says she has “solidarity and kinship” with trans women, and she even notes that trans people, “like women,” are more likely to be killed by sexual partners, and that trans sex workers of color are at an even higher risk. But she also describes people like Maya Forstater and Magdalen Berns, who called trans women “blackface actors” and “pathetic, sick, fucks,” “hugely sympathetic” towards trans people.
The part of Rowling’s essay that gets the most attention is that she shares for the first time that she’s survived not only domestic abuse but sexual assault. These visceral traumas clearly continue to shape how Rowling interacts with the world around her. As trans YouTuber Natalie Wynn explains,
I hope it goes without saying that trans people gaining easier access to legal recognition in Scotland in 2020, is completely unrelated to Joanne Rowling being assaulted by a cis man in the 1990s. This is a non-sequitur.
And again it’s not that I’m unsympathetic to her trauma. And I would be nothing but sympathetic if her feelings about this amounted to simply being triggered by, for example, perceiving someone as male in the women’s bathroom. Which is something most trans women are sensitive to.
But Joanne’s transphobia has so outgrown the scope of an automatic trigger response. It’s become a fixation for years, to the point where she’s written a 900 page novel about a serial killer who cross-dresses to trick women into being less vigilant. And now, the primary political cause she’s decided to use her superstardom to champion is opposition to trans liberation. And past trauma is just not an excuse for that.Natalie Wynn, J.K. Rowling
Without the context that Wynn and countless others have provided about the essay, the angry reactions that Megan reads and plays from countless Harry Potter fans sounds completely out of proportion. Megan even lists by name five people who were fired for publicly aligning themselves with Rowling’s views, without naming a single trans person who has been harassed or murdered simply for being trans. Not Brianna Ghey. Not Marisela Castro. Not Brianna Hill. Not Eden Knight, whose death was confirmed the day before this episode released.
Instead, Rowling compares trans people to the Death Eaters in Harry Potter, which one reader explains “were a movement of genocidal racists and serial murderers, and their members were key antagonists throughout the series as they attempt to kill numerous children and take over the world.” Of course, Megan says in a tweet that “If you listen to the episode, she says she is fighting a movement that attempts to silence women via ‘threats of loss of livelihood and threats to their personal safety’—not trans people writ large.” Here’s what Rowling said when Megan asked her what she says to those who say she’s become like the villain in her own books.
I suppose the thing I would say, above all, to those who seek to explain, to seek to tell me that I don’t understand my own books, I will say this. Some of you have not understood the books. The Death Eaters claimed, “We have been made to live in secret. And now is our time. And any who stand in our way must be destroyed. If you disagree with us, you must die.” They demonized and dehumanized those who were not like them. I am fighting what I see as a powerful, insidious, misogynistic movement that I think has gained huge purchase in very influential areas of society. I do not see this particular movement as either benign or powerless, so I’m afraid I stand with the women who are fighting to be heard against threat of loss of livelihood and threats to their personal safety.J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 5: The Tweets
Again, I haven’t read the books, but those who have know exactly what she means by this. I find it interesting that Megan, in her tweet, chose to describe the group that Rowling depicts at the end of her quote and not in the middle. She very clearly means trans people, as trans people “have been made to live in secret.” Their cis allies in the movement have not. She’s also said that to cancel someone is to say, “I obliterate you. You are dead.” On the contrary, Rowling seems very much alive.